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London focus: Talk Education’s top tips for tackling a Covid-proofed 11+

For parents of 10-year-olds, November can be an anxious month. We’re well on our way to peak deadline time for 11+ registrations – and while timelines can vary drastically across the capital, the next few weeks are usually key.

This year, however, things are looking a little different. After countless months of uncertainty and upheaval, senior schools have come together to try and bring some calm to the situation. Whether you’re still finalising your choices or you’re busy placating pre-exam nerves, the key message is: don’t panic. This year may have exposed gaps in many pupils’ education, but the good news is – schools are thinking more flexibly than ever.

Researching schools
‘Communication is key,’ says Edward Rees, head of Hornsby House. Make sure you keep in touch with the schools you have registered with: they will confirm any changes to timing, exams and interviews you need to know about. Prep heads are taking their hand-holding role more seriously than ever too (Mr Rees – among many others – is writing to his Year 6 parents on a weekly basis).

Most importantly, listen to your current head’s guidance. One prep school reports seeing twice as many applications to Latymer Upper School as in a ‘normal’ year, in response to the school’s decision to abandon its notoriously challenging exam in favour of the ISEB Common Pre-Test. Don’t give into the temptation to go off-piste and ‘register up’: you may well be setting your child up for potential disappointment at the interview stage.

Do your homework properly. This year, open days went virtual, with some schools managing to turn theirs into something that resembled ‘a James Bond film with breakout rooms’, says Henry Keighley-Elstub, head of Pembridge Hall School. The result? ‘Parents think the school has brilliant marketing, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into it being a brilliant school for their child.’ At the other end of the spectrum, ‘if there isn’t decent marketing, that could be an indication that the school is resting on its laurels – and raises the question why.'

If you haven’t been able to visit schools, Talk Education is here to help. Read our reviews and use your Talk Education parent dashboard to compare data on the schools you are considering. Pinpoint a good spread of schools and make sure each one ticks all the vital boxes, such as do the geography and transport logistics work for your family? What is the school community like? Are the high-flying academics within your child’s reach?‘

Keep your eye on the long game too,’ says Keighly-Elstub. Your child might not yet be quite ready for the school you’ve set your sights on, but you can always consider moving them at a later stage.

The Entrance Exam
This year, 30 co-ed, boys’ and girls’ schools have chosen to replace their usual 11+ papers with the ISEB Common Pre-Test, an online, age-standardised, multiple-choice exam.

The ISEB Pre-Test has plenty of advantages. Pupils only need to sit one exam (results are shared among all schools using the test), so children won’t have to cram into countless different exam halls when coughs and colds are rife. Generally, the test is sat in the familiar setting of pupils’ own prep schools, at a pace set by them (which could be over the course of up to four days). If your child’s school isn’t used to administering the test, don’t panic. Most are stepping up and doing as much as they can do to support their pupils. ‘We know that in one school, a pupil will go along and sit the test in their headteacher’s office,’ says Louise Mawer, registrar at Alleyn’s.

Each school has applied its own deadline for prospective pupils to take the ISEB, and many are before Christmas, giving schools ample time to react and reflect before shortlisting interview candidates – and families their holidays back.

The test is a measure of ability rather than attainment, so no specific preparation is necessary. For many prep schools such as Pembridge Hall and Hornsby House, the whole 11+ journey is seen as their bread and butter; at others within the state sector, families might have made the choice to go down this route themselves – and will not have such support. 

Some schools have stuck to their guns and decided to retain their original exam, shortening or adapting their papers or bringing the test date forward instead. St Paul’s Girls’ School has reduced the length of its papers by 35 minutes; Lady Eleanor Holles has replaced its maths and English papers with snappier tests in verbal and non-verbal reasoning and problem-solving.

Claire Richardson, head of admissions at St Paul’s Girls’ School, encourages pupils to think flexibly: ‘Candidates will be assessed in the same manner they’re used to, content-wise – it will just be in a slightly different way this year. Forget the lists of vocabulary and pages of maths equations – instead, think about context. Ask questions, why something is happening, rather than just at a description level. In maths, think about problems rather than just straight sums.’ Mr Keighly-Elstub adds: ‘Those children who read and are interested in words can dramatically increase their verbal-reasoning skills.’

Interviews are likely to become much more in-depth and carry significantly more weight. Some are being moved online; St Paul’s Girls’ has confirmed that they will all be conducted remotely this year; Alleyn’s hopes to interview candidates in person, but are busy putting plans in place to offer virtual alternatives. Godolphin & Latymer still aims to interview as many candidates as possible but, given the current climate, will draw up a shortlist rather than interviewing every candidate - which last year amounted to nearly 1,000.

Admissions teams know all too well that some children don’t have a natural knack at interviews, and as parents, it’s easy to forget that they are just 10 years old. Don’t expect too much from your son or daughter, and please – skip the tutoring and excessive coaching (this year, those with heavily prepared answers on climate change might just give the game away).

Try to remember that admissions teams are human too. Alleyn’s is asking prep- and primary- school teachers about the provisions at their schools since lockdown, while parents have been given the opportunity to comment on their child’s educational experience since March. St Paul’s Girls’ is asking parents whether their daughter’s learning has been negatively impacted by Covid-19 – so if you really want to get your child into the right school, it pays to be honest. If you are concerned, ‘please talk to us,’ urges Ms Richardson.

Financial aid
Keep bursaries in mind. Too many parents don’t realise they exist, so read up on the provisions at each school you’re applying to (every school’s page on the Talk Education website provides the key information) and pick up the phone to enquire. Family circumstances are looked at on a case-by-case basis – and you might be surprised to learn what the financial thresholds are.

And finally...
Don’t forget: the 11+ admissions process is about finding the children who will thrive at any given school. ‘We know what we are doing,’ says Ms Richardson, ‘so trust that we are working to the exact same goal as usual, even if we are amidst a global pandemic.’

‘We would like to tell parents to be confident that we know everyone has had a rollercoaster over the last six months,’ adds Ms Mawer, ‘and we will be looking at all of the data in the round, very carefully. We would advise every boy and girl to simply take a deep breath – and just do their best.’