Posted by / Category Cultural Differences, London /


In London (or at least where I happen to live!), going to a secondary school is a selective process and only the best get their first choice of school. If your child is bright, you will inevitably try to get him (or her) into a grammar school or a selective school. This is called the 11+. Beware: the selection is ruthless and my older daughter had to deal with a lot of pressure. All of this is already well documented, and all of it is true ( the reality is in fact much, much worse). Having being educated in the French system, I am kind of used to this. That said, I wasn’t anticipating such a selective process at such a young age (more than 1200 girls applied, and app. 100 got in). And this year, I have to do it all over again, with my younger one this time. It just never stops. But fear not: here are my top 10 tips to make this tricky phase that little bit easier.



1. First of all, forget about any kind of social life from September of Year 6. Just write it off. Cancel any work engagement. Now you are warned. If you were expecting relaxing holidays this Christmas, well, forget it too. My advice: cancel it now. Have a look at courses during half term instead.

2. Preparation is key. Don’t dream. You will have to get your hands dirty. Whether you do it yourself or hire a tutor is of course your decision. But don’t expect a smooth ride. There is only so much the primary school will do, and most children are tutored to death. Your new best friends are the Bond papers, and don’t expect your friends to give you the name of their tutor. They won’t. They will even deny they have one. It’s their dirty little secret. In London, some parents even ask their kid’s tutor to sign a confidentiality agreement. That’s how hypocritical the whole thing has become. But fear not: there are a few tutoring agencies in London. Kings Tutors has a good reputation and will update you on the progress of your child every month on their site. Oh, and do not count on your husband, he will be on business trips at all the crucial times and there is no point in complaining, they all do it and you don’t want to start divorce proceedings during this stressful process anyway.

3.  If you feel that you are taken for a ride, then you are probably taken for a ride. One well-known headteacher used to tell parents that tutoring your kids would damage his/her chance of succeeding, only to have a flourishing tutoring business on the side. The worst part of this is that some parents were stupid enough to believe him. Their children missed out. And all teachers tutor their own kids of course. Don’t be naive. It’s an urban jungle out there.

4. If your children are bilingual, it won’t help them. Quite the opposite, in fact. British schools expect a more-than-perfect English. You should have seen my daughter’s essays. Suffice to say, I wouldn’t have had a good grade.

5. Trust your instincts. The school will try to manage your expectations. You know your children best. If you feel that he/she will get into a specific school, and the primary school tells you that he/she is borderline for this very school, and that maybe you should reconsider, go for it anyway. Ignore them. That’s what happened to us, and I am glad I stuck to my guns. My older daughter got in with flying colours in the end. Stuff the school. Excuse my French.


6.  The process is probably even more stressful for mums. For my older daughter, I survived on 5k runs and chocolate brownies. I am pleased to say that today I just ran 10k in 52 minutes and went home to finish the ice-cream. I wonder how fast I will run after the exams. If I had other kids, I am pretty sure that I would have to start training for marathons. Seriously, I am not sure I could go through this a third time.

7.  If you make it to the interviews, be prepared for anything. At the time, my daughter was asked about what was happening in Tunisia during the Arab spring . She acted as if it was perfectly normal for a 10-year old to analyse Tunisia’s political situation and explained that Ben Ali’s wife stole a ton and a half of gold. I have to admit that, at the end of the whole process, she was ready to tutor me.

8. Manage the calendar clashes. Some exam dates and interview dates will clash. Be prepared to make quick decisions. The secondary schools want you to make up your mind even before the exams take place. Sad but true.

9. Make up your mind fast. Once you have the results, you just have a few days to decide if you accept the offer. And of course some results arrive a couple of weeks later. This means that, for private schools, you might have to pay the fees for the first trimestre to secure a place when you are still waiting for the results of the grammar school. Whatever happens, the 11+ will cost you. As in, a lot. Emotionally, and financially.

10. Keep things into perspective. You can always change school later if the worst comes to the worse. (13 + anyone?)


So, is it worth it? Well, frankly, I am not so sure. That said, I can’t wait for it to be over. What about you, how do you survive the whole thing?

Disclosure: I have teamed up with Kings Tutors to write this post. All opinions remain mine.

  • deGency

    I can see that you operate in a particular context here, but to generalise from that as a premise to your opinions is highly questionable – there are many parents of bright/intelligent children who see no inevitability re selective or grammar schools, either because they don’t have the money or they’re happy with a non-selective school in the area. I should know, I worked in an outstanding comprehensive for 31 years which catered for SEN students and Oxbridge candidates. Selective schools cater for only 7% of the school population. I have no problem with your (accurate) observations re the process which you are experiencing but your generalised statements do you no favours. Je m’excuse, mais si vous voulez parler du système d’éducation ici, il faut considérer le fait qu’il y a en vérité deux systèmes…

    • Again, rightly or wrongly, I don’t think that there is much choice where I live. We tried for a faith school (Catholic school) that was free but didn’t get in because my daughter had been baptised at the old age of 18 months (a true story). We are more into maths/science and the local comprehensives are more into humanities and music. No choice but to try to get into a selective school or a grammar school for us!

      • deGency

        Thanks for the reply – can understand your concerns, the situation in London is certainly tricky – was just taken aback by what appeared to be generalisations of a national picture. Bonne soirée 🙂

  • Kia Orana

    Muriel, you are spot on the situation for London private schools. Because of my job I talk to many
    school consultants and the reality is that parents go to great lengths
    to ensure their kids will get their desired school and possible even have a
    choice. You are also right in saying that everybody denies it. Parents
    do. Schools discourages it. But the business is booming and getting into
    schools is becoming more competitive by the day. I know of 2
    headmasters in very prestigious prep schools that have started telling
    parents in Year 2 (that’s 4 years away) that they should start thinking of boarding options
    for their boys. It is a jungle out there…

    • I know Kia. Believe me, I learned the hard way. If I had listened to the primary school my daughter wouldn’t even have tried the school she got into! It is indeed a jungle out there.

  • ouh that is so scary. Our daughter is in Year 3 right now but I already see the spectre of Year 6 exams looming in. Being French, I have absolutely no clue as to what the process will be but your post started to enlighten me.
    One question : does the tutoring also go on for children in private primary schools? I thought the point of them was precisely to prep for 11 plus so that you don’t have to do the tutoring?

    • To cut a long story short, I found out that most children are tutored, even in private primary schools. From my (limited) experience, primary schools that have no secondary schools prepare children a bit better. Good luck, Stephanie!

  • Amy Brown

    I feel stressed out just reading this! And there are plenty of parts of the U.S. school system that are similar. It’s hard to believe that 16 years, my parents just let me pick my classes, do my work and apply to a bunch of Ivy League universities with no oversight from. They didn’t even read my application essays. That would never happen now (and if it did, I wouldn’t have gotten in anywhere)!

    • It is indeed very stressful and extremely selective. And at such a young age! I am seriously considering relocating the whole family to escape from all this non-sense. Right now I miss France!

  • Miss Bougie

    Oh Dear, am I glad that I live in France and that my kids have finished secondary school! I did go through the stress of applying to classe prépa and école de commerce for my boy, but that’s at a later stage in the education system. I have friends who went through what you describe and I didn’t envy them at the time. Good luck with daughter number two!

    • Thank you! We will need all the luck we can get!

  • James Casserly

    Wow, I knew the system was bad but this just seems appalling. In The Republic of Ireland it is much more straightforward. There are no catchment areas, you pick what school you wish to go to and register for a place. Unless they are a really small school and oversubscribed the likelihood is you will be enrolled. There are some “Entrance Exams” but this is more for the school to stream you. No interviews and no competition. Oh, while we start school at age 4, we have 8 years of primary school, then 5 or 6 years of secondary. No distinction between types of school either. They are all Secondary schools and the curriculum and exams are centrally set by the Department of Education, so whether you are in a school in Galway or Dublin, you are following the same curriculum and sit the same exams as everyone else in the country. This means if a family has to relocate and you have to go to a new school you are not at a disadvantage and can take up where you left off.

    • What you describe sounds similar to France. The selection really starts at uni, not before. Over here, if you move you have a clear disadvantage. It is bonkers. And it starts at such a young age!