grammar schools

How to pass with flying colours as a parent whilst getting through the 'pass' or 'fail' talk of the 11+

It is possible to get through 11+ time with flying colours  - in every sense!  (image credit: Unsplash)

It is possible to get through 11+ time with flying colours  - in every sense!  (image credit: Unsplash)

Can you pass or fail a test that does not have a pass mark?

Imagine if you were to walk out of your driving test and not be told if you’d passed or failed, but that you’d be told later.  At the end of the day, the top 100 of people who took the test would be awarded a driving licence.  If one person from the top 100 left the UK without collecting her licence, and the 101st person were therefore awarded a licence, would that final person have “passed” or “failed”?

This is how the the 11+ works! So, when we heard Nick Robinson talking about 'pass' and 'fail this week, as we all do, I started to think about the pressure of grammar school testing and what we as parents can do to relieve it... 

How do you talk to your child about the 11+ test?

  • Always ensure your child knows that the grammar school is just one of a few options you are considering. 
  • Make sure you and your child are sure about which non-grammar schools will also be on your list of preferences when choices are made (the time between results and preferences is often just a matter of days, often over the half-term break, so plan ahead).
  • Discuss honestly the pros and cons of different types of education. If your child is currently a “big fish in a small pond” as one of the brighter children in the class, then how will he or she adjust to being in a bigger pond full of bigger fish?
  • Talk about life plans with your child.  If all your child has ever wanted to do is join the army or be a farmer, then perhaps a school with more practical leanings would suit better, regardless of 11+ success?
  • Talk about what you will do if you find that despite winning a place at the grammar school it doesn't turn out to be the right school. It might be comforting for them to know, this is your only endeavour. 
  • Discuss with child whether he or she will be happy in a single-sex grammar school (if that’s your local option) and if the commute is bearable (for many, the local grammar school is much further away than the local secondary school) and take seriously their concerns.

Parent checklist

  1. Make sure you look at other schools too, ensuring it’s clear that they are viable options. 
  2. Ask all the questions at each school that you’d ask if that were the only option available to you.
  3. You might even consider not viewing the grammar school with your child, depending on whether you think seeing the school will add pressure or incentive.
  4. Talk openly and regularly about the pros and cons of all the schools that are options, trying to be as balanced as you can.
  5. Think about whether you really think tutoring is necessary.  A few practice papers will give your child a good feel for the kinds of questions that might come up and if he or she is being intensively prepped through the 11+ the grammar school might not be the right school after all.
  6. If you’re looking at independent schools as an alternative try not to add any pressure on your child by talking about the financial advantages!  
  7. If you have more than one child, remember that how you’re presenting schools will affect other siblings too – small people have big ears so choose your words carefully.
  8. Not all grammar schools are single-sex, but many are.  If you don’t think your child will suit the environment, then think again about the choice of school.

What do you think might be helpful? Join in the debate @schoolhuntersuk - see you there!


11+ reasons to register now for the grammar school 11+

Time to take the plunge and register for the 11+ grammar school test (image credit: Unsplash)

Time to take the plunge and register for the 11+ grammar school test (image credit: Unsplash)

The 11+ tests for coveted grammar school places take place in early September and in most counties, now is the time to be registering to take the test.

Why register for the 11+?

  • Why not?  It’s free.
  • Most counties with grammar schools educate between 10 and 20 per cent of pupils in grammar school – it’s not quite as selective as you might think. 
  • Despite the pressure to tutor, it might well be far better not to  – the schools have been working hard to make their tests more “tutor-proof”. 
  • Don’t worry if you think either your child’s maths or English isn’t good enough to get to grammar school.  The papers are weighted with the aim of admitting the best overall applicants, not the specialists.
  • If your child is relatively young (i.e. was born late in the school year and may still only be 9 years old as you make this decision) then her/his results will be weighted to counteract that relative disadvantage – don’t underestimate your child!
  • Grammar schools are determined to make themselves more accessible to children in care and to those eligible for the Pupil Premium, and in some areas, those children are now offered places based on scores substantially lower than those of other pupils.
  • Taking the test keeps your options open – if your child takes the test and wins a place, you can still choose another school, but at least you had the choice.
  • The 11+ test is a valuable experience, like going for auditions.  Your child can take the test for the experience and not even open the envelope of results.
  • You may be able to apply to a grammar school even if you don’t live in a grammar school county – check the admission criteria for nearby schools.
  • Don’t be daunted – your child may still seem very young in Year 5, but children flourish when they find themselves at the top of the school and you are making a decision for Year 7 and beyond.  Think big.
  • If you’re thinking of applying to a private school, see this as a chance to experience an examination before the test for the school you want.
  • Undecided. Always good to have options. Register now, decide later. 

For most counties, registration for the grammar school tests closes in July – later applications are considered for places only after on-time applicants are offered places, so it’s wise to register on time.

It takes just five minutes to apply – it could be the most productive five minutes of your child’s life so far!


Why Matilda didn’t go to grammar school - 8 barriers to entry under the current grammar school test system

Barriers to entry to 11+ schools (image credit: Unsplash)

Barriers to entry to 11+ schools (image credit: Unsplash)

When I grow up...

As self-motivated and brilliant as Matilda Wormwood was (our favourite Roald Dahl heroine) there would be one thing holding her back from a grammar school application today... her parents!

We believe in good schools and most importantly the right school for the right child. Whether you’re a believer or not in the grammar school system and whether you are pleased or aghast at their contentious proposed expansion - and do see Tom Sherrington's highly informative post on the ins and outs of the arguments - we suggest that if they are to exist then perhaps they should be accessible to all pupils within the catchment area. 

What are the road-blocks to even sitting the test?

1. Planning ahead

Under the current system all children applying to grammar school must apply in Year 5.  Parents are informed about this via a booklet supplied by the county, but there are all sorts of reasons they might not read it – it joins the myriad crumpled letters that never make it home via the book bag and most parents are full-time jugglers of jobs, elderly relatives and young children. It's just one more thing to do. Nothing in the booklets we’ve seen actually recommends applying, or "having a go"..

2. Believing in your child – recognising your Matilda

To think you should register for the 11+, you have to think there’s a point.  While many of us delight in our children's unique talents (imagined or otherwise!) it is sometimes the case that parents under-estimate their child's ability.

3. Confidence

And then there are some parents who do believe in their children, but are a little shy about it.  It takes a degree of confidence to take the registration form into school and ask the headteacher to sign the application form confirming that your child is the person you say he is, exposing your hopes to scrutiny. 

4. a £5 photo

In my local supermarket it costs £5 for four little passport photos – one of which is needed for the registration form.  For many, £5 spent on photos would make a significant dent in the family food budget.  

5. Teachers

While some schools encourage every pupil to register for the test, others are wary.  And of course many teachers simply don’t believe in selective education. How can they be expected to encourage families to register for the test if either they don’t believe in it or fear they will be held to account if results are disappointing. SATS may be quite enough pressure. 

6. Late babies

We have witnessed first-hand the difficulty for summer babies in relation to the 11+ test.  The test itself is weighted to account for the age of children being tested, but parents’ perception is based on their child’s performance in relation to their peers, not the population, and that can have a huge bearing on how they view their readiness for the 11+. 

Summer-born children are only nine years old when registration takes place and for many parents the extra pressure of the grammar school can seem too much for such a young child.  It doesn’t mean young children won’t win places at grammar school, but it does distort their parents’ view of their suitability.

7. Saturday test days

Lots of children have parents who work on a Saturday who are simply unable to take them to a test on a Saturday morning.  For many it’s one barrier too far, too intimidating, too much effort.  The only reason for Saturday testing is to make the grammar schools available to out-of-county pupils… and out-of-county pupils are inevitably the children of the motivated, interested more ambitious parents, so the bright working class pupils politicians are keen to empower are pushed out of the way even before they register! 

8. Getting there

Again, not a barrier to entry to the determined, but as Local Authority budgets are cut and savings sought they are cutting back on school transport and many no longer provide free transport to the grammar school unless it also happens to be your local school.  Pupils on free school meals can apply for the transport, but it’s no longer automatic and is yet another stumbling block to parents choosing secondary schools.


We applaud all the efforts of Local Authorities to prevent cheating, to make the test tutor-proof, to and to make it fair for younger pupils, but there's a way to go before it's truly open to all.