From Crystal-Maze-style codes to circus skills: welcome to the wacky world of 11+ school assessments

'One friend confessed to “regular phone sex” — or something like it — with registrars as she tried to move her son up waiting lists.'

Credit: Thomas Hedger

2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程The chatter over post-match teas is of children being sick in waiting rooms, parents herded into holding pens, and traffic clogging every road in the district. Welcome to the brutal world of secondary school assessments. 

“I dread Year Six,” says Sarah Norman, going through it for a fourth and final time. “It’s definitely changed since my older children did it; there seems to be a lot more competition for places now than 10 years ago. It can become really divisive, and children react so differently to the pressure.”

2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程As I make my second assault on the secondary selection system, I take comfort from the fact that there is at least variety and the occasional surprise amid the madness. From the sausage-factory procedures at day schools, where applicants outnumber places by 10 to 1, to schools which mix things up with circus skills activities or the full Hogwarty experience of a night on the dorms, there’s no fixed model. 

2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程My friends Alex (a judge) and Christina (a trilingual fund manager) might be considered high achievers. But this winter’s round of applications for their 11-year-old son has left them — and him — wrung out. 

2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程“Even getting there is a nightmare,” says Alex. “You realise you are up against not just other London families but an international elite. Pick-up time feels like a mass evacuation… It’s speed dating as opposed to the long, slow courtship of the boarding sector and we now realise that to succeed you need to be hot housing your child to death.” 

An old school friend in the North West, who has worked as a teacher, confirms that hot competition extends far beyond the South East. She’s even been asked to check carefully that the child sitting the exam matches the photograph on their application form. 

On the other hand, some pupils emerge from some assessments smiling as if leaving a birthday party. “My son would cheerfully pay to go and do his one again,” says another mother, Emma Kenny. “He had to crack Crystal Maze-style codes, break into safes, find treasure and get someone out of a locked room,” she elaborates. “He had the time of his life.” 

2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程Bradfield is one of growing numbers of — mostly, but not solely boarding — schools which now observe children tackling problems, interacting, leading and persevering through sometimes off-the-wall activities. this year had children doing circus skills, while at my daughter was tasked with finding the culprit when the school’s “prized Canaletto” was mysteriously hacked from its frame during a biscuit break. 

But how much do these group activities really count? 

Is this really an exercise in enticing the best candidates? Or do they genuinely measure ability and aptitude?

Bradfield’s Head, Chris Stevens, says enjoyment is “a delightful byproduct” rather than a motive. “I’ve worked in prep schools and I loathe the testing culture,” he says. “We are not a league table school, we’re a value added school and don’t want to restrict ourselves to cognitive assessment.” Specially trained teachers observe how children perform in each task, and compare notes with another who accompanies each group. In between tasks, children write about how they think each one went. 

“It has surpassed our hopes because of the way children lose themselves in the tasks,” says Stevens. “It perhaps shows an Oscar-winning interviewee in a more natural environment, but it’s also a chance to throw up a green flag for a child who hasn’t had such a good day at the office they day they sat the ISEB.”

Ah yes, the dreaded ISEB ) pre-test, now used by stacks of schools in their decisions, or even to determine if your child can come for an interview at all.

2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程Taken at a child’s junior school, it’s adaptive and involves verbal reasoning, non-verbal reasoning , English and maths. While some preps still subscribe to ISEB's assertion that “no special preparation is required”, I’ve yet to find a parent who believes that, and soon you are speaking the language of the ISEB-obsessed: “Are you tutoring? Are you doing , , or practice tests?” Few of us follow up — as we’re longing to — with “and what sort of scores are you getting?”

The fact that over a third of UK prep schools now subscribe to Atom’s online practice test platform tells its own story. “Students can substantially improve their grade with preparation,” says co-founder Jake O’Keeffe, and he’s got evidence to prove it. As my own son found, practising the very stylised verbal and non-verbal reasoning questions (not otherwise on the school curriculum) produces notable improvement.  

Forward-thinking schools know how to calm parental anxiety, however. in Berkshire runs an enrichment programme for Years 5 and 6 in readiness for secondary school assessments, ranging from Bofa practice tests to guest speaker talks, workshops and team-building exercises. “We see these as skills for life, but we do want our boys and girls to be prepared for what is a rigorous process,” says Luke Owens, who runs it. Practice tests also alert teachers to areas of weakness in a child’s maths, and provide additional data when guiding pupils through school choices.

2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程But as fast as people devise methods to tutor and train for assessments, schools are striving to be more unpredictable. My own boy struggled to describe his computer test for , though I wish I’d known it would involve a 10-minute piece of descriptive writing — he can barely type. 

2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程At least he didn’t face questions that book-ended a classmate’s interview at another school: “So, have you done practice interviews?” and “Did any of the same questions come up today?” 

The real secret: other parents

In the end, schmoozing other parents is probably the best way to learn that some day school application processes require you to visit on three different days (to test parental commitment?), and that although Eton’s website tells you there’s an assessed group activity besides a test and interview, but there in fact is not. 

Ironically, it’s as the results start coming out that the true nightmare starts for some families. Some of your selected schools demand an acceptance and deposit before others have even told you if you’re in, feeding an already huge trend in holding multiple school places by parents undecided about which way to go.

2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程One friend cheerfully confessed to having “regular phone sex” — or something like it — with various registrars as she tried to move her son up waiting lists. 

Ultimately, as you replace your child’s Harry Potter with Lord of the Flies, trade Fifa for Bofa and subscribe hastily to The Week Junior, remember that you — like them — can only do your best. The rest is down to fate — and as much discreet lobbying as you can get away with.