Regardless of your moral stance on the matter, it’s well known that a huge number of children receive some form of tuition for the 11+ exam. In fact, it’s a widely held belief that, rather than tutoring offering a child an advantage, not tutoring puts them at a huge disadvantage, and in many ways this is true. However, it’s not the case that you have to sign up to expensive courses or work every minute of the day in order to ensure your child’s success.
The first, and possibly most important point here, is that not every child should pass the 11+ exam. There are only a set number of grammar school places available so, each year, the exam’s job is to create a hierarchy of students. The ones who score most highly will be offered those places, regardless of what their scores actually are. If a whole cohort performs relatively badly (or if the exam is particularly difficult), they cannot have an entire year empty in all the grammar schools. They will just take the top-performing students, and so the pass mark will vary each year depending on how the children perform. Success, therefore, does not only depend on how well your child does on the test, but also on how well every other child does on the test.
To give an example from my old stomping-ground, roughly a third of students who take the exam in Buckinghamshire will pass. So, in that area, your child's test result needs to be within the top third in order for them to be successful. Before embarking on lots of expensive and, if handled badly, stressful tuition, you should ask yourself if you are confident that your child is in the top third (or at least the top half) of their year at school. If not, it would be well worth taking some time to consider whether grammar school would be right for them. Grammars are extremely competitive environments, and spending seven years struggling to keep up will do little to motivate or encourage a child academically.
If you feel that your child is actually not right for a grammar school, there are still plenty of things you can do to give them an academic boost alongside their peers, as well as giving them the best possible chance should things change during Year 5. Take a look at our posts outlining “Family Activities to Build Core Skills” for some of our suggestions.
If you are confident that your child will do well in a grammar school and you are happy to go down the route of structured tuition, there are three main options open to you. You could take on the role of tutor yourself, and set up a schedule of work for your child. You could hire a one-to-one tutor to manage it all for you. Or you can enrol your child in a group course.
Managing the work yourself
Obviously, the most cost-effective option is to manage the work yourself. There are a handful of distance learning courses which you can buy to help you to structure everything and give some reassurance that you’ve got everything covered. Although these obviously come at some cost, it is usually significantly cheaper than hiring a tutor. There are also some excellent forums and online communities which will help to guide you. It will all take time though, and you’ll need to be prepared to dedicate a fair chunk of your life to trawling through all the information.
There are two big downsides to this approach. The first is that children rarely work well for their parents. Try as you might, it is very difficult to separate the tuition from everyday life. If you try to sit with your child and do an hour’s concentrated vocabulary work, they will bring with them any bubbling resentment from the rest of the day. If you’ve just had an argument over them not putting their socks in the laundry bin, that comes into the lesson. Your time is also less protected than a tutor’s would be. If you have other children, it can be really hard to get them to leave you alone while you work. (And, if you think you can get them out of the house doing something fun instead, just imagine what your 11+ student will think about that plan!) There’s also always a chance that you’ll give in and allow them to do the lesson tomorrow. If your child is difficult enough, maybe, just maybe, you’ll give up and let them watch Britain’s Got Talent instead. That just doesn’t happen with a tutor, who will have a protected time slot and a very specific purpose.
The other big downside is a lack of competition. As noted earlier, it actually doesn’t matter how well your child performs in isolation. It’s how they perform in comparison to their peers, and under the pressure of an examination environment. Having to work alongside other students not only helps children feel less isolated or ‘singled out’ for extra work, but also gives them a real chance to improve and get a sense of their strengths and weaknesses. This can be really difficult to achieve at home and so can leave some children ‘coasting’, confident that they’re competing only with themselves.
If you decide to go down this route, I would strongly recommend booking your child in for some external mock exams throughout your 11+ journey. These will give some authentic exam practice and will go some way to stop them feeling isolated. It will also give you a better idea of how they perform in comparison to other children, and will help to identify any weaknesses caused by the stress of an exam room and the distraction of others around them.
In order to overcome some of the other hurdles, try to be as structured about the work as possible. Block off certain times each week for 11+ stuff, just as you would with a tutor, and try not to bring the subject up outside of those times. That way, your child won’t feel that you’re constantly nagging them, and they’ll probably be more compliant as they know what to expect. Make the work as fun and positive as you possibly can, and always leave your own anxieties about their performance out of the lessons.
Having a one-to-one tutor is more expensive (expect to pay £30 - £40 per hour, and to have at least a session a week from January to September), but it does remove a lot of the problems outlined above. Some tutors will come to you, and this is great in some ways. Generally, children are more relaxed at home which can help to build confidence in more nervous children. There’s also less worry about them forgetting to bring work with them, and it’s usually much more convenient for the parents. It can be harder to get the feeling of separation from the rest of the family though, and you’ll need to make sure that you have somewhere suitable for them to work. Having a lesson at a tutor’s premises can be a real pain if it doesn’t fit in easily with your schedule, and you may want to take extra precautions (such as checking the tutor has an up-to-date DBS check, insurance etc). This does give a more formal feeling to the whole thing though, which can be useful if you have a child who struggles to concentrate. And, unfortunately, it may be the only option open to you. Tutors can fit in more students in an evening if they don’t have to travel, so it tends to be a more common approach. You may find that you don’t have the luxury of choice and will have to go along with their usual format.
Although your child will still be lacking the obvious competition of other children in a class, the tutor will have a better frame of reference because of their other students so will be better placed to warn you of any weaknesses. Once again, I would still strongly recommend booking on to some formal mock tests alongside the tuition, but you then need to be very careful to ensure that your child hasn’t already done the paper with their tutor, so do discuss this with them before you organise anything.
When working with an external tutor on either a one-to-one basis or in a group environment, it is vital that you work in partnership with them and ask them before getting your child to do any additional work. A good tutor will have a plan of action and will be tackling things in a certain way. If you get your child to do extra bits without telling them, you may find you’re undermining their teaching methods or doubling up on work. This is especially true when it comes to practice exams. There are plenty of test papers available to buy, but they are of widely different levels of both difficulty and quality. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to learn that a child has done a paper at home already when you had it earmarked as excellent practice for a later date. Doing this can seriously undermine mock test results too. If you’ve gone to the trouble of finding a tutor, let them lead you. That’s what you’re paying for after all. If you have concerns or want to be more involved, tell them immediately. Any good tutor would welcome your support and input, but take advantage of their experience and don’t try to do your own thing.
The last option is group tuition, and this can vary hugely in quality, cost and amount of work. Some groups are very small, whilst others can be for up to 30 children. In my opinion, the very best 11+ tuition is done in a small, similar ability group (ideally 4-8 students), with supplementary large group sessions (such as mock tests) and a couple of one-to-one sessions to cover weaknesses. This gives the best spread of support for a child but can be very tricky to find. If you can find a small group setting for the majority of the work though, it’s usually the best way forward, and you can do the one-to-one stuff yourself and find external mocks if needed.
By having the bulk of teaching done in a small group, you ensure that no child can get lost or left behind, but that they still have a feeling of competition. They also feel less resentful of the work, as they can see that there are others in the same situation. The tutor generally has a better idea of your child’s particular strengths and weaknesses and so can more accurately advise you with regard to supplementary work which might be of benefit. Usually, there is more of a rapport within the group, and with the tutor too, which can make the whole process a lot more pleasant for both you and your child.
Large group tuition tends to still expect quite a lot of the parents. There is usually a lot of homework given as the work is less tailored. With so many children in the class, it’s safest for them to cover absolutely everything at every level, to give them the best chance of showing improvement in each student. The tutor is less likely to know your child as an individual, so these classes tend to rely more heavily on regular testing to keep on top of how a student is doing. This isn’t always a bad thing, and some students cope with it very well, but it can be stressful for more nervous children. It is good preparation for a grammar school though, as they tend to have large classes and regular testing, so if you feel this option is totally inconceivable for your child, I would urge you to think again about whether they would be happy in that environment.
Choosing a route through 11+ tuition is a difficult and confusing task. You know your child best though, so do go with your gut. The best recommendations and information tends to come from other parents at the school gate. Really good tutors usually don’t have to self-promote - their clients fill their timetables for them. If you choose to hire someone, go with a person you trust, that your child likes and that you feel will bring the best out in them. Keep communication open at all times and let them lead you. If you decide to do the tuition yourself, be prepared for lots of extra work and research, and use every available resource to help you.
Whatever you decide to do, you should make sure it’s the right approach for your child, and that your end goal is both achievable and in their best interest.
Notes and recommendations:
Ask a one-to-one tutor:
- Do they hold (or recommend) authentic feeling mock tests?
- Where will the lessons take place?
- Do they have a valid DBS check and insurance?
- Can you speak to any former clients of theirs to get first-hand references?
- Will they be unavailable at any time because of holidays etc?
- Do they have any backup plan in case of serious illness etc?
Ask a group tutor:
- Are their groups organised by ability in any way? If not, how will they make sure your child is getting the most from the course?
- What will they do if your child is falling behind?
- What will they do if they feel your child is not right for a grammar school?
- How much input do they expect from you in terms of homework support etc?
- What is included - often they will spring expensive ‘holiday courses’ on you, on top of the course you’ve originally signed up to. Check that the course runs all the way to the exam itself.