Family Hub 19 April 2000


As the new Head of Dragon School in Oxford, and winner of ‘Best Head of a Prep School’ at the 2019 Tatler Awards, Emma Goldsmith is used to advising parents through the tricky process of 11+ and 13+ assessments and finding the right schools for the next stage in their child’s journey. Here she answers some of their most common questions.

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

That decision can often be geographical. If you’re in London, most of the prep schools finish at 11+, and if you’re at a prep school outside London, they may go up to 13+. It’s important to emphasise that if you are at a prep school that goes to 13+, you may feel pressured to leave at 11, but in fact secondary schools are very happy to accept at 13+, so do consider if staying on until 13+ might be a good step for your child.

What are the key things to consider with 11+ entry?

It’s a really difficult question because fundamentally, that comes back down to which route you’ve decided for your child to take. If you have decided you’re going to opt for state education at primary, you cannot avoid the 11+. You may decide you want to invest in a prep school education for 11-13, however.

Ultimately, it is really about knowing your child. Do they need that little bit of extra time to develop? Sometimes, depending upon where they are in their emotional maturity, it may be better to make that transition at 13+ and stay in a smaller environment at prep.

What are the key things parents should know about 11+ entry into schools?

The main thing, when it comes to the ISEB Pre Test in particular, (an online test used by secondary schools at 11+) is that it is a cognitive test that isn’t looking at how well you’re being prepared but is a process to identify the right setting for the child. It will adapt according to the age of your child and the test isn’t based on where you are currently at school, but tries to assess your cognitive ability to help decide whether that school is the right fit for the next stage of your education.

And 13+ entry into schools?

Some parents ask if CE is important now, when their child has already taken a Pre-Test. The key thing that they need to remember is that it is a course, it’s not just an exam. Often you hear that CE may be irrelevant because senior schools have already made their decisions. In truth, it’s evolving, with new specifications incorporating all the life skills such as problem solving, public speaking confidence and analysis that can help a child develop far more holistically. All these skills can be taught, but it is the course that’s so valuable and not just the final examination.

What information do prep schools share with senior schools?

The key aspect of the assessments is that you need to trust the prep schools who know your children and who really know the Senior school too. The Pre-Test is only one part of the data we will share with the senior school. The senior schools want well-rounded children who are going to contribute to the life of the school. When a prep school is profiling your child, it will be a holistic reference. There is a common transfer form, of which only one part is the data. They ask about character, experiences and potential – any school looks at your child holistically and the test data is only one part of the picture.

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

Fundamentally, you have to decide: what do you want out of that senior school? These schools that we are sending our children to are all fabulous, but what you’re trying to find is the most fertile soil that is going to let your child grow and be an individual. Really choose carefully and examine the ethos of the school. The academics in the schools are a given – focus instead on how they will mould and coach your child to be the best version they can be of themselves.

What help can parents ask for from their prep school?

There’s a reason that prep schools are called Preparatory schools: this is exactly what we are preparing the children for, to get the most out of their senior school education. Everything they are doing is about that transition to the senior school. Trust prep schools to know what they’re doing, as we have been doing this for years. We help to expose children to a breadth of experiences to prepare them for senior school.

What can parents do to prepare their child for an entry interview?

The key message here is that you have to make sure that your child has had a wide variety of experiences. That doesn’t mean you have to take them to museums every week. It’s about conversation around the table, exposing them to critical thinking, providing opportunities to talk to a variety of people, building their self-esteem and helping them to express their ideas and what they enjoy doing. Don’t coach your child to do the interview – we can spot that a mile away! You simply want to see a fresh-faced child who is agile and natural enough to strike up a conversation with anyone they meet.

Will a state-educated child be at disadvantage at public school?

I think in many ways they are going to be a refreshing change. The experience they have had coming from a state school will prepare them just as well. You will come with open eyes and have that hunger for learning. State schools are great at focussing on core skills, which are the focus of GCSE and A Level, and these are based on the national curriculum which you will have followed. In some ways, you are at an advantage coming from the state sector. We want to see that you are going to participate in the life of the school and be passionate about attending.

Should parents pay for extra tuition for the pre-test for senior school entry?

Fundamentally, we have to remember that tutoring in the short-term may help to build confidence. However, since the tests have been designed for a child who can take it anywhere, tutoring isn’t necessarily going to improve their performance. It would be money better spent buying books and theatre tickets rather than a tutor who will familiarise themselves with a test. It’s a valid point to say that private tutors are not regulated, and we have to remember that lots of tutors set themselves up as experts in these fields, but they cannot know much more than the parents who have read about these tests.

Should parents enter for lots of schools?

I would recommend being diligent as a parent. You need to research plenty of schools, as many as five perhaps – then reduce your choices to two. Be transparent with both those schools about your child and your choices. Don’t spread yourself too thin when finding a school that is best for your particular child. Work with your prep school. After all, you’ve bought into their expertise in what is best for your child, and they will give you invaluable insight and support to find the right school.

Do assessments and schools take Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) into account?

Yes, they do. What is really key is that the conversation that happens between the current and senior school, and the information that is shared at the reference stage, will include all the SEND details. Be open and honest about the learning needs of your child. You don’t want to put your child into a position where they won’t be supported. Those conversations can happen right from the start with the senior school, and they welcome those discussions.

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

It’s worth mentioning that every school has an admissions policy so it might be worth looking at that to understand how their selection process takes place. Independent schools will have a policy and you have to realise that it can be a competitive process – not around assessment, but around ‘fit’. We know that children can meet all the criteria but sometimes don’t get the place based on the school not being right for that child.

Why does each school do it differently?

It may well come down to the strategic direction of the school, the foundational values of the school or its strengths. You’re not always comparing like for like. Some schools want to specialise, and they may select children with potential in those areas. You should really do your research to understand the school’s strengths and to know what they are looking for in children coming to that school.

Are the entry assessments fair and reliable, in your opinion?

It is a test, and children have good days and bad days so you’re always going to get a mixture of results. That’s why it’s important to remember that it’s only one part of the data. Conversations between schools do happen where, if a bad day happens, and it’s out of kilter with the reference and other data, it’s not going to be just about the test, but about the child. So, they are fair and reliable tests, but we know, and schools know, that if a child has a bad day that doesn’t have to be the end of the conversation. That’s only a small part of the process.

Emma Goldsmith was appointed Head of Dragon School in September 2021 and was formerly Head of Winchester House School where she was voted Best Head of a Prep School at the 2019 Tatler Awards. The Dragon Prep School was founded in 1877 as the Oxford Preparatory School and today the Dragon School is one school across two sites in Oxford, England. Both are co-educational schools that take day pupils and boarders.


Sign up to our newsletter