Competitive independent schools in London are so oversubscribed these days (up to 10 applications for every place) that the vast majority have now moved to assessment for entry at 3+ or 4+. Although such early assessments are far from conclusive and mostly assess the “teachability” of a child at that particular age, the shift, inevitably, is causing considerable angst among parents; especially those with their mind irrevocably set on a particular school. Thus, many autumn open days are spent trying to suss out exactly what will be expected of the children in the assessment.
Purpose of the assessment
For clarity, let’s first review the purpose of these assessments. What the schools are trying to determine is not whether your child might win the next physics Nobel Prize. Instead, they are looking for signs that your little one is ready to learn in the environment of that school and to function as part of a class.
The first stage of the assessment nearly always happens in a small group under the supervision of a teacher. Some schools, mindful of the significant developmental gap separating the youngest and the oldest, will assess children by birthday so that fall- and summer-born are among peers.
In this first stage, educators will be ticking a few obvious boxes: can your child separate easily from you to walk into that room? Can they sit still and listen to a story and answer some questions about it? Can they follow a string of instructions and collaborate with others? Can they engage in a conversation with an adult they don’t know?
The activities they will take part in usually include a test of their fine motor skills — such as drawing, cutting, gluing, threading etc.—and of their gross motor skills –- catching a ball, jumping on one leg, doing star jumps. Intellectually, they will be expected to demonstrate an ability to concentrate long enough to retain details of a story read to them, while puzzles, patterns or block constructions may be used to test their analytical and spatial skills. Even at the most academic schools children are generally not expected to read or write. They should, however, be able to recognise their name.
All the schools we speak to at Magus tell us a version of this statement: they are trying to find out what your child can do rather than what they cannot do. The assessment is not meant to catch them out and they don’t need to present even development in all areas.
But the teachers want to see hints of the qualities conducive to good learning in a classroom, i.e. curiosity (do they ask questions about things they don’t understand?), perseverance (do they try again when they don’t succeed the first time?), risk-taking (are they willing to give an activity a go even if they have never encountered it?), problem solving (when they are given a task they can’t complete, or asked a question they can’t answer, how do they react?) and a degree of compliance (do they do what they are told? Are they quiet when asked to?).
The process is an opportunity
The process is important and parents should regard it as an opportunity rather than a hurdle because the school is trying to establish whether the child is a good match for its teaching style, rhythm and expectations. A rambunctious child who cannot sit still at 4 will needlessly suffer in a very regimented school where discipline is paramount. In the same way a very bright and independent child will wither without appropriate stimulation and one-on-one time.
While some schools will let you know after this first assessment whether your child has a place, a handful of others will then move on to a second stage, where the child spends more individual time with a teacher. Usually children who have moved to the second stage are suited to the school, which is now trying to find out more about their personality. That’s because teachers are not merely handpicking the most promising individuals, instead they are building a class. Said class will function better with a mix of introverts and extroverts, analytical and more verbal children etc. Sometimes qualities will come out in this “interview” that will set aside a more taciturn child perhaps less noticed in a group.
Importance of having a back-up plan
But be mindful that other factors rarely mentioned by schools may also play a part in whether your child gets through or not: address, date of birth, connection to the school, linguistic profile etc. No headteacher wants a class of April birthdays living 45 minutes away with tri-lingual parents. They must balance things out.
This, in turn, means that parents should have a reasonable plan in place to make sure their child is not left without a school come spring. Just because you think your child should be admitted doesn’t mean they will be. A backup plan is always in order.
Should you need help with any part of the process, we at Magus would be delighted to assist you, from making sure your child is ready to face the assessments to ensuring the schools you have selected are appropriate. And should spring bring no satisfactory option, we are always there to help you find a last-minute spot.