Advice for Parents Switching from the State Sector

Independent Junction



A meeting place for parents and prospective parents of children in the independent school sector in the UK

15 Tips for Parents Switching from the State to the Independent Sector

For some children, the difficulty of succeeding in the 11+ exams is increased by the fact that they do not have others around them with experience of them.
The following advice is drawn from Chapter Eight of The 11+ and 13+ Handbook, by Victoria Barker.

  1. Some state schools have little experience of sending children to independent schools. While the staff at these schools may be able to give general advice, they may not be able to offer specific advice on particular schools. In this case, assume that you will need to do the research yourself and rely on your own judgement. You need to be careful with your research, because any misunderstandings will not be rectified at the school gate, if others are not also applying for independent schools.
  2. It is important to appreciate that the state primary school in Britain is not designed to educate a child to the level required to excel in the standard 11+ entry exam for independent schools. The state sector aims to achieve a Level 4 or above for every child in Year 6 National Curriculum tests (or SATs). By contrast, many of the questions in the 11+ independent school exams are at the higher end of Level 5. You do not need to be familiar with this rating system, but merely note that the level of the 11+ testing is higher - and sometimes far higher - than is expected in state primaries. Even if your child is clever, extra work will be needed to get him or her to this higher level.
  3. The good news is that, in all likelihood, you do not need to employ a tutor to get your child to the level required to succeed in the 11+ exams. If you have a reasonable level of English and some skill in Maths, you can work out what needs to be done at home and work through the material with your child. You do not even need to buy material; there is a great deal of free material on this website, on the sites listed on the resources pages, and hundreds of links to specimen papers. By all means, employ a tutor if you wish. A few months of tutoring will rarely be a waste of money. However, it is expensive and involves work that, in many cases, can be done by you with some research and preparation. What is more important is that you take an active interest in what your child is doing and become involved in the entire 11+ process. The children who do best in school are those whose parents are actively involved in their education.
  4. There are many criteria involved in making the choice as to which school is right for your child: location, facilities, atmosphere, academic level, etc. Visit a number of schools to get a feel for how they differ. The overarching consideration will be the academic level of the schools that you are interested in, but it is only one of many considerations. Do not assume that your child should go to the most academic school available, nor that you should accept a place at a more academic school just because it is offered. Your child may do better at a less academic school which suits your child on other grounds. It is up to you alone to decide which criteria are the most important to you in your choice of school.
  5. Most parents apply to a number of schools at 11+. It is advisable to apply to several schools with a spread of academic levels. It is not generally worth applying to a great number of schools at the same level of selectivity. Although there is some luck involved in any application, if you do not win a place at one highly selective school, the odds are that you will probably not gain entry into another of the same level of academic competitiveness. As far as academic selectivity is concerned, the quickest way to gauge this is to look at the position of the schools on the league tables. The position on the league table roughly corresponds to the level of competitiveness for entry to the school. There may, however, be other factors affecting competitiveness: the school's general reputation, the availability of other schools in the area, the quality of facilities, prestige and so on.
  6. Because the exams are competitive, your chances of success depend on the number of other children applying to the same school. You can ask the Registrar or Admissions Staff how many applications the school usually receives. That said, it is important not to be put off by the numbers of children who apply to a given school. In London, for example, there are frequently several hundred children applying to schools that may have only 30-50 places to fill. The situation is not as bleak as it looks, however, because many of those children will have made applications to 3 or 4 schools - and some, to many more. This opens the field considerably. The reality is that the vast majority of children receive acceptances from more than one of the schools they have applied to. Make sure you apply to at least one school with a reasonably large intake of children, to maximise your chances of gaining a place.
  7. Be careful not apply to too many schools because it will overload your child with too many exams and interviews. Your child may 'burn out' and not perform well in the exam for the very school you have the highest hopes for. Different children have different tolerance levels, but it is not reasonable for a child to be sitting more than half a dozen exams. That said, it would be better if the exam for your first choice of school were not the first exam your child sits. Most children from state primaries have little experience of exam procedures (unlike your competitors from the prep schools), and this may make their first exam more difficult. The dates of the exams are posted well in advance. If possible, organise for your child to sit an exam before the exam for your favoured school - even if it is for a school that you are not greatly interested in. (If there is a selective state school in your area, the examinations for these schools often occur prior to the independent school exams and so may constitute good practice.)
  8. It is very important to establish exactly what is needed at each step of the application process in terms of preparation. The schools have very different admissions procedures and the dates of registration differ. The most competitive schools sometimes have a pre-selection process (often, a general reasoning test and/or an interview) well before the 11+ exam to sift out the field of applicants. Make sure you know what is involved in each step of the process and prepare your child for each and every step. Do not assume that his/her natural confidence will get him/her through an interview, for example. These interviews can include questions which would stump you, let alone a ten or eleven year old. Also, make sure to book for the school visits early. They often book out and it is important for your child to visit the school so that they can talk at the interview about why they wish to be accepted for the school.
  9. Entry levels at independent schools differ widely. A rough guide seems to be that the mark achieved by children entering the independent sector range from 60% to 95%, depending on whether the school is highly academically selective or not. The most academically selective schools expect 90% or above of their students in the 11+ exams, with scholarship students scoring well into the 90s. Generally speaking, if you want to be confident of entry into an independent school, you should be aiming to achieve 75-80% or above in the specimen exam papers leading up to the exam. Look in the resource section of this website for these papers.
  10. How much work is required to get your child from the level taught at your state primary to the level expected at the 11+? Obviously, it depends on your child, the level they are at and how quick they are to learn. It is worth establishing at least six months prior to the exams what is required for the schools you are applying for and how you plan to proceed. If you start well in advance, up to half an hour of work extra on school nights and an hour on the weekend is not unreasonable. If you start preparing less than six months prior, your child may need to spend up to an hour per night on exam preparation. Whichever way you choose, by the time the exams are looming, your child should be fully capable of sitting a specimen exam paper (of 50-70 mins) several times per week. They will need this practice to build their concentration span, so that they can easily concentrate for the full course of an 11+ exam.
  11. A warning: if you look at the specimen exam papers a year in advance, you will probably be horrified at how difficult they are. Do not fret: a child can cover an enormous amount of ground in the space of one year. As your preparation proceeds, you will find that what at first looked utterly unachievable becomes progressively less so.
  12. The most intractable difficulty that you may find in moving from the state to the independent sector is this: some state school teachers and heads can demonstrate an antipathy (however slight) to the independent school sector and may express this in their treatment of your applications to these schools. At the very least, they may be miffed about the extra work of writing references for your child (work not required for children remaining within the state sector). If you are applying to a number of schools, this is a number of sets of detailed forms. It may appear to be quite a lot of work to a busy teacher.
    You need to establish that the school will support your application to an independent school and that the teacher is prepared to write a positive reference for your child. The reference is confidential, but you can still discuss with them what they might be likely to say about your child. Point out that entry to these schools is often highly competitive and that your child will not succeed without their support. (They may not be aware of this.) At the very least, you need to warn both teacher and head that these forms will be coming and that you are grateful for the time that they will put into filling them out. Remember that a prep school’s reputation depends on which secondary schools it gets its pupils into and, thus, prep schools write glowing references for their children, in the hope of getting them into the best schools; it reflects well on them. There is no such advantage to a state school to putting in the work required to get your child into a good independent school. They will only do it because they want to.
  13. Do not be afraid to apply for a scholarship. It will not spoil your chances of being accepted at the school if you do not succeed. Similarly, do not be afraid to apply for a bursary, if you meet the criteria. The schools are actively looking for good students to give bursaries to and actively encourage students to apply. It is surprising how few parents avail themselves of this offer.
  14. Do not be put off applying to an independent school on the basis that your child will be unlike the other children in the class because you are not as wealthy (or as ... whatever else) as other families. Most independent schools have a great range of children, of diverse backgrounds, nationalities, levels of privilege and so on. If your child succeeds at that school, your wealth (or lack of it) will not be an issue.
  15. Join the forums on this or other websites to get an idea of the interests and concerns affecting other parents applying for independent schools. There is a great deal that you can learn about what to look for in a school and how to go about the entire application process. In addition, it can make the process a great deal less lonely when you can share your thoughts with others who have similar worries and concerns as you.

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