How to Get into the Best Independent Schools

So, if you have been following my blogs then you will perhaps have followed my daughter’s 11+ journey. Unfortunately she didn’t manage to get into the local grammar school which is the one that I myself attended (see posts about overcoming failure and how 11+ was in the 80s), but luckily for us, we were financially able to consider independent school options. We have sent our children to state schools so far and have never employed a tutor and so this would be our first departure into ‘paid privilege’. An unequal education system is not something that I am altogether comfortable with, but having the knowledge that within the state primary system my children have been relatively unchallenged and indeed have been teaching other children in their classes, I did feel that it would be important for them to go to a secondary school that would be more academically challenging in order for them to fulfil their potential. Whilst I was happy to teach my children the content of the 11+ exam papers, I really am not up to teaching GCSE French or Geography and quite frankly am looking forward to resigning from the teaching role altogether!

Choose the right range of schools

Many London independent schools are among the best independent schools in the country and we made the decision to sit Molly for 5 schools within reasonable commute. As our main reason for choosing the independent sector was for the teaching and academic environment, we only looked at schools which were well-known for good academic record and/ or pastoral care. For me the grounds, the school uniform and the politics trips to Washington and netball trips to Barbados were actually a turn-off (promoting privilege) although I recognise that there is nothing wrong with being interested in these aspects of schools. We ended up choosing 5 schools including one which is usually consistently in the league table top 5 schools in the country and one which was slightly less academic which we knew Molly would have a very good chance of getting in to bar disaster. I think that if you are putting children through 11+ exams, you should absolutely set them up to succeed by choosing at least one school that is a definite shoe in. Even if this school is not your first choice, make no differentiation between it and the other more challenging schools. In my mind, 5 schools is a sufficient number of schools to choose. I know children that sat 8,9,10 different schools and really? What is the point – you are aiming to narrow down to 1 school at the end of the day, so increasing a child’s exam burden is really a big price to pay for your own indecision. Try and get a realistic idea of your child’s ability as if your child has very little chance of success (say less than 50:50), remember that your ‘let’s have a punt’ is potentially at the expense of your child’s self-esteem.

Avoid setting your heart on a school

Unless a school is an absolute shoe in for your child, it is worth not setting your heart on a competitive school. The reason being that however hard you try to hide it, your child will be able to tell that you have a preference for a school and if they do not get in, they will feel that they have let you down and suffer disappointment in themselves. For children at this age never underestimate how much that they want to make you proud – it’s probably their top priority. If you can protect them from feeling like they have disappointed you, I would recommend it. My mantra throughout the whole 11+ process was ‘We don’t choose a school, a school chooses us’ and when pushed to choose a favourite ‘My favourite school is the school that chooses us.’ This was not a disingenuous act, but the truth. I’ll tell you why.

League tables are not all that they seem

If you look carefully at independent school league tables, you’ll see that the majority of schools in the top 50 have children who achieve remarkably good grades and regularly send children into Oxbridge and other really good Unis. Their position in the league tables is largely determined by the proportion of children who for one reason or another do not do as well. Rather than fixating on the number of A* children, we should consider why some children are not doing so well. It is easy for a school which sets a gruelling entrance exam to select intelligent children; and when you put intelligent children in, you’ll likely get intelligent children out. Simples. It does not necessarily mean that the quality of teaching at these schools is better. More impressive are schools with an easy entrance procedure that achieves good results – like many in the state sector. What the league tables hide is that in the majority of highly competitive schools a tranche of children are ‘managed out’ between acceptance and GCSEs. I know this because as a child psychiatrist, we often see children whose parents have been at best ‘asked to look at other schools’ and at worst ‘told/ threatened’ that their child will have to leave their school, because their child is not cutting the academic mustard at the prestigious school and their results will affect the school’s league table position. Are the top schools in the league tables then, just the schools that are best at smuggling ‘unsuccessful’ children out? It would be useful for league tables also to publish the number of children that left each school before GCSEs. One would imagine that people needing to move out of area would be fairly evenly distributed and so schools with higher than average student turnover would be interesting. Worse still are schools that kick children out between GCSE and A-levels or dictate which A-levels a child is and is not allowed to pursue for the sake of league table standing. This is not acceptable in the state sector and should not be acceptable in the independent sector either. In my mind, a school as a safe supportive environment for the formative years of children’s lives should commit to trying to fulfil the potential of its students and not be actively contributing to their potentially life-long neurosis that they ‘are not good enough’. To this end, much to the chagrin of my own Tiger mother (now tiger grandmother), I was happy to give Molly the choice of which school she went to amongst the 5 that I had chosen that she sit, irrespective of league table standing.

Good mental health promotes academic success

My strategy in getting Molly through the 11+ exams incorporated thinking about mental health, because as I frequently want to say to my patients ‘If your child commits suicide, it won’t really matter whether or not he/she got a place at Oxbridge will it?’. Extra-curricular activities continued throughout Year 5 and 6, as did play dates and holidays. Work hard, play hard was the mantra. We had started working towards 11+ early, so there was no panic and the increase in work was gradual. I was fortunate in that after Molly did not get into the grammar school, the majority of the motivation to work harder came from herself, and it was amazing to see how determined that she could be when she wanted to do something herself. From the start, the 11+ process was something that we did together and I was clear that whether we succeeded or failed, we would shoulder the joy or defeat together. In this way, if she failed, she could have someone else to blame as well as herself. After the exams and interviews, but before the results came out, I asked Molly to rate on a scale of 0-10 how stressful the experience had been. She said 4.5. I’ll take that! (Although it did cross my mind that damn – I could have got her to work harder!).

Interviews

I really can’t give you much advice about interviews as Molly did all the hard work. Luckily, social ability is actually Molly’s strength and I knew that as long as I could help deliver her to the interview stage she’d more likely than not shine. Unfortunately, little did I know that at some schools the parents are also interviewed. Having been on-call and therefore unable to take annual leave to take Molly to the exams, I was responsible for taking her to interviews so could not back out now and make my husband take leave again. After a morning fretting about getting ready for the interview, words of wisdom from someone much wiser than me saved the day: ‘Don’t worry mum. Just be yourself.’ How lovely.

The Final Say

We were lucky enough in the end for Molly to be offered places at all 5 schools that she sat. We gave the final school decision to Molly and she is looking forward to starting in September. As mentioned, my mother was horrified at the lack of regard to league table standing in the decision making, but all my friends and colleagues in child psychology and psychiatry were in agreement. I liked what one of them said: there was a survey about how much people liked their furniture and IKEA flat-pack came out really well as people appreciate things more when they feel that they have contributed to making it. I hope this means that Molly will really enjoy the school that she has chosen. I am also grateful that if it all goes tits up – she can’t blame me!

And finally – it’s not just in Hollywood

Just as a sordid aside, I want to mention that I really wasn’t shocked about the stories from Hollywood about the rich buying their children’s places at elite universities. It is really a sad state of affairs if people think that only a few schools or universities can ‘make’ our children’s futures, and sadder too that the rich and influential feel that they can take these opportunities from other people. But just so it is out there, it happens here in England too, and it already starts at 11+. I know several children who have managed to get a place at academically selective schools for which they had not been on the waiting list for after interview, or had never been invited to interview or had never even sat the entrance exam for! These are not the super rich and famous but everyday upper middle class folk enacting their (white in the cases I know) privilege. Unfortunately, I’m not party to how these amazing feats were accomplished by parents so cannot share the tips with you here – that would probably have been a more interesting blog post! Sorry!

One comment

  1. Holly

    It’s so nice to see a post from a parent with this view of education. I let my two choose their high school and although we’re not in a position to choose an independent school, they both have an investment because they were included. Our eldest has just chosen his GCSE options, and whilst we gently guided the subjects were not ours to choose.

    We have employed tutors where they wanted more help, and I tutor GCSE & A Level (after a decade teaching, tuition is an absolute joy where I can prioritize mental health over league tables).

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