How to get into a top grammar school?

What does it take to get a place at one of the leading grammar schools in the country like The Henrietta Barnett School or Queen Elizabeth’s School? Can children who are not tutored ever get in? What is the impact of intense preparation on a child’s mental health?

The schools themselves provide virtually no guidance on how to prepare for the test and given tutoring is for the most part an unregulated industry, there is no officially sanctioned advice.

Shall I get a tutor?

The first question parents might ask themselves, is whether tuition for their child is at all necessary? Surely if a child is doing well at school, the ground they cover there should be sufficient?

Tutors agree that it is “impossible” for a child to get a place at a top grammar school without tutoring of some kind, whether it be from their parents or a tutor. Even a private primary school education is not going to be enough to prepare a child for the rigours of the tests of selective state schools.

Eleven-plus papers may include GCSE or even A-level maths, according to Lynnette Dunster from Shine Tutors in Surrey, who has tutored students for the grammar and independent schools in London and Surrey for more than 15 years.

This is to test the “potential” of the students, she says.

“Reading comprehension questions – second stage grammar exams have previously included texts that have more mature themes like relationships/love, jealousy, power that a young primary school student may not necessarily be taught (at school) and to analyse and answer at greater depth,” she adds.

Children “absolutely” need to be tutored if they are to stand any chance of getting a place at a top grammar school because the process is so competitive, says Ali Baig, director of operations at North Finchley Tutors.

He points out that 3,000 girls sit Henrietta Barnett’s entrance exam, out of which only 100 will receive a place.

“The competition is fierce,” agrees Preeti Baviskar, from Pi Academy, a tutoring agency in north London. 

Queen Elizabeth’s offers a mere 180 places, with a growing waiting list, she says. 

The Tiffin School offered just 180 places to 1,600 hopeful applicants in 2020, and out of the 1,420 applicants to The Tiffin Girls School in 2019, only 180 received a spot, she points out.

 Six hours a week?

How much tuition does a child need to stand a chance of getting one of these sought-after places? 

At North Finchley Tutors, while some children are tutored as early as in year 3, the eleven-plus programme starts in earnest in year 4.

Children in small groups of two to five receive six hours of tuition a week – three hours takes place after school on a weekday and three hours on a Saturday. 

Each session comprises an hour of one-to-one tuition, a one-hour test and one hour of group tuition. 

“We believe teaching in a group is best as a child can see what the other kids are doing,” said Baig. 

At Shine Tutors, children in year 4 receive an hour a week of tuition which rises to an hour and a half in year 5 and is then increased to two hours per week a few months before the entrance exam dates. The reason for this is for students to sit timed mocked tests to ensure that they are managing their timings and accuracy in reading questions.

For 11-plus preparation, Hampstead & Frognal Tutors generally recommends two hours a week of one-to-one tuition in year 4 and 5 in addition to booster courses which are put on in the holidays for small groups to cover particular topics.

“For parents who are keen to ensure that their children are offered a place, it is important to begin preparing early. We recommend starting working with your child from year 3,” says Baviskar.

“In year 4, you can begin to introduce more structure into your child’s home study.

Set aside 40 to 50 minutes each evening in which they can spend time working,” she continues. 

“You can still keep this study period quite varied for year 4 children. For example, you could choose to do reading practice, or some times tables, mental maths practice or spelling.”

In year 5 students should attempt to complete between 80 to 100 papers over the whole year. This equates to two to three timed papers in maths and English per week during term-time, she says.

Cost

Of course, none of these options are cheap. 

 At North Finchley Tutors, parents pay £100 a week per child for both sessions. 

Shine Tutors charges £20-£40 per hour depending on the size of the group which comes to about £30-£60 a week in year 5. Hampstead & Frognal Tutors charges £60-£90 for face-to-face hourly sessions which drops to £40-£70 for online sessions meaning parents typically pay upwards of £80 a week for 11-plus preparation.

At Pi Academy tutoring costs £30 – £49 per hour for group tutoring, per subject.

“Many parents have the misconception that if you throw enough money into a child’s education – through tutors, extra classes and so on – that they are guaranteed to succeed,” says Baviskar.

“However, this is not entirely true. Making a substantial time commitment along with expert tutoring will prove to be much more effective.”

A reason to study

So what type of child succeeds? 

“A child has to have a natural aptitude for the academic subjects, be an avid reader and very numerate to get through these exams,” says Mark Taylor from Hampstead & Frognal Tutors. 

But parents as well students have to be disciplined ensuring the work set by tutors gets done, he adds. 

“A child can be very academic but if they have not worked on exam practice, they are not going to succeed.”

Baig says the children who are successful have a good understanding of why they are doing what could be perceived as extra work. 

“Children have to be told why they are doing this. If you don’t tell them, this is just another bit of work.” 

“You have to be able to explain to a child [the reasons for doing 11-plus preparation work] to invoke passion and create that work ethic.” 

“It’s not right for all children,” he admits. 

It’s not just the children who have to stay committed, the parents have to stay on course too. 

“I’ve seen the mightiest of parents crumble,” he adds. “They’ve had enough by Easter of year 5.”

But Baig says success is achieved in different ways. Some parents restrict TV and electronics while others continue to take their children to extracurricular activities and in both situations students can fail or succeed, he adds. 

Athletic children or children who play an instrument are often successful as they have the right mentality and have the stamina that it takes for training, practicing, and focus and concentration, ” adds Lynette Dunster from Shine Tutors. 

At the same time avid readers are also successful as they have a wider vocabulary when it comes to creative writing, imagination and tackling reading comprehension, she continues.

“Children who are inclined to do the best are ones who have hands-off parents. The best ones are those who can look up something on Google. The parent is not going to be there in the exam,” says Dunster. 

Although Baviskar believes parents who work with their child will give them motivation and provide an example.

 Failure

But how to handle a situation where a child and perhaps the parent has put in all the work then doesn’t get a place at their chosen school?

Baig insists there is no real failure because any child who has prepared for the 11-plus is likely to stay at the top of their class at whatever secondary school they attend. 

He cites the example of one child who failed to get into Henrietta Barnett and instead attended her local comprehensive school where she was always at the top of the class and is now studying medicine at university. 

“We don’t use that word [failure] with the children,” adds Taylor. “It just means the school is not right for them.”

A child’s vocabulary, numeracy and reading will all be much better having done the 11-plus preparation, he says.

“It is highly competitive to gain a place in a grammar school or a scholarship to an independent school. We say to the children that they will go to the school that will be the perfect school for them whether it is a grammar school or not,” Dunster says.

“It is more important to try their best than not to have tried at all. Students who eventually complete their 11-plus training with us, will have gained great confidence when they arrive at their new secondary school – they have been trained up to foundation GCSE level of English and Maths,” she adds.

“Children must not be put under pressure when it comes to entrance exams. This is crucial,” insists Emily Jack from Kings Tutors.

“Children need to know that if they try their best then this is the most anyone can do. 

“If a child is unsuccessful then he or she may experience disappointment, however, it is important that the child understands that it is better to go to a school where he or she will thrive and there will always be another option,” she adds.

SchoolRankingA-level A*-BGCSE A*/A/9/8/7
Queen Elizabeth’s School, Barnet195.790.8
Wilson’s School, Wallington294.790.5
Henrietta Barnett School392.194.9
Pate’s Grammar School, Cheltenham495.687.5
The Tiffin Girls’ School591.194.6
St Olave’s Grammar School69389.4
Reading School788.890.9
Altrincham Grammar School for Girls89182.2
Colchester Royal Grammar School990.882.3
King Edward V1 Grammar School, Chelmsford1087.185.8
Source: The Times Parent Power

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