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Do-It-Yourself or Tutoring?

Families are all different, with varying commitments and living in environments which may or may not be conducive to productive learning. The decision of whether to work with your own child, or rely upon a tutor to teach and guide, should be assessed with your particular circumstances in mind.

Some of the reasons that many people choose to pay for tuition include busy schedules, noise from siblings, feelings of being unqualified to offer the help required, potential friction arising between parent and child in regard to academic work, and learning that ‘everyone else’ has a tutor. Being able to objectively judge your own child’s academic level and progress can be particularly challenging.

Reasons to ‘do it yourself ‘ are equally valid; often you can save over £1000 by going it alone – a parent knows their child’s strengths and weaknesses best, some tutors know little more than parents about the test, and the child may feel less anxiety when not a lot of money is being spent on a tutor. An aspect often overlooked is that by taking the ‘Do it Yourself’ route, parents can spend valuable time with their children that might otherwise be swallowed up in the everyday minutiae of busy lives.

There is no shortage of materials to help you work with your own child, and we will guide you regarding relevant ones to choose at different stages of preparation. The best news is that the 11+ is probably not as hard as you might think. National news outlets appear to suggest that most parents probably couldn’t pass the test themselves, let alone help their child prepare. By collating some of the most difficult questions and presenting them as typical of the 11+ test, many parents are put off before they even start, and sadly, some suspect their child could not pass based on this information alone and decide not to enter them.

What is clear is that this test is not ‘tutor proof’, and it would be unwise to expect even the brightest child to gain a place without some time being spent teaching them about what is involved.

By addressing the concerns that the DIY route poses and explaining how you can help your child with their preparation by using this book, we believe children can gain fair access to a grammar school with or without private tuition.

Before you decide whether to ‘go it alone’ or use a tutor, investigate and make decisions regarding the issues mentioned next as thoroughly as possible.

Planning – ls Grammar School right for my child?

One of the most commonly asked questions by parents early on in the process is ‘How do I know if my child has the academic potential to gain a grammar school place?’. This is not easy to answer but there are a number of sources that might help you decided whether to take the process forward.

The Opinion of a tutor

Many parents turn to tutors to answer the question, yet for many tutors it is difficult to assess; knowing the child and making this judgement in a very short time may be unrealistic. Most tutors genuinely wish to offer help to as many children as possible, and know that huge academic gains can be made in one school year. They are loathed to deny any child tuition that has what they believe to be, a reasonable chance of success. Other tutors may only accept children that are clearly ‘high-fliers’ (these may need little quality tuition to pass) in order that the percentage of children they take on who ultimately gain places is very high; the tutor appears to be excellent at their job. Therefore, the success rate of a tutor is not necessarily a reliable indication of their ability. Tutors can however gain an excellent reputation, and this is most easily discovered through word-of-mouth, and to some extent on-line reviews. A few will accept almost all children, but hopefully they will inform parents of their opinion of the likely outcome as soon as this becomes apparent.

The Opinion of My Child’s Current Teacher

This discussion may be quite difficult. Some teachers do not believe in the grammar school system and would therefore prefer not to be involved. Also, the teacher may have only known your child for a few weeks when you ask if you think grammar school might suit them, and so would be unable to offer you a clear picture. In this case, it may be appropriate to ask the teachers from their previous school years.

CATs scores - Cognitive Ability Tests

These are Cognitive Ability Tests that children take in the early part of Year 5 in many Gloucestershire primary schools. You may or may not be aware that your child has taken them, and results are not generally offered to the parents unless they are asked for.

However, you may ask for these, and they can be a very good indicator of academic potential. The tests, usually taken over several days and covering verbal, non-verbal and quantitative (numerical) reasoning, may also be very helpful in regard to Grammar School Appeals.

Year 2 SATS

Although these are long past, achievement of level 3+ in one or more areas would suggest that a child has worked at a higher academic level than most of their peers at a point in time.

Placement Tests

Cotswold Education provides an honest and informative assessment test. We can tell you at which Gloucestershire grammar schools a number of children who have taken the same assessment previously and achieved a similar score to your child, were later offered places. It is also designed to identify particular areas of strength and weakness that you will be able to address by tutoring or other learning sessions

Mock Tests

Professionally run Mock Tests are carried out under examination conditions and as well as giving experience of an exam can also give a detailed assessment of your child’s ranking and areas for development.

Music Examinations

If your child has had the opportunity to play a musical instrument and reach a high standard, these may be used as an indicator of academic potential. These may also be considered during an appeal.

School Reports

Recent school reports may indicate progress and highlight your child’s academic strengths and weaknesses.

Considering the Evidence

Once you have formed a picture using as much of the evidence as possible, it is time to look further into whether this route is really suitable for your child from an academic stand-point.

We have heard some parents suggest that they will manage if their child is struggling academically once at grammar school by using subject tutors. This might be, and probably is possible for one or two subjects, but if it seems likely that more help will be required we strongly recommend that you reconsider the grammar school option. It is tempting to believe that ‘if only my child can get into a certain school’ all will be well, but struggling academically in an ill-suited school, can severely damage self-esteem.


Is my child self-motivated? Can I help motivate them? Should I rely upon a tutor to do this?

Motivating your child to do work beyond that expected by school can prove challenging. It is probably the number one reason that people rely upon tutors as children are usually more inclined to do extra work that a relative stranger asks of them rather than their own parent! However, it is important to be aware that most tutors will also expect work to be done at home. This is why it should not be assumed that preparation will be plain-sailing if left to a tutor.

To enable preparation to run smoothly consider the following:

Does my child want to go to grammar school?

Before answering this, we must consider that most children aged 9, have no clear understanding about what a grammar school is, let alone whether they would really like to attend one. It is only by seeing a grammar school, hopefully in person, that your child will have a picture in their mind of what they are working towards. Perhaps you are keen for your child to take the 11+ but your child is not. In this case it will be necessary to understand their reasoning and then come to a decision together. Perhaps they are concerned about their abilities or wish to avoid peer pressure; sometimes a compromise can help. The 11+ materials, apart from non-verbal reasoning, are suitable for improving school performance in key subjects namely English and Maths; maybe you can just see how it goes and make decisions later?

Visiting the grammar school Open Days if allowed, is very important, but try not to make all the visits over just a few days. By spreading these days out over the year, you can revive your child’s determination to do well. If possible, allow your child the opportunity to speak with some children already attending the grammar school in question. This can provide interesting insights for both you and your child.

A Positive Approach

We suggest that you try not to approach your child with the argument that they should do extra work in order to gain a place at a certain grammar school. Instead, present the option of doing some extra work to increase their chances of having a number of different schools to pick from. Explain that the work will definitely mean that they are better placed to do well in Year 6 and beyond.

Rather than offering a reward for passing the 11+ we recommend that children are praised for all their hard work before the test itself; you may like to offer small incentives along the way. We would reward attitude and effort, not the result. In the case of my family, I did not provide material incentives along the way, but did write them each a letter the night before the test assuring them that I was very proud of all their hard work and of them as a person; making it clear that the result would make no difference as to who they are, or how we would regard them. Before the test it can also be worth discussing numerous highly successful people that supposedly ‘failed’ the eleven plus.

Timing - when to begin preparation

Try not to be tempted to start 11+ workbooks or tuition too soon. If you wish to begin preparing your child for the exam before Year 5, we strongly advise that you to play maths, language and logic games, read with your child every day, and help them to learn their multiplication tables ‘inside out’. Any courses or tuition taken should again be fun and engaging rather than labour intensive, and be focussed upon any ‘gaps’ in the child’s knowledge. Doing the same style of extra workbook work, as advocated by numerous publishers (that have financial gain in mind), is we believe, likely to be detrimental, with the child often losing interest when they need to be most involved later on.

If a child needs more than one year of dedicated 11+ preparation in order to pass, this suggests that they are likely to struggle upon arrival at a grammar school even if do achieve a passing score.

Just attempting a few practice papers, a couple of weeks before the exam, is better than no preparation. Familiarisation with the test layout, the type of question likely to be asked, and experience completing an answer sheet, can all have some impact. Many children begin preparation approximately one year before the test, and considering the competitive nature of the 11+, it is probably a good idea to begin then. For some though, this period of preparation is still too long; the child ‘peaks’ too soon and become frustrated with the monotony of the question types. Those that begin later should not feel disadvantaged by doing so; it is simply a different approach whereby they may wish to practise a little more each week.

How Much Time Should Be Devoted to DIY 11+ Preparation?

During Year 5, one hour with an adult, and another for the child to work alone should suffice per week, perhaps with 10-minute vocabulary learning sessions before or after school most days. We would also recommend that time is set aside to regularly play games, either over a weekend or one evening a week. If you plan to go it alone with preparation, it is important that you have scheduled times to work with your child, just as you would if using a tutor. However, from time to time, the obstacles of everyday life will most likely conflict with the timetable that you put in place. Therefore, it is essential that any plan drawn up, and agreed upon with your child, is realistic and provides flexibility. Try to be strict and keep to working at the set times each week, but also have reserve time slots for when needed.

It is tempting for a parent to feel that they are too busy to fit in this extra work themselves, and that may be true. However, we suggest you bear in mind that meeting with a tutor each week is also a time commitment - one that will probably require a journey, finding parking, and time to speak with the tutor yourself. Homework requirements from tutors vary, but you are likely to be expected to help your child with some exercises set.

As mentioned, children usually embark upon their 11+ preparation journey about one year before the test and most are initially very keen. It is as the months wear on, and days get shorter that the grim reality of extra work can lead to friction between parent and child. At such times there is no harm in giving both yourself and your child the odd ‘week off’, or doing things differently. Focusing again on word games such as crosswords, hangman and word searches, challenging your child to name 10 or more types of bird, tree, fish, home etc, having a go at a mathematical scavenger hunt, or simply playing cards are all great preparation activities. The Big 11+ Vocabulary Play Book, The Big 11+ Maths Play Book and The Big 11+ Logic Puzzle Challenge provide a wide range of activities to keep the mind working whilst having fun.

We suggest that you leave practice tests until at least the Spring Term before the exam, and even during the summer holiday rarely expect your child to complete two papers in order to finish one whole test at home. There is value in your child attempting two 45/50-minute papers with a 15-minute break between as it may improve stamina. However, preparation for the length of the whole 11+ experience is more successfully accomplished by attending a few 11+ Mock Examinations.

When to End Preparation?

Just as importantly as deciding when to begin preparation is knowing when ‘enough is enough’. There will come a point when your child will gain more from knowing that you feel confident in their abilities than they will from another practice paper or new vocabulary. As a tutor I always suggest that all 11+ materials are put away about a week before the test. Certainly, no practice papers should be used at this point; a disappointing dip in score could negatively impact confidence and performance on the actual test day.


In our experience, one of the hardest part of 11+ preparation from a personal stand point has been marking my own child’s practice work and tests. I found it very difficult to remain objective when coming across my children’s ‘silly’ mistakes. What I needed to keep in mind was that these mistakes rarely were truly silly, but actually an indication that the required depth of knowledge of a topic was not secure. It can be a struggle not to see our children’s successes and mistakes as reflections of ourselves. If we can be more objective in our approach, the child can learn unimpeded by our expectations.

From a practical standpoint, the only reasons to mark 11+ work are to find areas for improvement, and measure success. Using 11+ materials not specifically designed as tests, I often introduce a topic and then work with the child using alternate questions on a page. Questions that we have not completed together are answered by the child independently. This ensures that what the child attempts independently will be of a level that we have approached together first. When marking practice exercises, I mark correct answers with a tick, and incorrect ones with a dot. I then re-visit incorrect answers with the child, and we discuss together where the mistakes was made. Sometimes I ask a child to self-correct first. If numerous mistakes are being made whilst covering a certain topic, it may well be necessary to take several steps back before moving on. It is also useful to revisit topics regularly.

Am I, the Adult, Clever Enough to Teach my Child for the 11+ Test?

It is OK for you not to know the answers to all the 11+ questions yourself. Working out some answers together, and having your child reach the answer first, will increase their confidence, and by explaining to you how they have reached an answer they are consolidating their own knowledge. It is a brilliant way for them to learn.

The Working Environment

Finding the right working environment can be daunting if you live in a smaller home, and/or have other noise distractions. However, nobody has said that practice must take place in the home. Noah, aged 10, had two younger siblings when preparing for this test, his parents were working, and they were in the middle of moving house. His mother overcame the problem by sitting with him at a table in a quiet area of a sports centre. Alternatives are local libraries or even quiet coffee shops. What is necessary is a peaceful space, and as importantly, setting regular times to work.

It is not necessarily an advantage to always work in a totally quiet space, devoid of any and all distractions. Learning to cope with a minimal degree of background ‘noise’, could be useful both in the test and at home. We have heard reports of music from a near-by fun fair blaring on one test occasion. Those children that were able to concentrate despite the noise, would have been at an advantage in this instance.

Handling the Pressure!

Without doubt, taking any test puts pressure upon most participants. In this case, relatively young children are being asked to perform in a strange environment under unfamiliar conditions. This test-taking environment will be very different from any your child has encountered at school. To alleviate some of this pressure is the primary role of mock tests.

It is also essential that each child has a reason not to be unduly worried about the result of the actual exam. This is best achieved by parents portraying positive messages about other school options, whatever their personal feelings. Examples may be given of how older pupils have achieved brilliantly at non-grammar schools, the enjoyment of joining a school with many familiar faces from their primary school, or fantastic facilities. Most importantly the grammar schools themselves are keen for your child to know that if a child does not gain a place, it is not because they have failed, but just that on a particular day they did not achieve a passing score. It is not an indication of lack of intelligence. Knowing that there is an element of ‘luck on the day’ must always be kept in mind.


Whilst it might be tempting to apply for a school a long way from home due it its record of academic success, the potential pitfalls should be addressed. Committing your family to long daily commutes for five or seven years, is a big decision. It may appear relatively simple to rely upon a school bus but any time your child has extra-curricular events, an illness, or you need to visit the school for one reason or another, the distance can be an issue. With friendships being built between children living up to 50 miles apart, it can be hard for children, and reliance upon social media to keep these friendships ‘active’ can perhaps become a problem too.

Sibling Issues

If you are in the situation of having more than one secondary aged child at one time it may be an advantage for each of them to have some ‘space’ from their siblings to grow as an individual, or it may simply be personal choice. However, generally speaking the pros of siblings being together outweigh the cons. Convenience, increased knowledge on the parents’ part about how a school operates, and the comfort for a younger sibling upon joining their elder in a school they already know a little about, can all be very helpful.

A separate sibling issue, if you have an older child already attending a grammar school, is that it can place undue pressure on the younger sibling to achieve a grammar place too. Our experience is that the issue must be handled delicately but with honesty, by encouraging the younger child to feel confident in themselves. Also be aware that although you might be managing the situation well at home, outside influences may come into play such as playground chatter. With two older brothers at Pates, my daughter often encountered “You’ll obviously want to go to Pates” which only added to the stress of taking the 11+ test.

Before I Begin Checklist

It is useful to start by objectively, honestly and realistically assessing the factors that may impact your decisions.

Things to consider are:

  • I am aware of my child’s strengths and weaknesses. Is success a realistic probability?

  • How will I be able to motivate my child with or without a tutor if things get difficult?

  • Where will I work with my child? Where will they work alone?

  • Do I have the time?

  • What resources do I need?

  • Is the distance to school reasonable?

  • Will the schools of any siblings make a difference to school choice?



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