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Is entry to independent school really like this?

134 replies

headfairy · 29/11/2012 18:43

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

OP posts:
pastoralacademia · 29/11/2012 18:58

May Contain Nuts by John O'Farrell

headfairy · 29/11/2012 19:00

Huh? Grin

OP posts:
pastoralacademia · 29/11/2012 19:01

The book I have mentioned describes exactly that...

Floggingmolly · 29/11/2012 19:03

There are no grammar schools in West London.

headfairy · 29/11/2012 19:04

Oh I see, so it's not that far fetched then? (The article I mean)

OP posts:
Pagwatch · 29/11/2012 19:05

No. Not in my experience and DS1 went to a top ranked independent.
He turned up and did a couple of exams , met some boys he liked and some he didn't then had an interview with a small panel of tutors.
We went and did one shopping and had some lunch before picking him up.

He didn't play an instrument, was fairly quiet and never had a minutes tuition.

You cn chose to behave like a nutter if you want. I have seen a couple of parents chose to. They were the parents who then went to see the Head to suggest that their boy should be Head

Pagwatch · 29/11/2012 19:06

Perhaps it is location specific?

Bunbaker · 29/11/2012 19:10

Not round here. I assume you mean private, fee paying schools?

DD sat the exam and was offered a place at a high achieving independent girls school. She did a few non verbal reasoning exercises that I found online, but had no tutoring. We declined the offer because we had insufficient income and had been refused a bursary. At no point was an interview required, nor did we become neurotic about it all.

I think that as we live in an area that isn't terribly affluent the competition isn't that fierce for independent school places, and I heard that this year's intake for said school was much smaller - no doubt due to the current economic climate.

pastoralacademia · 29/11/2012 19:12

Not in my experience either but I have heard of similar stories re a Grammar School in London.

exoticfruits · 29/11/2012 19:12

It was London- I expect that it is- judging by posts on MN!

Bunbaker · 29/11/2012 19:15

We are in South Yorkshire BTW and the school is in West Yorkshire.

harrassedswlondonmum · 29/11/2012 19:15

If you think it's that stressful for girls, try getting a place for a boy in W or SW London!! My username was born when I first found mumsnet, going through the process two years ago for my oldest boy.

Don't get sucked into the frenzy - if you apply to a sensible range of private schools you will most likely get into one or more - remember most children sit at least 4 private school exams.

If you over-tutor you risk getting children into schools beyond their capability. Tutoring should be used for exam technique and question practice and to make sure they have covered the syllabus in time - not for hot-housing!

muppet1969 · 29/11/2012 19:15

This is so totally removed from our experience to be laughable. Although she went to a private primary and they did do some practice papers it was CERTAINLY not every day and only a couple over the xmas holidays, no tutoring outside school and my child passed all the exams we put her in for with a scholarship, to very competitive schools in south london. It IS totally possible not to get in a complete state about it. I also teach at a state primary and absolutely know that there are kids who get in with very little outside help. Some are heavily tutored but it is by no means necessary. A bit of practice on exam technique and VR is all that is needed if a child is bright enough. I am almost never surprised by the children from my class who don't get in, despite the tutoring. Ditto, the children who DO get in, often without.

Alibabaandthe40nappies · 29/11/2012 19:17

I guess in London it can be a scrum, because people are so unsure of getting a reasonable state school place.

It sounds hideous though, and will a child that has been put through all that like a bloody performing animal actually do well in a very selective environment?

harrassedswlondonmum · 29/11/2012 19:17

Should have said "most children in this area" sit at least 4 exams...

There are a lot of private schools round here!

helpyourself · 29/11/2012 19:19

There's a lot of hype. I think the schools encourage it TBH. If, as a parent you don't go completely batshit crazy over the whole palaver, obsessing about every grade and not discussing anything else, it's assumed you are secretly cramming. Hmm
And it's a London thing.

MoreBeta · 29/11/2012 19:20

In London it is like that in the most selective schools - not in the rest of the country though.

DS2 will be doing entrance exams in February and to him it will be just like any other day at school with a test on Maths and English. This is a fairly selective school as well.

scarlettsmummy2 · 29/11/2012 19:22

It's like that in northern Ireland and has been for years!

exoticfruits · 29/11/2012 19:23

It is London and 11+ areas. We have never had to get involved with comprehensive education. It is definitely very common if you read much on MN- especially when people are serious in wanting a tutor for a 3yr old!!

suburbandream · 29/11/2012 19:24

Yes in some schools in ondon it can be like that sadly. Not good for kids, parents or the schools

exoticfruits · 29/11/2012 19:24

The church going parent is equally as serious in some areas.

exoticfruits · 29/11/2012 19:25

It is terrible for them all! I wish that they could devise a test that every DC sat cold.

diabolo · 29/11/2012 19:26

I really think it is like that in some specific parts of the UK. Either where competition is fierce for massively oversubscribed top 50 independents in wealthy parts of London and areas that still have grammar schools.

Certainly, out in the sticks where I am, I only know of 1 person paying for private tuition (and that is to go from our non-selective Prep to a highly selective top 20 day school).

headfairy · 29/11/2012 19:52

Wow! How depressing :( I think my sister is being sucked in to the hysteria, but then she's in SW London so perhaps it's in the by laws Grin We were having a discussion argument recently about the hysteria surrounding exactly this sort of thing. I rather naively breezily declared I would never tutor ds, if he was smart enough for grammar school then he shouldn't need tutoring. My sister looked at me as though I was mad! Perhaps I owe her an apology? We live in East Surrey so I reckon it's probably just as bad around here worse luck.

OP posts:
eatyourveg · 29/11/2012 20:04

My first thoughts were "May Contain Nuts" too

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