Family Hub 19 April 2000


Head Jane Gandee and Head of Prep Jonathan Brough at St Swithun’s Girls’ boarding school in Winchester talk about the decision parents make as to the entry point their child will make into senior school.

Why might parents choose 11+ or 13+ entry into schools?

Where a senior school offers both 11+ and 13+ entry, the decision as to the entry point can be a difficult one. Although you might imagine that this is an individual decision taken by a child’s parents independently, in practice that isn’t always the case. I have seen some parents have a decision thrust upon them by other people’s choices, most often where a significant percentage of the year group seems to be leaving a prep school at 11, thus making a parent concerned about the quality of the experience for their child in years 7 and 8.

My general advice to parents who apply for St Swithun’s is that we are happy to take their daughter at either 11+ or 13+ so the decision must always be what is right for the child. However, not all senior schools are able to have such an accommodating attitude, so it is important first to check on the policy of your chosen senior school. It may be that their response encourages you in a certain direction.

If we assume that they are happy to offer a place at either 11+ or 13+, my view is that if your child is happy and making good progress at their prep school, it is usually beneficial to stay to the end of the prep school. All sorts of positions of responsibility and leadership opportunities become available in Year 8 for example, and there will be enjoyable rites of passage. The oldest pupils in the school will have been acting as role models to younger children ever since they joined the school; it would be an enormous shame to deny anyone their opportunity to rise to the top and achieve aspirations that may have been forming over several years.

What concerns do parents commonly have around 11+ and 13+?

Some parents worry about their children making friends. If a school has a bigger intake at 11+, they may worry that if their child doesn’t start then, then he/she will find it difficult to join a friendship group when they do start at 13+. My experience is that this is not a problem, but it is certainly worth checking with a senior school as to how they integrate new students at 13+.

Another concern is that children starting at 13+ will miss out on getting into sports teams, choirs etc. Again, senior schools are usually only too happy to welcome talented students at 13. Certainly, at my school, girls who join at 13+ haven’t usually played lacrosse, but they can quickly learn and get into the teams. This just depends on how hard they work at their sport.

Some senior schools may offer a broader curriculum in Year 7 and Year 8 than a typical prep school, and this can sometimes be a factor in the choice between 11+ and 13+. Extra-curricular opportunities can also be more diverse if the senior school is larger than the prep (as is likely, although not certain, to be the case); it would have more facilities available to the children and a wider range of expertise on the staff team.

What are schools looking for at 11+ and 13+ entry?

Schools are looking for potential as much as achievement, and more of a sense of a curriculum at 13+, reflecting greater maturity in the children. A child who is ready to move at 11+ is hungry for greater opportunities and a wider educational panorama; they should be keen to embrace a new challenge and enthusiastic to explore the new campus that they will be attending for the next seven years of their lives. They may well be apprehensive at the level of butterflies in the tummy, but they shouldn’t be daunted or cowed at the prospect of a new school setting.

How important are the assessments as part of the entry process?

Assessments are important, particularly if the school is an academically selective school. They allow the school to check that the child can keep up with the pace of class. This is obviously crucial for a child’s happiness. Few children thrive if they have to work furiously to keep up with their classmates or if they consistently get the lowest grades in class. No-one likes the thought of “bumping along the bottom” (whether that’s borne out by data or not) and the dangers of just squeezing an examination pass in an entrance assessment cannot be stressed too heavily. Having said that, of course children develop at different rates so some who struggle at first end up making a great success of their senior school career.

What else other than assessments are children required to do?

Children are often invited to an interview or to some sort of assessment day where they meet other children applying to the school; this may include some practical collaborative problem-solving tasks or group activities. They may also be invited to a taster day, but this wouldn’t usually form part of the application process.

What help do parents need to ask for from their prep school?

When you are choosing possible senior schools for your child, please seek advice not only from the Head of your prep school, but also the teachers who work in both the examination year and the one preceding it. Those professionals will have seen many cohorts of pupils going through the assessment process and consequently they are able to make accurate predictions of where children will be happy and successful in their senior school years.

Additionally, all schools nowadays are data-rich environments so the teachers know how each child performs under various different circumstances and will have an accurate insight into how they will perform in any entrance test. If you do not like what they say, please resist the urge to think their comments are based on an “off-day” experienced by your son or daughter during a particular assessment or mock exam. That will not be the case as they will have gained a comprehensive knowledge of your child over a significant period of time and will make very sensible recommendations to you.

Most prep heads arrange individual meetings with the parents of each child and will discuss possibilities with you, often suggesting schools as “realistic”, “optimistic” or “over-optimistic” for the pupil under discussion. Prep school staff know senior schools well; they have excellent working relationships with their colleagues in the secondary phase, attending liaison events and receiving regular briefings about developments and expectations.

How should parents go about choosing the right secondary school for their children?

Some parents know that they definitely want a particular type of school such as girls’ or boarding. Others know that they have logistical constraints. It is certainly easier for parents and children if daily travel isn’t too arduous. Websites can give a reasonable sense of the school, but a visit is really important. It is best to look at a larger number without your child before narrowing it down to two or three then taking them along to visit.

I also believe that the parents should be the ones to make the decision, not the child. But in making their decision they must always remember that it is the child who will eventually have to attend the school, not them!

Talking to current parents at the senior school can be helpful, and schools can often put you in touch with some but beware that they will only be able to tell you about the aspects of the school that their child has experienced. Equally, be wary of parents whose children do not go to the school that you are considering. Often, they will have a partial view of the school.

In the end, there are a lot of very good independent schools which are quite similar so there are many which will be a good fit for your child. Only when parents have identified their shortlist of two or three schools does the time come for a second visit, this time with the child. During the second tour, parents are well advised to watch the child, not the school. How well do they seem to fit in the environment, and how enthusiastic do they seem at the prospect of attending the school in question for the next five or seven years of their life?

I’m from the State sector, how can I get help to understand private school entry better?

Most senior school admissions offices are very helpful and can explain the entry process for their school. I recommend approaching your chosen school in the first instance. All enquiries are welcomed, admissions officers are friendly, and no question is too foolish! Many schools will offer the choice of individual tours or cohort-wide open days. The latter can seem quite daunting as, for some schools, hundreds of families may attend!

What advice do you think is most important for parents with a child transitioning to know about?

Be pragmatic and try to avoid getting drawn into long conversations with other parents. These can sometimes leave you doubting your own decisions or feeling that your child isn’t good enough. There are a lot of excellent schools in this country. Your child is highly likely to flourish even if he or she doesn’t get into your preferred school. If you live in a very competitive area, it is worth keeping a couple of schools on your shortlist so that your child is not disappointed or upset if he or she doesn’t get into them all. Always discuss with your child the idea that the school must be right for them, not that they must be right for the school. Avoid naming a “first choice” or “backup option” to your child; they should be proud of all their achievements, regardless of any preference which you, as an adult, have formed.

How much should parents support practice and extra tuition for senior school entry?

Some practice so that your child knows what to expect in the assessment is a good idea, and most schools will provide more than enough of this. Independent schools are likely to work through mocks and practice papers and, even though these may not form part of the schemes of work in some State schools, SATs preparation is very similar. Some tuition to sort out particular areas of confusion can also be useful. However, if your child needs a large amount of tuition to pass the entry exam, it is likely that they will struggle at the school. Equally, large amounts of tuition can give your child the impression that you only value their academic success and not them as individuals. It can also create a stressful atmosphere at home and make your child feel anxious. None of that is very good.

My child has SEND, do assessments and schools take this into account?

Yes, they do. At many schools, parents are encouraged to share information about SEND before they register for a place. That is so that the school can tell them whether they have appropriate support in place to help their child. Children who qualify for extra time or who have other arrangements should have these on the assessments.

How do I know if the entry process is fair if each school does it differently?

The assessment process aims to ensure that a child flourishes at the school in question. Schools and parents want the same thing – a child who is happy and achieving highly. The assessment processes have been designed with that in mind. Therefore, although they can differ from school to school, the differences are a result of experience and will have evolved to help match child and school. Remember that the teaching profession attracts and retains people who are interested in children and who want them to do well; every decision made by the school has the young people’s best interests firmly at heart.

How can prep schools help us choose the right school?

They know the headteachers of many senior schools and the ethos of the school, and if they don’t, they will always have ways of finding out about a school through their networks. They have often visited the senior school in question. Equally, they have former pupils who have returned to the prep school to tell them about their senior school or there are current prep parents with older children at senior schools and they can put you in touch with them. On the flip side, sometimes a senior school’s reputation is very slow to change so it is always important to visit it.

Jane Gandee: Head of St Swithun’s Girls’ boarding school in Winchester
Jonathan Brough: Head of Prep at St Swithun’s

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