Quality and affordability of education in the UK, especially at a secondary school level, is often a controversial and divisive subject. This is even more the case when a discussion focuses on access to selective schools.
The cost of preparation for selective schools’ 11+ entry exams has been rising over the past few years; it can be significant and unaffordable for many parents. The 11+ preparation has become a big money spinner, not only for private tutors, but also for various companies offering term-time preparatory courses, summer holidays ‘intensives’ and mock exams.
It takes some work to get into a selective school
Very few children get into grammars or other selective schools without preparation of some sort. Each time I went to a grammar school open day, I asked the boys who were our tour guides whether they knew anyone in their class who got in without tutoring, and such cases were far and between. Those who admitted to not having had a tutor, said they had to do a lot of additional work at home. If pretty much every child is doing some preparatory work, you have to do the same, just to keep up. And the preparation does not come cheap.
Be prepared to spend money on books…
Those parents who decide to prepare their child for the exams themselves, will most likely spend a small fortune on text books, workbooks and practice test papers. I know I have – I’ve been buying loads of stuff – the well-known Bond books are just a small part of my 11+ materials collection. All these things are priced at a premium, so I tend to buy in bulk when they are on offer, say in WH Smith ‘get £5 off when you spend £15’. I remember asking once a check-out lady to split my pile of books into six transactions, because I had a re-usable voucher and the total value of the books and test papers I was buying was around £100 – she kindly agreed and I saved myself £30. If she hadn’t, I would have simply queued up six times with 2-3 books at a time. I have lost track of how much money I’ve spent on various education books, but probably a few hundred pounds.
Other than WH Smith, a good source of preparation materials is a CGP website (cgpbooks.co.uk). It is possible to buy their books from Amazon and various book sellers, but if you are buying quite a few, the best thing to do is to buy directly from CGP. They offer attractive discounts (up to 35%), free delivery with orders over £20 and their customer service is excellent. I have teamed up with another 11+ mum and we put through a consolidated order, saving quite a lot of money.
…and possibly some form of tutoring
Those who don’t have time, patience or confidence to prepare their child themselves, can enrol him or her on an 11+ course, where small groups of children are tutored together, or get one-to-one tuition with a tutor. Group courses may be cheaper in terms of cost per hour, but they usually run at least 2 hours a week, while with a tutor it is possible to sign up for just one hour a week. In Surrey, for example, one of such course providers is TestTeach, charging £36 for two hours every Saturday. Boys learn maths and English, girls do some verbal reasoning as well. I have read that a tutor can charge up to £80/hour, which I think is ridiculous, but around where we live, most charge between £25-£35/hour.
Having a tutor does not guarantee anything, of course, and an hour a week with a tutor is just a part of the work required – there is a lot to be done at home. The way I see it, the main role of a tutor is to guide and direct the preparation effort which takes place at home, plus check any homework they have set and explain the tricky bits.
Some tutors are better than others and so it is always worth doing a bit of research among the parents who went trough the process in previous years. The parents who are doing the 11+ at the same time as you, are likely not to want to share much information, as your child competes against theirs.
There are tutors who accept any child whose parents are willing to pay, while some offer to assess the children first and accept only those who, in their view, have a chance to succeed. Some will be very honest in their feedback about the child’s ability, others will be unscrupulous and only interested in cashing their weekly fee, regardless of whether a child in question has a fighting chance to make it. I know of one boy who is generally struggling, but whose father wants him to go to a grammar school. The boy has a tutor at £40 per hour, who suggested signing him up for as many 10+ exams as possible, in order to gain test experience (some secondary schools take children from the age of ten, hence 10+ exams). Poor boy failed all of the tests he took. I agree that exam practice is a good idea, but if someone lacks the ability, failed mock tests are more likely to damage the child’s confidence than help get through the real exam
The rise of mock tests
Speaking of mock tests – those seem to have become a bit of an industry now. Some grammar schools have PTAs (Parent-Teacher Associations) who raise funds for their schools by offering 11+ mock tests. One of our local grammars offers such tests at a total cost of £25 for a session including English and maths (both multiple choice), which – in a great scale of things – is pretty good value.
There are also a number of commercial companies, who offer multiple versions of mock tests, charged at £20 upwards per paper, so you could easily spend a few hundred pounds on those. An example of such companies are 11plus Ltd and Mock Test Masters (www.11plusmocktests.com), who jointly organise 11+ mock exams across London area. They offer mocks in two stages – Stage 1(‘Selective Eligibility Test’) and Stage 2 (the ‘main’ exam). The cost of Stage 1 mock is typically £50, Stage 2 cost depends on a number of subjects taken and the location of the mock exam, with individual papers priced between £20-£40. There are three sets of each paper and parents can only book Set 2 if their child sat Set 1, and set 3 if both Sets 1 and 2 were taken previously. The subjects include maths, comprehension, creative writing (various types, e.g. story, descriptive, letter, etc.) and verbal comprehension.
Naturally, the company’s marketing ‘blurb’ encourages parents to book as many sessions as possible to maximise their children’s chance of success. Even if someone were to book just one set of Stage 1 and Stage 2 mocks, the cost would easily exceed £150. Go for all three sets of papers on offer, and you’re set back by over £450. I have no intention to spend such amount of money, but I have signed my son up for the PTA-organised mock at £25. As I mentioned earlier, I think some exam practice is valuable, but I really don’t want to freak him out with one mock after another.
How much will it all cost?
So how much can you spend on your child’s 11+ preparation? It all depends on how you chose to go about it and where you live. Assuming your location is more in the suburbs rather than central London, 12 months of one-hour-per-week individual tutoring at £30/hour will cost £1,560 (52 weeks x £30), plus whatever mocks, holiday courses and books you decide to buy. A Saturday course billed at £36 per 2-hour session, will cost £1,872 (I am assuming 52 weeks for direct comparison, plus these courses tend to run through the holidays as well as during term-time).
Sounds expensive? I agree. You could probably go on holiday for this sort of money. But as I have read on one tutor’s website, it is peanuts compared to having to pay private school fees if your child does not make it into a grammar and a local comprehensive is not your preferred option.
This is where affordability of good education stares you in the face. I am not suggesting that only selective schools offer quality education – there are many excellent comprehensive secondary schools across the country, but my guess is that if, overall, they were a bit better than they are, people wouldn’t be so determined to win a place at a grammar school. Unfortunately, until this changes, access to good education may not be open to all.