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How to approach the intense competition at 11+

11 plus
How to approach the intense competition at 11+

If you're feeling under pressure about the process of your child applying to senior school, you're not alone. Here, Anna Masterson shares advice from her experience both as an education specialist and a parent.

Anna taught for over 13 years as a primary teacher and school leader at UK independent schools before joining Atom and becoming our Chief Learning Officer. This article is adapted from a talk she gave at the Independent Schools Show in November 2022.

Watch now: senior school transition: how to prepare for the intense competition at 11+


In many areas, 11+ and 13+ entry to independent schools is undoubtedly competitive. But if we as parents could change our mindset it would benefit our children and ourselves. Consciously or unconsciously, it can feel like a competition to be offered a place at the most prestigious school. Instead, let's reframe it as finding a school where our children can thrive and be themselves.

Londoners are very fortunate that there are so many brilliant independent schools in the capital. We must remember that it's not a case of there not being enough places, more that there are certain schools that everyone wants to get a place at. The competition narrative feeds unhealthy study and home learning habits, and can put undue pressure on children, contributing to stress and anxiety.

For education professionals, our priority is always children’s wellbeing. It's always worth talking to your child’s current teacher about which senior school might be right for your child. And if you speak to headteachers at those sought-after senior schools, they’re not looking to identify who spent the most time preparing or who did the most practice papers. They’re trying to work out who will flourish in the environment they provide.

Of my three children, I know that they all have different talents and needs. An academic environment might be right for some of them but a focus on sport or drama is probably right their siblings. I want each of them to go to a senior school where they can be the best versions of themselves.

Based on what we know about the science of learning, academic study should be all about long-term learning for its own sake. Doing well in exams and getting good grades is a byproduct of that, rather than the sole aim. This is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. If someone does something simply because they’ll get a reward (such as a place at a specific school), they’re less likely to put in sustained effort and retain the benefits. Compare this to the person who is intrinsically motivated and sees the value of the task itself – they are more likely to enjoy long-term academic success.

It’s beneficial for children to get started with good home learning habits early, alongside rich and varied broader learning activities like trips to museums and art galleries and a voracious appetite for reading. My youngest child is in Year 2, and every morning after breakfast, all three do 15 minutes of home learning practice on Atom Nucleus. This fun and relaxed daily practice helps to strengthen the memory of everything they’ve been learning at school and reinforces habits that will serve them well throughout their education journey.

This approach removes the panic and cramming which is unfortunately so often the experience of children preparing for exams – particularly senior school entrance exams in competitive areas. When regular low-key practice focused on long-term learning and retention is part of a child’s routine from the start of Key Stage 2, 11 plus prep doesn’t feel like 11 plus prep. By the time children sit their exam, it doesn’t feel like a big deal.

Another way to reduce pressure on children at 11 plus is by helping them to feel confident with not just the content they will be tested on, but the format to expect on exam day. Our co-founder was talking to a parent whose son was an academic superstar but on exam day he panicked trying to navigate the test. So at Atom Learning, we decided to introduce unlimited mock tests to help children with this. Mock tests are all about building familiarity with the format of 11 plus exams – timing, pace, visuals, layout. This allows children to focus on showcasing their knowledge on exam day, instead of worrying about where the ‘next’ button is.

Non-verbal reasoning mock test on Atom Nucleus

As parents we’re always keen to ‘do something’ to help our child’s education. This is relatively straightforward when children are very young or starting Key Stage 1 – we can listen to them read each evening. But by the time our kids move up to Year 3 and beyond, we can increasingly feel at a loss as to how best to support their learning. Online learning platforms such as Atom Nucleus are designed to take away this guesswork.

I think this is a less obvious role of Atom: the parental support it provides. Both my husband and I are teachers so we’re pretty familiar with what happens at Key Stage 2, but a lot of parents tell us it's hard to know exactly what’s going on at school or how certain concepts are taught these days. With Atom, we’ve focused on providing understandable data for parents so they can see what their child is learning in each year group, what they’re performing well in, and anywhere they might need a little extra support. We also provide videos and helpsheets for children to work through independently, so you don't have to go through that painful process of trying to teach your own child!

progress 1.png The parent dashboard on Atom Nucleus provides clear data on your child's progress

Ultimately, whether your child gets their desired exam results or not, after celebrating the effort they put in, the focus should always return to long-term learning for learning’s sake. My children have done little-and-often home learning sessions since the beginning and will definitely not stop the day after their 11 plus exams!


Talk to an education specialist

If you're preparing for entrance exams this year, why not join Atom’s free Independent School Exam Preparation WhatsApp groups? Ask our education specialists any questions you have about the admissions process and your child's upcoming exams. You can also book a call with us for a time to suit you:

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If you and your child would like to try Atom Learning for exam preparation, you can register for a five-day free trial below:

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