Sometimes parents say to me, “I’m looking for a tutor who can help get my son into School X” (where ‘School X’ is a competitive independent school or selective grammar school).
There are four things I suggest (politely but firmly) to these parents:
Any tutor who claims to be able to ‘get your child into school X’ is being misleading. First and foremost, tutors don’t sit exams, students do. If the school offers your child a place, it’s your child who will have ‘got in’.
Independent schools, the Independent Schools Examination Board (ISEB), selective grammar schools and selective grammar school consortia design robust 11+ entrance exams.
It’s true that all these exams have a similar objective: to test understanding and skills in a fair way. And they are structured in a similar way, with papers covering English and Maths, possibly Creative Writing and possibly Verbal and/or Non-Verbal Reasoning.
But the formats vary between schools, and schools like to keep their exams fresh and unpredictable from year to year to ensure there is a level playing field for all candidates. Very few release specimen or past papers.
It’s worth bearing in mind also that the written exam is only one part (albeit an important part) of the school entrance assessment process. Rest assured the assessment panel at the senior school will be looking closely at the report provided by your child’s school, and your child will also likely be interviewed by the senior school’s Headteacher or member of the Senior Leadership Team.
Increasingly schools are introducing more comprehensive/holistic assessments, inviting candidates to attend a multidimensional ‘assessment morning’. Candidates have an individual interview, sit entrance tests and participate with other candidates in group activities and guided conversations/debates. Some assessment mornings include a break/lunch and ‘mock lesson’, possibly mixing candidates together with students already at the school.
There is no system to beat – or attempt to beat. Schools are adept at designing exams that identify the natural skills that candidates have. If there were a system, 11+ written exams (hence assessments) would be meaningless.
When parents say they want to ‘get their child into School X’, the phrase seems to imply they don’t actually believe their child merits a place at the school.
Parents seem to think that it’s acceptable for their son or daughter to try to slip through the net, perhaps in the same way many people think it’s acceptable to avoid detection by speed cameras.
And they want their child to slip through that net – sometimes with an alarming eagerness and determination.
But why would they want this?
School entrance exams are not like qualifications. With GCSEs and A-levels, for example, the aim is to achieve the highest grades possible. Students will use their grades in a number of ways, for example to support a university application or populate a first CV. But essentially these qualifications are standalone achievements, ends in themselves.
School entrance exams are not ends in themselves. They are just the beginning. If schools offer students places and the students accept, they will actually then go to the schools. They will need to continue to demonstrate and develop those skills they indicated in their assessments that they have. They will be expected to progress at the same rate as their classmates, and consistently achieve internal test and public exam results that are in line with the schools’ expectations.
The Principal of an independent girls’ school put this into perspective for me. She said it tends to be straightforward to spot students who have had the ‘wrong kind’ of tutoring in advance of 11+ exams – that is, tutoring that tries to beat a system. Students insert ‘clever’ paragraphs and phrases that have obviously just been learned by rote, and incorrectly applied and/or out of keeping with their other exam responses.
But if a student has ever managed somehow to slip through, inevitably she has quickly found it a struggle to keep up with her classmates. She may continue to try to tread water through tutoring, but this can only result in her becoming demotivated, exhausted and miserable, wanting to leave the school. This is not only disorientating for her but a terrible blow for her confidence.
11+ exams are designed to test candidates’ understanding of the curriculum and ability to apply their English language and Maths skills, including deduction and inference.
At Cornerstone Tutors, our approach is the same whatever the student’s objective. We provide tutoring only for those who genuinely would benefit. Our objectives are to help students work through blocks to understanding, build confidence and develop their natural skills. For students who are looking ultimately to sit senior school assessments, our approach is not to arm them with a superficial bag of tricks to attempt to beat a system that doesn’t exist, but help them to be ready to demonstrate their true capabilities and potential.
We advise parents to consider their choices of senior schools carefully with their children.