Metal Rocks Education Advisors
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+44. 779. 624. 2725
Every year there seems to be intensifying competition in the London 7+ and 8+ entrance exams and the corollary parental anxiety that goes with it. There are several prevailing theories as to why this heated competition is growing every year and, if I were to venture an educated guess, I would offer the following view:
1) More international applicants: there is an increasing number of international students sitting these exams;
2) More exams taken per student: students, or their aspirational parents wanting to cast a wider net, are sitting at more than one school to increase their chance of getting into a "top-tier" preparatory school;
3) More families trying: lastly, more families are trying to get their son and daughter into a top feeder school, such as Westminster Under School, Colet Court, City of London School for Girls' Prep School and Bute House, at the 7+ and 8+ entry points as it is perceived to be less competitive to get into the respective senior school via this "backdoor" route than the traditional "front door" 11+ entry point.
Should we try for the 7+ or 8+?
This is a question which can keep many parents up at night! The conventional wisdom holds that you might as well go for the 7+ since you can get a second bite at the proverbial apple a year later if you are unsuccessful.
This is wrong for two reasons. First, if your child is unprepared for the 7+, you are adding unnecessary anxiety to the whole family. Secondly, you run the risk of creating friction with your school if you are seen to be rushing for the exit at every opportunity.
My advice is to go for the 7+ if your child has the time and the ability to be well-prepared such that there is a substantial probability of entry at this stage. How can you determine this? Ideally, your child should be in the top 5 of his class. A very prominent prep school in London this year had 75% cutoff for math, a reasonably good writing paper and an 80% for reasoning in order to get an interview. If you get the interview, then you have a 50% chance to get an offer. If you don't think your child is set to get these results easily, hang back, take a year and methodically prepare for the 8+.
To state the obvious, there is much more randomness in the testing performance of a six-year-old than a seven-year-old. However, if your five- or six-year-old is consistently performing, go for it. Think strategically. Your child is going to be a year older but the test is going to be at least one to two years' higher in curriculum. Your child is running at a goal post that is moving away from him or her; the main question is: can he or she run faster than the rate at with the goal is receding!? Simply stated, the best prep schools expect the six-year-old taking the 7+ to be well-advanced, but they expect the seven-year-old taking the 8+ exam to be even that much more ahead of their age cohort.
I've found the main enemy is time. Many parents discover too late that they want to apply for the 7+ and are at a great disadvantage to those parents who have started early with their children. If your child is 4 or 5 now, you have the luxury of choice. If your child is older, realistically understand your child's ability and preparedness and determine if you have the necessary time to make the long process worthwhile.
The London 7+/8+ Exams
For a parent or for a tutor, the 7+/8+ is the most vexing exam given. Why is this so?
For the 4+ (or, rarely, the 3+) exam, there really is not much that you can do to help your child. Sure, let them play with blocks, listen to directions and put square pegs in square holes, but barring that your child’s fate is rather up to the school admission Gods. With the 11+ or the 13+, the child is much more formed, teachable and fully cognisant of what needs to be done; GCSEs and after, the more so.
With a six or seven year old sitting the 7+/8+, however, the randomness of a “bad day” or the tendency of many of them to spend more time staring out the window than at the printed page can really affect the results. They are being tested on real academics, unlike the younger children, and it is only with sustained effort on behalf of an adult and the child that the true ability of the student is coaxed out and onto the printed page. Have you ever asked a six year old to write a story? You then know why this is a difficult exam. Meanwhile, they are sufficiently, but vaguely, aware of the stakes involved to be anxious in the time leading up to the event.
OK, that’s the scary part out of the way. What’s the good news? It is an eminently teachable test! The math is very straightforward, the essay topics often inviting copious valid responses and the reasoning usually bland. The good and the bad news are opposite sides of the same coin: schools do not ask tricky questions to catch out applicants because so much of a six year old’s responses are already clouded by the randomness of an average six year-old. This is very good news indeed for parents with time available to prepare their children for the exam. The knowledge required is necessary, but it is not sufficient. This is the key understanding between successful and unsuccessful 7+/8+ students.
Let’s first talk about the maths. Have a look at the many 7+/8+ specimen exams available on the web. If a child is of average intelligence, he should be able to answer almost all of the questions with a few months’ preparation time. However, when it comes to exam time, most schools have a very healthy range of scores, even though most of the children applying to the top schools will have been heavily coached. It is a result of the quasi random product of a six year-old. Let me hasten to add that we are talking about 90% of the math section here, by my count 12 different competencies. 10% of the math will normally be well outside the national curriculum for Year 2. Schools say that a child doesn’t need to know anything outside the curriculum, but what six year-old knows the answer to 15 times 7 (a question a student of mine was asked this year in an interview), unless he is working well above his year group?
How about the English and the comprehension? A perusal of the specimen exams shows that the comprehension is very straightforward. In fact, I tell my students: the answers to the questions are right there on the paper! There is usually only 5-10% of a comprehension paper that requires analysis or writing words down that aren’t literally written within the comprehension paragraph itself.
Story writing is the bête noire of the vast majority of children who sit the 7+/8+. Children these days are passive learners: they watch TV, they are told what to do, they are read to but not often enough questioned on their understanding. Writing a story is, unfortunately, foreign to them, at least a story which comprises more than six sentences. When we used to have to memorise poems or break down grammar, really get into the bones of the English sentence, story writing was easier. Story writing is far and away the place where 7+/8+ students can set themselves apart.
What is the path to success in the 7+/8+?
It may not surprise you from reading what I’ve written that knowledge is perhaps less than half the battle. The tests are not hard for a child at the middle to the top of a good state or prep school, with help from an adult. What IS hard is getting that child to perform. And so in addition to the obvious points of knowing the four orders of operation, being able to do a few two-part math problems, reading a story with understanding and writing a good creative piece of at least twelve sentences, test-taking techniques are key.
How does a six year old mark time?
How does someone so young know what questions are important for points and which are not? Does he know how to end a story clearly? Some people this age have been known to get stumped by a question on the first page of the exam and leave the rest of the paper blank! The successful 7+/8+ applicant understands the TEST as much as the material on the test. This is the critical point.
Over time, I have been able to smooth out the expected results from the unexpected by, first, teaching the knowledge required in the exam but, just as importantly, second, working with five, six and seven year-old children to get them to perform on the test as they perform during my sessions with them. How can this be done? Teasing out performance is unique to each child, but I’ve found a few tried and tested methods that help.
The first one is testing, early and often, in multiple locations: Starbucks as well as your home. Studies have long shown that mental scaffolding is built by studying the same thing in different physical locations and the same is true of testing. If all you did was sit with your child at the same place every day for months and then ask him to go into a strange place and perform at the same level, you are setting him up for failure.
Using multiple ways to solve problems is key to developing a fluid young mind. Singapore and Japan each teach the times tables in different ways, as a trite example. If a child were to learn the six times tables using both methods, you can be sure that he will not only understand them implicitly, but he will be able to use multiplication naturally in a way that most children do not.
There are many other test taking cues that give a candidate an edge on the 7+/8+: read the questions before reading the story, mark the large point questions, memorise 15 user friendly “wow words” and so on. These many techniques, practiced over time, will allow the child have the sufficient skills to do well in any exam.
At the end of the day, a tutor can only help guide and give some structure to the preparation process; he or she can't guarantee success. Ideally, the tutor works closely with the parents as partners in order to maximise the chance of success. Hopefully, through careful and purposeful preparation, the child will be more equipped on exam day.
Two months before exam time, be sure to read my article in the menu tab on putting in place a strategic game plan leading up to the January exams. If not helpful, it's quite entertaining.
In an effort to shed some light into what is required in these exams, here is a brief summary that is gleaned from a number of public and private sources. Many ideas are common sense but are good reminders nonetheless.
I. Maths concepts most likely to be on the exam
1. Add/subtract/multiply/divide up to 3 digits in simple equations and word problems
2. Input/output machines
3. Find missing number, operation, midpoint
4. Fractions (1/2, 1/3, 1/4)
5. Money and change
6. Number patterns (2, 5, 10, etc.)
7. Clocks (half and quarters) and time elapsed; age/year
8. Geometry & shapes: edges, faces, corners, area/blocks, shapes up to a hexagon
9. Simple Cartesian plane (draw a star at (1,4))
10. Symmetry, reflection & rotation
11. Read simple graphs/bar charts
12. Follow directions
13. Measurements (m, cm, mm, g, kg)
14. Pairs/Egg carton problem
15. Word problems using +/-/x/div in 2-3 steps
16. Basic algebra
17. Mental maths both in written and oral forms
18. Place value & number identification to 4-digits
19. Multiply & divide by 10, 100, 1000
20. Simple averages (of 100, 1000)
21. Symbol problems (if 3@5§6=2, what does 5@11§1 equal?)
22. Identification of number lines; divisions of numbers on number line
2. Odd one out
3. Finish pattern
1. Story structure: beginning/middle/end
2. Transition between sentences (firstly, next, however, therefore, finally…)
3. Good vocab (“wow” words)
4. Good descriptions/adjectives
5. Good ending/conclusion
6. Correct grammar and punctuation
7. How to stand out: include general knowledge/facts; talk about feelings; use five senses in description; strong conclusion/surprise endings; inject personality
and humour; include speech marks; excellent (“wow”) vocabulary; use literary devices such as metaphors/similes.
8. Practise different formats such as letter; continue a story; etc.
1. Can be written or given orally. Correct punctuation and capitalisation mistakes.
1. In answering questions, write out full sentences with key words from question;
2. Pay attention to number of points per question as it gives a clue to how long/how many answers to give, i.e. a 4 point question will require a 4-part answer and a 1-point question requires only a short answer;
3. Before reading, read the title of the passage to give a clue on the subject matter. Also, quickly skim the questions beforehand to know what to look for in the passage;
4. Tricky questions will be along the lines of: what will happen next; how do you know/what clues tell you xxx; how does xxx feel; what does this passage tell you about xxx; why/what/how do you think xxx did that; how could you tell xxx?
Of course, these ideas are not exhaustive and for bright, curious children, they possess skills beyond what is outlined here. By guiding the children so they know what to expect on the exam makes all the difference.