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Is entry to independent school really like this?

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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

castlesintheair Wed 05-Dec-12 18:45:04

Katryn, thank you for linking your blog - that is exactly how I am feeling and trying desperately not to at the moment. My DS is sitting them all now and in January. Also from a state primary. I am dying to know which school your DS ended up at as we are in the same area ... Just curious, and desperate! I shall be so pleased once 14th Feb has been and gone!

West London parents do seem to be in a total frenzy. A tutor I know already had a waiting list of 35 last year for reception chidren who will not be starting tutoring with her until Year 5 in 20?? Crazy. Can I just say to parents who are embarking on the tutoring - we have done it from Feb in Yr 5 after much deliberating and I don't think I will do it with my other 2 DCs. The most effective help we have given our DS has come from us and working through exam questions/bond papers. Other people have said this to me too, though of course it's hard to tutor your own child without getting emotional, finding the time etc, etc. But even with all that I will still not be paying for another tutor. At the moment wink

Elibean Thu 06-Dec-12 10:26:13

<waves at Castles, sends good luck to miniCastles, makes mental note to stick coffee in diary asap in NewYear!>

Copthall, you sound wise and experienced - I shall remember your advice (including Valium in Y5 tea grin).

I don't think many parents in dd1's state primary class will be thinking of private schools, so stress levels may be a little lower than they clearly are for some Richmond parents.

Tbh, I find the pressured, competitive stuff so disagreeable that I need a lot of convincing that its worth it - I think I would only put dd through it if the desire came from her (I will take her to look around a whole variety of school when she's in Y5).

Ironically, she is actually being tutored at the moment - not because we want her to go anywhere in particular, but because she had some gaps in her early maths which meant she was under-confident for her ability. She's flying as a result, in terms of her current Y4 class, but am sure she wouldn't be in selective test terms!

Needmoresleep Thu 06-Dec-12 15:02:40

I too loved the Valium in the Y5 tea. 11+ for us was pretty awful. Sudden realisation that daughter was dyslexic and likely to struggle with independent school English papers, but to late to do much about it.

In Year 3 she had told us that one of her classmates received tutoring on both Saturdays and Sundays. This enabled us to grimace when passing the brilliant project work "produced" by said child and prominently displayed in the school reception, but otherwise had dismissed it as a bit odd. Then a friend revealed she lived next door to someone who did tutoring and it was really interesting who she had seen entering the house.

DD ended up applying to quite a lot of schools (5 independent and two selective state - not much hope on the latter but one was only 10 mins walk away so we needed to know she had tried; I now resist the sour grapes temptation to write to the school complaining about behaviour of their pupils on the bus) and got two. Luckily the two she wanted most - perhaps schools are good at selecting.

Our focus was to enter the exam as confident and equipped as she could be. For English I strongly recommend the Galore Park book. We used it in all sorts of ways. Write an essay first thing on a Saturday for an hour before we go out. Put together five essay outlines, again within an hour. Since it was a textbook there was scope to use the class discussion topics in the car or at dinner. Her older brother was really helpful. Oddly family involvement seemed to share the load. The point was for her not to be stressed but to go into the exam able to do as well as she could.

Indies are far nicer to exam candidates than state. These are, after all, potential customers, likely to pick up preferences dependent on food or friendliness. To be honest my daughter enjoyed the day off school. Rather than take her back to school we went out for a pizza and indeed at one school met up with her friends and all went out together. The child who fared worse was the one who did not sleep the night before the exam.

The article is a bit of a composite. I think the police were called to Wallington Grammar a few years back to help with crowd control and we have come across some extreme anxiety and over-tutoring. Looking back brings a bit of perspective. Some over those over-tutored kids really go off the boil at the upper end of secondary. They are bright enough but have not learned to enjoy and engage in education for its own sake. A real pity given the fantastic opportunities offered by some of London's schools.

People also forget that West London has lots of very good schools, most appearing in National top 100 tables. Certainly several people I know have decided to by-pass some of the "top 10" schools in order to have their children avoid this extreme anxiety.

Almost everyone gets something. Ideally only apply to schools you like and dont set you heart on one. Have a solid Plan B. If it all goes pear-shaped, and this is really rare (there was the girl who got four wait-list places (none of which came through...) it may be for the best. One friend is really pleased that their son ended up out of the London rat-race and in a sporty boarding school where he has thrived, probably more so than if he had been squeezed into one of the day schools he had initially tried for.

Sorry all rather long. Good luck. Glad we dont do that again.

Copthallresident Thu 06-Dec-12 17:18:37

Elibean Not wise at all wink but experienced and with one now at uni and the other having just pitched out of a certain very selective girls school with rolling acres to sixth form in a urban coed, largely because of the bitching from a particularly nasty (and notorious) group of alpha girls who turned up there. It wasn't the schools fault, they could have turned up anywhere. GCSE results have plummeted them down the league tables this time too and teachers are tearing their hair out at finding themselves with sixth formers who don't want to learn (quite a lot of the ones who do having left ). It all rather makes a mockery of all that obsession with league tables, open days and desperation to get in. Funny thing is that DD1 walked in there and knew it was right and thrived, DD2 just wanted to go where big sis went but I felt where she has gone now felt right for her, tossed and turned the night before the letter of acceptance went in and dreamt the town centre school had rolling acres withy lovely kind sixth formers welcoming DD2 in!!! So I do know the getting in is the easy bit......

By the way both girls are dyslexic, DD2 got extra time at all indie entrance exams. They really do want the brightest rather than the ones that are tutored.

castlesintheair Thu 06-Dec-12 17:53:29

Elibean! I am really keen on a school that probably doesn't require much (or any) tutoring for your DDs if you are looking at private schools further down the line. I'll tell you about it when we meet. Soon!

Copthallresident, I really used to want to believe your last paragraph, probably in desperation and idealism, but after DS got turned down today for a highly selective school at the first round (which I expected) and his extremely highly tutored friend of equal ability (probably less in maths) got through, I suspect they don't really care if they are tutored or not, they just want the highest achievers at this stage. Sadly, I agree that many of these highly tutored children do go off the boil or just can't do it on their own: sometimes this doesn't become apparent until the first year at Oxbridge.

Arisbottle Thu 06-Dec-12 19:19:20

As usual on a thread about state schools or comprehensives the assumption is that all comprehensives are failing their children . Sure some are, but not all .

I teach in a comprehensive which in every year group has children that are there who were bright enough to go the the grammar but choosed to attend the comprehensive . This means that the situation is not the "norm" and therefore blanket statements about them do not apply. Many if those children are the children of teachers who could and probably would tutor if they thought there was any point. It speaks volumes that they choose not to take the grammar route .

Reading about parents taking delight in the fact that their child can rip the shit out of another child makes me even more certain that I have made the right choice for most of my children .

I clearly still to raw to be on a MN thread . Off to find a nice corner of MN or to pop a sleeper.

Arisbottle Thu 06-Dec-12 19:20:15

I have how posted on the wrong thread . I think the drugs have kicked in.

Copthallresident Fri 07-Dec-12 08:46:34

castlesintheair I am not sure how to take that comment. I do have two dyslexic DDs and DD2 did get extra time! I am sorry your son didn't get through the first round for one school, but really with all DDs' peers, although there were some that didn't get in everywhere, they did get in somewhere that suited them. There isn't any accounting for off days, or papers that don't suit. Maybe the tutored one had a good day, I assume second round is an interview? They learn a lot at interview.

The very selective boys and SPGS are a bit of an exception as well. They don't get a very high proportion of state school pupils, the boys schools because they are not geared to 11+ entry, so there just aren't many places. I did challenge SPGS about the low proportion of state school entry and they said they started at a high level of attainment and weren't prepared to help pupils catch up. It was one of the things that put DD off.

I did actually ask for feedback after they got in to their very selective school. DD1 because the Head of her International School wanted to benchmark their levels of attainment and DD2 because I was concerned she had scraped in. On both occasions they said it wasn't about there being a finishing post, that they looked at each child individually, they highlighted the DDs' strengths, which were all about their abilities, and commented that in the main the weaknesses were that they made silly mistakes (which is typically dyslexic, except that we didn't even know DD1 was dyslexic at that stage). Attainment really didn't come into it, and in IIIrds they went back over Year 6 again for consolidation.

I really don't think that anyone gets into Oxbridge these days that doesn't totally belong there, the issue is that so many bright pupils don't get in. It is so much more competitive than it was in the past. There is the odd course that is a relic from the past that isn't so popular but otherwise they really are struggling to distinguish between the very, very bright for entry. It's as hard to get into other elite unis now as it was to get into Oxbridge not so very long ago. One thing I found really reassuring was that wherever DD's peers went, state or private, they got to the unis that you would expect from their ability.

Muminwestlondon Fri 07-Dec-12 11:38:25

Perhaps I am cynical and think that hysterical articles like that contained in the opening post are a PR stunt to sell services or books to gullible parents.

My elder daughter applied to the selective independents in London about 7 years ago now: St Paul's, Godolphin, Notting Hill and Ealing etc and was offered places at each and it was a fairly civilised process. There were exams and interviews but it was as relaxed as possible in the circumstances. She also sat exams for Henrietta Barnett and a grammar in S/W London, which were less so. In the end she went to the latter where she is now in Sixth Form. We practiced at home with papers bought from WH Smith.

I do meet people who have tutored for years to get their daughters into the selective independents, but none have failed to get in somewhere. Sons seem less lucky for some reason. Perhaps because there are less places? I do wonder how effective the tutoring is.

As far as the super selectives go, I understand that you now have to be not only clever but tutored as it has become like an arms race, as "everyone" is now tutoring.

harrassedswlondonmum Fri 07-Dec-12 14:21:26

In the sort of area you refer to, Muminwestlondon, it is much harder for boys.

You have Westminster, Colet, Kings Wimbledon - which take only a few at 11, and are highly academic. Then there is Hampton. Then what? St James' is not for everyone, and a long way out now. Halliford is also a long way.

Then there are the more academic co-ed schools - eg Latymer, Kingston Grammar, where you boys are competing with girls for places.

For girls there is St Paul's/Putney/Wimbledon/Surbiton/LEH/Godolphin/NHEHS and probably others I have forgotten, which take a full cohort at 11. So the mathematics mean that there are a lot more spaces for girls!

I still maintain that there is no need for hysteria or frenzy as long as you have a range of realistic choices and back up options.

My bright but not genius children were at a good state school and had a small amount of tutoring. My daughter got offers from everywhere she applied and my son got offers from all but one. Between them that's 8 offers from 9 schools, 7 of which are named above. I genuinely don't know anyone who got nothing at all unless they only applied for one or two.

Lifeisontheup Mon 10-Dec-12 07:56:54

My DS went to very selective school in Surrey, no tutoring, turned up did the exam ,had a short interview with the head together with a couple of other boys then we picked him up. No drama, no fuss. Same with DD although her school is not quite so selective. I only entered them for one school each based on what we liked so no experience of other schools.

APMF Mon 10-Dec-12 08:18:56

We gave DS a mock paper at the end of year 5 at his state school. Based on that score (60%) my DS would have failed the 11+ if we hadn't tutored him during the summer break.Today he is at an indie ranked in the top 15 (Sunday Times) and is in the top third of his year with predicted GCSE grades of at least A in all his subjects.

I always thought of him as being quite bright but whenever I read someone post that their DC just turned up on the day with no tutoring I go - wow! that kid must really be bright.

LettyAshton Mon 10-Dec-12 13:44:26

I believe many people haven't tutored, but I bet they have practised . (Which in itself is a sort of reverse boast - saying that their family is clever enough to do its own coaching without the need to resort to outside help.)

I really do not believe that a child could walk in to an 11+ exam, having never seen those sort of questions before, and answer them all accurately and at speed.

Lifeisontheup Mon 10-Dec-12 13:54:11

I suppose mine did practise at school but not at home. What I'm saying is there wasn't the huge amount of hooha that appears in that article. It was all very low key and unstressed. I didn't get involved too much just drove them there and had a nice meal ready when they'd finished.

APMF Mon 10-Dec-12 14:14:52

Newspaper articles about families calmly rolling up to take the CE/11+ makes boring reading so they tend to dramatize it a bit.

Having said that DS came out of his maths test saying that it wasn't too bad but he was saying that a few kids were in tears.

Some kids are obviously pushed beyond their comfort level so exam time can be most stressful for both them and the parents but for us it was down to the local cake shop afterwards for a de-stressing hot chocolate and cream cakes smile

lurkingmum Mon 10-Dec-12 15:23:54

My dd and my best friend 's dd are in year 8 at a local selective. From my experience the part of OP is true. I always believe tutoring has a negatvie impact on a child' s ability. I may be wrong. My poor dd had no tutoring but some practice papers at home and one mock exam. On the exam day she came out in tears. She was absolutely in panic. On the contrary the friend's dd who was heavily tutored from age 7 came out with a big smile. Oh dear ! But in the end both got a place at the same school. My dd is doing extremely well and i am very proud of her.Now looking back, I can say to myself what's all the fuss about...

Copthallresident Mon 10-Dec-12 15:26:47

APMF It's a bit more than exaggerating to sell a few more newspapers, it's a book too. As I said earlier between the writers of these books and the tutors it is an industry that profits from a vortex of parental desperation that it helps create, along with competitiveness and some real anxiety. It really is crazy around here, with a ridiculous mystique built up around tutors. I know many many parents who in the aftermath can't quite believe they fell for it and put their children through what they did. I was lucky that first time around I wasn't in the country and second time around I knew from the other side how ridiculous all the Chinese whispers in the playground were.

If your child isn't at a school that prepares them for the exams then yes, some practise papers or some sessions with a tutor who will make it a positive experience but surely blatantly being crammed around some old mercenary bag's experienced tutor's kitchen table endlessly repeating practise papers for years is only going to be a negative, and even hated. And certainly you do not write in to your child's prep school when they are at the end of Year 5 and have not been made "Head Girl" that " She is a failure, where do we go from here?" ...........

APMF Mon 10-Dec-12 16:34:40

lurking: I agree that for some kids tutoring can be stressful. However, for some kids a lack of tutoring can be stressful as well.

In our case, our DCs had tackled past papers from various selectives from around the country. Come exam day there were questions they couldn't do but at least overall it wasn't a shock for them.

Elibean Tue 11-Dec-12 10:40:01

castles oooh! I am excited now. Will you pm/email/text me more? I know we're doomed not to meet till 2013 now, but not sure I can wait till then wink

Elibean Tue 11-Dec-12 10:41:20

ps sorry ds got turned down for that school - though am equally sure other, probably more interesting, schools will snap him up!

pumpum Fri 06-Feb-15 09:58:28

Hi I am thinking which one should my dd go if she is offered highgate and south hampstead

MarionHaste Fri 06-Feb-15 10:20:03

The thread title is misleading as the article is talking about both super selective grammar and independent schools. The grammar in question is clearly Tiffin Girls. It is massively oversubscribed, ten applicants for every place. There is no catchment area, so people come from miles away, some planning to move if they get a place. Everyone I know that got in was tutored, and why not, since the tests are not like anything the children have done before. They really do have police there on exam day. On the other hand, the independent schools are rarely such a scrum as people generally have a good selection of more local schools to choose from. It is true, though, that some of these schools are looking to fill places in their orchestras. I know of one which actively scouts for musical talent abroad!

Teddingtonmum1 Fri 06-Feb-15 18:46:33

I lost my mind for a moment during the 11 plus debacle, the only reason I didn't get a tutor was because I couldn't afford it. So I had no choice but to do it myself. Plenty of parents at DS primary were being tutored def in year 4/5. Don't know about the rest of the country but London is NUTS. Heard nothing else on the playground in year 6 except for parents slyly trying to find out who was sitting for what schools. My DS got Reeds and I we both cried when the letter hit the mat out of sheer relief. wouldn't do it again for all the tea in china.

Fugacity Fri 06-Feb-15 18:50:18

All five of mine went to selective independent schools, but i have lost any will to wade through the OP.

MrsCakesPrecognition Fri 06-Feb-15 18:58:15

"Jane" hypes up parental panic, tells everyone tge 11+ is some sort of Mad Max nightmare and battlefield...and the solution is to buy her book. Exploiting other people's fears for her own financial gain...vile.

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