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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

OhDearConfused Fri 30-Nov-12 14:07:46

Sure - but you can't really predict whether you are going to be 140th (or higher) place in the Tiffin test or 230th (which will only be a couple of mistakes apart)!!

APMF Fri 30-Nov-12 14:26:15

@ohdear - the indie process IS a bit more relaxed smile

If something is good AND its free then the competition is going to be much greater than for something where people have to pay.

Plus if you are prepared to pay then you will find a place that you like even if it's your fourth choice. Parents who go for the GS invariably have that choice or the so so school down the road.

So, when you only have one choice the pressure, both on the parent and the child, is going to be much greater.

Viviennemary Fri 30-Nov-12 14:30:41

Live somewhere with a good comprehensive school. And avoid all this angst.

hardboiled Fri 30-Nov-12 14:31:21

We arrived to DS exam at a superselective grammar late, stuck in traffic, jumping out of the car, running under the rain. Got there two minutes before doors closed. An empty entrance, empty street. I thought: "Oh goodie, this is good, there is noone!" ...There were already 1600 boys sitting inside. People has been standing for ages to get in. We had missed the whole hysteria! grin

seeker Fri 30-Nov-12 14:36:12

In answer to the question in the thread title, sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. Depends on the school and the parents.

Copthallresident Fri 30-Nov-12 15:24:50

I don't think any of the West London girls' schools have 1000 sitting the exam, never mind competing for parking spots? It all sounds like a big dose of exaggeration.

Having said that in my experience parents do get ridiculously competitive and anxious about these exams and it is entirely unnecessary.

DD1 applied for four West London girls' schools from overseas, she had a bit of tutoring simply because her International School hadn't covered the whole syllabus but it was a cosy hour at a favourite teachers flat with tea and biscuits once a week for a term, and she loved it. She sat the exams at her school, and we flew back for the interviews (or she had them the previous summer ) and got in everywhere.

So far, so relaxed.

DD2 was at a west London prep and I developed the skills of a SAS hostage rescuer so quickly did I get her out of that playground, and away from the desperate air of parental angst and competition, during the terms leading up to the exams. The school did more than enough to prepare them and yet still there were parents taking their poor daughters off to tutors after school, and giving them hours of extra work as well as homework, it bordered on child abuse, and all according to the assumed demands of getting DDs to the schools at the top of a ridiculous perceived league table of local girls' schools that makes a yawning gap out of the tiniest differences. All of the schools they apply to are in the top 50 in the country, and yet for some anything but SPGS is failure! You just have to look at the questions on the exam papers to see that the schools are looking for ability and not crammed knowledge but that doesn't stop people. It didn't make a blind bit of difference, the girls all ended up at the schools that were right for their level of ability, much as it frustrated some parents, especially as they really could not comprehend how dyslexic DD2 got into a more selective school than their tutored DDs. In fact I will admit I got a bit too seduced by that league table and ended up wishing DD2 had gone somewhere where she would have been above average instead of average and that is the choice she has made for sixth form.

Anyway to counteract the hysteria here is a rather old but still good article from the old Head at Surbiton

Sparrows12 Fri 30-Nov-12 15:31:38

It is quite something though. One of mine tried for a super selective sixth form this year and was asked how she would solve the arab israeli conflict.

Elibean Fri 30-Nov-12 16:42:45

It really is insane - I agree with Beta and Copthall, insane and bordering on abusive. If its like that (my dds - at local state primary - are still young and happy, and I haven't encountered the Y5-6 angst yet).

And we are in SW London - ick. At least there are no grammars around.

mumzy Fri 30-Nov-12 16:42:51

I would say there is more hysteria around entrance exams to grammar schools than even the most selective independent schools. At grammars its all down to your final exam mark so no chance to shine at interview or be given some leeway for having sports/ musical appitude. Also most indies tend to charge for the enterance exam whereas at grammars its free as is the education should you get in.

Elibean Fri 30-Nov-12 16:43:45

Sparrows [interested) and could she?! Blimey.

OhDearConfused Fri 30-Nov-12 17:31:21

Elibean you will discover the hysteria attaches to Graveney in Tooting (partially selective) and to the relatively easily accessible (depending on what part of SW london you are in) in Sutton/Kingston/Kent!

seeker Fri 30-Nov-12 17:54:54

"It is quite something though. One of mine tried for a super selective sixth form this year and was asked how she would solve the arab israeli conflict."

Ah. I would expect anyone trying for any 6th form to be able to come up with an opinion on that! blush

seeker Fri 30-Nov-12 17:56:24

blush I mean!

ATourchOfInsanity Fri 30-Nov-12 18:04:34

Not sure if this is about Grammars, Independents or Privates.
I know I never had extra tutoring before doing our senior school exam, but then maybe they allowed more of us in because we were at the junior school already?

I have to say my exam for my independent school was no more stressful, in fact actually less diverse than the 11+ if I remember rightly!

LaVolcan Fri 30-Nov-12 18:05:43

One of mine tried for a super selective sixth form this year and was asked how she would solve the arab israeli conflict."

Seriously?! Some of the best brains in the world haven't been able to solve this for more than 50 years. Obviously they should have gone to the super selective sixth form for a solution grin.

butisthismyname Fri 30-Nov-12 18:07:20

We are putting our dd into the 'system' for prep school at the moment. My practice (and it may be wrong) is that we have will not be tutoring her, apart from having a brief look at past entrance papers to get an idea, because surely, if we have to do this, to force her to do something she cannot do anyway, then she will struggle once she gets there? She took a pre test at the school to check if we should bother letting her take the main entrance test and sailed through it - the head said they would be very happy to offer her a palce on the strength of that alone. (And before I get told, as I was, on another thread, that it must be a dreadful prep school,and I have no idea...) it's actually one of the top ones in the country...The thought of putting her through such stress only to potentially fail when she gets there is appalling.

seeker Fri 30-Nov-12 18:11:00

LaVolcan- I suspect the just wanted to hear her thoughts! And, frankly, the only time you're likely to think you have all the answers is when you're 16!

Elibean Fri 30-Nov-12 21:02:18

I do remember a similar question in an Oxbridge paper decades ago!

OhDear I am in Richmond Borough - is there hope for avoiding hysteria, then? smile

OhDearConfused Sat 01-Dec-12 10:39:23

No hope at all. I already detect signs of Tiffinitis. Very common in Richmond.

Copthallresident Sat 01-Dec-12 10:45:57

Elibean sneak Valium into tea at the year 5 coffee morning!

Elegantlywasted Sat 01-Dec-12 10:57:55

headfairy We are in Redhill, our state option was The Warwick, which to me wasn't an option. Reigate School at moment is good, but I'm not sure what catchment is, a friend who is well inside RH2 was allocated The Warwick a couple of years ago,although she is geographically closer to St. Bedes and Reigate school.
I have to say I don't think that state school provision in the area is that good, at primary level we ended up going down the independent route as our two closest schools were church schools and I wasn't prepared to get religion, or Wray Common that at the time was pretty bad.
The problem is only going to get worse as there is already a shortage of spaces and they are still dragging their heels over building a new primary school to account for the children on Watercolour/Park 25.

harrassedswlondonmum Sat 01-Dec-12 19:27:44

Tiffin does generate this sort of hysteria - but this thread title refers specifically to independent schools. From my observations locally, some people do get terribly over-frenzied about particular independent schools, but ultimately virtually everyone gets into a school they are happy with, and there are lots of good ones around this area.

In many cases the school chooses you, rather than the other way around, which is quite a difficult concept for parents who are used to being in control.

I'm sure the article is describing the exam for Tiffin or similar - none of the others I have been to (9 different independent school exams for dd and ds1 - that's between them, not each!) were remotely like this.

castlesintheair Sun 02-Dec-12 12:26:15

That does sound like Tiffin. I have no experience of the girls' school but was there for the boys' one this year.

Copthallresident Sun 02-Dec-12 22:35:47

I think this is a case of not letting facts get in the way of a good story, and the success of a book exploiting all the parental angst. She does specifically say a girls' grammar school but then also that it is private (comprehension skills everyone, perhaps we all need tutors shock ) I'm guessing it is an amalgam of all the scariest stories because as a whole it doesn't stack up with any single school. No doubt they'll be laughing all the way to the bank, along with all the tutors......

neolara Sun 02-Dec-12 22:42:11

Having seen my nieces and nephews navigate entrance into competitive private schools in London, I would say that there is a awful lot of truth in that article. As the outside, it seem completely NUTS.

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