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UK Study Centre's Independent Schools' Entrance Exams Guide

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31 July 2017

In this guide we look at the entrance tests given to pupils applying to independent schools at 3/4+, 7+, 11+, 13+ and 16+.

For those new to independent education in the UK, applying to schools can be a daunting process. Aside from completing all the paperwork (there are numerous forms to fill out, particularly if you’re going for a scholarship), parents need to be aware of the testing requirements for admission to their school of choice. Most independent schools in the UK have some form of entrance test, and knowing what to expect – and how to prepare – is crucially important to getting a place.

That’s where UK Study Centre come in, and we thought it might be helpful to put together a guide that goes over the main entry exams to independent schools: at ¾+, 7+, 11+, 13+ and 16+. This guide is by no means comprehensive — for example, we don’t mention the 5+, 6+ or 9+ or 10+ entrance tests, even though they exist at some schools — but it does provide an overview of the ways in which schools usually test prospective pupils.

Before we get going, we should emphasise that while the information contained in this guide is up-to-date as of August 2017, that might not always be the case. It’s very, very important to check with your chosen schools about their entrance criteria, and to use this guide as just one part of your research. The entrance tests tend to change year on year, and all the more so since most schools (especially in London) tend to be oversubscribed and constantly adjust their tests to filter out applicants.

We also don’t cover scholarship exams in this guide, though we will look at scholarships and bursaries in a future blog post.

And finally, this guide almost exclusively covers entrance to independent schools. However, in the 11+ section we do mention grammar school entrance (given that the 11+ is still the main entrance test for grammar schools) and there will be some crossover with certain state schools.

3+ and 4+ Exams

The youngest age at which children might have some kind of assessment for entrance in the UK independent system is the 3+. The 3+ test is for children looking to enter a school at Nursery (age 3), and while it isn’t a ‘test’ in the same way that the other ‘pluses’ are, but it is nonetheless used by schools to decide which children to admit.

In the words of Highgate School, which offers entrance at this age, the 3+ is a ‘practical assessment…comprised of a series of play-based tasks to assess learning readiness…there will also be an opportunity for free play. The areas assessed include perceptual, manipulative, social, mathematical and language skills.’

In a similar vein to the 3+ is the 4+ exam, this time for entry into Reception. The 4+ is used by a few of the London schools such as North London Collegiate School in Edgeware and Francis Holland School in Sloane Square, and has a similar breakdown to the 3+. According to NLCS, children are not expected ‘to be able to read or write’, and the assessment involves ‘play’ activities ‘testing school readiness’.

At UK Study Centre we don’t advise parents to try and prepare for the 3+ or the 4+ exam in any way, since the idea of ‘preparation’ can mean asking children to work, something that can be detrimental to both academic development and emotional wellbeing at such a young age. Instead, to maximise their children’s chances of getting a place we suggest that parents are persistent with their chosen schools. Register and apply early where possible, make sure the schools know who you are, and if after the assessment you are not offered a place try appealing to the school. A good article on this subject can be found here.

7+ Exams

The next stage of entry is into Year 3 with the 7+, taken in December or January of Year 2 when children are 6 or 7 years old. The 7+ is more commonplace than the 3 or 4+, and, unlike those tests, the 7+ is an academic assessment. Children are usually tested in English, maths and reasoning, and there’s usually an interview too. The child’s current school may also be asked to provide a reference.

Can children be prepared for these tests? Yes and no. Parents should be wary of putting pressure on their children too early, and should also avoid imposing too much desk work. Learning at five and six years-old should still be mainly play-based, and children will respond well to learning with physical props rather than with pen and paper. However, some work with practice papers and exercise books will be useful since that’s what the actual test will include.

In mathematics pupils need to be familiar with the following topics:

  • The four basic operations (+ — x /)
  • Times tables
  • Telling the time
  • Money (pounds and pence)
  • Basic fractions

The maths test itself consists of word problems ("if there are 9 pairs of socks on the washing line, how many socks are there?') so it's important that candidates are able to process mathematical problems verbally as well as using symbols. The 7+ English test usually involves a comprehension section and a composition section. To prepare their children for the written comprehension parents should read to and with them as much as possible, and, where possible, ask them questions in the manner of the paper. Questions about the motivations and feelings of the characters will go a long way in developing a child’s natural comprehension ability. As with the maths candidates do need to have some proficiency with pen (or pencil) and paper for the 7+, and if possible should be given some practice writing stories. Again this doesn’t need to be done in a formal way – just coming up with stories together, perhaps writing a sentence each, can be useful.

As with the 3 and 4+, it’s very important to register early and to get your name into the mix. Visit the schools, meet with the registrars, and if you’re not offered a place don’t just give up. Get in touch, see if anything can be done, and you might still be in with a chance.

11+ Exam

Though not taken by as many children as it once was, the 11+ is still the gateway test to many (state) grammar schools and academically-selective independent schools in the UK. The test is taken by pupils in Year 6 in anticipation of entry in Year 7 (when all pupils are 11 years-old) and usually consists of maths (or quantitative reasoning as it’s sometimes called), English and verbal/non-verbal reasoning (non-verbal reasoning is sometimes described as ‘spatial awareness’).

At independent schools it’s most common for all four subjects to be tested, but the grammar schools often only test in certain subjects. What tests a school decides to give to its prospective pupils can often be determined by the school’s location: for example, if your child takes the test in Lincolnshire they will likely  only be tested in verbal and non-verbal reasoning, while in other parts of the country there will be English and maths tests too. Despite sharing the same name and the same curriculum there are some key differences between the grammar school and independent school 11+ exams:

  • Who writes the exam

The first major difference between the grammar school and independent school 11+ is found in who writes and administers the tests. While most private schools will write their own exams, the grammar schools offer tests that are administered by one of two existing exam boards: GL Assessment and CEM.

GL Assessment offer 11+ tests in English, maths, verbal reasoning and non-verbal reasoning, and schools can choose which sections to use for their testing process. CEM on the other hand offer verbal reasoning, non-verbal reasoning and numerical reasoning. The comprehension aspect found in the English part of the GL test appears in the CEM verbal reasoning, while the numerical reasoning section is effectively a maths test.

While both the GL Assessment and CEM tests are challenging, the CEM tests in particular require pupils to have a well-developed vocabulary. The GL assessment papers are quite regular in how they’re laid out, but in the CEM tests longer and shorter questions are mixed together, and there is a greater variety in the types of questions offered. What’s more, the CEM tests put English in the same paper as verbal reasoning, and non-verbal in the same paper with the maths tests.

  • When the exams take place

Most grammar schools test pupils at the beginning of Year 6, and often in September. Some schools have started testing slightly earlier, with a maths test occurring at the very end of Year 5 to filter out candidates, but this is uncommon.

Private schools are different in that their testing usually takes place in January, with offers for places being made by the middle of February. This isn’t universally the case, and some schools do test as early as November, but generally testing doesn’t happen as early at the private schools as it does at the grammars.

  • The North London Independent Girls’ Schools’ Consortium and Pre-tests

While private schools generally offer their own tests at 11+, there are certain instances when pupils can receive the same test despite applying to different schools. A number of girls’ schools in London have organised themselves into a consortium, where girls can apply to all of the schools but only have to sit one exam. There schools are in two groups, and as of 2017 they are:

Consortium 1:

  • Francis Holland School (Regent’s Park and Sloane Square), Notting Hill and Ealing High School, South Hampstead High School, Queen’s College London and St Helen’s School

Consortium 2:

  • Channing School, More House, Queen’s Gate School, The Godolphin and Latymer School, St James’ Senior Girls’ School and Northwood College for Girls

Applicants will still have to pay the requisite application fees for each school they’re applying to, but during the application process they will be asked where they would like to sit the test. It’s a good idea to take the exam at your first choice school (even if the school’s themselves say it doesn’t make a difference!).

Certain schools supplement the 11+ written papers with a computerised test, known as a pre-test, that takes place in November of Year 6. In some cases (such as at St Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith) this test is written by the schools themselves, but it’s often provided by either GL Assessments or CEM. Since the Pre-Test (ISEB — the Independent Schools’ Examinations Board — call it the Common Pre-Test) is also used to assess pupils for entry at 13+, I’ll cover it in more detail in the 13+ section below.

How do you prepare for the 11+?

Depending on whether you’re applying to a grammar school, an independent school or both, the ways in which you can prepare for the 11+ are largely the same.

Finding a good tutor can go a long way to making sure your child is ready for the tests, but they need to be familiar with whichever system you’re applying to. A grammar school tutor needs to know the difference between the GL Assessment and CEM tests, while a private school tutor should ideally know the schools you’re applying to and know about any pre-test requirements too.

With or without a tutor, there’s a lot that you can do at home. As we’ve already mentioned, vocabulary is very important for the 11+, and building vocabulary from around age 8 (using advanced vocabulary at home and helping your child to make a personal dictionary) will really help by the time the tests come around. Likewise maths skills need to be up to scratch, with fractions, decimals and percentages a real focus at the 11+. Having a good basic knowledge of algebra and translating word problems into equations will really help, especially at the morning challenging schools.

For the English paper, candidates need to be well-versed in how to write comprehension exercises, with strategies at the ready for managing time and focussing on the most difficult questions.

While some argue that it’s not possible to prepare for verbal and non-verbal reasoning, we disagree. Spending time doing practice papers of the kind provided by Bond or Letts will really help, and coming up with logical strategies (such as writing in the differences between numbers in a sequence, or writing out words with the letters in the wrong order to solve anagrams) can help children to understand the kinds of ways they need to be approaching problems.

In London the 11+ is a heavily oversubscribed entry point, with up to a thousand applicants for only a hundred places at some schools. The tests themselves can be incredibly challenging, with questions that would challenge pupils of two or three years older than those taking the exam. If you’re applying to the most competitive schools, it’s important to be realistic. Apply to a mix of schools so even if you miss out on the most academic ones you’ll still be in the running for a place.

A quick note – you might hear about the ‘Common Entrance at 11+’ at certain schools; the Common Entrance is a test usually taken at the end of Year 8 (more on that below) but certain girls’ schools also use nominally Common Entrance exams for entry at 11. This test includes English, maths and Science. However it’s pretty rare and in most cases schools will follow the format above.

The Pre-Test and 13+ Entrance

As we’ve seen, there’s a degree of variation in how schools handle admissions at 11+, and at 13+ yet more differences emerge. Speaking generally, though, registration for entry in Year 9 (at age 13) usually ends at the end of Year 5, and the testing process begins at the tail end of that calendar year, in Year 6.

The Pre-Test

The ISEB Common Pre-Test is a computerised test that many schools require applicants to take in October or November of Year 6. The test is around the same difficulty level as the 11+ exams, and consists of the same subjects: English, mathematics, and verbal/non-verbal reasoning. The test can be taken at the candidate’s current school, and a successful result will, depending on the admissions process of the school involved, lead to:

  • Receiving an unconditional offer
  • Receiving an offer conditional on your Common Entrance results at the end of Year 8
  • Not receiving an offer but being invited to further testing (this is the case at certain boarding schools including Eton College and Tonbridge)

As we mentioned in the 11+ section above, certain schools include the ISEB Pre-Test as part of their 11+ admissions process. In the case of Westminster School for example, the Pre-Test is used by Westminster Under for their 11+ intake as well as by the senior school for entrance at 13+. The result is that boys can’t still apply for 13+ if they’re unsuccessful in the 11+ tests.

The Common Entrance

The Common Entrance exams (also known as the Common Entrance at 13+) are taken in June, at the end of Year 8. The exams are provided by ISEB and consist of the core subjects – English, maths and Science – and most pupils will also take History, Geography, Religious Studies and French. Other languages are also on offer. These exams are non-dependent on school applications, by which we mean pupils will take them irrespective of what schools they are applying to. As we’ve seen though the exams are important, either because pupils have to meet a particular offer to get into a secondary school, or because these tests will determine which set they go into for their subjects at senior school.

The Common Entrance at 13+ is not to be confused with the 13+ exam however! Some schools (such as Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School) set their own special entrance exam at 13+, and applicants to those schools will take the 13+ as part of the entrance requirements but will likely also take the Common Entrance tests at the end of the school year.

16+ Entrance

While there are 14+ exams at a number of schools, they’re not common enough to warrant inspection here. So the next, and final, significant entry point to independent schools in the UK is at 16.

Certain schools such as Westminster and Charterhouse are single-sex until 16, with girls joining the school for the sixth form. Likewise, having an entry point at 16 allows international students to join schools for A-Levels. However, entrance at 16 is not the norm and so there aren’t many available places at most schools.

Testing for the 16+ usually happens in the autumn of pupils’ GCSE year (Year 11), and can cover a wide range of subjects. In many cases prospective students take arithmetic and vocabulary tests, while international students also have to complete a supplementary English test. Students are usually interviewed by the Headmaster or a senior member of staff, and when offers are eventually made they are usually contingent on students receiving a particular set of grades in GCSEs or equivalent exams abroad.

So there you have the main entrance exams to independent schools in the UK. As we mentioned at the start of this post, it’s very important to do your research with your chosen schools to make sure there aren’t any nasty surprises, but if you prepare well and know what to expect you should be in with a good chance of getting a place at your school of choice. Good luck!

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