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Is entry to independent school really like this?

(135 Posts)
headfairy Thu 29-Nov-12 18:43:45

I've cut and pasted this from The Times, it's one woman's experience of getting her dd in to a selective independent school. I was quite shocked, is that really what you and your dcs have to go through if that's the kind if education you want for them?

It’s 11-plus season. Helen Rumbelow hears a mother’s story of betrayal, lies, intensive tutoring and parental neurosis
It was like a scene out of a civil war — and in a way it was. Outside, van loads of extra police had been drafted in by the council to try to stop adults careening their cars over the road. Inside, over a thousand children were corralled in a vast hall.
Still only 10, they knew there was something very ominous about the day and had the pale faces of young children whose stomachs were in knots. Chances were, they were about to let their parents down. Parents who were so determined and competitive that normal social conventions had gone out of the window the minute stakes got this high: from illegal parking to lying that bordered on sabotage.
The cars of over a thousand parents ramming against each other for space was a good metaphor. Inside, some children were in tears, some fled the room saying they felt sick.
Jane watched her ten-year-old daughter Molly take her place bravely at one of the most competitive grammar school examinations in West London — and probably the country. “I did think at that point: this is quite cruel.”
Cruel to be kind? When Jane first had children, a decade ago, it never crossed her mind that this was where she would end up. She and her husband had both grown up outside London, and had good educations at state schools; Jane at a comprehensive, he at a grammar school. They both went to top-tier universities and on to professional jobs.
“Looking back, I am so surprised.
I would never have dreamt that I would have a daughter at a private school.
And I had absolutely no idea what the selection process would entail.”
Now bruised and battered Jane has — anonymously — co-authored a guide to the whole process which is part battle-plan, part post-combat stress therapy. It was written for others like her who came to the realisation late: that you can trust no one. This Christmas season, hundreds of thousands of ambitious parents will be putting their child forward for an 11-plus-style exam at selective state or private schools.
What they are also subjecting themselves to is an ordeal in which their child and their family are pitted directly against others in the neighbourhood: friends turn into vicious rivals, giving away nothing — or mis-information.
“The secrecy surrounding the 11-plus,” writes Jane on the book’s website, “can feel like you are trying to do the equivalent of breaking into the Bank of England.”
For an anthropologist studying the genus Parentus neuroticus in their natural habitat, the Perfect Parents’ Insider Guide to the 11 Plus could not be better fieldwork.
Jane first knew something strange was going on when she exposed a previously good friend’s betrayal. Having always assumed that Molly would go to a state secondary, it was only in her penultimate year of state primary school, Year 5, that Jane began to consider private education.
Molly desperately wanted to go to an all-girls school, of which there were no local state options. She was, said her teacher, bright enough to endure the examination process. But when Jane started to ask around, she was told — a full year before the exams began — that all the tutors were booked up, because parents started reserving places when their child reached Year 3.
“One friend said, ‘Oh, just relax!’. She had two children in private school, and another in my daughter’s year, and she said they didn’t believe in tutoring. They just did a few practice papers.”
Jane was quite prepared to believe her, except that when she did eventually find a tutor through a late cancellation, she bumped into the very same friend on the doorstep.
“She did look shamefaced. It turned out that she had used a tutor extensively for all her children. And this, we found out, was widespread. Everyone pretends that they are not really tutoring.
‘We’re laid back,’ they tell you. ‘If you have a bright child, you’ll be fine.’
Do not believe them. I don’t know anyone who gets into a selective school who has not been tutored or very heavily supported by their parents.
“Because I went to a comprehensive, I had no idea how many hoops you had to jump through. The first is that people will not give away the names of good tutors because you are competing with your children’s friends. It’s a horrible situation to be in.”
Jane took on the role of “detective and investigative journalist”, tracking down contacts through parents of older children and sourcing material on the internet.
She found herself feeling naive again. It was not uncommon for children to have multiple tutors: specialising in English, maths and non-verbal reasoning parts of most tests. This was on top of the music tuition that many paid for in the hope of getting into selective schools that reserved places for those of musical aptitude.
“We thought that because Molly was grade four on the piano, she was pretty good. We gave up on that thought pretty quickly though, as the schools we went to weren’t interested in piano, as they were recruiting children for their school orchestra. Children had the best chances on ‘endangered instruments’ like the bassoon. Most schools were demanding at least the level of grade 5, one grade 6.”
As the year went on, the levels of preparation intensified in direct proportion to the numbers of parents saying “we’re staying laid back”. Children at nearby private primaries were given practice papers every day, so Jane sourced her own from the internet. But they came without the answers, “so you end up having to do the test with your child”. One 90-minute paper a day was considered the norm through the Christmas holidays, “although we had Christmas Day off”.
“I had to bribe my daughter with a lot of clothes. My friend was bribing her son with games for his computer. Because no normal child really wants to be doing a practice paper.”
Molly did exams for six different schools, and went through to the interview stage. Jane was again appalled to realise that some parents had employed a specialist interview tutor.
“At the first interview, the girl next to her had a whole portfolio of art with her to show. It was intimidating but in the end I don’t think it was necessary.”
Finally, Molly got into her school of choice: a private all-girls school in London. None of the others that did so got in by chance: “They were the daughters of parents who were very committed.”
However, Jane and her peers spent a year in a state of paranoia and neuroticism, and Molly could have had more fun. So, was it worth it? “Yes. We wanted to make sure that we had done everything we could for our child.” Does it bring out the worst in people? “Yes.”
The Perfect Parents’ Insider Guide to the 11 Plus is available from

eatyourveg Thu 29-Nov-12 20:04:21

My first thoughts were "May Contain Nuts" too

Ladymuck Thu 29-Nov-12 21:11:31

'I rather naively breezily declared I would never tutor ds, if he was smart enough for grammar school then he shouldn't need tutoring.'

Problem is that there will be 40 or more children on the same cutoff mark for a lot of the London state selectives (and so will be subject to a distance or some other tie-break test). And another 40 who miss out by 1 mark etc. And several hundred who are easily up to grammar school standard, but only the top 120 or whatever will get the place. The 11+ test isn't about seeing how bright your child is, or whether or not they are capable of keeping up, it is just to help set a ranking for how the places will get allocated. There is a myth of the overtutored child who falls behind and really can't cope, but the reality is that the cutoff is so high that there are no "average" children. There are certainly many who do still get tutored for certain subjects after admission though.

Ds2's prep school, in addition to practice papers and booster classes, now send out details of "areas that your child's tutor might like to concentrate on", so it is not just the state school pupils who are tutored!

With hindsight I wish we'd concentrated on music more. It seems (relatively) far easier to get 10%+ off fees with grade 4 viola than through academic merit.

Marni23 Thu 29-Nov-12 21:28:05

'areas that your child's tutor might like to concentrate on' Seriously? I am genuinely shocked by that. I can see that at a state school they might not have covered enough of the curriculum, but surely a prep school should for the exams? shock

Ladymuck Thu 29-Nov-12 22:03:19

They do - the list is individual for each child. Even private school children have the odd thing that they struggle with. And if anything the private school parents are even more mental in terms of competitiveness.

Marni23 Thu 29-Nov-12 22:39:48

Oh I know that private school children struggle with things. It's the assumption that you'll be at a private school and have a tutor that I'm shocked by.

Elegantlywasted Thu 29-Nov-12 22:54:35

Hmm, London! Am in Surrey, DD went to private junior school, did some practice papers in the term before entry exams, few bond online tests, no tutor got a place at preferred selective senior school. A fair proportion of the intake had tutors but mainly those from state primaries where they didn't get much support in terms of practice papers.
Certainly didn't see the levels of stress in that article on exam day, fairly relaxed looking kids, went in, did 3 papers and some fun activities and lunch. When I asked my daughter how it went when I picked her up, she complained that the chips at lunch weren't very nice!

Once passed the hurdle of the entry exam, the interview day was relaxed. Had an allocated time to go in, DD went off with a small group, came back smiling and said they had spent most of the time talking about surfing.

Glad I never lived closed enough to be sucked into the world of Kingston Grammars mind you!

Annelongditton Thu 29-Nov-12 23:27:31

If either of my DC's schools suggested tutors I would ask for a discount.

glaurung Fri 30-Nov-12 09:22:42

It makes a good story, and a convenient excuse if your child doesn't pass, but it's far removed from reality for huge areas of the country at least. I don't know of anyone who used a tutor for 11+ entrance here (unless they are all closet tutor users, which I doubt). I do know people who have used tutors for GCSE areas of difficulty (eg maths, mfl) in both state and private sectors though which seems like a better use of resources to me.

exoticfruits Fri 30-Nov-12 09:29:08

You are sticking your head in the sand if you think that people don't use tutors for primary aged DCs. I thought about being one, having been asked by several people. I have no doubt that I could have built up a business in no time and if I lived in London or Kent or similar I would be turning them away!

APMF Fri 30-Nov-12 09:45:53

@ladymuck - I totally agree that the high pass mark required to gain a place at a highly selective secondary is not indicative of the level at which a child is expected to work at once in.

Unfortunately too many parents with bright children fail to see this. If I had a penny for every time a MNetter made that comment about how if a child needed tutoring to get in then that child will struggle once in ......

OhDearConfused Fri 30-Nov-12 11:28:18

Aren't this woman the OP writes about just scaremongering (in the same way as the 11 Plus Forum) in order to flog a book with the ostensible aim of "helping" others.


OhDearConfused Fri 30-Nov-12 11:28:43

Isn't this woman of course. I'd fail English!

headfairy Fri 30-Nov-12 12:04:31

Elegantlywasted I'm very glad to hear your experience... whereabouts in Surrey are you? We're on Redhill/Reigate borders so we'll hopefully be able to get ds in to Reigate school which is currently really good (who knows what it'll be like in 6 years!) but I was thinking about alternatives if that plan fails. It was scary talking to my sister, but she lives in Balham and there are no decent state secondaries around there (according to her), so she's been looking at Sutton Girls, or Old Palace in Croydon. But her dd is in yr5 and my sister is already borderline hysterical about getting her in to a good school. DN does maths and English tutoring twice a week, but no music lessons, she's an excellent swimmer though. But the hysteria is really freaking me out.

doyouwantfrieswiththat Fri 30-Nov-12 12:36:16

headfairy we're in the same area. I thought a bright child would be okay anywhere but seeing the different attitudes of children from the schools around here I now know that's naive.

I'm already being told by some folk that my interest in my child's education is 'intense'.

Is it seriously unrealistic to want them to read with understanding, or write legibly by yr3.

headfairy Fri 30-Nov-12 12:42:27

doyouwantfries I'm surprised by that... I would have thought if anything Reigate was a bubble of middle class educational angst ;-)

I have never ever thought of myself as having an "intense" <frowny eyes> interest in my child's education (if anything I'm a bit too laid back - according to my sister, but she's bonkers) but I would also expect a Yr3 child to be able to read and write.

I hate that I feel like I'm being sucked in to that ridiculous competitive bollocks. I casually mentioned to someone that ds was quite sporty already and if he carried on showing an interest in it that we might look at Royal Alexandra and Albert and I got an almost hysterical reaction, "oh you won't get him in there, you're far to far away" <complete with boggled eyed smugness> Even apparently settling for Reigate school isn't enough. We "have to start tutoring in a couple of years to get him in to Reigate Grammar". Erm, no we don't!

doyouwantfrieswiththat Fri 30-Nov-12 13:05:22

RA&A seems lovely , the children I've met there are shockingly polite which I like. I say shocking because I'm definitely on the Redhill side of the border.

However, in this area it seems not so much which school you'd choose as which school you're given.

So much comes down to your child's attitude to learning and that is where school should be really engaging them. I like to think I have years to think about secondary education but it doesn't hurt to consider the options, everything could be different by the time I need to make a decision.

tiggytape Fri 30-Nov-12 13:07:58

Ladymuck is right. The 11+ (in London at least) isn't about seeing whether your child is bright enough to go to grammar school. Thousands of children in London are bright enough for a grammar school education but there aren't that many places available. The 11+ is about directly competing against all the other bright children to beat them to a place.

Even for the state grammars here, people tutor early and have specialist tutors (a different tutor for English and maths)
It is not because their child isn't clever (a lot of tutors insist a child is level 5 in Year 5 before even signing them up) but because competition is crazy - thousands of equally bright children for a few hundred places.

So no – that article sounds a pretty accurate reflection of the lengths some parents (and increasingly larger number of them) go to.

basildonbond Fri 30-Nov-12 13:08:47

sorry headfairy but your sister has lost the plot!

No decent state schools near Balham? really?? what about Graveney? and Chestnut Grove is improving dramatically all the time, then there's ADT (children we know there are very positive about it) and Dunraven in Streatham

And there are dozens of private schools which are much, much nearer than Sutton and Old Palace confused

I'm afraid swimming won't help much ... unless she's national standard and applying for somewhere like Millfield ... most girls schools regard it as a nice extra and would be counted in your niece's favour if they had two girls on the same score and had to choose one

Your sister needs to calm down!!

(My dd is in Y5 in a similar area ...)

APMF Fri 30-Nov-12 13:14:42

@headfairy - the flip side of your competitive mum is the one that said I was too pushy when I said that it would be nice if DS went to university. Ok, he was only 10 at the time but wanting your child to get a university education was being pushy???

No matter where you land, there will inevitably be those who think you are too pushy or not pushy enough.

headfairy Fri 30-Nov-12 13:15:55

basildonbond It wouldnt' be the first time she's lost the plot grin

I think she's discounted Chestnut Grove because improving dramatically all the time isn't enough for her pfb. To be honest, much as I love my niece I'm not sure she's as special as my sister makes out. She's hard working and dilligent though.

I know she had her heart set on our old school (a highly competitive catholic comp girls school in Croydon) but she's been told she's too far out for that. She really wants her to have a catholic education, but for some reason she's ruled out St Philomena's. There's not much else on the catholic girls schools in the area, hence she's started thinking of Sutton grammar schools as her plan B.

But yes, she is bonkers. grin

MoreBeta Fri 30-Nov-12 13:22:33

The main reason we moved out of the South East because we didnt want to put our children through this to get them a half decent education.

It is insane and I can say that as a parent who has had both children in an extremely selective school and one of whom who has an academic scholarship.

Let me say it again. It is insane and is a product of the claustrophobic hypercompetitive, resource constrained South East.

We deliberately took our children out of the hypercompetitive school (ie one that parents tutor their children to get into) and went to a place that had a school that cared about eductional standards and gets children into Oxford and Cambridge but also catered for children who were average academically and who had other skills and talents - like sport, art, drama, music.

exexpat Fri 30-Nov-12 13:22:41

I'm feeling very glad I'm not in London. Lots of independent schools round here (Bristol), all officially selective, but even the most selective admits I think nearly half of all applicants. DS and a friend had a few joint sessions with a tutor to go through practice papers a few weeks before the entrance exam, because they'd never encountered anything like the verbal/non-verbal reasoning tests before, but it never even occurred to me to do any more than that.

But if you think London is bad, try Tokyo. Children spend literally hours every evening and at weekends going to cram schools for coaching in how to pass entrance exams to the top schools. It's common to have 3-4 hours tuition plus extra homework every evening, and longer at weekends, in the run-up to high school entrance.

OhDearConfused Fri 30-Nov-12 13:30:51

MoreBeta - tons of comprehensives like that in and around London (including in SW (where I live) Dunraven, Graveney, Chesnut Grove already mentioned), its just that a lot of people (a lot of MNers) don't want to go there for all sorts of reasons - such as "no-one else I know wants to go there, so I don't want to either"... and it gets circular and competitive for the very few selective/indies...

OhDearConfused Fri 30-Nov-12 13:56:55

I'm also surprised at what the quote describes as applying in selectives (in London). Anyone know which one.

I have heard similar stories about the Tiffin schools and other super selective grammars, but thought that (although still competive), the indies where a lot little more relaxed.

Ladymuck Fri 30-Nov-12 13:58:48

But isn't one of the problems that you can't predict which comprehensive school you might get? Dunraven obviously is very good, but oversubscribed, and in looking at their admissions policy it would be hard to predict how likely or not you are to get a place. Ditto Graveney and Chesnut Grove. Unless you have a sibling at the school already, or live on the doorstep, then there is a high measure of uncertainty, and as parents you have very little control.

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