Exam terror ... and that's just the parents

As thousands of primary pupils brace themselves for entrance exams, Celia Dodd reports on the clamour for places and, right, talks to anxious children and mums
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The Independent Online
Selection at 11 is back on the agenda. In fact, in some parts of the country it never went away. The 162 grammar schools that still exist, as well as some grant-maintained and many of Britain's 760 independent secondary schools, still use exams and interviews to cream off the brightest pupils.

Selection inevitably brings risks for schools and parents who opt in to the system: schools face the possibility that some very able children may slip through their particular testing methods; parents gamble with their child "failing" at 11. Even those who agree with the principle of selection balk at that unpalatable possibility.

With the entrance exam season under way, the question at the forefront of thousands of parents' minds is how to prepare their children for failure.

Julian Cave, whose seven-year-old son, Charles, will take entrance exams for two independent schools next month, is one of them. "My fear is what will we be doing to him if he doesn't get in," says Mr Cave. "He isn't very confident anyway. Is it going to knock him sideways? I don't know what's going through his mind or how he feels about failure, but I'm sure that if he doesn't get a place and his classmates do, then that can't be anything other than a pretty bad blow. It will hurt."

Professor Geoff Lindsay, a specialist in assessment at Warwick University, is sceptical about the reliability of testing. He says: "You can't assess children with absolute accuracy: some will have a bad day, a substantial minority will achieve particularly well or particularly badly. With secondary- school entry, schools are making judgements about how the child will perform over the next five or seven years. The accuracy of prediction is a lot lower than assessment in the here and now, so you will have even more errors and children misidentified. Some children are late developers; it's only at 13 or 14 that their ability is revealed."

Neil Hagues, who compiles selection tests for grammar schools at the National Foundation for Educational Research, points out that the safest bet, a wide range of tests, is rarely practical. "The research evidence shows that reasoning, maths and English tests are useful predictors, and ideally one would give all of them. But the number of tests schools can set is restricted by the time available and the cost of administering the tests."

As selective schools become increasingly oversubscribed, the logistical nightmare of testing hundreds, or even thousands, of children is bound to affect the selection process. At some state schools the ratio of applicants to places is as high as 12 to l. How can children begin to make sense of such unfair odds? And how can parents explain the weighty implications of entrance exams to primary school children who have never encountered notions of competition or tests that could affect their lives?

Ella Reed, 12, who took four entrance exams two years ago, recalls: "I was very aware of the competition. It makes you feel worse knowing that even if you do well there is still not a 100 per cent chance you'll get in. I was sure I wasn't going to get in to any of the schools. But when you're actually doing the exam, you don't think about that stuff."

Like most parents, Ella's mother, Miranda, found it difficult not to communicate her own anxiety. "I tried to make it as low key as possible and to make it seem that it wasn't as important as it obviously was," she says. "It was a difficult balance between encouraging Ella and making her aware that it was important but not the most important thing in the world. I'm not very good at hiding things, so she probably saw that I was a bit disappointed when the letter came saying, 'Your daughter is not up to our standards'. But the same morning we heard that she had got a place at another school, and was on the waiting list of the school she now goes to, so I thought she had done really well."

Researchers agree that tests themselves are not necessarily traumatic. It's the high stakes that create anxiety in parents, who often can't help communicating it to their children.

Professor Caroline Gipps, of the Institute of Education, observed 11- year-olds sitting in serried ranks to take their Key Stage 2 tests last summer. "As far as we could tell," she says, "they addressed themselves to the task very seriously but without too much anxiety. If those children had been sitting exactly the same test but for very high stakes, such as whether they got to a particular school, they would undoubtedly have been much more anxious and the atmosphere would have been different. It's the weight that other people put on these tests that is the key."

'I had brilliant fun. The examiner kept joking'

Anne Colville's 10-year-old daughter, Alice, is in the middle of taking entrance exams for four selective state schools and one independent school in Hertfordshire and north-east London. The tests vary considerably; one school sets 40 minutes' non-verbal reasoning, another uses reasoning to make an initial selection of candidates who then go on to sit papers in English and maths. The competition is fierce: at one state school there are almost 900 applicants for 90 places; at the independent school the odds are five to one.

Alice: I felt very very nervous the night before the first exam and in the car on the way, because I'd never done anything like it before. But when I was actually doing the exam I didn't feel nervous at all, I had brilliant fun. The examiner kept making jokes, which cheered us all up.

I don't think it's a good idea taking all these exams, but I want to get into some of the schools so badly that I don't really mind having to do them. But I will be glad when they're all over.

We've already had a letter from one school saying, "We are delighted to tell you that you have passed the first stage". When it came I'd forgotten all about the exam, which was very hard - I was amazed. I thought "What?" and then I thought, "Oh no, that means I've got to do another one".

Anne: I feel uncomfortable about putting Alice through so many exams, although in this neck of the woods it's not exceptional. But we wanted to keep all our options open. I thought I would see how it went, and if I thought it was upsetting her, I'd pull her out. She's been involved from the beginning; we've stressed how many children apply to these schools and we've always given her the option of not taking the exams.

We started having her tutored in March. As long as she's working towards an exam, she's OK, but when we haven't done any work for a while she gets worried. And sometimes when she's tired she gets very tearful.

I think she's worried that she won't get into any of the schools. There is a strong chance that she might not get a place anywhere. I worry about that and what she's going to feel like. I don't know how I could stop her feeling a failure. It's a risk. And I can't assess how good she is.

I view it as a loss of innocence. It's an introduction to notions of failure and competition that she hasn't encountered at her primary school. It dredges up all sorts of uncomfortable feelings in me, too.

The first exam was horrific because of the huge numbers involved. It created such traffic chaos that there were police directing the traffic. There was a lot of queuing and waiting, which made everyone nervous. Then they called the children to one side of the room and it was a bit like wartime evacuation. Some parents got quite tearful, but when the children came out they looked pretty happy. Alice was ecstatic, which was a huge relief.

But when she came out of the most recent exam she dissolved in tears as soon as she saw me. I felt awful. She really likes the school and she knows I do, so that ups the ante. I just don't know how that can be disguised.

I don't like to see her in that state. But she's all right now, she's talked herself into a much more positive frame of mind. Unlike the previous exams, where I haven't asked her about the papers, this time I thought it was best to talk about the questions she had been able to do, and to reassure her that they were really hard.

We see many of the same faces at every exam. We go with friends, which makes it very normal - the children are extremely giggly on the way home. But the down side is that some of Alice's friends didn't get through the first stage of the exam, which she passed. Alice was upset about that, and very concerned about what she should say to them.

One good thing is the co-operation between parents; there's a lot of sharing of information. If one parent gets an exam paper, he or she photocopies it and passes it round. People know that not everyone is going to get in and that friendships have got to carry on. It seems to have held so far. Whether it still holds after the results remains to be seen.

To Emily and Luke: a pass and a fail

Two years ago, Caroline Edwards's son, Luke, then 10, took entrance exams for three highly academic London schools; his younger sister, Emily, took one. She passed; he failed.

The night before Emily's exam she sat up in bed half asleep and said, "Have I passed?", so my anxiety was obviously beginning to seep through, as much as I wanted to hide it. I hated those awful feelings of "What if she doesn't?" It stirs up a lot of emotions about your sense of failure as a parent and your competitive urges against other parents, and I hated all that.

Friends used to say to me, "Why are you putting them through all this when there's a possibility of failure?" Before the exams I made very little of the whole thing. I just said these schools you have to take exams for and these schools you don't. The way I saw it was that if they were academic enough to get in, then it was the right school for them.

I cried when we found out Emily had got a place. But when Luke didn't I wasn't disappointed because we had a good, non-selective state alternative lined up, and I feel that he's ended up at the best school for his particular talents, but I did have to be very careful not to be over pleased about Emily.

Luke wasn't upset at all at the time, even though friends of his did get places. He didn't have a clue about the significance of it. It's only now he feels that some of his friends' parents regard him as a failure, and he makes much more effort at school than Emily - I wonder if that's anything to do with the stigma of failing. They both know that I failed the 11-plus and still made a success of my working life, so they can see that passing exams isn't everything.

Helping your child to cope

l Don't give big inducements. They only pile on the pressure by reinforcing the importance that you attribute to the exam. It's better to give small rewards for extra work before and immediately after the test.

l Do your best not to communicate your own anxiety to your child. It's easier said than done, but the most important thing is to keep the exam's significance in perspective. Discuss all the different schools your child might go to whether he or she passes or not.

l Don't make your child work too hard. Short, frequent bursts are more useful than hours every night. The day before the exam forget studying, go on an outing and get some exercise.

l Resist the temptation for an immediate post mortem. Be patient: details will invariably dribble out gradually.

l Make sure the child understands that however able he or she is, sheer force of numbers will decide who gets in.

l It the child does "fail", be honest - don't be tempted to pretend, as some parents do, that you were offered a place but turned it down. Remember that parents usually feel more upset than their children, and allow a couple of days of feeling miserable. Then look positively at the options that are still open and emphasise the child's strengths. Above all, make sure your child realises that your love and respect is unconditional; it has nothing to do with exam results.