The landscape for 11+ and 13+ has changed significantly in just the last few years, and the pandemic accelerated the move towards a more streamlined assessment for entry to senior schools. In most cases, and I write from a London perspective, where senior schools appear to top-slice on English and Maths, backfilled with Verbal and Non-Verbal reasoning. Make it through that round, and the Head’s report starts to hold sway and the invitations for interview follow. Some senior schools will phone the Head of the prep school and ask if they have missed anyone they should be looking at, while other senior schools are so overwhelmed with admissions administration, it’s not always possible.
The ISEB pre-test, especially in the last round, dominated the London (and to some extent the home counties) scene. The London 11+ Consortium of girls’ schools also used it. The pre-test, originally designed to help families to secure offers at 13+ while still in Year 6, frees up the magical Years 7 and 8 for wider intellectual and cultural exploration in prep schools. Increasingly, the pre-test seems to be gaining ground on the traditional 11+ exams, as it is preferred to the multiple subjects sat over a few days.
Just think of the administration from the senior school’s point of view, and it becomes obvious why they really only look for core competencies. Senior schools can also be assured that in the majority of cases, children in the independent sector are getting a rich diet, at school and at home, so they don’t need to worry about whether they know the difference between Plato and plate tectonics. A rare few senior schools still offer high octane scholarship tracks, ostensibly aimed at the genuine autodidact, and targeted by super-heated children. Mostly, schools can spot the difference.
Understandably, parents are very often behind the curve on what is really happening and remain in a state of heightened anxiety about the next step in their child’s educational ‘career’, building wildly exhausting CVs behind their children which can contaminate their child’s enjoyment of school, and is certainly storing up mental health issues for some. Although we must be careful not to pathologize children — given the right environment, children can do amazing things.
The ISEB curriculum is robust, and by the end of Year 8, pupils are only a glance away from GCSE, often surpassing that standard, and equalling A level in some scholarship cases. The ISEB curriculum is routinely revised and allows schools as much scope as they wish to work outside of its bounds. It has become popular for prep schools to re-package their academic offering, but under the bonnet, most curricula more or less follow the same formats and ideas.
Look behind prep school marketing, and their brands, that aim to differentiate themselves in a competitive market, and the framework is much the same. All are at the mercy of the quality of the teachers and the culture of the school. Parental choice is much more often about values, culture and community as anything else, because outcomes are presumed. They just need our help to be reassured that their child will fare well and be happy.
What seems to exercise parents most, almost immediately once they have secured a place at their pre-prep, is the subjective idea that places at the ‘good’ senior schools are like hens’ teeth. The data is skewed because parents feel the pressure to register for multiple schools. In some rare cases senior schools try to bypass the battle for children’s wits by bringing forward their offer deadlines. There is a code of conduct, but it’s voluntary, and almost all senior schools, even London ones, will have a few empty desks come September.
We find that, more often than not, children land in the school that’s about right for them, and hopefully within a sensible commuting distance from home. Looking ahead, most children will end up in the same tribal groups of Russell Group universities, so, looked at with hindsight, the fever pitch at age 10 doesn’t make any sense. Parents come to see that only after the fact with a kind of twitchy nostalgia as if the misery was a rite of passage. Schools, prep and senior, have a duty to help parents and not stoke the fire under the cauldron. Another provocateur of parental stress is when the media writes that phrase oft used in a school’s marketing blurb: ‘places are hard to get, so register early.
I think sometimes we forget the child in the credentialising race created by the adults. Wouldn’t it be better if we helped young people to meet the two great challenges of our age, social injustice and climate change, rather than leap through high stakes hoops? We can do better than this.
Simon Larter-Evans is Headmaster at St Paul’s Cathedral School, a co-educational preparatory school for boys and girls aged 4 to 13 and a residential choir school for the boy choristers of St Paul’s Cathedral, affectionately referred to as the ‘school’s chapel’.