Before I continue on this tread, let me tell you a little about my background.
I have been involved in tuition for many years on subjects like physics, maths, computer studies, accounting, languages etc during different stages of my life. Having completed my BSc degree at Nottingham University in 1975 I got involved in community and charity work with a lot of emphasis on education and training. In 1981 I started the postgraduate teachers training course at Garnett College, London. After obtaining my PGCE in 1982 I began working as a maths and science teacher at Nork Park Secondary School in Surrey. Soon after becoming the head of physics department I had to leave the full time teaching profession due to other commitments in voluntary community and charity work which was dear to my heart. Since then I have worked in various professions to earn my living while continuing my tuition work on part time basis. My involvement in the 11+ dates back a mere 5 years.
I have an 11-year-old daughter who secured a place in Westcliff High School in 2006, which was her first choice. My daughter has been attending a local primary school that refused to cater for the needs of the 11+ exams as a matter of policy.
Now, having bored you with my personal resume, I'll get back to the intended subject.
In this article, I will cover some aspects of the 11+ experience under three headings:
1- Does your child have a chance?
2- Cut off points for success & how to interpret them
3- General tips for preparation
Does your child have a chance?
Let me start with a positive note. I am a believer in the notion that every child, given the chance, can achieve a great deal. This is the most valuable and eternally refreshing conviction I inherited from my full time teaching experience.
Call me a hypocrite if you like, but I also believe in the parents right to acquire the best possible education for their children. Be it in private school, state selective school or through private tuition. If you can afford it, many private schools are better equipped to deal with the demands of learning that will get your child to a good university, and good luck to you. There are also those state-grammar schools that are second to none in preparing your child for the elite route to the top. However, these selective schools offer only a limited, very highly sought after places and these places are targeted not only by those who are not fortunate enough to afford private primary education, but also by those who prefer not having to pay a private secondary school when they can enjoy equivalent quality of teaching in these selective schools. So, the competition is extremely tough, especially for the children coming from the state route. In fact, over 70% of the places offered by the state selective schools, are taken up by the candidates from the private sector, where 11+ preparations are taken for granted. What then? Should the children attending local junior school forget about it? Certainly not. In fact, this is the very reason why majority of the places go to more "fortunate" kids. There are so many able children out there who can break the barrier with a little guidance and encouragement and a lot of determination on the part of their parents. As parents, all we need to do is to create a platform of level playing field for our loved ones. First, we must ourselves believe they can do it. Otherwise, don’t even think about it, as the result of failure could be devastating for the child. Be honest with them while trying to raise their self-esteem. Tell them it will not be easy, but if they are prepared to put the effort in and with a bit of luck they can succeed. Don’t get me wrong; the word "luck" is not used as a metaphor here, but in its face value. Indeed, even the most capable private school pupils need a bit of luck in the 11+ exams, as all is done and dusted in a matter of 2.5 hours after months of preparation, and years of anxiety.
Cut off points for success & how to interpret them
Just browse over the Internet with 11+ as any part of the keyword and you will be presented with thousands of links to a variety of sites ranging from practice paper retailers, tutor lists, online test sites to forums, information sites, official 11+ consortium's pages etc. In all these sites you will find oceans of information about 11+ history, discussions about the pros and cons of 11+ politics, case studies, chat rooms filled with heartfelt messages from anxious, ecstatic, devastated, worried, waiting, relieved parents, statistical details about pass marks, articles about standardized scores, complex standard deviation lectures, waiting lists etc. etc. etc. Everyone has a thing or two to say about the subject. Just when you begin to understand the gist of hundreds of explanations to your burning question, there comes another one throwing you off course, giving you hope to enthusiastically continue searching for more punishment or ruining your day by pointing to a fact you never thought of before.
The reason why you can't get a straight answer to your simple question on the other hand, is made even more complicated by the "profoundly intricate act" of daring to ask the right question in the first place. Official sites prefer to keep their cards close to their chest, while there are so many willing participants who inadvertently muddy the waters in their genuine desire to extend a helping hand. Don't get me wrong though. There is plenty of useful information out there for the determined parents who can distinguish between do-gooders' hearsay blabbering and credible factual figures.
So, what percentage scores our children would need to achieve in order to be able to gain admission to schools of their choice? Every 11+ region has its own examination system and scoring scheme. There are of course many parallels between all the regions as far as subject areas and question categories are concerned. Our chosen area for this discussion is Essex and we shall base our findings on the facts and figures of this region. Let us start with some background information and useful definitions.
There are three components for Essex 11+ examination. 1- English, 2- Maths and 3- Verbal Reasoning. English is usually a 40 minutes test and has various categories of questions with differing values totalling 50 marks. English (on average) counts for 25% of the whole 11+ exam. Maths paper also counts for about 25%, lasts for 35 minutes and roughly has 35-45 marks in total. Verbal Reasoning usually has 90 questions (in 45 minutes) each with 1 mark and counts for about 50% of the whole exam. As you can see, weight of each paper is given as an approximation. I shall explain the reason behind this a little further down the article. However, first I would like to say a few words concerning the relationship between these figure and the admission criteria for Essex selective schools.
Every year, approximately four thousand children take the 11+ exams through CSSE. Nearly 15% of the year 6 population of the covered area. There are in total 12 Consortium schools in Essex. Their total admission number (both boys and girls) is 1197. So, roughly about 30% of the exam sitters gain admission to these schools (about 4% of the total number of pupils eligible for secondary schools). In other words your child's average 11+ score should be high enough to be ranked within the first 30% of the exam sitters to gain admission to one of these schools. However, the actual admission process is not as simple as that. Outcome also depends on the breakdown of the preferences list on the Local Authority Common Application form. There is also a third dimension to this, affected by the two-tier admission system adopted by some of the schools (eg. Southend & Westcliff split their intake into two groups of pupils - catchment area and non-catchment area).
The application procedure for secondary school admission in Essex has been changing over the years. Currently, you are restricted to choice of 4 schools in total, including both comprehensive and grammar schools. So, your order of preference must be carefully considered against all eventualities. Generally speaking your list of four schools should reflect your preferences in a descending order. However, at least one of your choices should be a catchment area comprehensive school to make sure your child does not end up without a school to go to, if not successful in 11+. Furthermore, the list should also reflect the general popularity order of the schools to be selected. In other words, there is no point in placing the school with highest popularity second or third, as your child will not gain admission to that school even if his/her score is above that school's cut-off mark. First, choose the 4 schools you are likely to accept (including at least one comp). Then, list the selective schools of your choice in the order of their popularity ranking. Finally, putting the comprehensive school(s) last. Here is an example:
You opted for 3 selective and one catchment area secondary schools. Let's say that your 3 chosen selective schools in the order of your preference were: 1- WestCliff for Boys, 2- Colchester Royal Grammar and 3- Southend for Boys. Let us also assume that this in fact was also the order you placed them in the application form, with the local comp last. Your child's results came through in May and the average score is 81%. That means your child has almost certainly scored high enough to gain admission to any one of those schools. Your son would now have been admitted to your first choice WestCliff High for Boys, which you had always wanted anyway. But, you could have actually wasted one of your choices: Colchester Royal Grammar School. Should you have subsequently changed your mind in favour of your second choice school, it could have been too late. If, on the other hand, you had put Colchester Royal Grammar first and WestCliff as second, you could have always rejected Colchester Royal Grammar and opted for your second choice, as you would still have had a high enough score amongst the second choice candidates to gain admission to WestCliff.
Popularity rankings of these schools are greatly affected by their performances in the GCSE and A level exams. ie. Their positioning in the secondary school league tables. For boys, most popular schools are: Colchester Royal Grammar School, King Edward VI Grammar School and Westcliff High School for Boys and for girls: Chelmsford County High School for Girls, Colchester County High School for Girls and Westcliff High School for Girls. However, there may be yearly variations. It all depends on the make up of the applicants. Some purely decide on the popularity order and distance to travel is not an issue or even moving house is a viable option. While others just go for the nearest one. Furthermore, even league tables show variations from year to year as far as GCSE and A level results are concerned. Besides, there is always the opportunity to change at the sixth form stage. Nevertheless, the general conception of popularity still favours the top 2-3 schools.
Now, let's get back to the actual scoring system employed and how this effects where your child ends up in the order of merit list. I mentioned that the average weights of each component of the 11+ exams were 25%, 25% and 50 % for English, Maths and Verbal Reasoning respectively. However, these figures are not absolute as the weights are further adjusted relative to the general success rate in each subject area attained for the year. In other words, the average score of all the participants for each topic is first calculated and serves as the benchmark for that component. Then where a child's score stand relative to that average figure determines the 'standard deviation' value for that child. Standard deviation figure could be + or - depending on whether that child's score for the topic is above or below the average mark. Finally, using the standard deviation values, all the scores for that topic are standardized.
Why, you may ask, go to all this trouble of complicating the issue, when you can simply use the percentage figures to arrive at the total score. This system is used to ensure that children's rankings fairly reflect their levels of attainment, not only for that year, but also in historical terms. As degree of difficulty varies for each subject area from year to year and overall ability of a child is intended to be measured, it is difficult to argue against the need to employ this procedure. A good example is the last year’s exam. In 2006 maths test was quite easy, the verbal reasoning was fair and English was one of the most difficult, if not the most difficult, over the last 10-15 years. Subsequently, high marks in English reflected more favourably in the overall score than the allocated 25% and could have increased the total by as much as 2-3 equivalent percentage points.
When you browse the Internet you will often come across sources quoting 80% as the total average score needed to gain admission to one of the top 2 schools. The cut-off point varies every year, but this figure is given as the minimum required to ensure entry in all circumstances and therefore represents the ceiling. Last year (2006) about 72% was good enough to get into any one of these schools, provided that your English score was above the average. Obviously, there have been occasions when you did actually need that 80%.
Please also bear in mind that when you actually receive the results in early May, they will not be set out in percentages. You will have the ratio of correct answers/total number of questions for each subject. Then you will have the total standardized score and finally your ranking for your choice of schools against the total number of applicants for that school. The list will include all the schools up to and including the school your child is accepted to. Also, do not be surprised if your child's ranking for the school he/she is accepted to falls outside the admission capacity for that school. This is due to the fact that the initial rankings include all applicants, whether first choice or otherwise, and the list for that school will be further adjusted in terms of first choice candidates only. In other words, for your first choice school you will have priority over the second or third choice candidates even though their scores may be higher than your child's.
The admission criteria is further complicated by those second choice candidates achieving very high scores and opting to reject their first choice schools. This is a bit of a grey area and I do not think it will serve a useful purpose to dwell upon this too deeply at this stage.
And alas, there is ultimately the final frontier - the waiting list process. Children scoring outside the cut-off point for their first choice school will automatically be put on the waiting list for that school, where they will stay until the end of first week of the start of term in September or until they move high enough in the list to fall inside the admission number. If your child is quite low down on the waiting list, initially you may see that he/she will move up fairly rapidly up the list until shortly after the deadline for rejecting schools passes. Then the move will markedly slow down and stop. Eventually, there may be 1 or 2 more people dropping out the list, but that's it.
General tips for preparation
So, what can you do, as parents, to give your child the best possible chance to succeed?
I shall discuss this under three main sub-headings.
1- Practice makes perfect
There are many categories of questions in the three subject areas in Essex. Make a list of all these categories under each subject. Looking at last 5-6 year's past exam papers you can compile a comprehensive list that will cover most, if not all, question types.
English is easier to analyse. Basically, you have the comprehension section, where the questions range from true and false statements, equivalent words section, choice of descriptive phrases relating to the passage, closest meaning questions, express with your own words questions etc. Then there are the punctuation and grammar questions(s).
Maths questions on the other hand, come from a larger pool covering many areas. Simple additions and subtractions, decimals, fractions and percentages, measurements, problem solving, graphs, pie charts, date and time calculations, areas, angles, formulae, geometrical shapes, sequences, symmetry, patterns, averages, probabilities, temperatures etc.
Verbal Reasoning has about 25 categories of questions in total, ranging from words with opposite meaning, closest words, compound words, incomplete words, jumbled words, hidden words, sums, letter series, number series, words x codes, arranged words, true statement, jumbled sentences, unrelated words, word pairs with a missing letter, number coded words etc. Then there are the questions where you need to move a letter from one word to another to make two new words or completing sentences with a choice of given pair of words etc. The list goes on.
You need to make sure that all these question types are cover in your child's revision process. There are great deals of material to work with. You can obtain last two years' past paper for English and Maths from the consortium (due to copyright considerations you won't be able to get the actual verbal reasoning papers). Almost all bookshops sell 11+ practice papers from many different publishers. Internet is an endless pit for these. However, you must make sure you make an educated choice when buying practice papers. Check and see if they cover question categories relevant to your region. Otherwise, you may inadvertently cram your child's brain with unnecessary information.
With English, get your child to do as many comprehension practices as possible. Device different ways of enhancing their vocabulary - vocabulary is the most important single area that will have a great bearing not only for the English test, but also for the Verbal Reasoning. You could for example write the words on pieces of card with the meaning or equivalent/opposite on the other site. You could play a game to see who will get the most words right, giving one mark for each meaning, opposite or equivalent for the card picked at random. Ask your child to read an article or a passage from a book, then ask them to tell you the main points of the story in their own words, helping them at each opportunity for a better choice of word. You could take sentences from a book and remove the punctuation and ask them to complete these, then show them how much of it they got right. For maths and verbal reasoning start with repetitive practise questions for each category. Let them do one type of question for a day or two. Then introduce another category and so on. Then combine few categories together eventually going onto doing the timed full practice papers.
Let them do as many full practice papers as possible in all subjects, without actually overworking them to an extent that they loose interest. Try and device ways of making them enjoy the tests, by structuring the papers so that the children see their progress at every step and are encouraged by it.
Make sure you give them at least 4-5 full mock tests under exam conditions - that is, precisely as laid down in the actual 11+ exams. English first (35 minutes), 10-15 minute break, maths (40 minutes), 30 minutes break and verbal reasoning (45-50 minutes), with time reminders every 15-20 minutes. If you can, do one of the mocks in a non-local library that may be useful. Try to find the best corner that simulates exam conditions.
Remember that you are dealing with a 10-year-old child. Don't expect their concentration span to be anywhere close to an adult's. So, make sure your revision sessions do not go beyond an hour. Do it regularly without fail but limit it to an hour each time. (Only the mock tests should go beyond this) Try to work out at what part of the day your child's comprehensive faculties are at their best. Some do extremely well after playing with friends for an hour or so, others may be sharper and more attentive early in the morning before school. Plan the practice sessions at least a day in advance. Make sure not only you know the answers to each question, but the methods of working them out which best suits your child as well.
Going through hundreds of practice papers alone does not get your child to one of those top-notch schools, unless your child is thought methodically and progressively. The actual exam will feel nothing like the practice sessions done in the familiar circumstances and comfort of your home.
There are two sides to the methodology question. First one is of a strategic nature and concerns the general approach to the whole exam process. The other is to do with the actual ways of working out the answers for individual question groups.
First and far most, it is very important to get your child into the habit of reading the question carefully to ensure what is actually asked is understood correctly. Most mistakes are made by rushing into working out the answers without fully reading the question. Having repetitively solved so many questions of similar wording, the child may fall into the habit of jumping to conclusions after the first few words and skip reading the rest of the question. You must teach your child to guard against this tendency. Sometimes questions may have bolded words that serve as clues to what is required. However, this is not the rule and there may be instances when testing the child's comprehensive ability as well as knowledge is intended. In such cases it is very easy to fall into the trap of giving the right answers, but to a wrong question. Here is a simple example: You have 3 red, 5 blue, 4 yellow, 7 black and 2 white marbles in a bag. To win a price you need to pick a red ball. What is the probability of not winning a price? The answer is 1/7. Or is it?
Another common problem concerns the English test. Children are usually given a long passage to read and then answer questions to measure their comprehensive abilities. In their haste to avoid wasting time, children tend to read the passage quickly and start answering the questions from memory. But, the memory, which is a product of the whole process of growing up, is also full of ideas about rights and wrongs, hard learned opinions about facts of life, value judgements, conditioning etc etc. So, during the process of answering the comprehension questions these fragments of information creep in and the child takes the easy way out by choosing an answer form his/her own experience. However, what is required is what is written in the relevant part of the article, what the author thinks about the subject that may or may not coincide with child's own reckoning. Hence, the child must let the author do the answering, by going back to the relevant section of the passage and checking each time before making a choice, even if this means a question or two is left unanswered due to time restrictions. What really counts is not whether or not the child answers all the questions, but how many questions he/she gets correct.
You must help your child to get into a habit of working out the answers patiently, but efficiently. You must also help your child find ways of holding that concentration span for the duration of each test paper. In addition, after each paper is completed he/she needs to completely forget that one, stop reflecting on what is done and set his/her mind to the next task.
As far as the actual methods of working out the answers are concerned, my advice would be to use the appropriate method for each question category each time, especially in the early stages and make sure that your child works out the answers on the actual practice paper. As she/he gets proficient on mentally working out some of the easier operations, there is no need to waste time on insisting that they do these in writing. However, some categories must always be worked out on paper to avoid mistakes. Short divisions, products outside the times table for instance, are best done on paper. Also, there are those categories of questions where method must be marked out, tabled or steps should be displayed. Otherwise, not only silly mistakes will easily creep in, but also child's mind will endure extra stress that may have a diverse effect on performance. Transfer the burdening information on to the paper so that the mind can concentrate on the reasoning.
You must not loose sight of the uncultivated characteristics of a 10-year-old child's cognitive faculties. While you have a virtually unlimited capacity of fresh memory bank to work with, how you input into this highly receptive, yet analytically naive pool, will have a great bearing on how the child will perform. Never underestimate child's ability to learn, but keep it structured and simple. Be patient until they are comfortable with the method. Release the information progressively; making sure each step is digested before going on to the next.
Sometimes a child may have a mental block on a category or two and no matter how hard you try you may not resolve the problem. Do not dwell upon it as if it is a life and death issue. Do not avoid those questions categories, but just repeat the method in a matter of fact manner and pass on to the next. It may very well be the method that is lacking, try changing it. You know your child best, so modify the method to suit his/her strengths. There are a maximum of 7 or 8 questions to a category in verbal reasoning and in maths 3-or 4 is the limit. So, if push comes to shove, it is not the end of the world and that category can be left out. The child can still achieve a high score without it. What is worse is your child going to the exam dreading that category will come up. Not only the anxiety could have an adverse effect on the concentration, but also the time wasted for that category could mean not being able to answer more questions in the strong categories.
Most question types, especially in maths and verbal reasoning, can be made easier to work out and less error prone by applying a specific method that can be adapted to your child's way of thinking. However, the operative phrase here is that the child must be comfortable with it. Lets take a simple maths example:
6x + 8 = 44
Work out the value of x.
This is an equation. For any given equation you can change numbers round, add subtract, multiply or divide as long as both sides of the equal sign always remain equal. The idea is to leave x on its own on one side, while keeping the equation true. To do that we must do to one side of the equation exactly what we intend to do to the other side.
Method 1: What do we have to do to leave x on its own. First, we must get rid of the 8. So, we must take off 8 from the left hand side of the equation (6x + 8 - 8). What do we have to do to make sure the equation is still true: we must do the same to the other side, i.e. subtract 8. So, the equation now becomes: 6x + 8 - 8 = 44 - 8. Next we must simplify the equation by working out the subtraction on both sides. So, 6x = 36. Now we must get rid of 6 from the 6x (remember 6x means 6 times x). But, the rule says we must do the same to the right hand side as well to keep the equation true. We must divide the right hand side with 6 as well. Now the equation becomes: 6x/6=36/6. If we simplify, the sixes on the left side cancel each other out: x=36/6, so x=6.
Method 2: In any equation we can move an item from one side to the other as long as we apply the rules for doing so. What are the rules: We must first move the stand-alone numbers to the other side. Stand-alone numbers would always have either a plus (+) or a minus (-) value. In our example 8 has a + value. When we move one of these to the other side of the equation we must change its sign (+ becomes - and - becomes +). So our equation becomes: 6x=44-8, which is 6x=36. Now we have to move 6 to the other side so that x is left on its own. 6 is a multiplication (6 times x). Any multiplication when moved to the other side becomes a division, and visa versa (any division when moved on to the other side becomes multiplication). So our 6 in front of the x moves to the other side as a division. Equation now becomes: x=36/6. Hence, x=6
And a verbal reasoning example:
Katie, Adam, Lucy, Ranjit and Richard all wear school uniform.
Katie, Adam and Ranjit wear ties.
Ranjit wears a blazer.
Richard hates the uniform but wears a blazer and a tie.
Lucy and Katie wear hats.
Adam wears a blazer but no hat.
Who wears the least items of uniform? ( )
First lets make sure what the question asks: Least number of items.
This type of question needs a table to make sure we make no silly errors. There are 5 kids and 3 items of clothing. So we draw a table with 6 columns and 4 rows (extra column and row are for the headings) and starting from the first line of information mark the items on the table.
So Lucy is the answer.
3- Time management
Don't leave it to the last few weeks. Give them at least 2-3 months or more to practice their time management skills. This is one area you should not compromise on. This might make all the difference. In the last few months of preparation do not compromise on time to encourage your child. Find other ways of building their self-confidence. Praise them for correct answers, especially in their weak areas.
In the early stages, show your child the suitable method of working out the answer, and then let them do a number of questions on their own until they get it right. Give them as much time as they need to work out the answers correctly. Do this for all question categories. Then give them practice papers with mixed categories. Gradually encouraging them to do these quicker and quicker. With each paper, write the time taken to complete on the paper. Eventually, they should only be allowed the time stated on the actual paper. During this whole process you should be able to gather enough information to compile a list of your child's strong and weak categories relative to time. Time is the operative word here. Your child may be very good in answering some categories, but if he/she takes longer than that question merits, than that would be counted as a weak category.
Remember, this is a race with almost 4,000 other kids against time. Ability to answer all the questions correctly is not enough. The challenge is to be able to correctly answer more questions than rest of the top 30% in the given time. So many kids will be clustered at or around the cut-off point that even one more correct answer in any one of the 3 topics could make all the difference. So your child must work efficiently and systematically and utilize every second of those 2 hours productively to make his/her dream come through, or rather your dream as the case may be.
First, establish a list of weak and strong question categories for your child, not forgetting to include time as another determining dimension in your analysis. A very important factor to consider here is that each category would merit varying amount of time. Some question categories are designed to be answered quicker than others. In other words, not all categories carry the same weight as far as time is concerned. While you may need more than the average time allowed (total time for the test divided by total number of questions) for some questions, you will make up that lost time from other categories that need much shorter time to work out. Now, put them in order from strong to weak. However, don't forget even the weak category will contain one or two easy questions which can be answered within the appropriate time. Then, get your child into a habit of answering the strong categories first. Your child should start the test from the beginning working her/his way through until a weak category is arrived at. Answer any question in that category that are exceptionally easy and mark all the others with a circle around the question number and go on to the next category and so on. Once the end of the test is reached, if there is any time left, go back to the beginning and scan through the questions with circles around them and find the least difficult category amongst them to work on. Then the next least difficult and so on. By doing this you would have made sure that all the 'easy' questions are completed and you will have no regrets reflecting back on the test.
Also, as the verbal reasoning test this year will be multiple choice, your child should leave himself/herself one or two minutes to go through the answer sheet and mark all the unanswered questions with any answer. 20% chance of getting a question your child finds impossible to answer right is better than no chance. Besides, for some difficult questions the child may be able to reduce the possible answers down to two and the probability would than go up to 50%.
I can hear you thinking, how can you expect a 10 year old child to adapt such a complex strategy, especially when they are racing against time. Children are able to accomplish a lot more than we give them credit for, as long as the benefits of such tactics are demonstrated to them in real life during their practice sessions.
I will conclude this longer than intended introductory episode with a couple of pointers.
Passing the 11+ exams is only the beginning of this rather difficult path to success, but it is a solid beginning. You will find, especially in year 7, that there will be a lot of hard work at school and at home, so the parents participation would need to be a continuous process.
You may also find that despite all efforts you child was not able to gain admission to the nearest selective school. Personally, I would do all in my power to make sure my child goes to whatever grammar school he/she is accepted to. Using the consortium busses is one alternative, though not cheap. I would even consider moving house.
Finally, in the event that your child is unable to get into any one of these selective schools, there is one thing that is certain. Your child will reap the benefits of all that hard work whatever secondary school he/she attends to. Admittedly, the success rate for the comprehensive schools is a lot lower than those of the selective ones, but it is almost certain that a child who has gone through all the prep work for the 11+ will be one of the top achievers.