Having worked as a tutor in South Bucks for over a decade, I have dealt with most questions regarding 11+ tuition at some stage. One of the most common discussions I would have with parents was regarding the best time to start working towards the exam, and how much each child should be doing.
Many parents, not surprisingly, believe that the best chances of success lie with starting tuition as early as they can and doing as much preparation as they can reasonably manage, right up until the exam. They were usually very surprised to learn that I did not agree!
Starting tuition too early can cause problems in two very distinct ways. In some children, it can lead to a total loss of confidence in their own abilities. Regardless of how you may try to reassure them, it will only take a throwaway comment from a child at school to make them question whether they’re having tuition because they are falling behind in some way. This can lead to a crisis of confidence where the child believes that they are less clever than their peers who are not yet having tuition.
The second common effect we would see was a loss of focus in the classroom. Children sometimes felt that it was less important for them to pay attention at school as they had the constant safety net of a tutor to go to if they were stuck. They became used to the one-to-one attention and so, slowly, allowed their focus to slip in a larger classroom environment. Obviously, this then means that you’re encouraging your child to be reliant on that support - potentially for the very long term.
If there are serious issues with a child’s Maths or Literacy, I would suggest a short course of tuition in Year 4 to ensure that the child goes into Year 5 with a solid foundation. This should be focussed, and deal only with the weaknesses you’ve identified. If you know your child struggles with fractions, by all means help them (or hire a tutor to help them) get to grips with fractions, but don’t feel that you should do a full course covering every aspect of the Maths syllabus, as this can cause the same problems outlined above.
In terms of timing, assuming there are no concerns around performance at school, I’ve always advocated starting focussed 11+ tuition in the January of Year 5. This allows children a term to settle in to their new class, and gets them through the madness of Christmas. It’s very difficult to do much of use in that first term anyway, as there are so many extra activities going on (not to mention the inevitable coughs and colds which leave everyone feeling miserable!). Much better to start properly in the new year with a fixed goal ahead of them. A full 9 months of targeted tuition should be more than enough to get children through the exam if they are right for a grammar school - and this last caveat is an important one.
Not every child will do well in a grammar school. It is possible to hothouse children to pass the exam, but this may well come at the cost of a very miserable secondary school career. Children who are happy at school invariably achieve more than those who are unhappy and, for some children, being at the bottom of the class and perhaps supported by tutors for their entire school career will be extremely damaging. If you feel that your child will not pass the exam after 9 months of good quality preparation, I would urge you to seriously consider if they are right for the grammar school environment. You may find that they achieve far more, and gain much more confidence, being at the top of the heap in another school.
This is not to say that it’s best to leave your child entirely to their own devices until they start tuition. There are lots of activities you can do as a family which will be helping them to prepare for the exam without the involvement of tutors, workbooks or vocabulary lists. I'll soon be posting about “Family Activities to Build Core Skills”, giving ideas of things you can do at home which will not only give them invaluable skills for the 11+ exam, but also help to build their core skills and benefit them for the rest of their lives.