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How to prepare a state school child for highly selective London private day school entrance.

(14 Posts)
SummerMonths Mon 01-Feb-16 15:21:33

I have a year 5 daughter at a decent state primary. Would like to send her to a private secondary but a local one and we live in west London so it happens that our local private secondaries are ridiculously competitive. DD is bright but not prodigy material. We found a good local tutor who she sees once a week to do practise papers and we talk her through bits she finds difficult. We also encourage her in her extra curricular activities and she swims for a squad and is about to take grade 2 piano.

I was feeling fine about all this until I met some prep school mums this weekend. They were talking about how their daughters will stay an extra hour a day at school every day to do practise papers. How the school does nothing but prepare their kids for entrance exams for all of Y5. How they will do three hours of practise each day in the summer holidays leading up to y6 and how extra curricula is pointless unless you are above grade 4 music or an amazing athlete. These mum's talked about giving up extra curricula stuff so their daughters could study more as really it's only academia that counts.

Is this all true? Is it stupid to think that my nicely rounded DD will do ok with one hour a week tutoring and us encouraging her when she finds things difficult? I suddenly feel v naive as when I wrote this down I feel like of course she has no chance against girls tutored all day every day for a year.

alejandro Mon 01-Feb-16 16:03:44

You’re describing our situation almost exactly. Currently in the process for our DD who is top set at her (OK but nothing fantastic) state primary. Reasonably bright, but not the Grade 7 Piano, Olympic swimmer, Level 6 English/Maths kid that you seem to hear about in those type of conversations.

Long ramble incoming (apologies!) but these are things I wished I had read a year ago, so hopefully that’s helpful to you or other lurkers in the thread. It’s not easy (and please, please, do not listen to the “you can get in there while having been untutored” crowd), but I sincerely believe that the law of diminishing returns apply at some point.

DD saw someone externally (mostly because DIY wasn’t working for us character-wise IYSWIM) for an hour a week for the entirety of Year 5, plus some preparation ahead of the lesson, so call it 2 hours a week. She did some extra in the summer (say 45-50 mins a day in Aug, but no vacation sacrifice) for grammar exams in September (which she did not pass), and back to the 1h a week tutor routine in the fall. During Xmas, we focused on exam practice (facilitated by the fact that she only sat the North London Consortium which is very transparent about past exams, but DD has done a few Manchester Grammar Exams for extra stretching in the last month). There again, nothing too crazy, one paper a day, sometimes two, but never more than that. We don’t know yet that she’ll get firm offers but she’s landed interviews at every place we’ve applied for.

IMHO it’s easy to get carried away in the arms race because it is indeed quite a competitive field, but it is probably not as competitive as some people will claim it is. Coming from state school, what one needs to focus on is to make sure that KS2 subjects/topics that haven’t been seen at school yet are covered and that the child is comfortable with. That is sometimes a lot, but it’s not insurmountable either. Then, focus on exam practice (which is where I believe we have failed DD at the grammar stage) because state primaries simply do not prepare them for being efficient with time, show the work for extra points even when you don’t know or are unsure of the answer and be overall at ease with the process even when faced with stretched questions.

Last point: we’ve found that there is a lot of scaremongering about target scores in past exams practice (to the effect of “pass mark for school X is at least 90-95%!!”). We obviously do not know DD's exact marks on the day, but this is not where she was, even on the weeks prior to the exams.

milkshake123 Mon 01-Feb-16 16:36:50

There's an all girls prep school near me OP that subject their girls to exactly the regime you describe. Poor kids. No actual learning then, just passing maths and english exams. Mine went to a coed non selective prep and passed entrance exams to selective schools. Don't get sucked in - continue with your tutor to ensure the syllabus is covered in time, keep your DD reading as much as possible, encourage her to do some past papers (the secondaries all publish past papers on their websites), purchase some VR/NVR papers if these are required and work steadily through the year. Really go for it in the first term of year 6, get some friends to give her some mock interviews, work hard in the Xmas holidays so she's peaking in the first couple of weeks of Jan. Good luck.

Noitsnotteatimeyet Mon 01-Feb-16 17:33:57

That is completely ott and unnecessary... If you think about it logically there simply aren't enough prodigiously talented academic geniuses whose parents can also afford the fees to fill all these schools

My DC are at/have gone to academically selective secondaries, one from a very ordinary state primary and one from a non-selective prep. They're both bright all-rounders who have (had) plenty to offer their school but we didn't do anything like that much preparation

They've been comfortably in the top quartile of their secondaries so plenty of less academic children must have got in too...

Make sure your dd reads and reads and does stuff she enjoys - that way she'll have plenty of things to talk about at interview

AnotherNewt Mon 01-Feb-16 17:59:10

It's gone a bit crazy in London in the last 2-3 years, all schools are oversubscribed, and although some of the increase is down to parents applying for more schools (the 2/3/4 of even a few years ago is now 4/5/6) there are also just more children. The increase in school places hasn't matched that, and the demographic trend will probably be getting more adverse for a few years to come.

But yes of course private schools have plenty of joiners from the state sector.

Yes, some preps can be extremely exam focussed, others aren't, but yes parents at both tutor in addition to what the school provides. And of course the school's curriculum will have covered everything that needs to be covered in time.

So if not coming from a prep, you need to look very closely at what the school says about its exams and the syllabus for it. It is definitely worth coaching (whether by a parent or a tutor) in exam technique. Schools (at least some of them) say they make allowances for state school candidates not having covered the whole syllabus by exam date, but if you don't want to rely on that then the alternative is to identify the gaps and have tutoring in those specific topics.

Work through the Bond books for VR/NVR - everyone does. Also consider subscribing to First News and get her into the habit of talking about what she reads.

And yes to keeping it in proportion. Your DC needs a life beyond the exam treadmill (because it just makes it all far too stressful for them). To keep their and your stress levels down, you need to keep telling them that this is just one set of options, there are others and the right one will turn up.

neuroticnicky Mon 01-Feb-16 18:42:49

I know plenty of girls at state primary schools who have got into the leading West London schools within the last year including SPGS, LU, G&L, LEH etc. The 11 plus is basically only Maths and English although some schools also have a bit of verbal/ non verbal reasoning and SPGS has an extra paper plus a computer pre-test to see if you are bright enough to do their exam!. State primary school pupils are therefore not at much of a disadvantage if they prepare for the 11 plus properly.

I think there is a tendency among some state school parents to think that children at the preps are brighter than they actually are whereas in my experience the type of state primary girl applying for a private school is normally near the top of her year and brighter than the average prep school girl. Most state school parents start by getting their DD to do a couple of hours a week in year 5 (either with their parents or a tutor) with a view to ensuring that by around the November half term in year 6 their DD can do past papers within the requisite timeframe so that the last couple of months are spent simply doing more past papers and trying to improve scores. In my experience the trickiest part to prepare for is the writing section of the English exam as the maths and comprehension are fairly straightforward. It may be that your DD could up her tuition from one hour a week to two which isn’t that hard in the state sector as there is normally very little homework. It is also as OP says a good idea to get her reading a kids newspaper like First News (the Week has also launched a junior version I think).

I wouldn’t worry too much about extra-curricular- the better West London secondary schools are so exam driven these days that they are not really concerned about extra-curricular unless you are applying for a music scholarship when your DD will probably need to be grades 6-8 to even get an audition (and some schools don’t even consider e.g. pianists for a music scholarship as they want people who will be in the school orchestra to make the school look good). You can just put normal hobbies like music, singing, drama, sport etc. fairly safe in the knowledge that they will be ignored.

Funandgamesandfun Mon 01-Feb-16 20:04:57

My middle one is year 5 in a prep. They are NOT doing exam practice day in and day out. They are finishing the maths curriculum and have just started on proper full length comprehensions. They are doing a lot of different kinds of writing and identifying genres as well as expanding their vocabulary. They have not done any full papers or timings and won't do so until the summer holidays. The first term of year 6 will be extremely intensive.

However, they are also doing loads of fun stuff, preparing assemblies, writing history plays, doing experiments etc.

She has a place at an outstanding state secondary as a sibling and therefore I'm more relaxed than many other parents although she will sit for 2 selective schools but I pay the prep school a bloody fortune, I expect them to get her ready for the exams and I'm certainly not putting her life on hold in the interim.

SummerMonths Tue 02-Feb-16 09:10:03

Thank you all. It's reassuring to hear we are probably doing the right stuff: we do Bond book practise on top of the tutor, we encourage lots of reading, she already subscribed to First News. We will definitely try practise papers nearer the time.

Can I ask about interviews? How much weight is given to interview vs exam? DD is quite shy and prone to clamming-up around strangers. What do they ask at interview? Are there sites where people share recently asked questions? Is it mainly oral maths testing or is it current affairs or chat about extra curricula? What are they checking at interview?

Unfortunately my daughter is focused on SPGS having been invited to a summer school programme they ran for state school girls at the end of Y4. She just loved it there & has talked about it ever since. I don't think she is SPGS material as although she's bright she's not exceptional. My challenge is finding another school where she stands a chance and where I can refocus her attentions.

neuroticnicky Tue 02-Feb-16 11:40:55

If your DD is applying for SPGS then make sure she prepares for the online verbal/non verbal reasoning computer test properly. There is a tendency to treat this lightly but I have known a few girls who I thought would get into SPGS get eliminated after the computer test. If she is not SPGS material then the next choice would normally be G&L if you want a single sex school in the area.

The interviews tend to vary depending on the individual school applied for.For some schools it seems almost an extension of the exam with mental maths questions or being asked to read a passage etc.For others it can be a casual chat about hobbies. Some do ask about current events in a non threatening way (eg tell me about a recent story in the news) or (SHHS) show you a picture and ask you to describe what's going on.

Whatever the schools say , I suspect the interviews don't carry much weight unless a child is either very borderline or comes across in the interview as being particularly obnoxious -being shy is fine as long as she is polite!

ASingleJourney Tue 02-Feb-16 16:53:50

Don't be scared by the prep schools - girls at SPGS come from a variety of schools and followed different approaches (including DIY and other less extreme methods) to prepare for the school's exam.

Agree with neuroticnicky that SPGS's computer test shouldn't be taken lightly. Shy is also not a problem (a fair number of those at SPGS, including my DD) but important to show enthusiasm for learning during the interview.

I would suggest moving beyond Bond books before the end of Y5 - it is generally agreed that they are not sufficiently challenging preparation for the more selective independent schools. Try CGP and S&S practice books and past years' exams from different schools (Manchester Grammar School's exams are particularly good prep for the more selective independent schools).

It would also be helpful for your DD to start following current affairs (via newspaper articles) and for you/OH to discuss them with her (need not be so in-depth, though).

MrsSteptoe Wed 03-Feb-16 10:55:44

Bit late to the party, but here is my two pennorth. I could have written your post. In fact, I did write your post, with added tears, about two years ago, and about my DS.

If you're sensitive and a worrier, try not to spend too much time comparing your preparations with what they do in prep schools. It's really easy to get overwhelmed by the sense that you are somehow ignorant of what you're meant to be doing, and that prep school parents all Know What To Do and You Don't. Prep school parents, I suspect, are all simmering in an environment where they're all applying to the same small number of schools, so I imagine it gets very intense. If you're absorbing all that competitive hype, but your child isn't getting the same school-based preparation, then you're going to absolutely peg out from stress.

I remain convinced that DS was judged firmly in context when up against a boy from a prep school. Must have been, because there was definitely a gap in polish and achievement. He didn't have any achievements! I would also say that he's bright but no prodigy, so perhaps intellectually similar to your DD.

I worried about his lack of extra curricular activities, but I believe the schools all took a wide interpretation of the phrase. He was practising for Grade 2 sax at the time, and I've no idea if it made any difference between offering a place to him or the next boy. However, it made us feel better as parents, which is really important too, if only so you don't transmit negativity. We forced him to get through a few books he could talk about at interview. He did a Saturday football kickabout. That was it - no language classes, no gym squad, no swimming galas, no rugby, no cricket, no tennis. Every interviewer (five schools) told us that he'd talked almost exclusively about making movies with his Lego figures on his iPod. I'm honestly not showing off - I'm not! - when I say that they all offered him a place, so they clearly didn't expect him to be doing an extra curricular activity every flipping day, or to have certificates coming out of his ears.

We didn't wind him up too much about the interview with lots of practice or nagging about eye contact, and we didn't send him to a tutor for "interview practice". You will find that Mumsnetters start posting the questions that are doing the rounds. But in my very limited experience of one boy who, far from simply ADORING learning, plods whiningly around museums like he's going to have a root canal, I can only assume that they know how to get the best out of kids, and we kept telling ourselves to trust the system. In retrospect, it was a useful mantra, though that's easy to say once it's in the past!

Mumsnet tipped me off to a couple of schools that I didn't know about, which was incredibly useful. DS had his heart set on the first school he saw... till he saw the second. Show your DD enough, and she may not be too obsessed with SPGS. Like you, we were realistic enough to know that DS was not going to get into Westminster or St Paul's.

We applied to five schools and were concerned that we were overdoing it. Going by what people seem to be saying now, that's become the norm. We applied to an ability range, from St Benedict's in Ealing to Alleyn's. (St Benedict were operating to a mandate to try to attract more baptised Catholics, which may or may not help you?)

Finally, we applied to some grammar schools in the run-up to the independents, thinking it would be good practice. He passed the initial selection hurdle to allow him to take the schools' individual entrance exams, but didn't pass any of the exams proper. It shattered everyone's confidence: his, mine, and DH's. I will never forget his little face in the bath asking me if he passed, and then, knowing he'd failed, if his friend had passed (he had). The only good thing is that it nudged us into firing our ineffective English tutor and getting a last-minute (although expensive) English tutor of inspirational brilliance who transformed the substance of his English in about eight weeks, albeit with a lot of co-work from me at home.

Sorry, really hideously long post with lots of probably redundant information that other people have already said in far fewer paragraphs. But I really wish I could make you feel better. I just wanted to emphasise that my state primary, bright, no-special-interests-or-talents-at-this-stage boy came through this wretched process. (His reports in Year 8 had best remain undisclosed, however. blush) Good luck!

MrsSteptoe Wed 03-Feb-16 11:09:47

Oh, and BTW (God, I'm sorry, I just can't help myself, STOP WRITING) - he had an hour's English and an hour's maths tutoring on alternate weeks for year 5. Stepped it up to an hour in each a week in year 6. We had to do an emergency English intervention at the last minute, and did a lot of practice papers in both subjects in year 6. So you sound like you're doing what we did, but you will need to step it up with practice papers at some point and don't neglect VR and NVR. Like other parents said, dump Bond in favour of more rigorous papers.

Eastpoint Wed 03-Feb-16 11:16:17

Talk to the admissions department staff at the schools you are interested in for your daughter. I spoke to one last week and she said she loves the interview period as they have been engaged with some of the girls for three years and it's so exciting to see them come in, they have an outreach programme to try to broaden access.

Greenleave Wed 03-Feb-16 12:39:47

I wish there is a button for like in each post then if I could I will hit it a thousand times for posts like Mrssteptoe above

I am alway blaming myself for not giving my daughter as much support as most of my friends who stay at home or work part time as I work full time and very long hours and had to come back after only 4 months mat leave. I didnt try very much to help or know what did she do in reception until by beg of yr 1 then I realised I never knew what date to return the reading books, what date to return homework as what tree book band colour my daughter was in. I was even more panic when I found out good tutors are all fully booked from reception. I didnt trust my friends who said her daughter didnt do much and passed 2 top supper selective grammars and her son is super relaxed when it turned out her son had tutor from yr 4, doing past papers almost everyday. Its a WAR!!!

The only thing I know we are ok is my daughter is taking lots of extra curr activities as she loves doibg them and doing them well.

Then I started to learn to know how she is doing and try to give her as much encouragement as I could. I still dont remember the book colour but she was off the oxford tree before yr2 and read books like Harry Porters summer before starting yr3, all 7 books and thoroughly enjoyed them. She is really into readings now that I have to ask our nanny to stop her and always make sure she has enough light, sitting upright.

She is good at maths naturally so I am a little less worried about this.

We still have couple of yrs till 11+ and only found 1 tutor from our kind neighbor who she will have to pass a test to be able to start at yr 5. Many of my friends who live in North London and Sutton have a tutor booked starting from yr4. We havent found one we think is worth sending her from yr4 yet however if we could then she will go. In general I think tutor also help them to master their maths and english better so there isnt much harm here if you dont over do it. We might have to drop some extra curr activities when its time for 11+ as she is very busy now I dont think she has anytime fit anything else in.

Thats all about us yr living in sw london and have only tiffin as a grammar school

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