So! You've talked endlessly - to each other, to your child's teachers, to other parents. You've done your homework - been to the open days, studied the prospectuses, balanced larger playing fields against smaller classes, shorter journeys against longer bills. You've interviewed headteachers, asked penetrating questions about GCSE options, laboratory time, language exchanges, satellite links and university entrants. You've scrutinised children as they hurtle out of different schools and tried to picture yours wearing that uniform, taking that bus, having those friends. If it's the fee-paying option you're considering, you'll have calculated seven years of fees allowing for inflation and wondered whether the post-retirement fund might be better applied now. You may even have discussed it with your child - his or her grandparents, aunties and the lady in the takeaway who seems to know all about it and - at last - you've decided! You want to take your child out of the system that simply transfers him or her into the local comprehensive and try for something different. An academically selective school.
Now what? The first thing you will need to recognise is that this - if your child is at junior school age or older - will mean an entrance examination and, if you are the sort of person for whom the mere word makes you go cold and shivery all over, you will wonder how you could possibly put your tender eight or ten year-old through such a thing. However, with the right approach and the right kind of preparation, the whole thing can be an enjoyable and, ultimately, a successful operation - and one in which you have a surprising amount of control.
Many parents feel that the moment they embark on the process of applying to a selective school, they are entirely in the hands of an unfriendly system that is highly unlikely to spot the merits - however obvious - of their offspring . The more desperate you are to get your child into this or that school, the more dark and forbidding its front door appears! It may be helpful to establish at the outset that the right school for your child will, more than likely, happily offer him or her a place and if it doesn't then it was probably not the right school.
However, it is true that most good schools are heavily oversubscribed and inevitably lots of deserving candidates don't get in. It is, therefore, essential that you have a fallback school - ideally more than one - a school you like and your child likes and one to which you would be perfectly happy to send him or her - even if it is not your first choice.
Perhaps the most important thing at this stage is your child's - and your own - approach to these examinations. This is critical, both to your child's chances of success and to his or her general well-being, Taking these exams - on which so much depends and in which so much - hopes, money, effort - is invested, can be stressful and strenuous, not least for the parents. This is, perhaps, even more so if there is only one academically selective state school in your area which produces good results and to which you desperately want your child to go. It may be that this is your only acceptable, non-fee-paying option and, consequently, if paying fees for seven or more years is simply not possible, success in the examination can seem vital. Nonetheless, it cannot be stated too strongly that no child should ever be left with a sense of having failed. This can do severe damage which will not just go away but be with him or her for the rest of their lives. The business of applying to this or that school should be a 'let's give it a go' venture, not a matter of life, death, family honour, tradition, pride or, above all, fear of letting one's parents down. There is never only one possible school - as a great many families who, every year feel that their world has collapsed at the arrival of the 'wrong letter', discover.
How to Start
Let us assume that you have finally made your choice. You may, in fact, despite what it says above, have given yourself very little choice if you are going for a state grammar and there is only one in your area. Most areas don't have them at all. On the other hand, if you are prepared to pay and you live in an urban area, there may be several schools you'd happily see your child attend. Either way, you will now need to register him or her with the schools of your choice and this can involve a financial outlay. It is well to get this clear at the outset as registering with a number of schools can be an expensive business and a few schools use this registration fee as a way of holding onto candidates who may well have other irons in the fire. They may also want a deposit later on as a way of securing your place. In each case, be sure you understand what the agreement involves and under what circumstances you get your money back.
These days, especially in London, many schools have organised themselves into consortia. This is so that your daughter doesn't have to sit ten examinations if you have put her in for ten schools. Your first choice school will mark the examination and share the results with the others. Scholarships are different. The individual schools may well want to set their own scholarship papers. You will need to research this if you are considering putting your son or daughter in for a scholarship and the school will happily send you details.
But, scholarship candidate or not, you will definitely face - the entrance exam! Most schools examine in the same ways - testing English, Maths and Verbal or, sometimes, Non-Verbal Reasoning - at every entry stage except the nursery and pre-prep. Common Entrance - which, of course, many boys - and some girls - sit at preparatory schools is a more complex affair. It happens later - at 12 for entry at 13 - and involves examination papers in just about all the curriculum subjects. We can assume that, if your child is sitting these examinations, the preparatory school concerned will have explained the process and you will be clued up about it. Entry at Sixth form level will probably depend on a combination of GCSE results, a school report and interview.
For the purposes of this article and, as most children make the big move at the 11+ stage, we will imagine that you have a daughter - Jessica - sitting examinations at the age of ten for entrance to an academically selective high school at the age of eleven (Year 7). The general advice given here, though, will apply to just about all pupils sitting entrance examinations at just about every stage. Let us assume that Jessica is bright and a good all-rounder but, perhaps, not scholarship material. She has, so far, been educated in the local state junior school where she has had a good education but always in large classes in which, as a well-behaved and well-motivated child, she has received little individual attention. Apart from the SATs, she has never sat a formal examination, has little idea what a traditional English comprehension exercise involves and her spelling is patchy. Her stories are good but take hours to complete and she finds it hard to come up with an idea. Her Maths - though above average - has gaps and is pretty shaky in several areas. You feel she is bright enough for the school of your choice but will she cope with the examination? How will she compare with the children from selective, academically-advanced junior schools whose business it is - unlike the state primaries - to prepare children for these exams? Her junior school has no interest in preparing her. What do you do?
First of all, you are thinking along the right lines. However bright she is, she will need, at the least, some practice in managing the examinations. It is, in fact, often the brightest children who are most disadvantaged if they have had no practice prior to the exams. These children often write long, wonderful stories if left to themselves but are totally thrown when given half an hour to produce a finished piece. These children often see complexities in comprehension questions way beyond what is required and need to learn the technique of containing their ideas - again, bearing in mind the time limits. However good at Maths these children may be, it may well be the case that the pace in their classroom has simply not allowed them to cover some of the skills and techniques that the senior school will expect them to understand. It may also be that you simply don't have a clue as to how Jessica would measure up against fellow candidates for an academically selective school. So - what is the answer? You need to have an independent assessment.
Ideally this will be done by an experienced teacher at Year 6 level in an academically selective junior school - someone who knows exactly what the senior school is looking for. It may well be that this is someone who also coaches local children for the exams at the school of your choice. Frequently, this is a retired specialist at this level who should be prepared to see Jessica once, try out her English and her maths and give you an honest appraisal of her general aptitude, some idea of her chances of success and what it will take to prepare her thoroughly. You must not expect such a teacher to make promises! Even the brightest and best pupils can have off-days - though we hope not! An honest assessment is a useful tool and can save much heartache and disappointment later on.
Coaching for the Examinations
An experienced teacher will have heaps of past papers, have all the techniques at her command and will make Jessica feel confident very quickly. However, it may be that you will need to find separate teachers for English and Maths. This has the disadvantage of being more expensive and inconvenient - two weekly lessons after school as well as Jessica's music lessons, Brownies, ballet class and so on puts strains on you all. But, if you cannot find a teacher who will do both English and Maths, it will probably be necessary and will be worth it!
But - how do you find the teachers? The best way is word of mouth. A good teacher seldom advertises or has to register with an agency. In any case, agencies are very expensive. Ask around among parents - especially those whose child is a year ahead of Jessica and who have been through the same process. Don't be shy of asking around or assume that everyone else's child gets into the the school you like without extra help. It is far more likely that local eyebrows would be raised at any child who attempted the exams without coaching and you will find parents only too eager to discuss the relative merits - and costs! - of this or that teacher. You may hear of teachers who prepare children in groups. This is usually cheaper but is less satisfactory. The benefits of one-to-one teaching, especially if Jessica has major gaps or difficulties, - spelling, story-construction , fractions etc. - cannot be over-emphasised. She will progress much faster with individual attention and a good teacher will also be able to do wonders for her confidence - not so easy if she is in a tutor's group with Shireen and Anna who are both, of course, 'brilliant'.
It may be that Jessica's school can recommend teachers or it may be worth asking the school you hope she will go to, though it is not unheard of for this to be remembered and held against a candidate if she is borderline! However, there is a tendency for these schools to tell you that no coaching is necessary. This ignores the disadvantage that state school children are under.
When should you start? Ideally you should telephone the teacher a year or so before the examination and book a place. The best teachers usually have a waiting list. The teacher may well suggest an assessment. This should enable her to tell whether Jessica needs only, say, a term's lessons - starting the September before the examination - in order to plug minor gaps and give her timed practice - or, if there are more significant gaps or deficiencies, whether it would be advisable to start straight away.
In the meantime, there are things you can do at home. Ideally, Jessica should be reading enthusiastically but, in any case, it is never too late to read to her and to share reading. Our new book, 11+ English: A Parent's Toolkit, is aimed at helping parents to bring their children's English up to scratch. Maths, too, can be fun and there are books of Maths puzzles and problems readily available. We list them in our 11+ Bookshop. More important is Verbal Reasoning. A Verbal Reasoning test is now common practice at entrance examinations and, although no coaching is really helpful for these, it is vital that Jessica is familiar with the format of these papers. These, too, are freely available at good newsagents and some bookshops - including ours; some will be more suitable than others for the particular exam that your child faces: - ask around.
You would be well-advised to check with your first choice school whether they do test Verbal Reasoning. Some may set a Non-Verbal Reasoning paper. Both these sorts of tests are fun but children do need to have seen the sort of thing beforehand so they know what to expect. These tests sometimes pose problems for children with mild learning difficulties or special needs. Again, it is valuable to check this beforehand. Mildly dyslexic children, for example, might have problems with some of the sequencing exercises in these tests.
The most important thing to be done at home, however, is determine the family's attitude to these examinations. If Jessica is keen to go to the school you have chosen, she will want to work well for the exam. You may even have to dissuade her from overdoing extra work. (This is not so often true of boys, for some reason!) A worried, anxious and over-pressured child will not perform well. If your child knows exactly how desperate you are that she should get into this or that school - or if she herself is panicked about it - she will waste energy and time trying to control the panic when the time comes and will not do herself justice.
However important it seems to you, the child should feel that trying for this school is, as we said above, basically, a "let's have a go" exercise and that success is not the be-all or end-all of life as we know it. A child who "fails" at the age of ten suffers terribly and can suffer a loss of confidence from which they never fully recover. Bribery and threats are seldom necessary if a child is sufficiently motivated and they do little for family relationships in the longer-term.
It is worth repeating the necessity of having another, less academically demanding, school as a fail-safe option and one which your child feels is an acceptable alternative - if not your - or her - absolute first choice. Hard though it may be, it is worth remembering that if Jessica does not get into your preferred school it may be that this is the right decision. No child is well-suited to a school in which all their conscientious efforts produce below-average results. It does nothing for the confidence and an unconfident, consistently undermined adolescent seldom grows into a well-adjusted adult. If it does happen - if Jessica is accepted into the right school - you can celebrate her brilliance for all you're worth and tell her that really nothing else would have done, but it is as well to keep this conviction under wraps until then.
Learning Difficulties and Special Needs
Mercifully, it is now accepted and understood that many of the brightest individuals have problems such as dyslexia which may mask their true abilities. Most schools now have support staff to help children with these problems. If Jessica is, for example, dyslexic or if you suspect some significant problem of this kind, it is a good idea to discuss it with her tutor. It is also usually a good idea to alert your first choice school to the problem before the examination. That way, when they are assessing the papers and determining who to recall for interview, they will be apprised of the special circumstances in Jessica's case and be less inclined to dismiss her efforts without proper scrutiny. The efforts of an able but mildly dyslexic child should look different from those of a child who is less able.
If you suspect that Jessica might have a specific learning difficulty - and there are many different kinds in addition to dyslexia - it is probably wise to have her assessed by a specialist, ideally much earlier in her school career than year 6. There are various ways of doing this. The first thing is to express your concern to her class teacher. The teacher should, whether she thinks you have a point or not, refer Jessica to the school's Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator or Extra Learning Support Teacher. Every state school has one of these. You have the right to do this yourself if the teacher fails to do so. From then on there is an established Code of Practice which should, eventually, result in Jessica being given extra help in school. However, the provision for this varies hugely from borough to borough and school to school. Your guide through this will be your local Parent Partnership - an invaluable National organisation. Your local authority will be able to give you their telephone number.
If you decide you cannot wait for this system to work - it can take the best part of a school year in worst cases - and if you have the means to do so - you could get Jessica assessed by a recognised Special Needs teacher or Educational Psychologist. You should be warned, however, that this can be an expensive process. The British Dyslexia Association will help you with finding someone in your area and with much other helpful advice besides.
Either way, you should end up with an assessment or a report you can copy and send to the senior school of your choice before the examination. To approach a school with this information after the examination and when you have had your polite refusal, looks like special pleading and is too late. It needs stressing that a report of this kind and an acknowledgment of the problem is an entirely positive step - above all for the child. It is extraordinary the lengths clever children go to to compensate for their, sometimes very severe, difficulties at school. Nonetheless, an unacknowledged - and unaided - problem of this kind can have huge repercussions in later life. A proper assessment and even a Statement of Special Educational Needs or an Educational Psychologist's report can release all kinds of help - and funds - unavailable otherwise to support a child in all kinds of ways throughout a school career and will, above all, be of huge relief and benefit to the child. It is very definitely not something to be embarrassed by or afraid of.
Some schools interview all their candidates and even their parents as well. Others interview only scholarship candidates. Most interview those who have passed a minimum standard in the examinations. Interviews may be with the headteacher or with other senior teachers. There may well be further tests done at the interview. For example, if Jessica did well in her English paper but less well in her Maths, she may well be taken off by the Maths department and given some Maths exercises to do. This should not be a cause for alarm but it is as well to be prepared for the possibility.
While, obviously, it is a good idea to be able to talk about a book you have read recently and know well enough to discuss, you cannot prepare for interviews. In fact, it is unwise to try to prepare. Children who have been drilled beforehand usually sit tongue-tied trying to remember what was practised at home, what she said in the practice, what Daddy told her to say. Interviewers will look for spontaneity, friendliness, a willingness to think, to join in and to listen. This is especially important if Jessica is interviewed in a group with maybe two or three other candidates. Alternatively, she may be seen on her own and, again, the interviewer will look for a relaxed, open approach, not a prepared speech.
Finally there is the two or three week wait before the letter comes. It is not always the best idea to stop the coaching at this time. For example, if the teacher has been working with Jessica on matters other than preparation for the exams, it may be worth considering continuing lessons, if the teacher is prepared to do so. This is especially so if Jessica has deficiencies in Maths skills or in her written work. She can, perhaps, do project work which the senior school will expect her to have an idea of. It is also often the case that to stop work on spelling, fractions etc. just because the exams are over gives a, perhaps, undesirable message to the child on the importance of these things. Sometimes the best idea is a week or two off but lessons thereafter. A surprisingly large number of children actually like the lessons and see the point of them. Jessica will let you know!