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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

Fleecyleesy Mon 11-May-15 23:04:01

My friend moved away from a particular area of London as she did not want to put her ds and dd through this sort of stress. I think it is a London thing and simply a consequence of there not being enough places for the huge demand.

NW7Ranter Mon 11-May-15 22:55:31

Lots of information on the DPA here

Broadly the school providing the reference has an exemption under the DPA and doesn't have to send it to you. But the receiving school is not covered by the exemption so you could make a subject access request to them. They can charge up to £10 to provide the information.

Rostrevor Mon 11-May-15 20:38:01

Does anyone know we are allowed to see the school report from one independent school to another on your daughter as part of the 11 plus entrance exam process? The school is saying it is confidential. I wondered whether data protection applies?

Gracegrapecherry Sat 21-Feb-15 03:40:27

Well looking at the first few lines, I have to disagree on that newspaper... my child was offered a scholarship at a private school and she said it wasn't that horrible... it was just more studying than usual.

notquiteruralbliss Sun 08-Feb-15 18:45:52

This is one of the reasons we left London despite DD1 being offered a place at a North London super selective (we only applied to one school and she sat the exam having done no preparation other than the practice paper they supplied).

Having seen how many children had sat the exam(and realised that their sibling policy only came into force if there was a dead heat between 2 sets of results) there was no way we would have risked the same casual approach with the younger DCs but there was also no way we would have put them through several years of tutoring and / or a stressful scramble for a secondary place.

Caronaim Sat 07-Feb-15 08:58:08

DC are in London Grammar schools, they worked hard on practice papers at home, (no tutoring) they took three 11+ exams, two for real, one mock. The atmosphere was nerve wracking and serious, but also friendly and chatty. We went by bus, and met many other parents and children on the bus, one of whom we are still in touch with years later! There was no competition between friends, we all hoped all our Dc would pass. The days we went out for the exams we got together and treated the children to pizza when they had finished.

Above all, we emphasised over and over again that passing or failing DID NOT MATTER, and getting a mark which reflected your CURRENT BEST was what mattered, and if you currently were working below grammar school level, then as long as you had done your best, the best outcome for you would be to attend a non selective school, and also that the 11+ did not define your ability for ever, just at that one stage in your life.

DC passes, some of their friends passed, some failed, some who failed and went to local non selective schools are achieving higher there than DC did at Grammar school.

DS best friend scored exceptionally highly at 11+ but now has dropped out of school altogether at 15, with no qualifications. His parents ae now trying to persuade him to go to the local comp, just to attempt to get a C in English and maths.

All the DC are still friends. I am glad my DS in particular is in a grammar school, because it is stricter, and he needs to be kicked up the bum, he is a lazy so and so. I think he will do better there than at a comp, but if your child is self disciplined and motivated, it makes less difference.

18yearstooold Fri 06-Feb-15 20:53:03

When dd applied, I took her, they did an English exam then had hot chocolate and cake, then they did a maths exam, then they had lunch -she met some people she liked, apparently everyone was lovely, they played some games then did a NVR paper then came home

They children that had achieved the pass mark were brought in for interview 4 weeks later with the head of department of either maths or English depending on which area they scored lower on

Dd chatted about her favourite book and that was pretty much it

We did no tutoring or exam practise, just rolled up on the morning

Ended up turning down the place as dd was accepted to our preference local school (the year before she wouldn't have which is why we explored the private route)

pineapplechick Fri 06-Feb-15 20:20:48

In a word? NO! This is exactly why we chose to go private - what's described in the article relates to the hysteria of the few grammar (state) schools in SW London.

Medoc Fri 06-Feb-15 19:11:21

Zombie thread folks!

MrsCakesPrecognition Fri 06-Feb-15 19:05:05


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.

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.

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.

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!

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

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!

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

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.

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?" ...........

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...

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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