How is Britain seen by outsiders? What marks us out? Humour, self-deprecation, our changing weather, frequent cups of tea. But there’s something else that foreigners say after a spell here: the UK is a place where couples without children worry about where their unconceived children will go to school. As a Scot, I used to think this a bizarre English affectation — until my eldest son announced he’d like to join his friends and take the Eleven Plus set by grammars and private schools. Would I let him?
Only then did it dawn on me why prep schools get their name: to prep children for this specific exam. To borrow a line from Alan Bennett’s The History Boys: ‘[The] boys and girls against whom you are to compete have been groomed like thoroughbreds for this one particular race.’ Anyone can compete. Should you do so? Parents and children can make their own decision. But if you do, a crash course awaits in the secret rules of English life. What follows is what I wish someone had told me.
Check your privilege
White middle-class Brits can have a fairly relaxed ‘let children be children’ approach to homework. Other cultures do not. My personal view is that the middle classes have a lot to learn from immigrant parents who, quite rightly, see time spent teaching their children as an investment. About a quarter of all children in Britain have foreign-born parents: in London, it’s more than half. Some parents talk about the Eleven Plus as being the Olympic Games for 11-year-olds — you’re up against the world’s brightest and the dads who say: ‘After homework you can play… the piano.’ Children tend to feel exhilarated by the competition; the parents terrified. The Eleven Plus is a global race.
It’s never too early for basic planning
Different schools require different levels of parental prep for the Eleven Plus. Private schools should not need parents to do anything, but even the best state schools will leave a lot of ground to cover. There are Bond exam papers for sale that children can try from the age of eight. This will give them a rough idea of how far they are from the expected standard, which is a score of about 80 per cent. If you intend to use a tutor, bear in mind that some of the best ones are booked up five years in advance. (In my neighbourhood, one of the best, famed for the highest private school success rate, is the wife of a senior Corbynista. The struggle takes many forms.)
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Start intelligence gathering
Get to know all of the school’s parents, attend every drinks evening that’s on offer. No book, no website comes close to the quality of localised information other parents will have. I am in awe of how much time other parents devote to this. I’d say that about a quarter of the parents in my son’s class could have written a good book about the options by the time their eldest child is 11.
Don’t think fellow parents will share all information with you
You can spend years getting to know parents, sharing tips, feeding each other’s children after sleepovers. But if you’re going for a selective school, parents know there are only a limited number of places. This makes your child’s best friend into a potential rival, and limits the tips you get from other parents. They’re likely to underplay how much they’re doing.
Help your kids yourself
Why pay a tutor to explain, for example, how basic comprehension works? Tutors can be brought in to assess what work needs to be done and parents can help them do it. Companies such as Laidlaw Education offer mock exams (state pupils won’t have much experience of the tests). But the teaching you can really do yourself — if you have time (and not all working families do). I’d say the Eleven Plus exam is about a year ahead of the normal curriculum. Someone has to take your child to this education level. Your help, if you can give it, will be invaluable.
Find a parent whose youngest child has been through the Eleven Plus
They have nothing to lose by telling you everything. ‘You’re Scottish and your wife’s Swedish,’ one of my school mums said to me. ‘Neither of you will have a clue. You don’t even know what you don’t know.’ She was right. But our saviour was a wonderful woman whose son had gone to a private prep yet she still spent months tutoring him for these exams. Her work paid off: he got through. Just. In the process, she built up her own dossiers, exercise books, past papers and tips. It was like a Rosetta Stone of the Eleven Plus, more comprehensive and comprehendible than anything on the market.
Manage expectations and prepare (even expect) to fail
Typically, seven pupils apply for every place. Sometimes it’s 14 to one. The daughter of a friend of mine ended up with no offers at all: she had Grade Five distinction in violin, she had trialled for county hockey and exceeded in every area academically. She won a waiting list place, but why did someone so brilliant not get an offer straight away? Luck has a lot to do with it. It is worth reinforcing to your child early on. If it’s meant to be, it will happen. If not, then not.
Prepare for (adult) stress
When I dropped Alex, my eldest, for his first Eleven Plus exam, I went into a nearby churchyard and had a meltdown. We had stood in a queue of devoted parents and I thought I’d failed him, that this was a test of my parenting, and it was a big ‘F’. I’d given him six months of panicked preparation: others had done six years. I was worried. Alex was not. Then comes the stressful wait for envelopes: offer letters are fat with ‘welcome’ materials, rejection letters are thin.
Don’t drill them with pullstring-doll answers. But do accustomise them to talking with adults, giving expansive answers of more than three syllables, and how not to get thrown. In his first interview, Alex was asked: what is a philosopher? He had no idea. In another, he was shown a picture of a desert and asked: tell me what you are feeling. His answer was: ‘Confused, because I thought this was an interview.’
Remember: it’s a daft game
There are many benefits to giving all this a miss: saving money and not putting your kids through the kind of stress that will potentially damage your relationship with them (not to mention their mental health and yours). There’s plenty research showing that clever kids will have their grades only marginally improved by private schools, and they’ll spend the rest of their lives trying to cover up the stigma of being posh. I ended up thinking that only two of the eight private schools I saw would be worth the money. The grammars I saw had a horrible practice of ‘kicking’, i.e. expelling pupils likely to bring down their exam average.
Also, ask yourself what your goal is. Mine: for my children to get into a Russell Group university, as I did (Glasgow). You can do this with BBB at A-level now. It’s laughable to think that only a selective school can do this. If you end up so sucked into this that you judge your own child by their exams results, not their character, you’ve become a monster.
What I have outlined is a very basic version of the game. There are more advanced levels, with Oxbridge as the only acceptable goal. There are other techniques: begging, bribing, etc. Or using companies where Old Etonians prep your child for an Eton-style entrance interview. ‘My interview was a disaster,’ I was told by a 12-year-old who showed me around St Paul’s. ‘I was asked a simple question about the fall of Rome, and I went off on a rant about Caesar’s behaviour in Gaul.’ Kids from state primaries tend not to go off on rants about classical history. If you’re going for that kind of knowledge you’ll have to pay for it.
The ending of my story? Alex passed that exam and has ended up going to his first choice of school, along with a third of the boys in his brilliant class. Even now, I can’t quite say I understand this system. As a parent, I feel out of my depth — and I’m amazed how Alex takes this in his stride. I know parents who think the Eleven Plus is the single most stressful experience of parenthood, because children are tested at such a heartbreakingly young age.
But for a lot of children this is the game. The greatest, toughest game of its kind in the world. And it’s never too early to prepare for the eventuality of your child wanting to play.