Bluff your way in education

Lucy Higginson demystifies the ever-changing and often baffling world of your child’s schooling.


Cognitive Abilities Tests (CATs) give a snapshot of a child’s performance in English, maths and non-verbal reasoning—teachers appear divided about whether children can or should be prepared for such tests. Scores are usually given as an SAS (Standardised Age Score) to take age into account.

Some schools share them openly with parents; others do not. ‘They’re a form of benchmarking to help departments measure if there’s “value being added” when, for example, GCSE results come out,’ explains Neil Roskilly of the Independent Schools Association.

Some CATs are ‘adaptive’—questions become harder if the candidate begins well. Aldro prep school in Surrey sets CATs each September, with scores used in senior-school references and shared with parents to help them make secondary-school choices, but headmaster James Hanson also considers them ‘added practice for sitting public-school aptitude tests’. You can find sample questions on websites such as

Pre-test tests

Everyone is familiar with entry tests for popular schools, but a more recent innovation is the online pre-test test, an additional hurdle that must now be cleared before you can even pitch up at Harrow (for one) for the traditional entry test and interview. It tests verbal and non-verbal reasoning, maths and English.

The ISEB (Independent Schools Examinations Board) pre-test is widely used, including by Benenden, Westminster and 600-plus other leading schools (

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Mr Hanson is a fan: ‘If we can manage children’s anxiety by having them sit this at their own school, it helps get the best out of them.’

It’s fair to say that top schools— Eton is about to start—have introduced them through necessity, to control ballooning numbers of candidates before investing time in interviews. Harrow headmaster Jim Hawkins explains: ‘We avoid raising false hopes (and, in some cases, large travel bills) for those lacking sufficient raw ability to cope with Harrow’s academic life.’


Once, parents descended on their child’s form teacher, deputy or head if they had a query, but Senior Management Teams (SMTs) are now so complex it’s hard to know who does what and the structure can vary. ‘A lot of schools have specialist deputies—typically in charge of matters academic and pastoral—plus “Directors of Studies”, senior tutors and so on,’ explains Mr Roskilly.
Typically, there will be senior staff heading Special Educational Needs, the curriculum and so on. Smaller schools may encourage you to meet the head, but it usually pays to scrutinise the school website to work out which SMT you need.

G&T programmes

Gifted and talented (G&T) programmes, which were much in fashion 10 years ago, are still around, despite being sometimes divisive. Introduced to ensure the brightest pupils were kept engaged and given as much attention as the less able, they could open doors to extra trips, courses or places on over- subscribed summer schools. However, in 2010, a quango charged with supporting gifted children in the State sector was axed.

‘Many schools have cut back on G&T programmes as they prefer not to label pupils so young—they feel it may be damaging,’ says Mr Roskilly. Elsewhere, such programmes may exist under another guise, such as the top sets in streamed schools or as ‘scholarship sets’ preparing high-flying pupils beyond the regular demands of Common Entrance.

Outside learning/forest schools

These buzz words describe more than toddlers building dens and racing snails. Science, maths, literature and more are now brought to life in the open air. Boundary Oak School in Hampshire teaches not only bush- craft and chicken rearing, but geometry—measuring the angles of tree shadows—in its outdoor classroom. ‘Experiences and achievements made while learning outdoors often become lifelong memories,’ says headmistress (and former Scout leader) Hazel Kellett.

Mount Kelly in Tavistock, Devon, embraces LOTC (Learning Outside the Classroom); it’s compulsory for years seven to 11—biology is covered by skinning rabbits on bivouac expeditions.

Grammars, bilateral and partially selective schools

You’d have to live on Mars not to have heard about the scrum for selective State schooling. Grammar schools (accessed by the Eleven Plus, with its contentious support industry of private tutoring) range from being heavily to obscenely over-subscribed. It’s vital to research a school’s catchment area, popularity, sibling rules and what additional information it requires (for instance, for faith schools) before completing the Common Application Form and doing everything in your power to help your child achieve the required Eleven Plus score of 90%-plus.

England has eight bilateral schools, in which grammar and non-selective streams are taught separately, and more than 35 partially selective ones, which recruit between 10% and 35% of pupils on general, musical or other specialist ability (


These were created by Cambridge University in response to the declin- ing rigour of A levels. As their name suggests, they were intended to be a more appropriate grounding for university-bound students, with more scope for choice and independent thinking in the syllabus. Exams are taken in one sitting at the end of the second year.

Originally taken up by leading independent schools, they are now widely recognised by universities. Available in 27 subjects, the grading system sounds mystifying until you learn that the letters stand for Pass, Merit or Distinction. There are three tiers within each category, with the highest grade, a D1, representing a higher level of attainment than an A* at A level (

New-look GCSEs

This summer, the first of former Education Secretary Michael Gove’s new, tougher GCSEs will be taken, starting with English and maths. The latter will cover more topics than before and English will tackle more substantial texts and require longer, essay-style responses. Coursework is being hacked back in favour of exam testing and there will be fewer options for studying science—pupils must either sit combined science (worth two GCSEs) or take biology, chemistry and physics as separate qualifications.

In many respects, this sounds like harking back to the good old days of O levels—with one exception: the new exams will no longer be graded G to A*, but will be scored from 1 to 9, with 9 representing something above an A*.

To ensure the first students don’t suffer as these changes bed down, ‘statistical predictions’ will be the basis for this year’s grades, with ‘examiner judgment’ being secondary.