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Grammar Schools – Is Your Child Bright Enough?


It’s this time of the year again – summer holidays round the corner and open days in secondary schools. If your child has only one or two more years left in their primary school, the big question of ‘Where next?’ is likely to play on your mind.

We have started visiting our local secondaries a couple of weeks ago and still have two or three to visit, although I wonder whether there is much point in seeing them – I’ll explain why.

Theoretically, choosing a secondary school for your child should be quite straight forward – look up a list of your nearest schools, pick the one you like, apply and hope for the best – right?


You have probably heard it on the news: number of available places is limited, so for a great number of families there is no hope of getting into their preferred school, simply because they don’t live close enough.  Which means that applying for a place in their preferred school is pretty much pointless. Hearing about this on TV is one thing – a bit remote, ‘not my problem’ sort of thing. Being faced with a dilemma which school to choose for your own child brings it home.

So how do you go about choosing a school?

If you can’t realistically hope to get into the school you really like, you may end up choosing the best one of those you are not that keen on. A bit like choosing the lesser evil, but still possible to end up with a decent school. It is a bit harder, if you really, really don’t like the school you are most likely to be allocated for your child.

This is precisely the situation I am in. We have a few secondary schools in the surrounding area and I had always thought we were spoilt for choice. That was until I checked catchment areas for the last three years and discovered that we lived too far from all of the schools I would consider. What is the point in visiting them, then?

The only school that would have my son, is the one I would not want him to go to. I’m not going to discuss the reasons for my dislike of that particular school, suffice to say that we would easily get a place, because there are many other parents who don’t like that school either, so it is not over-subscribed. What am I supposed to do, then?

What about the grammars?

Yes, we have three grammar schools within a fairly easy travelling distance, so maybe we are lucky? If my child is clever enough – which I hope he is – surely he has a good chance to get into a grammar school?

Well, the ‘Is he clever enough?’ is a big question and the answer is not necessarily obvious, so…

How bright does a child have to be to for a grammar school?

The problem is, nobody wants to tell you. I would like to think that my child is bright enough, but – as most parents – I am biased, so would appreciate some objective advice on whether it is worth putting him through the dreaded 11+ exams.

I have contacted a few grammar schools asking them exactly that: ‘How bright does a child have to be to be deemed of a selective school ability? It would save our family a lot of stress if we knew whether we stand a chance’. I didn’t get very far. Nobody was willing to give me any advice, other than, ‘Best to speak to your child’s teacher’. I spoke to the teacher, and she said, ‘It’s really for the parents to decide’. So, as you can see, I am back to square one. Competition for grammar schools is fierce, with five or more applications per place common, so for me it really makes sense to figure out whether my child stands a chance.

Since nobody wanted to answer my original question, I decided to find out another way – our local grammars’ open days presented a perfect opportunity. During my tours of the schools I simply asked the maths and English teachers on what level of achievement (in terms on National Curriculum) were the children who came into year 7. This time no problems with getting the answer: ‘The children in year 7 are usually at Level 6. It used to be Level 5, but more and more are coming in with Level 6 now’. For the benefit of the uninitiated, the expected achievement level at the end of a state primary school in England is Level 4 (National Curriculum, Key Stage 2). So how come are the children getting two levels higher?

There are some excellent state primary schools, where children are stretched beyond the expected norm and do achieve Levels 5 or 6. However, even those schools do not prepare them for the rigours of the selective 11+ exams. Many of the parents asking their primary school teachers’ advice are told ‘The primary schools’ job is to teach the children to read, write and do maths and not to prepare them for selective schools exams’.

Grammar schools’ admissions officers will not disclose the minimum levels of achievement which would make it realistic to hope for an 11+ exam success. They simply cannot officially admit there is a gap between the expected level of achievement at the end of Key Stage 2 and the minimum required to pass the 11+ exams. Two levels are a great deal to catch up with – which is where a perfect market opportunity for tutors opens up. But that is a big enough topic for a separate discussion…

For those of you who may consider a grammar school for your child, the link below may be useful.




5 thoughts on “Grammar Schools – Is Your Child Bright Enough?

  1. Such an important post. I thought about how competition emerges at such a young age and whether this is in any way useful. Thank you for explaining this issue so clearly. Great post as always.

    1. Hi Lita, thank you for stopping by to read and comment. 🙂 Personally, I don’t think competition at such a young age is very good for children, it’s a lot of pressure for them, but we have to make decisions based on the choices available to us…

  2. I have gone through the whole experience and I wasn’t fun. Just make sure that you start preparing at least 2 years before you plan to go into the exam. And I agree that there seems to be too much pressure on kids to be smart enough to get into the school they want.

  3. Interesting post. We don’t have this dilemma for another few years. At the moment we’re lucky enough that our child’s primary school does prepare the more able children for the exam to the grammar and irregardless the high school nearest us is currently in the top 20…….however that could all change in the remaining years. The school we’d really like her to go to is a voluntary aided Church of England school. In fact most of ours are ‘religious’ schools so rather than your children’s ability being the main selection criteria it’s parents’ attendance at church. A minefield it seems whatever situation you are in!

    1. Thank you Lynsey. You are lucky with your schools, both primary and the highs school, but you are right – it is a minefield, so watch this space… 🙂

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