When No 1 Son got to Year 4, which is roughly when you’re supposed to start thinking about what will happen after Year 6, we realised that the school choices in our borough were very limited. We live in London, and the catchment areas for any decent school are so tight, they just weren’t an option. We’re not religious, so we couldn’t play the church card, either (and I know plenty of parents who did).
That left us with the choice of a couple of local-ish schools which were on special measures (!), going private, or going to a school out of our borough where he would need to sit the 11+.
In the end we decided that the last option was definitely the most preferable, and had the private option as a back up, although goodness only knows how we thought we’d ever afford it.
But our primary school made it very clear that they weren’t able to offer any help with preparing for the 11+ or entrance exams, because all they had to do was prepare the kids to pass the local education authority test in Year 6, which was very different. So the only exam practice he would get would be those papers you can buy from newsagents, and neither his dad or I would be able to give him the help he needed in the area in which he was weakest – maths. In the end, another parent with an older child recommended the tutor who had helped her son get into the same school where we wanted to send our son. It transpired he had also tutored the boys of another mum I knew well, and they had all done brilliantly.
I’ve often heard parents – including one of my friends – complain that kids are ‘hothoused’ to pass the 11+ and that if you can afford enough tutoring then your kid will pass. But that’s not exactly the case. The 11+ requires your child to be able to reach a certain level of attainment, to understand what’s required of them in the exam – but the ability has to be there in the first place. That’s just a fact of life. No 1 Son sat a few entrance exams and the 11+ and they were all slightly different – some required a certain standard of English and Maths, some verbal reasoning, and so on.
Our tutor was a lovely man who lived locally. He explained that first of all he would do an assessment with No 1 Son, and that would determine whether or not it was worth us paying for him to have more sessions. He said that he wouldn’t waste anyone’s time if he felt there was no chance of him passing the 11+ or entrance exams (he was being very honest – there were people lining up to book him). After the first session, he told us that he thought No 1 Son would do ‘very well’, but that he needed a little help with maths (which we already knew) and non-verbal reasoning, because for some reason his brain didn’t quite get it at the moment.
What our tutor did, then, was to boost our boy’s confidence in the areas he wasn’t quite so strong, and to give him the exam practice he so badly needed. Each session – one hour a week, for about six months – cost £15, and it was worth every penny. None of us felt unduly stressed, at least not until actual exam day, when we saw all the other kids lining up outside the gates (over 1000 for 100 places at one school.) But thanks to his tutor, No 1 Son went into those exams armed with every possible tool at his disposal, and the result was he passed the 11+ and three other entrance exams. We were absolutely delighted. Our ‘choices’ of secondary school had suddenly gone from ‘very limited’ to ‘four’.
For us, having a tutor who was very much a personal tutor worked out brilliantly. It was an investment in our son’s future and it was worth every penny. If you’re facing the same sort of schools dilemma my advice would be: ask other parents which tutors they used, be realistic about your child’s ability, and ask the tutor to be honest with you, too, before you begin. A good tutor will do this – they won’t see your child simply as cash, but they’ll recognise what’s at stake. I realise tutors like this are hard to find, but if you can, I honestly believe they’re worth their weight in gold.