Robert's Exam Preparation Blog | RSL Educational

Have you ever felt confused by all the advice on offer from schools, websites, other parents ... ?

Have you ever wished that you could just lock a group of education experts in a room together, and not let them out till they've told you how to get your child ready for 11 Plus?

Well, today I did that job for you!

I asked prominent education specialists, including headteachers, writers and leading tutors, to send me their very best advice for parents and children preparing for the 11 Plus – especially for those families who are taking a DIY approach, without help from a tutor.

Here’s what they had to say. There are some brilliant tips – and you’ll spot some important themes which run through the advice.

(If you find this article useful, why not share it on Facebook or Twitter?)

Sebastian Hepher, Headmaster, Eaton Square School

For the child:
Begin the process of revision and practice papers early. Where possible, work through 11+ maths and comprehension papers under timed conditions, at least 6 months in advance. Go through the papers and work out whether there are common areas requiring further focus and then develop these.

At 13+ Common Entrance, again begin the process as early as you can, in Year 7 ideally, building up a bank of revision cards along the way. It is the volume of revision and information needed for 13+ CE that is often the telling factor for pupils, so the earlier the better where revision is concerned.

For the parent:
Be as calm and supportive as possible. Try to avoid any emotional encounters and never become frustrated with your children. Always follow the school’s advice on which senior school to aim for and do not merely follow the crowd. Look carefully at your child and be sure to base the future school selection on their character as well as/more than their academic ability.

Nathaniel McCullagh, Founder and Managing Director, Simply Learning Tuition

For the child:
To pass the 11+ with flying colours you need practice, practice and more practice! Exam papers aren’t really that frightening when you get used to them and you almost certainly know a lot more than you think you do. Part of the challenge with 11+ is understanding what the exam paper is really asking you and tailoring your answer to include just the information the question requires. I recommend that you buy no fewer than ten sets of past papers (with mark schemes) and practice working under exam conditions. For Maths (Numeracy) I would assume anyone preparing for the 11+ has a good grasp of the basics (times tables and basic numerical functions) but practising multi-step word problems with your parents can be a good way to keep you on your toes and to try harder and harder questions; if you are able to confidently calculate these answers in your head you will find them a doddle when faced with a question in the exam where you are able to write down your calculations. For English (Literacy), ask your parents to set you some essays and compositions. Then they should read the answer sheets and help explain the answers and the mark scheme to you.

For the parent:
Keep your cool and put your effort into helping your son or daughter learn, rather than focusing on what the outcome of the 11+ will be. The 11+ is a particularly important exam but you will help your child most by rising above the media-fuelled anxieties and coffee circle chat about the UK school admissions system. The system may be over-burdened but it generally does work and provided your son or daughter has worked reasonably hard at school they should perform in a way that accurately reflects their ability. Over-coaching to push a child beyond their natural abilities may get them into a ‘better’ school in the short term but ultimately there is little point - they will perform best at the school that is right for them. So, after taking a deep breath, you need to find a nice quiet spot in the house, get a plate of chocolate biscuits and start helping your child understand the gaps in their subject knowledge - then work on exam technique. Lots of encouragement, support and practice are essential. I find that going over the basics and physically sitting with your child as they do the work is the best way to demonstrate your support and help them develop academic confidence.

Femke Bolle, Private Tutor

For the parent:
The way to score well in the maths and English exams is to be excellent at maths and English. Focus on improving core skills, deep understanding, and flexible, nimble minds. While a cursory knowledge of the exam format is useful, trying to teach entirely 'to the test' is usually counter-productive. Additionally, if your child does get in by that type of rote learning, they may be out of their depth once they actually enter the school.

For the child:
For English, find books you enjoy and read them. Ask teachers, librarians, your parents, and Google for recommendations. There's a reading list on my website, and many selective schools also release their own lists. Read books that are challenging, but not hopelessly difficult. Even if you hate reading, there will be some books which will be at least 'okay' for you to read, and it will make an incredible difference to your English. Aim to read 30 minutes every day.

For maths, learn how to write down your workings in a logical and tidy way. It's no good doing workings if they end up squished up, or mixed together with workings for a different question. A huge number of marks are lost every year because students couldn't understand what they'd just written down. The ability to write down your mathematical thoughts is one of the most important skills you learn at this age - make sure you master it!


Tim Butcher, Headmaster, Perrott Hill School

For me it’s all about the bigger picture.

For the child:
Make sure you have discussed with your parents and see (and agree with!) all the benefits of getting to the target senior school. Hopefully you will have visited it. Motivation is key. Thrashing through preparation papers without motivation is horrible for all concerned. Try to take a joy in the puzzles and challenges within the papers, seeing them as tasks to be tackled and overcome in victory by exercising your brain ‘muscle’. Take an interest in how any errors occurred and know that they are good! It’s how the learning bit happens. Be active and be ‘live’ within your preparations and learning – this is not about robotically achieving ‘success’. Do a little and often; make it a part of your weekly routine. Most importantly, remember that passing or not with an 11+ (or similar) does NOT define you and your ability to be a fantastic learner.

For the parent:
Success at 11+ is something that is achieved over a childhood of taking joy in learning and showing a curiosity in the world around, not over an intense 6-month preparation period where the stakes feel so high that ‘failure’ will damage your child’s esteem. Above all else, ensure your child knows that ‘success’ at 11+ will in no way affect the terms in which you talk of or think of them. Your love and support must be seen to be unconditional at all times, and this must be clear in the way you tackle the whole task of preparation for the papers. The best preparation, therefore, is to know your goals early in your child’s life and take an earnest interest in the latest understanding of how children learn, so that this gently informs the way you go about the daily joy of living and learning. Removing fear of failure is a large part of being intellectually adventurous and this can provide something of a paradox when preparing for the likes of 11+. Don’t knowingly set your child up for a fall due to your own ambitions. They may ‘fall’, and that has to be OK, but be realistic and understand that the only point in assisting your child to successfully pass through the gate posts is if they will flourish in the environment beyond.

In light of all of the above, practice papers should be a familiarisation and refinement toolkit that hones learning practices and understanding already embedded through your child’s upbringing. For example, many of us read to our children at bedtime, but quietly asking some questions as we go, about how characters feel, what effects certain words create, what someone’s motivation was, helps bring an understanding of the author’s craft. If you’re worried this will spoil the simple joy of the story and getting pulled in, then simply log the questions in your mind as you go, and then have a short chat at the end of the chapter.

In the more immediate lead-in phase, talk to your child about why they are undertaking the papers and the benefits of the target senior school. Help them to develop buy-in, understanding and motivation from within themselves, not taking a ‘because it’s what mum and dad want’ approach. It is imperative that your child has as much self-motivation as possible. This is a tricky line to tread when also reassuring them that all will be well if they don’t pass.

Susan Lalic, Eleven Plus Mock

For the child:
My top tip is to practise timing. My daughters took twice as long as permitted when they sat their first 11+ practice paper at home, but after some months were able to complete a paper in time. Don't forget to read a range of books as often vocabulary is tested extensively in 11+ exams.

For the parent:
Sitting a mock test is invaluable in order to get used to all the noises that can occur during an exam and learn to ignore them. A number of children drop stationery, want to visit the toilet or have a bad cough - all of which can be distracting. Parents will then get some results of the mock tests and have a realistic idea of how their child is doing in relation to others. There are many free 11+ sample papers online so it is not necessary to spend lots of money on workbooks etc.

Fred de Falbe, Headmaster, Beeston Hall School

I used to be in London at a prep school with an 11+ exit that meant parents and children sweating with tutorials. Now I head up a rural boarding school in Norfolk where children all do the 13+ and have a much less stressed time as a result. Taking the country option is the way forward, if you can!

For the parent:
Happy children thrive, so line up the target school accurately – do not aim your child at a school he or she is going to struggle to get in to because he/she will, likely as not, continue to struggle all through the teenage years of growing independence. Think how this must feel for the teenager. Also, listen to the advice of your child’s school.

If you need to use practice books, do it together, try to make it fun, so that explaining them as you go becomes something of a dialogue – rather than trawling through the papers solo and checking to see if child is finished. [To learn more about how you can use the approach Fred mentions here, you might be interested in my 11 Plus videos for parents.] Spend the time but don’t judge, and don't suck your teeth when your child hasn’t grasped something you knew at his/her age or you would have expected them to know.

For the child:
Try not to think of it as school work to struggle with ... Try some other games like cross words, Sudoku or strategy games like Risk (online or board games). Number plate games in the car can be good for mental agility.

Try not to get cross with your parents – they’re only wanting the best for you. If they want to sit down with you do let them – and let them try to explain … Agree the rules of engagement first if they are acting as helper. Strategy games like Age of Empires are, with limited use, quite handy for practising online tests. READ LOTS, AND LOTS MORE!

Luke Courtier, Bright Young Things Tuition

For the child:
The 11 Plus is for many children in the U.K. the first real exam that they’ll encounter. As a result there can be a myriad of unconscious pressures, stresses and preconceptions surrounding it. The key really is for you to remember that there won’t be anything in the exam that you won’t have seen before. You’ll have done a lot of comprehension and creative writing tasks in school, and with practice you’ll surprise yourself with how much you can achieve in Maths. So really just take each question as it comes, reading carefully and making sure you’re very clear about what’s being asked of you. Your parents can help you by going over practice papers nearer the time so that you can get the hang of just what they look like and how they feel to do.

For the parent:
The 11 Plus can be a source of unexpected strain on parents just as much as on their children and, at Bright Young Things Tuition, we believe it need not be. With talk of competitive schools entry, rising difficulty levels, and what feels like manifold exam boards (from ISEB to CEM), it’s important to cut through the noise with a clear mindset. The 11 Plus is, at its core, a basic test of numeracy and literacy. Of course, a little practice when it comes to Verbal Reasoning and Non-Verbal Reasoning is a good idea, as is regularly touching base with your child’s school. You can also really help with a 'little but often' approach to textbook work at home.

James Hanson, Headmaster, Aldro School

For the child:
Just be yourself – an interview is just a chat, with a specialist subject of you!

Play Taboo, Scattergories or the Fishbowl Game to help practise talking about something for a minute. Make the game categories your choice: a favourite book, your best lessons in school, your proudest memories, your hopes and dreams. Take a favourite memory with you (e.g. a photo, a certificate, an award, or something you have built up in a collection) – and be prepared to talk about it

Remember for exams that you are going to do exactly the same work that you normally do in school, all the time.

For the parent:
Always sit down and informally talk to the current school about the right fit for your child for their next school. Don’t worry about the dinner-party conversation – your child is not your friends' child.

Be happy when your child has plateaued on scores in practice tests – this means they have reached their real potential.

Remember, some children are late developers and a one-size-fits-all 11+ will not always play to their strengths; I have two degrees from Oxford Uni having ploughed 11+ English.

Victoria Olubi, Founder, The Tutoress

For the child:
My number 1 tip for any 11+ child is to build your vocabulary. These days, pretty much every 11+ exam assesses a child's vocabulary skills but sadly there are a lot of children who find it quite difficult to improve their understanding of new words. To help with that, it's vital that you read a mixture of classic and modern texts and write down the definitions of any new words that you learn. By building your vocabulary, you'll be much better equipped to do well in the exam.

For the parent:
My number 1 tip for parents is to start 11+ preparation early. The vast majority of parents leave everything to the last minute which causes a lot of stress and increases anxiety. It makes things so much easier if you start going through the 11+ books at least one year before the exam, but two years is ideal. Also, try not to panic or be too stressed as your feelings and behaviour will rub off on your child.

Will Orr-Ewing, Founder and Director, Keystone Tutors

For the child:
Systemically build your vocabulary and work on your sentence structure: creative writing is one of the best (and most fun) ways to differentiate yourself in a competitive field.

For the parent:
It is generally much better to start the process early (the beginning of Year 5) and to set up a non-intensive weekly structure that fits easily with the grain of family life, rather than trying to pack everything into a mad, stressful rush in the final months before 11+.

Mylene Curtis, Owner and Managing Director, Fleet Tutors

For the child:
On written English papers, prepare for each question before you start answering. This focuses your brain and makes sure that you actually answer the question and avoid the common mistake of writing all you know about the subject.

The best way to do this is:
1) Underline the key words in the question.
2) Look at the number of marks and write down the equivalent number of key terms (words) that the question is looking for, or the key skills the question is testing.
3) Then answer the question making sure you get the key points across in your answer. You can cross them out as you use them if it helps.

For the parent:
Early preparation. Times tables and mental maths, strong vocabulary and a good command of grammar rules are great foundations. Start early and make sure this core knowledge is secure - and that’s half the battle won.

One of the most common issues is not finishing the paper. Timing is important in the exam so help your child work out how long to spend on a question and help them to set targets for themselves. They need to be confident to move on to the next question without worrying about the one left unfinished. Make it a game, not an added pressure.



So, you’re feeling stuck:

You’ve a mountain of maths revision to do.

Maybe you made a start … wrote a timetable …

Failed to stick to it …

Gave up

Went back to watching funny videos on Youtube:


And now you’re here.

Don’t panic!

There are loads of methods you can start using RIGHT NOW to get yourself back on track.

And in this list, I’ll tell you what they are!

Why not let your friends know about this article too?

You’ll find plenty of new ideas all the way down to number 47. One of them might be the tip that revolutionises your revision!


Also, while you’re here: Why not download 48 pages of free exam practice materials* with unique, highly detailed answers?

Now, let’s get started.


1 Build up from the basics: Make your life easy!

Well, you might think that’s a pretty obvious place to start this list – but it really isn’t!

Almost everybody starts revision by plunging right in with the hardest topics.

But how much are you going to learn if you practise complex proportion problems, for example, without a thorough understanding of how to multiply and divide fractions?

You’re telling me to revise multiplying and dividing fractions? You must be joking!

Ok, maybe not that … But hang on … are you sure you know it?

You wouldn’t believe how many of the Year 11 people I teach have forgotten their Year 7 skills!

Get the basics right; then build on them. The simplest maths is the most important!

  • You’ll find lots more about how to do it if you keep moving down this list!


2 … And keep coming back to them!

Keep a list of the essential skills you had to revise, and check back from time to time to make sure they’re secure.

Simple, right?

If you understand the foundations of GCSE maths really well, you’ll be able to work out a whole lot of more complex things you haven’t specifically studied.


3 Let yourself forget things sometimes: relax!

Yes, I’m serious:

Don’t obsess about learning each thing perfectly the first time. If you forget something and have to re-learn it, you will end up knowing it really, really well.

There’s more about forgetting, further down the page.

(And please REMEMBER to share this article with your friends!)


4 … And find different strategies for re-learning, so it really sinks in.

Ok: your first learning method didn’t work perfectly.

  • So try a different approach!


Now you know the topic in two different ways.


5 Don’t time your work too soon! It isn’t a race!

Timed work is very useful exam practice, but it isn’t a great way to learn maths.

Practise slowly and carefully, reviewing your work in detail. Don’t start doing most of your work timed until the exams are a few weeks away.

Ok, maybe that’s obvious!


6 But when you DO work to a time limit, focus on understanding WHERE IT WENT RIGHT and WHERE IT WENT WRONG.

This is important:

Don’t just churn through each timed paper, then move on to the next one!

Mark your answers carefully and re-do anything you got wrong … Make sure you have learnt all the important lessons from each paper.

As for the timing: work out where you got held up. What kinds of question delayed you, even if you got the answers right?

You will need to go back to the textbook and practise any difficult topics some more.


7 Do a little bit, often!

The subheading pretty much explains this one!

You know that feeling when you’re fighting to keep your eyes on the page and your head off the desk?

Of course you do! We’ve all been there.

But how much do you actually learn when you feel like that?

Most of your learning will happen in the first 20 minutes of a revision session. For most people, 45 minutes of learning is enough at any one time.

And if you only have five minutes to do some maths, USE IT!

  • You could learn a couple of formulae really well in that time.


8 Be a list-making maniac!

.. Even if you lose them the next day!

The very act of writing things down in order is brilliant for learning.

But there are some lists you really don’t want to lose…

… like this one! DON’T LOSE THIS LIST!

But seriously:

There are some very useful lists you can make, and perhaps keep safe in an exercise book.

Here are some incredibly useful lists:

  • A list of basic maths skills which need firming up (“Converting fractions into decimals”).

  • A list of facts to memorise (“Area of a triangle is half base times perpendicular height”).

  • A list of your most common mistakes (“x² is not the same as 2x”) (see Point 26 below).


I might mention these again further down …


9 Focus on your weaknesses TILL IT KILLS YOU …

OK, not that much.

But still:

Once you’re pretty confident with the basics, resist the temptation just to study the topics you like!

When I did a lot of exams (yes, this is one moment when I can feel smug about not being a student any more), I used to list all the topics for a subject.

  • Every time I thought I understood a topic a bit better, I’d put a tick next to it – and I always revised the thing with the fewest ticks.


If you work like this, in the end the thing which started with the most ticks will have the least, so you get to revise it again.


This method doesn’t suit everybody, but I really like it.


10 … But make sure you are ROCK SOLID on the topics you find easy.

Everything is forgettable, so don’t relax too much!

Just because you like finding volumes of prisms, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t practise it!

Look at it this way:

  • In an exam, you want to get 100% for the topics you know well, in case you lose marks in your weaker areas. So make sure those 100% topics are in the bag.


11 Don’t be afraid to cram sometimes …

Whatever they may say, cramming isn’t bad revision.

It isn’t just for the day before your exam, either!

Sometimes writing a list of facts and walking round the park, repeating it over and over – or sitting at your desk and copying it five times, if that works for you – is incredibly effective.

  • When you cram lots of information into your mind at once, you often find connections between ideas and new ways of looking at things which you never spotted when you were working topic by topic.


Not all facts have to be learned ‘in context’.

Besides, any last minute cramming will only really pay off if you’ve crammed (and possibly half-forgotten) the same information before.


12 … But most of the time, don’t.

Because the most important thing is to understand your knowledge.

You won’t get a Level 9 by repeating memorised information onto the page like a strangely literate parrot.

13 Use the official syllabus as a checklist …

I find it amazing how few (5%?) of my students have ever looked at the exam board syllabus/specification or the official mark schemes (more about them below!).

It’s a list …
___________... an OFFICIAL list …
_______________________________… of the things you have to know!


Print a copy, and tick things off as you go.

Your own list of topics (see Point 9 above) will be more useful day to day, but the syllabus is so valuable.

  • It’s your only 100% certain proof that you've learnt everything you need.


14 … But make sure you really know the things that actually come up all the time.

There’s a definite method for this, and everybody should do it.

Print out all the specimen papers (and 9-1 past papers, once they exist) you can find online – and you might want to look at the other exam boards too (with care).

Here are the key links:

(I don’t think it’s a problem if you’re saving some of these papers for timed practice later: you’re not likely to remember any questions clearly after doing this, anyway.)

Go through all the papers. Each time you find a new kind of question, note it down.

For example:

  • Finding the equation of the tangent to a circle.


Add a tick or cross next to each entry on your list each time you find it again.

For example:

  • Finding the equation of the tangent to a circle x x


Then number the list, from the most common question (most ticks/crosses) downwards.

When you’ve done this for the 9-1 papers, start a separate list for the final few years of the A* A B C D style papers from your exam board. The syllabuses are a bit different, but most of the core topics are similar.

Now you have an incredibly useful list of what the examiners actually like to test. These are the topics to know REALLY, REALLY WELL.


15 … But but BUT … Don’t rely TOO MUCH on what they set in previous years!

Your list from Point 14 will be an awesome revision aid …

But you have to prepare for the exam board to test any part of the syllabus in any way they like.


16 Get used to the wording of questions.

Have you noticed some of these phrases that keep coming up?

  • “Write down …”: This means you don’t need to show any working out if you don’t want to. The answer will either be a fact you are expected to know, or something you can work out directly from the information in the question, without any in-between stages. For example: “Write down the exact value of sin45°.”

  • “Evaluate …”: This means “Find the value of …”, or just “Work out …”. For example: “Evaluate _____”

  • “Hence …”: This means you can get to the answer of part (b) by using your answer from (a).


And so on!

Get used to recognising what all the common ‘key phrases’ mean.

You’ll find they help you a lot.


17 Get used to re-writing words as maths – because this skill is IMPORTANT!

The infamous WORD QUESTIONS!

... Which shouldn’t really be scary, because they’re just, well, maths questions … with a few more words than usual.

But turning examiner-waffle into maths is a skill that takes some getting used to.

Here are a couple of simple tricks to show you what I mean:

  • “Of” always means “multiply” (for example, “What is 2/5 of 3/4?” … Or “Kate takes five of the bags” means “Kate takes 5 x a bag”).

  • “Out of” always means “divide” (“I take three out of the four beads” means I have taken 3 ÷ 4 or 0.75 of the beads).


18 Get used to the structure of questions, so you don’t get lost.

I’m not talking about the way a question is worded, here.

I’m thinking of how a multi-stage question is put together.

For example, part (c) of a question might require you to know information which is written above part (a), right at the head of a question.

Or it might require you to build on your work in part (b).

Your understanding of the structure of questions can help you get marks, if you also understand the mark scheme (see Points 20 & 21 below):

  • If you know that part (b) of a question builds on part (a) – and you made a mess of (a) – you can still use your answer from (a).

  • This won’t usually lose you any extra marks, because of follow-through marking.


19 Use the internet cunningly: get the most VALUE from it!

Youtube, for example, is full of videos to talk you through the main methods.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of useful websites for GCSE Maths students.

However … however … use the internet carefully.

  • Watching videos and reading online explanations is less useful than actually practising maths. It’s easy to convince yourself you’re working, when in fact the information is drifting in through your eyes and out of the top of your head! [photo]

  • It’s natural to stumble from one topic to another on Youtube (for example) and lose track of the topics (and details of topics) you’re missing out. Too much of this, and there will be big gaps in your knowledge.

  • And of course – When you’re online, Facebook is only ever two clicks away!


See what I mean?

For all these reasons, it’s best to use the internet to research specific topics from the syllabus or from your own list of topics.


20 Learn to find your way round the mark scheme …

Some teachers dislike too much focus on mark schemes: you should be learning mathematics during your course, not just learning to write exam answers!

However, I look at it differently:

  • There isn’t much point knowing maths if you can’t express your knowledge in a way that gets the marks.

  • What’s more, it’s VERY difficult to do a timed exam if you don’t know how much working is needed and how to set it out – you could, for example, waste time writing too much where it isn’t needed, and end up writing too little where it IS important.


Incidentally, this is why my own GCSE Maths materials* show full handwritten answers! This way you can learn to set out your answers clearly and effectively.

(OK, that was a shameless plug.)


21 … And get to know that mark scheme REALLY WELL.

For all the reasons given above, it’s a very good idea to use the official mark schemes carefully when reviewing past papers …

So you learn to write your answers with a clear idea of what the examiner wants to see.

Keep doing this until you know exactly what is needed.


22 Swap work with a friend for marking: BE THE EXAMINER!

Lots of teachers encourage this because it saves them work …

Well, it might seem that way!

But in fact, it’s an incredibly useful method:

It’s so hard to look at your own work through the eyes of a marker: you can’t help thinking what you thought when you wrote your answers!

When you look at somebody else’s work, you start to see all sorts of things which will help:

  • Mistakes you also make;

  • Things which aren’t quite clear;

  • Better ways of doing things.


Find someone whose work’s worth a look, and give it a try!


23 Practise setting out your working effectively – and hoover up a HEAP of marks!

If you’ve tried Point 22, you’ll have started to get a sense of how other people organise their working out.

Ask yourself these questions about each answer of your own:

  • Is it clear how I got from the question to the first line of my working?

  • Have I missed out any important steps?

  • Do I need to add explanations to any lines of my working?

  • Does everything build up logically?


On the other hand …

  • Did I really need all the working I showed?


To get a sense of how I like to set out my own working, have a look at my handwritten answers towards the end of this*.


24 Always have a go! Practise making a start.

Or, to put it another way: If you’re stuck, write down what you know!

The worst thing you can do with a horrible, head-scratching question is to stare at it desperately.

Get used to responding positively instead, whenever you feel like this.

Say this to yourself:

“I don’t know how to solve this. But what DO I know?

Pull out the key information from the question, and write it down.

  • Just scribbling down the important things can give you ideas you’d never have found otherwise.

Of course, one of the best ways to organise your ideas is to …


25 Line up your thoughts by drawing simple diagrams.

Let’s say you’ve got a question about changing the amount of beer in a barrel; or about the relationship between the sides of a trapezium.

It might be difficult to imagine in your head, so:

Draw a nice, big, clear picture, and label it with as much information as you can find in the question.

Then see if you can work out anything you don’t know yet.

Often, this will give you the ideas you need to find a solution.


26 Be ruthless with your common mistakes!

If you go through, say, five papers you’ve done, and work out how you lost marks, I’m pretty certain you’ll discover this:

Most of your marks disappear on the same mistakes, again and again.

At least, that’s what happens to me.

Keep a list of your main mistakes, and really focus on dealing with them: get to the point where you know you won’t mess up in the same way again!

  • Square root does NOT mean “divide by 2”! … for example.

27 Always write SOMETHING, for the chance to scrape out another mark or two …

A blank space gets no marks!

Even if you have no idea what to do with a question, write down your best guess.

  • Even just some random thoughts to do with the topic!


These might get you a mark or two … and those marks might be enough to tip you into a higher grade.


28 … At least the units!

Yes – if nothing else, write the correct units in the answer box!

Just occasionally, this could sneak you a mark.


29 Get used to writing units!

Didn’t I just say this?

Not exactly:

You might be brilliant at Point 28: you stick the right units on even the most horribly wrong answer.

But I bet you’ll still forget to do it sometimes, when you’ve written the right answer!

It is so natural to struggle through a question … then … EUREKA! … you get it!

YES!” you shout, and scribble down the answer – and in your excitement, you flip the page over and move on to the next question.

__________And of course, you forgot to write the correct units!


Checking the units needs to be a habit for every single question.

  • Even when you remember to write units, be careful to check whether they should be cm, cm² or cm³, for example. You need the right ones!


30 Develop an exam timing system …

OK – I can’t find any way to make this heading exciting:

But it’s still really important!

When you look at the clock after half an hour, how do you know whether you’re ahead of time, behind time – or working at exactly the right speed?

Maybe you’ll find your own way of doing this.

One simple approach is to divide the total number of marks in the exam by the total number of minutes, which will give you a ‘marks per minute’ target:

You need (on average) to be ahead of this target:

  • This way you’ll have a bit of spare time for tricky questions, and for checking through at the end.


For example:

If an exam is 100 marks long and you have 90 minutes, 100/90 = 1 1/9 marks per minute.

Whenever you check the clock, you should aim to have completed slightly more than one mark for each minute used up.

  • Let’s say you realise you’ve completed 25 marks’ worth of answers after 30 minutes: this isn’t a disaster, but you know you have to speed up if you are going to complete the exam in time.


31 … And a set of funky symbols for difficult questions!

This is so simple, but hardly anybody does it.

Dare to be different!

With a good system of symbols, written beside some key questions, you’ll be able to use a spare 5 or 6 minutes at the end in the best possible way.

You’ll find your own code, but here are some suggestions:

____♥ means “Check this one carefully! Probably mistakes somewhere in here.”
____♦ means “Not too hard, but might take a while.”
____© means “If I can’t find a way to do this, at least write down some notes to get some working marks!”
____₦ means “This one is horrible: leave it till last.”
____€ means “I reckon I’ll get this if I have a couple of minutes to think about it.”

OK, I admit:

Those symbols weren’t that funky. In fact, I came up with them at random.

You can do better!

But the method is awesome, because you end up knowing exactly how to use those vital few minutes after you’ve come to the end of an exam.

32 Focus on quality, not quantity, of revision.

Many of the points above have touched on this – especially Point 7.

Don’t force yourself to work for an hour if you just aren’t in the mood and it isn’t sinking in.


Work for 20 minutes, give yourself a 10 minute break, then do another 20.

Or even …

Work on something else, and come back to maths tomorrow!

33 Use a timetable if it works for you …

Some people find it really helpful to have a clear schedule, telling them how long they are going to spend on each subject each day.

To be honest, I’m not one of them.

Schedules hurt me!


34 … But don’t schedule revision too rigidly if you know it will put you off.

Because for some people (ME!), a three week chart with huge coloured blocks of revision filling in every day is about as encouraging as a gloopy plate of cold stew.

{{ image 82fac151-e931-11e6-9551-9397b75e4f0a }}

(Sorry if you like cold, gloopy stew. But you get the point.)

For some people, it’s best to start each day’s revision with an open mind about what to cover, perhaps using something like the method in Point 9 to decide which topic (or even which subject) to study next.

Just make sure you don’t miss any topic out for TOO long.

35 Value all the time when you aren’t revising.

Perhaps it’s just me …

But the time when my knowledge really sinks in isn’t when I’m working: it’s when I’m doing something totally irrelevant (reading; playing sport; going for a walk; messing around with a computer game).

When I’m doing these things, ideas flash into my mind.

Bits of knowledge jumble around in my head and somehow sort themselves out into something useful!


  • Don’t feel guilty about doing things which have NOTHING to do with work

But of course, this only works if you’re studying hard the rest of the time, putting those ideas into your brain in the first place!


36 Build a list of facts to learn, while you work.

I mentioned this one in Point 8 above.

Sure, you can build a list of formulae and facts to memorise from the syllabus and/or your textbook.

But this is REALLY boring – and it’s really difficult to remember things when you write them down without any memory hooks to hang them on.

But there’s a better way:

It’s much more useful to record key facts as they come up in your practice – and even better, to write them down with a short example.

  • It’s a bit like learning words in a foreign language: the more you learn facts in context, the better they will sink in! (Although, on the other hand, think about Point 11.)


Make sure you re-memorise your list every few days. This way, you won’t have to start learning it for the first time when it’s already five pages long!

I like memorising lists while I go for a walk; but everybody’s got their own way.

37 And separate revising FACTS from revising SKILLS.

Memorise facts; practise skills.

If you try to memorise skills/techniques mechanically, by repeating them to yourself, copying them out ten times – whatever the method might be – you’ll probably get overwhelmed and bored.

Anyway, it doesn’t work very well.

Save cramming for facts; for the techniques, focus on practice – perhaps by doing a particularly tricky question again the next day.

Also, this way you’ll get lots of opportunities to practise using the facts you’ve learnt by applying them to real situations.


38 Use the textbook intelligently.

In other words, don’t try to revise by going through it from beginning to end!

Your textbook is a brilliant resource for practising particular topics when you realise you’re stuck.

  • Having problems with simultaneous equations? There’s a chapter for that!

  • You’ve forgotten exactly how to make a histogram? That’s me about once a year. Use the textbook!

… But use it wisely.

39 Develop exam routines to avoid disasters!

All sorts of important routines can help in an exam:

So it’s worth practising them while you revise.

For one thing, you ought to have a routine for each question:

  • Underline key words/numbers in the question.

  • Re-read the question.

  • Write down first ideas.

  • Write the working and answer.

  • Write units.

  • Re-check the question.

  • Does the answer seem likely, based on the question?

  • Have I fully answered the question?


There are other useful exam routines you can develop.

For example:

Get used to scribbling down some facts you’ve revised when you first sit down, before you’re allowed to open the paper.

  • This way, you tune in your mind to its Maths Channel.


40 Practise CHECKING your answers …

I mentioned this just now, in Point 39.

But what does it actually mean?

Well: All kinds of things! (And read on for some more tips in Points 41 and 42 .)

For one thing, in algebra questions you can usually check that your answer is exactly right.

  • For example, if you’ve solved an equation (or a system of equations), put your solution back into the original equation(s) to see whether it works.

And … I might have mentioned this already ;) … ALWAYS CHECK YOUR UNITS!

41 … Including by re-checking the question

After all, the one thing an exam is definitely testing is whether you can answer the questions!

You could write ground-breaking mathematics – a unifying theory of physics, say – in the answer space of a GCSE question, and it still wouldn’t get any marks unless the question had asked for it.

So: you need to get used to breaking the question down into a set of instructions, and making sure that you have followed each one.

42 … And using common sense!

Think about these examples:

  • The question is asking me to calculate how much liquid is left in a jug. I say 72 litres.

  • The question is asking about the average speed of a Formula 1 car in a race. I say 34.5 km/h.

  • I need to calculate 1.7 x 24. I give the answer as 4.08.


What do these answers have in common?

None of them makes any sense!

  • Nothing which can hold 72 litres is likely to be called a ‘jug’. A tank, or a trough, maybe!

  • I suppose 34.5 km/h might be the average speed of an F1 car while it’s being driven into the garage.

  • How can 1.7 x 24 give an answer which is less than 24?!


But people make mistakes like this all the time!

There’s an easy solution:

  • Before you start answering a question, make a sensible guess. If the answer isn’t in the same region as your guess, check it carefully.

For example:

  • I guess that a jug is unlikely to hold more than 3 litres.

  • I guess that the average speed of an F1 car (in a race) will be between 200 and 350 km/h.

  • I guess that 1.7 x 24 will be between 35 and 45.


Another very useful, common sense tip, while we’re here: Get to know the graphs of sine, cos and tan, so you can predict (for example) that cos165 is going to be close to -1.

You’ll find other useful shortcuts like this while you revise.


43 Develop your own mnemonics.

Mess around with different memory ideas to help tie down the key facts.

The weirder and wonkier your mnemonics are, the better you’ll remember the information.

You can try absolutely anything:

Have you tried singing the quadratic formula to the tune of Space Oddity?

  • It doesn’t really work, to be honest! … But you’ll learn the formula, just by trying.


And all that SOH-CAH-TOA stuff (I apologise, on behalf of maths teachers)?

Well at least put a picture to it!

A grandmother, holding her sewing in one hand, towing a car with the other, perhaps …


44 Get used to your calculator …

How many people buy a new scientific calculator the week before their exam, then waste about ten minutes in the test working out how to use it?

Too many people!

Get a reliable, new calculator a few months before your exam, and use the same one for all your practice.

  • Make sure it’s a design that’s permitted by the exam board.

If you lose it or break it soon before the exam, replace it with an identical one!

45 … But learn to do almost everything WITHOUT A CALCULATOR!

For one thing, you also have to sit non-calculator papers.

For another, people who don’t understand how to do maths without their calculator often believe any nonsense it spits out!

Get right back to basics.

  • Can you do long division, reliably?

  • Can you subtract, add and multiply on paper?

  • Are you comfortable handling decimals with these methods?

  • Can you move easily between fractions, decimals and percentages?

  • Can you do any percentage calculation on paper, if you have to?


Strong, quick times tables are fundamental – if they need practice, do this as a priority!

A useful tip for paper division, while we’re here:

  • Get used to writing the division as a fraction and simplifying it if possible, before using long division/ the ‘bus shelter’ method.


46 Re-use papers you’ve done before.

Re-doing old work is often more useful than doing something new.

Come back to a paper you tried a few weeks ago, and try again!

Sometimes you’ll re-do the whole thing; sometimes you might just want to focus on the difficult parts.

  • This way you get to understand the questions (and associated topics) really thoroughly.


This approach also taps into the power of forgetting and re-learning, mentioned in Point 3 – expecially if you leave a decent gap before trying again.

47 Get used to ignoring advice!

Well done!

You’ve made it to the end of this list!

Now actual GCSEs will be easy, interesting … downright enjoyable by comparison to all this revision chat.

There’s a lot of advice in this article … and you’ll get lots more from teachers, parents, helpful friends … and lots of their suggestions will be totally contradictory.

So that’s why you need to get used to ignoring advice.

Try out lots of things:

  • Keep what’s useful;

  • Ditch the rest!


At the end of the day it’s your work, and it’s your future.

  • One last suggestion (to ignore, of course): try the free paper and solutions, taken from GCSE Maths by RSL, which you can download here*.


Good luck!

If you found these tips useful, please tell your friends!

* RSL Educational will not share your details with third parties. You are free to unsubscribe at any time. For more information see our terms and conditions below.

This sort of question doesn't look so hard ...

"Dad! What does it mean if something's effective?"
"Well ... "

Does it just mean 'good'? No ... it must mean that it works somehow ... maybe like a really effective washing machine ...

But how does that help?

I’ve had a few enquiries about this recently, so it seems to be on people’s minds.

When a question asks about the effect of something in a text, it is asking you to consider how it affects the reader. Usually it is easiest to think about emotional effects, but a word or phrase might also have the effect of making the reader think something interesting.

Sometimes a phrase will be effective because it clearly communicates the emotions of a character to the reader.

Here are some examples of the above points:

1. ‘He flung himself over the finish line’ is effective because the verb ‘fling’ conveys the runner's desperation, but also because it suggests how little he cares about his body at this moment: you might ‘fling’ something which lacks value, such as a bag of rubbish.

It is a good idea to use the word ‘effective’ or ‘effect’ in your answer, to show that you are focusing on this aspect. Here, the answer explains how the quotation effectively shows the character’s feelings.

2. ‘That dandled a sandalled shadow that swam or sank’ has effective sibilance*. The ‘s’ sounds help me imagine the gentle swishing of the water, suggesting the calm of a quiet country day.
* sibilance is the alliteration of ‘s’ sounds.

If you can spot patterns of sounds (such as alliteration), it is comparatively easy to talk about their effect. When you find alliteration, look for the following things:

  • What does it literally suggest about the situation (‘the gentle swishing of the water’)?

  • What emotion/sensation does it suggest (‘the calm of a quiet country day’)?

3. ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’ is effective because it takes great effort to row or sail against a current: the metaphor is a reminder of how much of a struggle life can be. ‘Borne back ceaselessly’ powerfully suggests that, for all that we try to push forward in life, we can never escape the effect of our past decisions. Furthermore, the plosive alliteration of ‘b’ and ‘p’ sounds suggests the strength of the current pounding against the boat: this makes me feel the narrator’s desperation and helplessness.

This answer blends together the intellectual effect of the quotation (what it makes me think) and its emotional effect (what it makes me feel, especially about the narrator).

When you are discussing the intellectual effect of a phrase, be careful to do more than just translate its meaning into your own words: you must explain its effect fully. If you can talk about emotions as well, this will help.

Notice how the example discusses both the meaning of the words and their sound. This is a route to a high-scoring answer when a question is worth many marks.

These ideas are explored in the discussions of many questions in RSL 11+ Comprehension, Volumes 1 & 2 (particularly Volume 2).



Free 11+ resources are scattered across the internet, and it can be a pain to track them down.

Then, at last, you find something which looks useful ...

  • But how can you be sure that it's going to teach your children the right things?

  • How do you know that it really matches the requirements for 11 plus?

Until now, nobody has made a proper attempt to list the most useful materials in a single place.

... Until now ...

Because in this article I put that right!

If you find it useful, please share it.

This list reflects my own opinions, based on a decade of writing resources and teaching for 11 plus, but I've tried to be as objective as possible.

I've included sites focused on grammar schools, independent schools, and both. Bear in mind that the broadest (and therefore the most secure) exam preparation will involve familiarising your child with a range of question types. This is particularly true when children are preparing for very competitive grammars: the most challenging, stretching practice materials can often be found on private school websites. For this reason, although I have categorised pages using ‘grammar’ and ‘independent’, it's worth looking beyond these labels.

If you think I’ve missed a useful link, please get in touch - and please share your thoughts in the Comments below.

RSL Educational (This site)

I've written the list which follows in the confidence that many people, having seen what else is available, will decide that the very best materials are here, on this site.

For a start, you might like to print out this free 11 Plus Comprehension paper.

More free English and Maths sample papers with the most detailed solutions available anywhere can be downloaded on our Shop & Free Papers page. All my newest and most up-to-date material for 11 Plus is published through 11 Plus Lifeline:

1. Manchester Grammar School (Independent and Grammar)

Through a decade of tutoring, this has been my favourite online resource. Like several other schools, Manchester Grammar puts several years of past papers on their website. They are interesting and challenging, and all except the written comprehensions have answers provided. There are two types of maths paper: one for short answers and one with more developed, problem-solving questions (comparable to the level of papers 3 & 4 in RSL 11+ Maths). However, the best thing is English Paper 1 (or Paper A, depending on the year). This is a beautifully constructed, very challenging multiple choice paper. Most children find these tough initially, so it is best to ignore the time limit unless you are preparing for Manchester Grammar's own exams. Candidates for other (multiple choice) grammar school entrance tests who get the hang of these will find their own exams comfortable by comparison; and they are likely to find these papers more interesting than the standard revision fare. These papers are also excellent preparation for independent school multiple choice papers, such as those often set by Latymer Upper School.

It is best if you go through your child’s mistakes carefully with them (there are likely to be plenty), discussing the reasons why another answer was better, and reinforcing the skills of eliminating impossible answers and weighing up realistic possibilities. As a guide: 80% is an excellent score. 70% is strong. Anything over 60%, and you are on the right track but with some work to do. If the mark is lower, it is worth revisiting the basic skills of multiple choice comprehension (easier papers can gloss over such problems).

2. (Grammar)

This is the most useful site for parents who want to understand how the grammar school 11 plus system works. The site is easy to navigate and the articles are clear, up-to-date and authoritative. There is also an active discussion forum: most of your questions will probably already have been answered there, but there also appears to be a busy community of contributors if you have something new to ask. As the authors admit, the site doesn’t offer much for the independent sector (‘This website’s primary purpose is to inform parents about the selective system for state grammar schools’).

3. Parents In Touch (Independent & Grammar)

Parents In Touch offers a huge selection of resources. The page linked above includes a considerable number of free papers, as well as reviews of 11+ books (disclosure: some of my books have been generously reviewed here). It is well worth exploring the rest of the site for worksheets and advice covering an extensive range of topics.

(Just a quick reminder to SHARE this article if you find it useful! I really appreciate your support.)



4. Dr Frost Maths (Maths Learning & Revision)

Jamie Frost’s maths site is wonderful, and a favourite resource for teachers across the country. While not strictly for 11 plus, it deserves inclusion here because the Year 7 resources (created to teach at the Tiffin School) are highly relevant: most of the topics under the ‘Autumn 1’ to ‘Spring 2’ headings, in the link above, turn up at this level. Each subject area is covered through Powerpoint presentations, activities and printable worksheets.

5. (Grammar & Independent)

This is a very useful site with a wide range of advice for grammar and independent school entry. It offers guidance for each grammar school region, and it has more for the independent sector than many of the pages on this list (for example, there is a school-by-school guide to the independent schools of London). Its Top Ten 11 Plus Preparation Tips are all sound advice. 11 Plus Guide offers a significant range of downloadable practice resources. It's well worth rummaging through the site (and sometimes you need to scroll down a bit) to find them.

6. The Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School (Habs’ Boys) (Independent)

The Habs’ Boys papers are interesting and challenging. The mathematics papers are the only readily available resource (apart from the later papers in my 11+ Maths pack!) which consistently, and with high quality, approach the level of, for example, the St Paul’s Girls 11+ maths exam.

7. Bond Publications (Grammar)

When you have registered for free, Bond provides a decent range of downloadable resources. Although Bond’s books are marketed for independent and grammar schools, they are more useful for grammars. Their comprehension papers don’t allow children to practise developed, analytical answers in the manner required by most independent schools, and the level of the maths is not very demanding. The answer materials tend to be very limited, lacking much explanation. Children who rely only on Bond tend to be overwhelmed by the more difficult entrance exams. (This was my view, as a tutor, long before I went into publishing – and was one of the reasons I established the RSL brand in the first place.) However, one very useful aspect of the Bond range is their extensive stock of verbal and non-verbal reasoning materials, which I use in my teaching.

8. Notting Hill & Ealing High School (Independent)

This page contains (at the time of writing) nine years’ past papers for the North London Independent Girls’ Schools’ Consortium, Group 1. As well as Notting Hill, this group includes Francis Holland (Regent’s Park), Francis Holland (Sloane Square), Queen’s College, St. Helen’s School and South Hampstead High School.

I use these mathematics and English papers extensively in my teaching. The questions are challenging and interesting, covering most corners of the KS2/11+ syllabus.

  • The papers for the North London Girls’ Consortium are pitched at a similar level to papers 5-8 of RSL 11 + Comprehension and papers 3 & 4 of RSL 11+ Maths (with papers 5 & 6 very useful for practising the difficult questions which come towards the end of the Consortium exams).

9. Godolphin & Latymer (Independent)

This page contains 9 years of papers for the North London Independent Girls’ Schools’ Consortium, Group 2. This group also includes Channing School, More House, Northwood College for Girls, Queen’s Gate School and St James Senior Girls’ School. As with the Group 1 papers above, these are very useful, fairly difficult practice.

10. (Grammar)

This is a useful and well-built site. The free resources are fairly limited (you need to buy credits in order to go beyond the initial tests) and you have to get through a couple of sign-up forms, for you and for your child, to access most of them; but the tests are effectively constructed and quite entertaining. Quirkily animated figures jive across the screen to celebrate a correct answer, which makes me smile at least. This is really a resource for multiple choice grammar school tests: the independent school papers offered are all available from the schools’ own websites anyway.

11. (Grammar & Some Independent)

This site has some useful free resources for verbal and non-verbal reasoning, including practice papers and video tutorials. The free maths papers are also good, with a wide range of questions - some of which are quite challenging. The site is grammar-focused, but also of some use for independent school applicants.

12. The Tutoress (Independent & Grammar)

Victoria Olubi’s website has undergone a recent revamp and is now very user-friendly. The most useful resource here is an extensive list of independent schools with past papers published online. There are also a couple of Victoria’s own papers to download, which are pitched at a readily accessible level.

13. St Paul’s Girls' School (Independent)

There aren’t many papers here, but they are great: worth saving till the final stages of an ambitious child’s preparation. The maths exams are particularly good, though the lack of answers means that parents who aren’t confident with maths may find them a challenge to mark. Some of the questions go beyond the usual 11+ mathematics syllabus (see Paper 1, question C2, for example!), so don’t panic if your child is baffled.

  • For questions at this level with worked solutions, see papers 5 and 6 in RSL 11+ Maths.

The St Paul's English papers are also useful, requiring developed answers.

14. (Grammar & Independent)

The old papers offered here for free are often very useful – there are well-chosen comprehension passages and questions, for example, and a good range of maths topics are covered at a robust intermediate level. If answers could be added, these would be even more valuable.

15. Key Stage Online (Grammar)

This website has a small range of well-constructed resources, useful for grammar school entrance exams and perhaps also for the early stages of independent school preparation. There is a small selection of free papers for maths, verbal and non-verbal reasoning and English. Their advice sheets focus on the simple things, but are none the worse for it: they suggest ways to set goals and organise work, and remind parents how important it is to praise achievement along the way. Checklists for choosing a school and for the application/registration process are clear and helpful.

16. (Grammar)

This site contains a number of free grammar-style tests, mainly in the CEM format. Usefully, answers are included.

17. SATs Papers (Grammar)

This is SATs-focused, but it offers a few good-quality CEM-style papers to download.

18. 11 Plus Swot (Grammar)

This is a useful site, with a mixture of free online and downloadable papers. The only problem is that the free downloads have SAMPLE in black letters across each page! This could be fixed by moving the watermark into the background. The online tests are multiple choice, and are useful for (for example) consolidating Key Stage 2 number skills.

19. Sevenoaks School (Independent)

These are high quality past papers. The maths is moderate to challenging (at the level of papers 1-4 in RSL 11+ Maths). However, I have really included this page because of the interesting English papers: these offer short passages but require developed, analytical answers. The level of the questions resembles 13+, though I imagine that the marking will be a little more lenient. This site is at number 19 only because the question format is not useful practice for all schools.

To prepare for Sevenoaks English exams, I recommend the final papers of RSL 11+ Comprehension, and the first few papers of RSL 13+ Comprehension.

20. (Grammar & Independent)

This page contains a number of ‘how to’ sheets and brief worked examples for maths and reasoning, which may be useful where a specific topic has been forgotten and needs brushing up.


As a tutor, I find homework a difficult thing to get right. It is easy to set: a minute later I close the door behind me and step into the street with my mind already full of plans for the evening. But the child is left with another burden on their time, already sliced and diced by the demands of school teachers – not to mention parents, some of whom will be setting extra work of their own. As an author of academic materials for young people, I am part of this problem too.

As a child, I skipped almost all my homework because I regarded it as a pointless waste of time. Now some parents are actively encouraging their children to do this.

Nevertheless, homework is important:

  • No skill is truly learned until it has been repeated correctly without the support of a teacher. Even the presence of an adult in the room can sometimes impede this, because it is only when a young person has no choice but to find their own solution to a problem that they truly grasp hold of it: this is when their mind takes possession of the ideas and makes them its own.

  • A teacher’s most valuable role is to take work which a child has completed independently – which they have already reviewed and improved to the best of their ability – and criticise it, ideally with the student present, but potentially with careful, intelligent marking. This way the child adds new thoughts to their own bank of creative and editorial instincts. The accumulated effect of a good education is to have an enormous collection of mental post-it notes: ‘Don’t do that!’ ‘More of this.’ ‘Tone that down.’ ‘Step back and think!’ ‘Look out for alternatives here.’ ‘Is this ambiguous?’ ‘Where’s the evidence?’ ‘Have you actually proved this?’ ... and so on, ad infinitum. Some of these thoughts will be the child’s own, but a huge proportion will be comments from good teachers which have been so well assimilated that they are not somebody else’s ideas any more … the student has made them theirs. This is at the heart of all proper education, and it is not possible without independent work. (It is also why I despair at the superficial marking carried out by some school teachers.)

Homework is essential for the reasons above – and others too, such as that longer tasks, which are necessary for the proper exploration of an idea, simply cannot be completed during a single lesson, and will lose focus if they are spread out over weeks.

Yet homework can be damaging. Children need time in which to play, explore the world and build relationships. Moreover, if work becomes a never-ending burden – a to-do list which is never cleared – it can create a loathing for academic study which spoils and limits a person’s life.

In the light of all this, here are some thoughts about managing your child’s homework:

  • For the reasons given in the first bullet point above, it is rarely a good idea for parents to help with homework. Invent a similar question to discuss, by all means – but steer clear of the homework questions themselves, which a child must confront alone.

  • Homework should be useful. If teachers or tutors set pointless homework which wastes time, your child should complete it as a matter of courtesy; but you would do well to discuss it with the teacher and ask them to avoid it in the future. I have set my share of pointless tasks, and I regret it. History homework should not involve making ‘Wanted’ posters for Guy Fawkes. Sometimes these activities are set because a class is in between topics, not yet ready for the next essay: but school policy tells the teacher to set work that night. School management should instead encourage teachers to skip homeworks when there is nothing worth setting. Children’s time is as valuable as any adult’s.

  • Avoid offering rewards for homework, but do give praise. On the other hand try not to pressurise a child (this is, of course, much easier said than done). They need to feel that homework is a matter of course, a natural expectation. If the TV is on next door, or somebody is playing computer games loudly down the hall, this doesn’t help either. If this can be a time when you sit down to deal with your paperwork or emails, for example, so much the better: you child will feel that they are sharing in an adult activity.

  • With regards to work that you yourself set your child, adapt your timing to their concentration. Try to ‘call it a day’ when they are still alert, rather than waiting till they are too tired to continue: otherwise they will learn to associate work with exhaustion and frustration.

  • Don’t set extra work every day, even before exams. Give children plenty of time off.

  • Encourage them to review their previous work before beginning something new. Always give full time to discussing and marking. It is better to re-do or correct a problematic answer than to start a new one.

  • Allow children to work slowly, so long as they are concentrating. Un-rushed attention to detail when practising will eventually lead to accuracy when working fast. On the other hand, most of the work that children do is just a repetition and reinforcement of habitual mistakes, which is worse than pointless. This is a reason to limit the timed practice which children do before exams. Slow and thoughtful past paper work is better.

None of the ideas above are ‘rules’, and each child and each family will find their own way, but I hope there is something here which helps.

  • My 11 Plus Lifeline builds on the above ideas by sending work with a predictable, properly-spaced schedule. It helps children take control of their own learning, by offering example answers and step-by-step explanations for every question, so that they can develop their skills effectively, without too much adult intervention.


When my students get the hang of these techniques, it makes an enormous difference to their creative writing - but these things take practice.

These tips (which I wrote in reply to a customer's question) build on some remarks towards the end of another blog post about 11 plus preparation.

  • Before you write - before you plan - take a little time to daydream. If you can see your story's world in your head, you will be able to describe it powerfully. If you can't, your descriptions risk being superficial.

  • Keep things simple: stick to one main plot event, and focus on bringing it to life. If there are too many things happening, your descriptive skills may get lost.

  • Similarly, it is usually best to focus on one character.

  • Put a little dialogue in, but avoid writing a play script! Describe how people move around between saying things, the expressions on their faces, and so on.

  • Short stories don't need an introduction.

  • Show, don't tell: rather than "Simon looked up. He was angry," write "As Simon looked up I could see the flexing of his jaw muscles."

  • Use a range of senses throughout. If you use only visual descriptions, you are asking the reader to enter your world as a person who is deaf, cannot taste or smell, and experiences no physical feelings.

  • Sometimes describe things using a sense other than the most obvious one. Instead of "It was a cold morning," write "I could hear the crackling of thawing ice on the windscreens."

  • Similes and metaphors are useful (and can be impressive), but they have to make things clearer for the reader, not create confusion. "He won the sprint like a racing car" asks more questions than it answers. Was he noisy? Was he travelling at 150 miles per hour? On the other hand, "He ducked his head and slipped across the line as cleanly as a racing car" helps me to picture the event exactly as intended.

  • Suspense is good if it is appropriate to the story, but don't jack-knife it in clumsily. "Or was it ... ?" doesn't make me any more curious than I was before. If you write in a way that builds suspense, this will speak for itself; but not every story needs it, and it is certainly not true that every story needs to involve a cliff-hanger.


Here is a type of question which children (and adults) often find challenging, but which is quite simple if you break it down logically.

It takes 3 cats 4 weeks to catch 12 mice.
If all the cats catch mice at the same, steady rate:

(a) How long would it take the three cats to catch 18 mice?
(b) How many mice would 2 cats catch in 12 weeks?

See this video for the answers:

As mentioned in the video, there is also a more direct (though slightly less simple) method, which is shown as Method 1 here:


My latest maths materials for 11+ are available through 11 Plus Lifeline.


I would like some advice on how to complete your comprehension papers with my child. He has three months until his exam, and I would like to know how to spread the papers out in order that he can complete them in time and make the best use out of them, as ideally I want him to have completed both packs.” Sameena

Dear Sameena,

The first thing I would say is that it is important to work carefully, rather than rushing to complete everything. It is more important that your son learns from his mistakes and successes than that he completes every paper: rushed work tends to involve reinforcing errors rather than correcting them.

I would start with papers 1 and 2 of Volume 1. If these are fairly successful, I would move on through the pack. If, on the other hand, your son finds them difficult, you can use papers 1 and 2 from Volume 2, which are similar.

Work through Volume 1 like this, then complete any papers from Volume 2 which have not yet been used.

It is very useful for a child to repeat answers or whole papers which they found difficult, consulting the mark scheme as they make their second attempt. Skills and knowledge really sink in when they are repeated.

My materials are designed for careful, slow work, rather than speedy exam practice (of course you can use them in timed conditions, but this doesn't make the most of the detailed feedback provided). About a month from the exams, if the basic skills are in place, it is worthwhile to start practising timed papers. I don't know which schools you are applying to, but they will probably publish their own past papers. If not, schools such as Manchester Grammar, St Paul's Girls, Francis Holland and Habs' Boys have lots of papers online.

Also, don't neglect your son's creative writing. As a guide, around 1.5 pages of A4 lined paper is a suitable length for an exam-style story. He should focus on being descriptive and interesting, rather than recounting tales of goals or explosions! The most useful pieces of advice I can give for creative writing (it is impossible to do justice to this in a brief email) are to use as many of the senses as possible (touch, taste, etc.), avoiding the most obvious one in a given situation; and to pay special attention to punctuation, above all else the placement of commas and full stops.

As a final comment, in my experience too much preparation can make a child so bored of the whole process that they don't really want to succeed any more. Therefore it's important to strike a balance between encouraging your son to work, and letting him play and enjoy his life.

I hope that helps.

Best wishes,