Family Hub 19 April 2000

CHOOSING THE RIGHT SCHOOL

Taking your child from preparatory or state school to private senior education via 11+ or 13+ assessments can be daunting for many parents. Ed Venables, Director of Admissions at Wellington College, sheds light on the process and answers the questions he gets most from parents.

What advice would you give parents preparing their children to take 11+ and 13+ assessments?

There’s no doubt that it can be a stressful process and parents need to be prepared for this and be prepared to know that it can take some children two years to get right over the course of Y6 and Y7. They absolutely need to listen to the advice of their current school if it’s a prep school and know that the prep schools have brilliant relationships with senior schools.

It’s important that parents encourage their children to be themselves as much as possible, not what you think a school wants to hear. There is not much preparation needed or expectation for an interview apart from for the child to be chatty and open. We like to see passion and a genuine interest in learning and being at school. We can always tell when a child is properly prepared or whether they have been coached to answer questions in a particular way. We want to see the real child in an interview, even if you’re shy or have eclectic hobbies!

Why might parents choose to take the 11+ or 13+ entry route into senior schools?

The simple answer is that many girls’ schools finish at year 6, so parents will be thinking that they don’t want to change schools twice and therefore 11+ works as the transition point. We always recommend that if you’re planning on a 13+ school and that’s the school you want, then you stay at the prep school until the end of year 8. The reason for that is that you get much better preparation in terms of the leadership that comes from being the big fish in a little pool. They prepare you brilliantly for entering a senior school in year 9. For the sake of their wellbeing and for all the issues that come with growing up, you don’t want a child to be at a senior school too early if possible.

I don’t think it makes any difference when you’re choosing the right senior school for your child, however. If the best senior school for your child starts at 11, then that’s brilliant. If you’ve found the right school and fallen in love with it, and the culture there begins at 13, then they’re right to start at 13. Pick the school, not the age group.

What are the most common misconceptions about entry into independent education?

The main misconception would be that we care hugely about the pre-test scores and that we want the children to sound like they’re Einstein when they’re in an interview. We want them to be 11-year-olds, full stop! So, whilst assessment plays a part, it only plays a small part in a process of selection that is about really getting to know your child, check you’re right for the type of school we are and also, that you like us too and think you’ll be happy here. We’re more about the person than the test, and I know that within sector, we’re all keen to make that point.

Also, there can be a misconception, particularly for a competitive school like Wellington, that if you’re on the waiting list, you’re not getting in. As we are competitive, we do get people giving up places to go to other schools. So therefore, there are many places that come off the waiting list later on, so don’t give up too early.

Often there can be the perception that you have to board, or that boarding schools are a different beast to day schools. But, choosing between boarding or not-boarding beforehand makes no difference. Schools are so friendly regardless of whether you’ve boarded or not, so it’s fine. Sometimes, at 11 years old, boarding can seem daunting but by 13, boarding becomes an incredibly natural thing and they absolutely love it, particularly weekly boarding.

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

I don’t think you need to worry too much about the process. Just present a child who is passionate about education, and is a happy child in themselves, and they’ll get into their school.

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

I will spend five seconds looking at the assessment results and spend fifteen minutes looking at prep school references, and then we spend half a day with the children on an assessment day. So, in terms of the order of magnitude or importance, that’s pretty much it. That five minutes is simply to judge a board academic level, and a few other factors like potential. For us, it’s not a case of ‘ranking’ children at all.

We worry that parents get far too stressed about the assessment side, as they’ve all done standardised testing at schools, and that Pre-Test is only about checking those standardised scores more than anything else. So, while we do check those PT results against their other prep school scores, it’s not the main decision point for us.

What else, other than assessments, are children required to do?

At Wellington, we want to see children who have thrown themselves into life at junior school. We want them to try and play sport, learn an instrument or act in the school play. What every school is looking for most on an assessment day is whether the child fits within the culture of the school. Schools all do this in different ways but essentially, they’re looking for that cultural fit. You can’t prepare for that, and it should always be a two-way process. It should be both parties feeling that they will be happy at that school, that they’ve enjoyed the people they’ve been with and enjoyed the interaction with teachers and their lessons. We are looking for someone who enjoys interacting with everyone, and who would like to be taught the way we like to teach.

What help can my junior school provide when choosing the right secondary school for my child?

Just sit down with the senior school liaison there and ask their advice about what might be a couple of aspirational schools for your child, which of those are perfect and which might be a suitable back-up. Then, use that information to arrange visits to those schools. Over the course of year 5, say, go and visit about five schools. Then visit the best three again with the child to get an idea of what your child thinks. The prep school should provide that advice and guidance and they have so much experience in really judging where your child would thrive educationally and pastorally.

What advice would you give to parents with children in state schools when researching independent schools?

You have to visit these schools, but you don’t need to pay a huge amount to do so. Go to a couple of visitors’ days and talk to the admissions staff, they will be incredibly helpful. Don’t feel you have to ‘sell’ your child unnecessarily, just be honest about who your child is. If you’ve got an introvert, say so. Parents know their children better than anyone and admissions staff do listen. We don’t mind if your child is introverted or extraverted, academically minded or particularly adept at sport or music, we just like to know their context and passion for coming to our school.

These can seem like big scary institutions to visit if you haven’t been part of the independent world before. But I would say that we’re all very friendly, and very used to taking children every year from the state sector, so go in and ask questions and stay true to your values. You’re going in saying ‘I have a fantastic child who would really fit in with your culture.’ That’s all we want too.

And don’t worry about the fee side of things – every single one of us has helpful levels of fee assistance. The school will find means-tested fee assistance if it’s required. I definitely wouldn’t want the money side of things to put people off. We don’t have unlimited funds available, sadly, but we have far more people supported by fee assistance than people often realise.

Should parents encourage extra practice and tuition to prepare for senior school entry?

When you know other parents are doing it, it can appear like a competitive advantage, but you’ll make your child so much happier by avoiding it. Stay strong and encourage them to take part in clubs and societies in their local area. Read books and show some passion beyond the X-Box in other areas of life. You’re not going to make any difference with tutoring, beyond what the school would help with if you’re at a prep school. Supplementing that isn’t going to make a difference to the schools and could put a child off education full stop.

What about helping my child revise for exams?

When it comes to revision for exams, if parents are taking control of it for their children, then they cannot do that for themselves later on. The children who have that level of independence early on are usually successful. Our job as a school is to provide them with the pastoral framework for flourishing at university, and the more that outside tutors and parents are taking control, the harder it is for us to do that. It starts in Y5, with stabilisers yes, but taking those off slowly is always best. I think parents feel that they have to do so much more than they really need to.

My child has SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities). Do assessments and schools take this into account?

We do, when we know. Ensure it forms part of the prep school reference and if prep schools and parents are honest with senior schools, everything is much easier. We tend to find that parents worry about discrimination and don’t tell us up front. That is the wrong attitude. We’re here to support all children that come to Wellington to succeed, but we just need to be aware of it so that we can support the children accordingly.

Ed Venables is Director of Admissions at Wellington College, a public school in the village of Crowthorne, Berkshire, England and one of the UK’s great co-educational boarding and day schools whose educational philosophy fuses heritage with modernity. The college was founded in 1853 as a living memorial to the Duke of Wellington.

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