senior school admissions

How to prepare for admission to senior school

Stephen Spriggs
February 12th 2020

Winning a place at a good senior school isn’t simply a case of putting your name down and paying the fee for your chosen independent school. High-performing state schools are oversubscribed and independent schools have entrance exams and interviews to pass.

According to The Good Schools Guide, a population boom has resulted in a 12% increase in the number of applicants to secondary schools in the last six years and this is due to rise. With competition from an increasing number of international pupils so fierce, here’s what you need to know about secondary school admissions. 

Consider whether you want single sex or co-educational, day or boarding, large or small. Don’t make your decision based solely on league tables. These can be misleading as most don’t indicate whether a school is selective or consider social-economic backgrounds. Instead, look at the ‘value-added’. 

Research widely. Talk to parents, look at recent reports and results on school websites, and talk to a reputable educational consultant for help. When you are researching schools that fit your criteria, make sure you understand what the entrance requirements are and visit the schools.  Open days are a great opportunity as you can talk to teachers, pupils and the head and have a tour, but they are slightly artificial occasions so don’t be afraid to ask for a private visit, especially if it’s a boarding school. You want to get a real feel for the school, especially if your child is living there. Consider what extracurricular activities are on offer and if your child has a particular area of interest or expertise, make sure it is offered.

Many schools use the Common Entrance Exam, which is set by the Independent Schools Examination Board.

Taken over two days, it tests English, Maths and Science for 11+ entrance. If taken at 13, the exams are taken over four days, and also test other subjects including History, Geography, Religious Studies, French or Spanish, and for some, Latin, Greek or Mandarin. Exams are marked by the school from their own criteria so there is no rigid pass or fail. However, it is possible to find out in advance what sort of mark schools are looking for at Common Entrance and most will have pre-tested a pupil.  Other schools, particularly the London day schools, use their own 11+ exam.

Many parents opt for tutoring to prepare their child for entrance exams.

Respected tutors will have good relationships with schools and understand their requirements. Be wary of putting too much pressure on a child or filling their hours with study. Tuition should enhance school and work on areas of development. Be realistic. If your child is unlikely to pass an exam without intensive tuition, is it the school for you? Will your shy, sensitive child fare well in an academic hothouse? A child who is burnt out from spending hours studying to get into a school might feel resentful towards it. And if they don’t pass the exam, be careful with your reaction. Don’t let them believe that they’re a failure or that they’ve let you down and don’t say it means they need more tuition. Consider schools with different entrance requirements. 

To apply for most state schools, you simply have to register your choices (at least three and a maximum of six) with the local council.

Many parents spend years preparing for this and move house in order to fall into the catchment area of a good state. (It can be cheaper to spend an extra £100K on a house close to a popular school than pay for two children to be educated independently for five to seven years.) Nevertheless, geography alone doesn’t guarantee you a place and you may be assigned a less popular one further away. State grammar schools and some academies are selective and your child will be required to pass an exam, commonly known as the eleven plus.

Preparing for secondary school admissions means doing your homework and trusting your instinct. Finding a school that suits your child’s skills, interests and personality will lead to a happier experience and result in them working harder. It’s five to seven years of schooling so it has to be right for both of you.


secondary school admissions