My 11+ journey: S.L. Ager

After preparing her children for Kendrick School and Reading School exams S.L. Ager wrote the 11-plus vocabulary novel series The Cadwaladr Quests.

What schools were you aiming for? Both my children worked through the 11-plus process. My daughter sat in 2014, my son in 2017. Their target schools being Kendrick and Reading schools, respectively. They are single sex grammar schools in Reading, Berkshire.

What school did they go to in the end? They both achieved places at their target schools.

Were you ever aware of your children’s CAT scores? I vaguely remember my daughter’s teacher, back in 2013, speaking about these scores, and I think my daughter sat in the top third of the class after these tests. I don’t remember having any CAT scores for my son. Maybe they didn’t do them in his year.

We didn’t externally assess our children, although their tutors determined their levels when they started.

How was your child performing at their primary school in relation to their peers? Both of my children attended state schools and were top of their class in maths. Both were in the top third in literacy. My daughter read avidly; my son was a reluctant reader. This has always been a problem with him.

Why did you decide to apply to a grammar school? My daughter always seemed bright but easily led and distracted. We thought a single-sex education would best suit her. Our local comprehensive is outstanding, and most of her friends were about to go there. She may have allowed herself to be distracted by them and possibly boys. We felt she would be better placed in a school where most children might be likely to better influence her—also, possibly a school whose pupils had a majority of like-minded parents. I’m from a working-class background and went to a poor comprehensive school in the 80s. This severely hindered my progress and chances as a young adult but instilled a strong work ethic around schooling.

When did your child start preparing for the 11-plus? With my daughter, we didn’t start preparing for the 11-plus until the beginning of year 5.

With my son, my second child, I began preparing him at home in year 4. Having been through the process successfully once with my daughter, we felt confident to start the process with him. My son didn’t read fiction. Vocabulary is critical for the 11-plus. This is why I wrote my 11-plus vocabulary novel series The Cadwaladr Quests. I wrote it with my son, to expose him to all the vocabulary he needed all under one roof, so to speak.

How did you prepare your child for the 11-plus? Did you opt for a tutor? Back in 2013, when looking for a tutor, there were no Facebook groups like now, and fewer tutors existed. I asked friends and chose from word-of-mouth opinions. My daughter attended a one-to-one tutor for one hour once a week. We initially opted for that method, thinking it would work best for one so easily distracted. We also chose a strict tutor. In the summer holiday, before she sat the test, we left that tutor and switched to group tuition to improve her maths, which proved excellent for her, but I did lots of heavy lifting at home.

One hour per week, and leaving everything to a tutor, would not have been adequate for our target schools because they are highly selective. There are not enough places for applicants. From June of the year she sat the test, we averaged two hours a day at home, which I implemented. We also decided not to take a holiday in the summer holidays before both tests.

If you prepared your child yourself, what books did you use? We used Bond, CGP, AE Publications workbooks, First Past the Post, Synonyms and Antonyms by Christine Draper, 11 Plus Vocabulary by Rose McGowan, and the tutor used Letts books too.

We also made our own flashcards, and we wrote our own vocabulary revision notebook which I reproduced under my brand The Cadwaladr Quests. My son and I co-wrote the first vocabulary novel Tangled Time, and that formed the basis of his entire vocabulary learning.

How much time a day or a week did your child spend on 11-plus preparation before year 4, in year 4 and in year 5? In year 4, with my daughter, we concentrated on times tables, the four operations, reading and learning vocabulary. In year 5, initially, she did one hour a week of tuition and probably fifteen minutes to half an hour each day at home. But from June she averaged two hours per day at home. She read widely.

With my son, I started in year 4 at home with the CGP and Bond books, all the usual suspects and age-relevant materials. We followed a similar pattern with him.

How many minutes a day did your child read? My daughter had read the entire Harry Potter series in early year 3, and she probably read that series two or three times. She would read on average between one to three hours a day.

My son read only non-fiction and had to be coaxed/forced into reading fiction.

Again, this is why I wrote my vocabulary novel series for my son. My children’s vocabulary proved to be poles apart.

Did your child still continue extra-curricular activities during 11-plus preparation? We continued extra-curricular activities during the 11 plus; however, we’re not a family that does lots of things. My daughter continued to play three hours of tennis per week, my son continued to play football and tennis for the same amount of time.

Did you allow your child access to electronic devices in year 4 and 5? We did, but minimally so and only as a reward. Neither child possessed mobile phones until the end of year 6, start of year 7, and we gave them as another reward. We gave our son his Xbox at the end of year 4, but we limited usage.

Did your child attend a mock exam? My daughter sat her first mock with Eleven Plus Exams in Harrow because seven years ago, I struggled to find other mock providers in our area. She did not do well in her first mock. It pointed out her weaknesses and where she needed to speed up. She subsequently sat two further and did much better in both. The mock exams proved invaluable.

My son did three, all with Susan Daughtrey Education, whose provision was good. He never scored over 80 percent.

What would you have done differently, if you had your time again? I would have started in year four at home with my daughter using CGP books. Apart from that, nothing because both of my children passed. My daughter passed with an extremely high score and my son with a score high enough to gain a place without having to sit on a waiting list.

Did you ever feel the pressures of 11-plus preparation were too much for your child? I’m not sure the pressure of the 11-plus was too much for my daughter, but she didn’t want to do the work, and the pressure came from facilitating that. Perhaps the parents take the brunt of the pressure? My husband worked in London, so I did the 11-plus work. He helped with maths because it’s my weakness. We gave our daughter a goal with a chosen prize of a holiday to Florida or a dog. She chose a dog. That is Eric, our Border Terrier. We’d have given her Eric whether she had passed or failed the test.

My son also wanted a dog, and that is Blossom. Perhaps a crucial skill to ease pressure is to make sure your child has excellent exam technique and timing. We worked on technique and speed to ensure confidence in the tests. And obviously, the mocks helped with that too. We told them “keep your eyes on the prize” and “remember speed and accuracy”.

Were your wider family and friends supportive of the process? My family and friends were happy with our decision. My daughter’s best friend sat the test too and passed, which was great. There were a few parents I could talk to, but nothing like today when there are Facebook groups that are so supportive and so informative.

I help in two groups: The 11+, SATs, GCSE & ISEB Resource Group and 11 Plus Journey. I also started my thriving reading group – The Cadwaladrquestschat where parents share their children’s fantastic work with us.

Where did you seek advice on the 11-plus process? I used the Eleven Plus Exams forum, which was really about the only credible online advice I could find back then.

What is your key piece advice on 11-plus preparation for other parents? This is tricky, and where do I stop! Start early, but not too soon. Make sure the foundations are solid. Vocabulary is critical to success in the 11-plus test. Ensure you know your target schools’ requirements, the exam boards they use, and the marking schemes.

Use a tutor if you want to, but don’t leave everything to them. Tutors are not a cure-all; you should support your children at home. Don’t despair. I think to prepare for the 11-plus is possibly more stressful than GCSEs because the children are younger and don’t understand the implications of what they’re doing.

Having been through GCSE revision with my daughter, she realised its importance and took responsibility for her learning. She would never have done this for the 11-plus. The analogy I use when talking to parents is that of a marathon runner who trains daily to strengthen muscles and stamina. They don’t run 26 miles every day. The aim is to peak on the day. This is what I would recommend with your children. Don’t burn them out – short bite-size pieces every day to succeed on the day.

Was it all worth it? For sure. My children would agree with that too.

Would you like to share your 11+ experience? Please write to answering the questions above. We pay £20 for those of a sufficient standard to publish plus £5 for a photograph.

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