Chapter 3 : Secondary Schools and Common Entrance

Parents then face the dilemma of where to send their children to secondary school, and how to get a place.

If you need help with your decision, check out our page on Secondary Schools

Here are the crucial stages of an independent secondary school application, at 11+ or 13+:


1) Arrange a visit and register to apply

Schools have their own rules about when it is necessary to register, so make sure you identify where you want to apply as early as possible, and get your child’s registration in before the deadline.

Elite public schools like Eton and Harrow often necessitate a very early registration, up to five years before applying in some cases.


2) Send documents

Independent schools will request a reference from your child’s school, attesting to their character and academic ability.


3) Complete pre-tests

Some elite schools conduct a pre-test, which can take place from as early as October of Year 6 for 13+. Used to gauge pupils’ academic potential ahead of the actual admissions tests, they are run by the Independent Schools Examination Board (ISEB), or by schools themselves.

Click here for more information on ISEB pre-tests


4) Admissions Tests

Importantly, schools create admissions tests that are difficult to prepare for. Like the pre-tests. they tend to be more concerned with finding students with potential, rather than ability, and therefore focus on Maths, English, verbal and non-verbal reasoning.

When these examinations take place, their format and entry requirements all vary between schools. It is therefore important to research exactly what the applications will involve for your son or daughter.


5) Attend an Interview

Often during or after the admissions tests, candidates will be asked for interview at their independent schools of choice.

Given the intense competition for some independent schools, academic performance in admissions tests can be more important, but the interview is nonetheless valuable in assessing a potential pupil’s character: especially for schools looking to create a balanced community of peers.

“We like to see more from pupils than just their academic prowess. It’s important to know that they’re passionate about more than just work”

Teacher in Cambridge

To this end, the teacher interviewing will likely ask about their passions and hobbies, to try and find a spark of interest instead of simply their record of academic success.


6) Accept a place

As will be discussed, following the tests and interviews, schools will offer places to applicants, which need to be accepted or rejected swiftly.


7) And finally, take the Common Entrance

Once a school place has been offered and accepted, pupils face the Common Entrance examination, into which they are entered by their prep school. Independent schools will generally set their own pass rates for pupils they have accepted.

The vast majority of public and independent senior schools in the UK use these exams, provided by the ISEB, either at 11+ (predominantly for girls’ schools) or 13+ (for boys and mixed schools). A small number of schools have their own entrance exams instead, so it is important to double check before applying.

To find out more about the curriculum and exams, visit our Common Entrance guide

It is also worth bearing in mind that most schools offer admissions at a different age to the usual intakes, but this is in special cases.


So, how competitive is it?

For elite schools, it is not uncommon for fewer than 25% of applicants to be successful. When applying to such schools, it is therefore advised to have backup options.

On the other hand, less selective independent schools give places to a far higher proportion of students. They are also more likely to forgive sub-par Common Entrance results if accompanied by strong reports and references.


How do boarding school applications differ?

Given the nature of boarding school life, more emphasis tends to be placed on interviews during applications.

To find out more about the UK’s best boarding schools, read our guide here

While they follow the same broad admissions process as private day schools, it is vital for boarding school Heads and teachers to discern whether a child would fit in – and enjoy – their time at school.

In addition to spotting any potential pastoral concerns, boarding schools have to match pupils to houses, which involves a great deal of care.

Housemasters play a large role in the children’s’ personal as well as academic development, and as a result they are in many ways more concerned about interviewing the parents than the pupils. Making sure that there will be a healthy bond between parents and the school is integral to the admissions process.