Your child has just come home with a single A4 sheet from school titled “11 Plus Exams Update”; you drive past the independent school you’d love your child to go to and see the sign saying: “Year 7 Admissions – Applications Now Open”; scrolling online, you see reminders about grammar school exam registration deadlines.
After a moment of panic, a quick Google search tells you everything you need to know about the exams: application deadlines, pre-tests, mock tests, spatial reasoning…your mind is relieved. You are full of all this information and yet there seems to be something missing: how do you actually start preparing your child?
In this Guide, we are going help you take the first tentative steps in your 11 Plus journey. There are a lot of moving parts to the 11 Plus and many parents (and teachers!) quickly feel overwhelmed. But it is important to push through. We, as parents and educators, owe it to the young people we guide to get up to speed as quickly as possible so that we can help them to achieve their full potentials. The first step is to ask yourself whether your child is, or can be, an 11 Plus student.
The 11 Plus Exams are a group of exams used by grammar and independent schools when selecting students for admission. They are set at a high academic level as schools are looking to identify the top 5-10% of students. You should genuinely ask yourself if your child is at, or has the potential to get to, this level. Here are some initial questions you could ask yourself:
Initial Questions to Ask Yourself
- Is your child in the top half of their school class?
- Is your child engaged with their education and always eager to learn more?
- Does your child have the time to dedicate to a structured 11 Plus preparation programme?
- Are you as a parent ready to support your child in working through the 11 Plus syllabus?
- Is the family ready to make the adjustments that may be necessary to implement your 11 Plus strategy.
If you are unsure about how your child is currently performing in their class then you should book a meeting with their teacher or bring it up at the next parents evening. If your child’s school has a good track record of securing grammar school entry for its students, ask your child’s teacher to be honest with you about their assessment of your child’s ability to pass the exam.
This can be a very emotional conversation because you may not hear what you want to hear. It is hard to be told that something may be out of your child’s reach. But you shouldn’t take any doubt personally. Most of our students at Dartford Excelsior enrol with us precisely because there is some doubt about their ability to pass an exam. It is not this doubt that is most important, it is what you and your family are willing to do to change the trajectory.
It is important to keep your child’s teacher on side
If you get a response from a teacher that is not as optimistic as you would like, follow up by asking them to outline your child’s main areas of weakness and any suggestions they have about how these gaps could be plugged. These questions serve two purposes:
Firstly, it is important to keep the teacher on your side during this process. They have the potential to give your child extra assignments, mark those assignments and provide feedback. They also have the potential to provide positive reinforcement to your child’s preparations during the school day which can be a great confidence boost for a young person.
10 Steps to Building a Successful 11 Plus Strategy
Investigate local comprehensive, grammar and independent schools’ admissions
Schedule school visits
Evaluate and select schools
Assess your child’s level
Establish your 11 Plus goals
Design an exam preparation strategy
Implement your 11 Plus strategy
Develop your child’s exam resilience
Schedule mock exams and revision courses
Secondly, teachers are often best placed to comment on all aspects of your child’s education. And that brings us to the next point –
Is your child passionate about learning?
You have to consider your child’s engagement with their education. A teacher’s pessimism may stem not from doubt in your child’s academic ability, but from concern about their academic resilience. You should listen carefully to what the teacher says – are they commenting on your child’s ability or their resilience?
In many ways, a child’s resilience in more important than their raw academic ability when starting out on an 11 Plus journey. Afterall, it is a marathon and not a sprint.
Building resilience takes time which means that, in assessing whether grammar and independent school admissions are for your child, you have to seriously consider whether your child has the time to dedicate to the preparation.
These days young people are engaged in several extra-curricular activities and many have active social lives. There is also of course the need to rest and spend quality time with family. You have to look at your child’s schedule to see where 11 Plus preparations will fit in.
As a rough gauge, strong candidates will spend roughly an hour a day, four days a week on work specifically geared to the 11 Plus. You can therefore see the need to have a structured approach that incorporates valuable feedback loops to ensure that you are able to gauge your child’s progress and make the necessary adjustments to their practice schedule.
Of course, it goes without saying that no good will come from cramming too much into your child’s schedule. It is important to plan well and be realistic about what can be achieved.
This need to be realistic doesn’t just apply to your child’s timetable – you also have to look at yours. No matter how independent your little one it, they are going to need you. This doesn’t mean that you need to provide the academic support yourself – you can outsource this to a tutor who follows a structured 11 Plus preparation programme. But they will need you to be on top of the admin parts of the process – getting registered, arranging tuition (if you choose to outsource this), buying books, arranging subscriptions to courses. But more important than that, they will need you there for moral support. 11 Plus preparations can be a fulfilling challenge for young people who have the moral support of their friends and family. Students enjoy seeing their weekly progress. They are excited about the prospect of attending schools where they will be able to push themselves further. They need you there to motivate them when they get a little off track, encourage them when they find parts of the syllabus tricky, advocate for them to teachers and tutors to make sure they are getting the support they need.
We often say here at Dartford Excelsior that we don’t prepare students for the 11 Plus, we prepare families! This is because often the whole family comes along for the ride. Changes may need to be made to daily schedules and older siblings may need to help with some academic challenges. In this way, a young person feels like they have the full backing of their family.
5 Important Things to Know about 11 Plus Exams
- Comprehensive schools are increasingly using 11 Plus-style exams to decide intake
- 11 Plus preparations improve overall academic performance
- It’s almost impossible to pass without a structured strategy
- Grammars use multiple choice questions, independents prefer long form questions
- Creative writing is often the deciding factor in 11 Plus English exams
As with anything in life, defining goals makes it more likely that you will achieve what you set out to. According to Forbes, goal setting helps to “build self-confidence and…increase productivity”. This can apply to both you and your child – by setting 11 Plus preparation goals, not only will your child’s confidence in their ability increase, but your confidence in your ability help your child achieve this goal will also increase. Again according to Forbes, this is because having a goal automatically makes you think of the next steps, thus helping you to keep up the momentum even in difficult times. Most importantly perhaps, having goals allows for the implementation of that all-important feedback loop that allows students to identify strengths and weaknesses and feed this back into their strategy.
Thus, after assessing your child’s level, you should decide what your short, medium and long-term 11 Plus goals are.
Defining goals makes it more likely that you will achieve what you set out to
Short-term goals should be those that can run for roughly 3 months (1 term) and could focus on:
- addressing specific areas of academic weakness
- building interest in education
- building academic resilience
Medium-term goals should run for roughly a year and should focus on the design and implementation of a robust and engaging 11 Plus study program.
Long-term goals are those that implement your overall vision for your child’s education. They should go beyond passing the exam and focus on fostering in your child a love for education, a commitment to excellence and an appreciation of academic resilience which will stand them in good stead throughout their lives.
Why do I need an 11 Plus strategy?
Though students will sit the exam in the first half of year 6, the maths and English sections are set at a level that many schools will struggle to reach before the end of year 6 due to the mixed abilities in each classroom. This is why it is important to decide early whether you would like your child to pursue the 11 Plus and put a plan in place to guide them through the syllabus.
The 11 Plus is not something that young people can pursue unconsciously. They will be learning new skills beyond what their classmates are learning and they will surely question why.
It is natural for parents to want to shield young people from the stresses of exam preparation but it is important to see the 11 Plus as an extension of primary education and not just about preparing for an exam. The real and long-term benefit of pursuing the 11 Plus is that young people gain confidence and resilience by learning skills and tackling questions that encourage them to develop robust critical thinking skills.
All of this is to say that children should be involved in discussions about the 11 Plus.
One way to get children excited about the 11 Plus process is to involve them in conversations about secondary schools. This could include exploring the school website together and attending in-person and virtual open days. One thing we often recommend to parents is to have a look at the school’s social calendar for the upcoming year – it should be on their website. They are likely to have a number of public events – sports days, Christmas carol services, summer fetes – which you can go along to, helping to give your child a less formal taste of the school. If young people can begin to make the link between the preparatory work they are doing and this new and exciting secondary school that they would like to attend, they are more likely to self-motivate to put as much effort as possible into each assignment.
In summary, there should be no stress surrounding 11 Plus preparations. They should fit seamlessly into a child’s weekly schedule. This is not only the best way to guarantee success, it is also the best way to get the buy in that a child needs to engage with the process. If they see it as a natural part of their education requirements, something that they must work hard at but need not stress over, they are more likely to take the syllabus in their hands and thrive.
It is never too early to start involving them – especially exploring school websites together. Don’t worry about overwhelming them – children are a lot sturdier than we think! They will take it in their strides and begin to see themselves as capable of going to such schools.
Director of Studies