RSL Educational | 11 Plus DIY Preparation: The Experts' Advice
10/04/17

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.


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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!

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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.