Assessment Angst

31st August 2018

If you’re applying for an independent school for your little one, it’s more than likely that they’ll be invited to attend a 4+ assessment. Lisa Botwright finds out what goes on behind the scenes…

You’ve taken the big decision to invest in an independent education for your child, and you may well have your heart set on the ideal school – one that you believe will give your offspring the very best start in life. However, here comes the hard part. If the school is over-subscribed the chances are that your little one will have to ‘pass’ a 4+ assessment: to stand out above their peers in their approach to a series of activities before they can achieve this coveted place.

Naturally this is anathema to parents: horrified by the idea that their child will be judged an academic failure before they’ve even set foot inside a classroom. How can headteachers possibly select from a bunch of unpredictable, irrational, hyperactive and gloriously messy three- or four-year-olds barely out of toddlerhood?

“It feels much worse than it is,” reassures Antonia Lee, Head of Prep at St Helen’s School for Girls in Northwood. “When you go to the assessment, there are dozens of little girls for what feels like not many places, but they’ll be applying to several schools, so the odds are not as awful as they appear. In this area there are enough excellent places as there are girls who want excellent schools: it’s a matching and sorting process, rather than a ‘sword of Damocles’ situation.”

Schools take great pains to ensure that the procedure is as child-friendly and as age-appropriate as possible. As Mrs Lee tells me, “The time the girls spend here will feel like a nursery play session to them – the only difference is that the adults will have pens and paper.”

All schools are different, and naturally timings and expectations can vary, so it’s very important to check with individual admissions’ departments – but in this area, most assessments loosely follow the same pattern. They’re usually about an hour long, and happen at some point during the autumn or spring term preceding the year of entry.

On the day, the session will include a mix of age-appropriate structured and free play activities, designed to see if the child can share and take turns, engage with adults and answer simple questions; to assess their observational skills and to see if they’re happy to undertake some very basic academic tasks, such as emerging letter formation or ‘counting out teddy bears’. Little ones might be asked to draw a picture of themselves and the session will almost always finish with a group story. “We might play some word games and have a nice chat – show me the horse; which cat is on top of the car? – I won’t be asking them to define ‘oxymoron’!” smiles Mrs Lee.

The admission sections of most school websites avoid going into too much detail about assessment tasks and expectations (feel free to quiz staff further at open days), but one west London school, Glendower Preparatory School, sums up the skills being sought there quite succinctly: ‘social maturity and readiness to learn in a group situation. Cooperation, flexibility, a “can do” approach and facility with the English language are all highly regarded. We are also looking for numeracy skills, letter recognition and a basic ability to follow instructions.’

Some schools will make a decision immediately after and based solely on the assessment; others, like St Helen’s, will invite selected children back for an interview. “What we grandly call an interview is a one-to-one with a senior member of staff,” explains Mrs Lee, who adds that she always wears trousers on these interview days so that she can get down on the floor and play with the children. “I’m looking for girls who are interested, courageous, thoughtful – and full of the natural excitement of learning. There’s no such thing as the typical St Helen’s girl – the only common thread is that they’re confident without being arrogant, very proud of each other and all happy in their own skin. We aim to select girls we can provide that for.”

Headteacher of St Martins, David Tidmarsh – who tells me that he looks for “that spark in the eye: someone interested in learning, whether that’s quietly or overtly” – admits that selecting children by assessment can be a very difficult decision. “There are children we would love to have, but we just don’t have the space available, which saddens me, as often I’m sure they’d flourish in this school.”

Schools will mostly deny that parents are ‘interviewed’ in any way, but there is an expectation that the whole family will be on board with the ethos of the school. It’s vital to put the research in beforehand. “Asking for a tour on the day of the assessment is a big no-no,” Mr Tidmarsh reveals.

Most schools offer regular open days, where the building is primped and polished to perfection and senior pupils conduct the tours – a great chance for parents to chat with the students and gauge the level of ‘pride’ the children have for their school – plus one-to-one tours during school hours. This is when parents can see the school in action, ask the Head questions and see first-hand how children relate to their teachers. It’s advisable to visit lots of different establishments, talk to parents of children at various schools and look at exam results (or leavers’ destinations in the case of prep schools), but ultimately, to ‘go with your gut’ and choose the schools you feel most comfortable with. “All schools in north west London are strong,” says Mr Tidmarsh. “It’s about finding the right one for your child.”

Parents should be completely upfront about any specific needs their child may have or any concerns regarding developmental issues. Mrs Lee tells me, “We’re open to taking girls with wide variety of needs and it’s very important for parents to be honest. The parent-school relationship has to start with openness on both sides and the most important thing is getting it right for your daughter.”

Mr Tidmarsh echoes this: “The relationship with school should be built on trust, otherwise what will happen after the offer is made? It’s important for a child’s self esteem to be in the right school, and to make sure it can offer the right support.”
Be reassured that if your child has a bad day at assessment, the school should be fully sympathetic. “We work hard to be fair to accommodate girls who are unwell or struggle to relax – it absolutely doesn’t count against them,” explains Mrs Lee.

Bear in mind that what suits your child at four years old may not suit your child at 11 or at 16. If the worst comes to the worst and your child doesn’t get into the family’s first choice of school, you can always re-apply in a few years’ time. They might sail through this assessment this time. Or, you might find that your child is absolutely thriving in their alternative school.

Fate, as we all know, is a funny thing.

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