Lately, I have been approached by a lot of mums going through the 11+ process who have been asking me for advice. When I was trekking through that minefield, I had – luckily – some elders who gave me a lot of advice: some good, some excessive, some useless, but mostly I was really grateful to have people to talk to. Earlier in the year I wrote my first blog on senior school anxiety: nottinghillmummy.com/2022/04/20/senior-school-entry-anxiety/ and here is the follow up blog Version 2.0.
(Note Bene: these were all mothers who had been through the process and had a lot of opinions. I did not speak to other mums going through the 11+ at the same time for a number of reasons, but mostly because they would stress me out or put their stress on me.)
This is how I navigated the 11+: I took advice from those who knew better and learned from them. Here are some of the questions I wish someone had answered before I started the whole process.
When do you start prepping for the 11+ process? Every parent is different. Of course, you will always have the kids who know their entire multiplication tables by the time they get to Year 1, but those are the outliers. And those who might be behind academically might need to start earlier. But as a general rule, a good start for the 11+ prep is one year from the exam. So if it is in December, start one year before. Some will start later, like in Easter, but I think that’s too late in case your child has weaknesses that you haven’t spotted yet. You can start more than a year before, but in my opinion, that’s a bit of overkill and might burn out your child too soon. With the one-year-before approach, I would advise little and often. If you decide to start earlier, one good thing to do is to assess your child to make sure they are on the right path. Your school should have given you their test scores and you should have a decent grasp of how they are doing. This is where you can see what your child needs to work and address those weaknesses early on.
How do you prepare for the 11+?
Everyone wants the magic formula. Of course, tutors pretty much have to be involved if you are aiming for the most academic schools. Very few get in with little tutoring. It is still possible, but your chances are inevitably lower. For good, but not the most academic schools, you can get away without tutoring if your child is bright enough. For me, as I already mentioned, I addressed my child’s weaknesses and put my focus on that. In that way, I didn’t have to over-tutor and kept the process relatively gentle (unlike some parents who were tutoring every day). But many people feel that’s not enough so in general, for those aiming at the most academic schools, I found that most parents have two tutors: one for English and one for Maths. On top of that, Bond books and atom are very popular (Bond books for general knowledge and atom for exam practice). After that, everyone has their own methods and needs and each child is an individual.
How do you choose a senior school? Now, everyone has different requirements and values so the schools you like are not necessarily the school other people will like. So every person should just do what’s right for them. But don’t always voice your opinions. (Recently, someone I know went to visit my child’s senior school on open day and came back to me and said, ‘I hated it!’ which is probably something one should avoid doing).
The way I chose our school is as follows:
- Proximity to home
- The School & Facilities
- Social environment
I’ll go through each topic in some more detail.
Academics is of course on top of most people’s list: will the school challenge my child but not push him/her too far? Schools that are going to be too intense may not be the right school for your child, which is why sometimes over-tutoring can backfire. Do you want your child to be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond? You could argue for both. But you want to make sure the school is right for your child: I repeat, not all these pushy schools are right for your child. There are plenty of kind, good schools particularly for those who are less academically inclined.
Proximity: Proximity is very high on my list on how to choose a school. I wanted a school that wasn’t too far from our home. Ideally under 30 minutes, but 30-45 minutes max. Having spent 3 hours on the school bus every day growing up, I didn’t want them to have the same experience. In addition, you want your child to have friends that live nearby and not have friends scattered far away. This makes it so much easier for playdates. Even for boarding schools, it is much easier if they are closer so your child can easily come home for the weekend. Also, how are the transport links? Because soon enough, they will want to travel on their own.
Curriculum: Not all schools have the same curriculum so make sure it is a school that offers what you are looking for. For example, some have only A Levels whereas some offer the International Baccalaureate as well. Most academic schools will have a broad, somewhat similar curriculum, but some will have more languages on offer for example or be more focussed on sciences and maths.
The school & facilities: My child immediately wanted a school with sports facilities and big spaces. It’s not easy to find that in Central London, so until you see the schools, it will be hard to decide. Just as someone might like a smaller school saying it is more cosy, someone else might say the exact same school is very cramped. So everyone has their opinions and needs. Facilities like a nice gym, a climbing wall, modern 6th form areas, swimming pools, sports pitches on site all add something as well. Also, do you like the neighbourhood? Is it somewhere you could see your child hanging out after school?
Social Environment: This is an important topic that is just as important as the other ones. Every school has a reputation: ‘the urban school, the drugs and alcohol school, the trustafarian school, the super-academic school with mental health issues, the sporty school, the ED school’ and the list goes on. Every school has a reputation and you will have to decide which aspects you are willing to live with and which you just don’t want to ever come across. The schools have very different feels to them and it has to be the right environment for your child.
Extra-curriculars: It’s not the most important on the list, but is still to be taken in consideration. Some schools offer lots of sports, some offer music, some art etc… Just have a look at them and see if there is something your child would like to do. A few jumped out when we were visiting schools and it was one of the big reasons my child chose that school.
At the end of the day, each child will end up where they should end up. And if it doesn’t work out, they can always change schools. This school will not determine the rest of their future, so relax a bit, take my advice and all will be well. I asked my child what they liked about their school and the reply was: 1. My friends 2. The lessons 3. The atmosphere. So far, it sounds like we made a good choice.