With the 7 plus and 11 plus exams fast approaching, we arranged for our tutors to receive exclusive advice and training from Susie West, former headmistress and renowned entrance exam specialist.
Susie West, former head of St Christopher’s visited the Temple of Minerva last week to discuss the 7 plus and 11 plus with our tutors. For nearly 14 years, Susie was head at St Christopher’s, a top girls’ primary school in Belsize Park, sending students to some of the best schools in the country. Here, she discusses schools, interviews and parents, covering all bases for the infamously tricky 7+ and 11+ exams.
How should pupils best prepare for 7+ and 11+ interviews?
Interviews are taken as very important by schools, and many students are tutored for them. But the schools are wise to this, and many of them try and devise strategies for identifying the students who have been tutored for interviews. This means the interviewer may be trying to actively unsettle students, even if they are only 6, 7 or 10. But they want to find the children who can think for themselves, and who have the confidence to say if they’re not sure what the interviewer is asking, or simply that they don’t know the answer – this is much more valuable than simply mumbling or guessing.
What would you say that schools are looking for in these interviews?
Schools are looking more at self-knowledge, self-awareness, confidence and ability to think on your feet, and these are the qualities that you want to inspire as a tutor. In school, a lot of children are afraid to say they don’t understand, as they’re in front of their peers, and so won’t have enough confidence. But one on one time with a tutor can help address this. They want to see pupils who can take ownership of the interview process, express personality, and show that they are more than what they know. In short, in a few minutes, they want to find out who this little person is and what they’re all about.
In terms of the academic material, schools may well ask a student to do some mental arithmetic, or read a passage of prose or poetry blind. Numeracy and literacy are the key skills schools will look for at this age, although some may also include some verbal and/or non-verbal reasoning questions. I also know pupils have been asked to interpret an image to see if they are comfortable expressing an opinion, backing it up with reason and answering questions on it.
What’s the biggest problem you’ve generally seen with the parents you’ve encountered?
Perhaps the most major problem, awful as it sounds, is simply not knowing your child well enough. Parents may be projecting their own hopes and ambitions onto a child who is simply not suited to it. The idea a parent has of what their child is like may not square with what their teachers (or tutors) see on a day to day basis, and so they may have loftier ambitions than is reasonable. Ultimately, this benefits no one – a child may become disheartened and demotivated, parents can be (unreasonably) frustrated or disappointed and schools can be blamed when they have no fault in the matter.
Sometimes it is better for overly ambitious or pushy parents to back off slightly, take some pressure off the children, and accept that – more often than not – they will get into the school that suits them, even if it’s not the high-pressure ultra-academic A*-factory the parents were hoping for. Sometimes parents are willing to listen to this sort of advice and take it on board, but others are not.
So you’re saying that sometimes the way a parent tries to motivate and encourage their child can actually serve to hinder and over-stress them?
Some parents may try and inspire their children through negative responses: ‘You’re not good enough at this subject’, ‘you won’t get into this school’, ‘you need a higher mark in this subject.’ This may feel like a natural response for parents who believe their child isn’t living up to their potential, or meeting their expectations, but it’s seldom beneficial. Negativity tends to discourage children, not motivate them, and again this is something that tutors can help to combat. Instead, it is better to encourage children and nudge them towards what they’re good at and what they enjoy. The confidence from excelling at something will likely make them more willing to tackle material about which they are less confident.
What do you think parents should be doing, then?
Often, the best thing a parent can do is to engage their children in conversation, read to them or with them and implement a screen detox. These simple strategies – in particular reading, the importance of which I cannot over-emphasise – are not just great for a child’s overall intellect and wellbeing, but will also be beneficial when it comes to the academic side of their lives: exams, interviews, lessons and homework.
It’s understandable that the pressure for places and finding the right school for their children puts a lot of stress and anxiety on parents, but they would often do well to remember that the road to hell is paved with good intentions! The 11+ is a crucial stepping stone in their child’s development – peer group, expectation, culture and pressure can all weigh heavily on anxious parents, and equally on their offspring. Doing research is vital, visiting schools, asking tricky questions and going by their own gut feeling, rather than too much by what others say. What is ideal for one pupil might be a disaster for another…so a lot of it goes back to having the confidence of sticking with their knowledge of their child!
Would you say there’s a ‘right’ school for every student?
Some schools are more academic and results-driven while others are less so, but more focused on pastoral care and turning out happier and more well-rounded individuals. They may not have the same stellar grades, but students will feel more prepared for life outside school. These schools are not ‘better’ or ‘worse’ as such, simply suited to different individuals. Equally, some students may flourish at boarding schools, where they may have more space, be under less pressure and will likely have a slightly easier way in with a lower entrance grade threshold at 11+ or Common Entrance.
However, at most of the top schools, something always has to give. It might be results, or student mental health and wellbeing, or being under constant pressure, but the sharp academic focus at some top schools – that get fantastic results – is better suited to some girls than others. These hothousing places may have a therapist or counsellor on site, such is the commonplace nature of mental health difficulties among students, in exchange for top grades.
Interestingly, North London schools seem to be generally more intense than those South of the river, but I don’t know why. Competition is particularly fierce in North London, where there are fewer Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST) schools than in South and West London, where there are several excellent options.
Do you think the senior school admissions process is changing at all?
The is a current quirk, that the top co-ed schools are more popular and competitive than the top single-sex schools. Whereas the latter may be attracting 5-7 applicants per place, top co-ed schools are attracting closer to 10. These schools tend to be looking even more for punchy, sparky and confident children with a strong personality, who will join in and make the most of it. They are not good places to be a shrinking violet, or for those who may struggle to express themselves around the opposite sex.
The entrance process varies from school to school. Some schools have a standardised process (the consortium of North London girls’ schools, for example), where one exam applies to all of them, then they may also choose to interview. Some schools may want students to do one exam, or two, and they may combine results, or accept someone who does brilliantly in one but is weaker in another. Some may consult the head of the junior school or ask for a report if a student is borderline, or has a weakness in one subject, but is excellent in another.
Brilliant, thanks so much for your insights, Susie!
Susie is passionate about education, and firmly believes that there is a right school for every child. She has extensive experience in managing parents and helping students identify and win places at the best schools for them. She is currently working for Minerva as a senior education consultant, and is available for advice and guidance. If you are interested in setting up a meeting, please call the Temple of Minerva on 0208 819 3276.
By David Bard
David is a Minerva Pro Tutor who specialises in humanities subjects at A Level and is a trained expert in the 7 + and 11 + exams. Outside of tutoring, David writes blogs about creative writing and everything that’s trending in education.