Top private schools are setting unpredictable challenges to select the brightest children from hundreds of high-achievers and weed out those who have been over-tutored.
Competition for places has become “frenzied” according to heads at the most selective south London schools, with children intensively coached for entrance exams and interviews.
Senior schools are now introducing unexpected tests to help them choose the cleverest 10-year-olds and those with the most potential.
It means leading day schools are becoming ever further out of reach for pupils who are not exceptionally academic.
Prep schools say they are having to advise parents to moderate their expectations, particularly if they have their sights set on an unrealistic senior school.
Jane Lunnon, headmistress of Wimbledon High School, in south west London, said some families were unnecessarily putting children through the entrance exams of too many schools.
She said: “We’ve seen a significant rise in applications, particularly over the last two years. It’s a hot market”.
“It’s very very competitive. This year we had one place for every 10 sitting the tests. We all have a moral obligation to take the heat out of the situation as much as we can. There’s something of a frenzy developing”.
“If the pressure is going to continue then I think it’s really important that parents and primary schools are measured and judicious in the applications they are making – they should apply for three, that’s more than enough – an aspirational, a safe bet and a belly-up”.
“One girl last year told me that ours was the 13th school at which she’d done tests. If there’s enough understanding between the parent and the prep school head, they should be getting them into the right school.”
Wimbledon is one of the schools which has introduced new challenges to ensure it does not select only pupils who have been rigorously coached for the entrance tests. It is also considering increasing its capacity.
Mrs Lennon said: “We do leftfield testing and we’re very excited about new tests we’ve introduced. We set verbal reasoning and non verbal reasoning papers but I wanted every single girl to come out feeling inspired and we also wanted more information – these are all capable, bright young women.”
“So we have two new things: we’ve changed the interview from one-on-one to a small group exploration of interesting challenges, such as ‘if you were on a desert island what would you need?”
“We’re looking for the quality of engagement and intellectual curiosity – the child that impresses could be the one who sits quietly reflecting and says the killer thing at the end – it’s about the joy of learning not necessarily about being extrovert.”
The school is also introducing a creative task alongside the test papers, to test how children respond to unseen stimulating material, but Mrs Lennon said they were not revealing details because of the “insane tutoring culture”.
She added: “Tutoring takes away time from children who should be climbing trees or reading books or playing with friends on Saturday morning.”
“It seems to me girls as young as five, six or seven are aware of a school’s performance”.
“They talk about the desire to get into a school, they know that Wimbledon High gets good results. If I’d asked a girl 10 years ago what she liked about a school, she might have said ‘it’s got a good swimming pool”.
“Mostly the girls are the most level-headed in this process, certainly more so than the parents.”
Sally-Anne Huang, who became headmistress at James Allen’s Girls’ School (Jags), in south London, at the start of this academic year, said she had been used to the “frenzy” of applications at her former school in Kent, but added: “In London it’s up another gear from that”.
Her school is also introducing more unpredictable tests. She said: “I was stunned when we had entrance days in January and little girls had done six or seven school exams in the last fortnight. It’s sad for them, not the best use of their childhood and not entirely necessary.”
“There were candidates applying for single sex, mixed sex, and performing arts schools. Parents should think about what they actually want rather than having a scattergun approach and have a sense of what suits their children.”
“Prep school heads know the best matches so perhaps more conversations are needed at that level, between heads and parents – I would have thought a choice of three or four schools would be reasonable.”
Mrs Huang describes Jags as a “very academic” but said some children would be better suited to performing top of the class at a less academic school.
“The most important thing for us [in selection] is academic ability. We move at a very high rate in classes. There is so much tutoring going on it is increasingly difficult to tell the difference between very able children and those who have been very highly coached.
“Girls come to interview and say exactly what they’ve been told, eg that Jane Eyre is their favourite book but they can’t name a character from it – it’s obvious they’ve been coached. I’d rather they chose something by Roald Dahl and talked enthusiastically about it.”
Of all those interviewed, 500 are invited to sit tests, and 120 are offered places. From next academic year, the school will also test pupils on their performance in activities, and ask them to sit initial online tests. Those who perform well will be invited to take the main entrance exams.
“There’s some merit in trying to do something different each year, so they’re not prepared” Mrs Huang said.
The impact on such schools becoming ever more selective is being felt further down the system. Parents are being advised to have realistic goals, particularly if their children are not fiercely academic.
Edward Rees, headmaster of Hornsby House, a prep school in Balham, south London, said: “There are lots of very good prestigious independent schools in the area but, interestingly, not enough and therein lies the problem.
“It’s difficult for a new independent secondary school to spring up. You need significant space and funding. There’s the expectation of space and the arms race for facilities such as astroturf and so on.”
“Demand is certainly outstripping supply. Some middle class families might have historically considered boarding but have been priced out of the market and are choosing to remain in London.”
“That puts more pressure on day school places and secondary schools in the area can afford to be very selective.”
Mr Rees said Alleyn’s, another selective independent school, had tested more than 700 children for 80 places this year.
He added: “Historically it’s been quite a narrow path for our parents – a selection of five or six schools where they tended to send their children; in the last three years they’ve had to be more creative, look outside the box and engage with schools further afield.”
“We’re sourcing alternatives to the well-trodden path. It requires changing the [parents’] mindset slightly and accepting children might have to travel a bit further. Schools further away are aware of this and are beginning to adjust their marketing as a result.
“For very academic children it’s not so much of an issue, although you still have some very bright children not getting into the top schools.”
“We have to try to convince parents into not fixating on one school, which is quite dangerous. They want the best for their children and have a view as to what they think that is. My job is to manage expectations of parents and also the strategy, needing a fall-back.”
State schools are not protected from intense competition, despite having so many prestigious independent schools on their doorstep.
In Wandsworth, fewer than 60 per cent of children have been given a place at their first choice secondary school for this autumn.
A spokesman for the council said, however, that there were enough school places available, with some left over.
He said: “This is because we have taken steps to ensure there are enough places, by either opening new secondary schools like St John Bosco in Battersea, or by investing in the refurbishment of other secondaries to make them a more attractive option for parents, like Ark Putney Academy, which has seen around £30m invested in new teaching and learning facilities.”
“Obviously our schools are very much in demand. Currently, according to Ofsted, 94 per cent of our secondaries are rated as either good or outstanding – the fourth best rating in the country, but we are certainly successfully managing the demand from local parents.”