This article, by Keystone Founder, Will Orr-Ewing, was originally published in Absolutely Education magazine.
I have run a tutoring company at the crucible of the 11+ scene for the last 11 years, and have seen first-hand how hundreds of families approach the 11+. Here I answer some questions often put to me by parents, teachers, tutors and others connected to the sector.
Do parents need to hire a tutor?
No. There are exceptions but most 11+ exams do not require children to learn more than is on a typical age-appropriate prep school syllabus (or, for parents in the state sector, the National Curriculum) so a diligent and conscientious child should not need extra tutoring. There is also lots that parents can do on their own with good textbooks and freely available past papers.
If children are sitting for one of the more academically competitive schools, it is important to bear in mind, however, that there is not much room for error and that children often need to be taught how to avoid losing silly marks under exam conditions. Furthermore successful candidates will also need to be able to perform well on the more challenging questions that are designed to differentiate strong candidates. Of course, good prep schools teach these exam skills – but a tutor (or parent) can be very effective in reiterating these points, or teaching them to children who have not had the benefit of good preparation at school.
When should children start preparing?
Most, but not all, 11+ exams are sat in the January of Year 6. When families call us seeking an 11+ tutor, we tend to recommend that children begin formal preparation 12 months before that day, in January of Year 5. Some families like to do a diagnostic assessment in the first term of Year 5 to see if there are any significant gaps in understanding that require special attention. Of course, attention to reading, writing, core numeracy and any other part of the Key Stage 2 curriculum in Year 4 will not be harmful, but we would counsel against formal preparation (e.g. past paper practice, timed Verbal Reasoning (VR) / Non Verbal Reasoning (NVR) exercises etc.) at such an early stage. It is important to bear in mind the ‘opportunity cost’ of starting formal preparation so early. An hour of Bond or BOFA is an hour not spent reading, going for a walk, having discussions around the dinner table, playing outside and other essential human experiences.
Where should tutoring be focused?
The first point is to check the specifications of each school’s exam as some have moved away from English and Maths towards Reasoning only.
As a general rule, though, as above, shoring up children’s foundations in English and Maths should be the first priority. These core skills tend to be the most malleable and improvable in the often novel 1-on-1 context, and they also deliver the most long term educational benefits given the centrality of English and Maths skills to GCSE and beyond. Tutors should check the understanding of core topics first, and then check that their students have mastered the skill of showing understanding in an exam context – quite another skill.
If VR and NVR are being assessed, they should also be attended to but less so as Reasoning skills are less plastic. We tend to recommend that students familiarise themselves with these types of question on sites such as BOFA, Bond and Keystone Tests, but intensive practice should not be necessary. A few short “little and often” sessions in the couple of months before the test should be plenty.
How much tutoring is ‘the right amount’?
Most children receive 1 hour per week in each subject (Maths and English) for the 12 months leading up to the exam. Given holidays etc, that usually means about 30 weeks of tutoring. It is a lot of time that could be perhaps more richly spent, but it is not excessive and means that sports and other extracurricular passions can still be comfortably accommodated. Many children establish great rapport with their tutor and many families tell us that the period of 11+ preparation, if not desirable in a general sense, was of more value than anticipated.
What would constitute ‘over-tutoring’? Is there such a thing as ‘too much preparation’?
There certainly is such a thing as over-tutoring, and it is clear from my discussions with school leaders that it is this problem, rather than tutoring per se, that makes schools so alarmed about the effect of tutoring on their pupils. We have heard of children who have had tutoring more than five days per week in the lead up to 11+, which must be excessive. The problem is that it is hard to apply a hard and fast rule as each family context is different, and each child has different capacities.
My years in tutoring have certainly convinced me that, although there is undoubtedly correlation between the number of lessons and the eventual 11+ performance, it is a not a simple equation of number of hours = certain number of marks.
Parents should consult their own sense of balance and proportion before deciding, but should again bear in mind the opportunity cost of tutoring and the shrunken and withered hinterlands it can create in the broader lives of their 10 year olds.
When hiring a tutor, which questions should a parent ask?
- What is your experience preparing children for this exam?
- Have you had any relevant training?
- What is your plan over the weeks and months ahead?
- How will you be monitoring my child’s progress? How will you be reporting this?
- Do you have testimonials or references? Can I read them and speak to the referees?
- Will you be available for the entirety of the tutoring program you have suggested? Can you let me know any holidays you have booked or intend to book?
- Will you have any interaction with my child’s school teacher to make sure that your approach does not contradict theirs?
- Can I see a copy of your DBS certificate?
When hiring a tutor through a tutoring company or agency, which questions should a parent ask?
- How was this tutor selected or screened to join your organisation?
- Was this tutor interviewed face-to-face?
- Why have you selected this tutor for my particular child?
- How well do you know this tutor? - how many families has this tutor worked with that you know?
- How many tutors do you have on your books?
- (and all the questions in the question above)
Do you have any other useful advice for parents to stay sane?
As far as possible, keep the dialogue going with your school about which exams your child is sitting for, whether they need extra preparation, whether the school is putting on extra classes (e.g. in interview preparation) before the exam.
Additionally, try to manage your own stress about the results of 11+ as it can be contagious. Even if you do not talk constantly about 11+ explicitly, as some parents do, children are deeply attuned to the emotions of their parents and tend to pick things up implicitly.
Is the 11+ more stressful now than it ever has been? Can anything be done about it?
In the mid-1990s, I was fortunate to attend one of the most academic prep schools in the country. We were streamed from the age of 8, taught Latin from 9 and over three quarters of each year group typically won places at Eton. And yet I recall almost no academic stress or anxiety whatsoever. None of us applied to scores of schools; none of us sat multiple 11+ entrance exams day-after-day (I met a girl who had sat 6 in 6 days last year); none of us, as far as I’m aware, were so worried that we pulled off a toenail, as did the daughter of a mother I spoke to recently.
What has changed in the past twenty years? The tragedy of it now is that the prep school years are often paradoxically less intellectually demanding (how many 9 year olds are learning Latin, Greek and reading Shakespeare?) but much more stressful.
Why? Top UK independent schools have never been so popular, whether from domestic or international families and the increased pressure on places in these top schools has undoubtedly upped the ante. Where twenty years ago, there was some parity between the numbers of children applying to top schools and the number of places available, now schools boast of applicant to place ratios of 6, 10 or even 15 to 1. The 11+ exam, used by these schools to sift the outstanding from the merely excellent, has been ever more enthroned in the minds of parents as a do-or-die stage in their children’s academic future - and who can blame them when a difference of a few % can be the difference between pass and fail? Naturally, many parents look to tutors to help their children make ‘marginal gains’ over other applicants, the supposed need for which only adds more stress to an already stressful time.