While state schools are prohibited from interviewing any but potential sixth form (or boarding) students, the interview is an integral part of nearly every private school admissions process, and tends to send the applicant’s parents, rather than the actual applicant, into a spin. Parents feel considerably more responsible for their child’s social presentation than for his or her ability to do long division or conjugate French verbs. And, while a school may breezily describe the interview as ‘just a chance to get to know the child better’, this hardly quells fears about sending young Daniel or Daniella into the lion’s den.
The London prep or senior day school interview is perhaps the most straightforward. Over-subscribed at every point, the selective urban independent tends to concentrate on the academic. The majority usually only meet the child after a written exam (generally used as a first edit), and the interview itself will probably contain a significant component of maths, comprehension or reasoning. The aim here is to probe intellectual strengths and weaknesses in order to select from the central bulk of candidates or to pick scholarship material. Finding out a little about a child’s character is only of secondary importance.
Even the most academic schools, however, are not necessarily just looking for those guaranteed to deliver a stream of A*s. Some use interviews as an opportunity to create as balanced a community as possible:
‘I didn’t want all extroverts or all eggheads,’ said one ex-junior school head. ‘Most children who sat our exam scored between 40 and 65 per cent in the written paper, so I was looking for an individual spark. At the age of 7, particularly, the interview is a crucial counterbalance to the exam. Those born between September and December always scored higher marks in the written paper. At interview we would go back to the list and bring in some younger children.’
Concerned parents often do their best to control the outcome of the interview, but professional preparation is seen as a waste of time, both by those who interview and by teachers. ‘I always tell parents if they’re paying to coach 3-year-olds, they might as well burn £20 notes,’ says Jo Newman, headmistress of North London Collegiate Junior School, who has the daunting task of selecting 40 4-year-olds from 200 applicants in a two-tier interview. ‘The only useful preparation is to talk to them, play with them and read them stories.’
Further up the system, the advice is equally non-prescriptive. The head of a west London pre-prep does her best to relax the 7-year-olds she sends to prep school interviews by providing them with as much factual information as she can beforehand. ‘I try to prepare them for what they’ll find. I usually describe the head — because I’m a smallish woman they might expect all heads to be like me — and I’ll tell them what the school looks like. Beyond that I just say, “Look them in the eye, answer carefully and be honest.” Children sell themselves.’
Some pre-preps and prep schools provide mock interviews, some will carefully guide children on what books or hobbies that might show to best advantage, but most interviewers say they always know when a child has been coached, and honesty - at least in theory - is the quality they’re looking for. ‘I tell children,’ says one private tutor who prepares children for 11 plus, ‘to say what’s in their heart, not what their teacher told them to say.’
Personality, of course, will always be the most variable aspect of any interview and all interviewers have a personal bias. They may hate boastful children, or those who say their favourite leisure activity is computer games; they may prefer Arsenal fans to Tottenham supporters; but some schools do make a strenuous attempt to counteract the sense of one adult sitting in judgement on one child. City of London School, for example, sees candidates individually before sending them off to a lesson where they can be observed by another teacher as they work in a group. At Rugby, every child is interviewed by at least two people.
The best interviewers can and do overcome the limitations both of the written examination and of the child. ‘Children, even very shy ones, like to talk about themselves, their friends, their families and their pets. I get them to describe what they did on Sunday, or I turn my back and ask them to describe something in the room. Sometimes I even get a child to sing or dance. I am looking for sparkly eyes and interest. If a child just sits there like a pudding, you usually don’t take them.’ Some schools get over the ‘what to talk about’ dilemma by asking children to bring along a favourite object. Rugby sensibly provides a questionnaire about hobbies and interests to fill in in advance, which not only provides a talking point, but also allows parents to feel they’ve done what they can. If, however, the child pitches up with a copy of Proust or boasts a collection of Roman ceramics, parents shouldn’t be surprised if the interviewer is somewhat sceptical.
Most boarding schools feel that the interview can identify serious pastoral concerns. ‘We sometimes discover that a child really doesn’t want to come to boarding school,’ said the registrar of Rugby. ‘The interview is also very helpful in establishing the academic level the prep school is working at. We ask children to bring in their exercise books. Some London prep schools are so geared up at that point that all the child is doing is practice papers. Country prep schools tend to be more relaxed.’
Although most heads are honest in their report about a child - after all, their reputation depends on it - the interview can also benefit them. ‘Occasionally, a prep-school head knows perfectly well that a child is not suited to our school, but the parents just won’t listen. Coming from us it doesn’t sour the relationship with the school.’
Parents in the spotlight
Boarding schools, of course, tend to have another layer to their selection process and interview when they match boys and girls to an appropriate house. Here the parent, even more than the child, can be in the spotlight. Dr Andrew Gailey, now Eton vice provost but formerly housemaster of Manor House, Prince William’s house at Eton, always tries to strike a balance of the sporty and industrious, the musical and the generally decent in his annual selection of 10 boys but, for him, the parental part of the equation plays an even greater role. ‘The boy is going to change, but you have shared management of the child’s adolescence with the parents and you have to have some common bond for that to work.’
That’s a common theme for those interviews where parents appear — notably in London pre-preps. Most of the time the school is really interviewing you, and it’s you who need the preparation while your child can happily be him or herself. A balance between steady, respectful (schools are ever keen to avoid the parent from hell) and interesting (but nor do they like dull ones) is best.