Tips from Mr Nick Baker, Headmaster at The Beacon

If your child is heading off to senior school in the near future, Mr Nick Baker, Headmaster at The Beacon School in Amersham, gives some tips to ensure you and your child are fully prepared.

What schools to apply to?

Most parents will start to consider senior school destinations in Year 5 so make an appointment to meet with the Head or senior school staff in the autumn or spring term.  On that advice, start to register with schools (and/or the local authority) to access the open events and application programme.  All schools will hold standardised data on your child and use this as a general guide to their senior school prospects, whether it be 11+ grammar school or independent senior school. Day schools, particularly the grammar school process, can be a fairly ruthless data driven exercise.  Other schools will take a more holistic approach, considering a child’s character and suitability for the school through an interview and reference. As a family, have an ‘aspirational’, a ‘realistic’ and a ‘back up’ option and consider that a child in Year 5 will be a lot different to the child in Year 8 – it is wise to keep all options open at an early stage. Many parents over the years have completely disregarded some settings in Year 5 and then come to me in Year 8, asking to make a late application.  

All schools are ‘academic’ but it is true that some are more academically selective than others.  Remember that (apart from a small number that offer the IB and Cambridge Pre-U) you can only do GSCEs and A Levels in this country.  Therefore, regardless of the setting, the curriculum will be the same and all pubic exams are externally marked and moderated.  The academic ‘pressure’ will invariably come from the cohort.  If the academic demographic is narrow, the currency of success might be too expensive for your perfectly able but middle ability child.  This can lead to an unfulfilling and deflating school experience where a child has a constant feeling of inferiority as they cannot contextualise their own ability.   

How to prepare for the assessments 

In a perfect world, all parents would satisfy themselves that their child’s school is doing everything it can within the framework of the curriculum to prepare all children for assessments.  Every school I have been involved with directs far more resource and curriculum time to external exam preparation than it should and they have the enormous benefit of historical data to strategize and track and adapt the teaching provision against senior school exit success.  That said, exposure to the type of testing does give a child more confidence and limits the potential for underperformance on the day.  There are a number of online platforms that are helpful but I’ve yet to see one that is perfect. It is notoriously difficult, some say impossible, to ‘teach’ non-verbal and verbal reasoning but the most effective way we found in my previous school was to use the books that had the answer sheets.  Instead of posing the question and let children try and work it out or invariably ‘guess’, we would give the children the answer and show them how that fits the question. Children will start to see how the question works and then adapt the methodology accordingly.   

How to prepare for the interview

Past Westminster Headmaster, John Rae, wrote revealingly in his excellent book, ‘Old Boys Network’, about his negative experiences of interviewing overly prepared and ultimately unsuccessful candidates. There is nothing wrong with giving children an idea of what they will be asked but it is so important to be authentic and honest in interview. A child offering that they spend their weekends reading books and listening to classical music is not believable and they are not mature enough to develop anything other than a personal experience. Schools do not expect everyone to be a brilliant musician or A team footballer but they do want enthusiasm and a willingness to get involved. It is always great to have an articulate, gregarious child but remember that the best classrooms have a balance of the extroverted and the introverted.  Schools know this and don’t expect every candidate to be life and soul of the community.

Should I tutor my child? 

As above, schools do more than enough to prepare your child without the need to tutor.  However, if you go to parents’ evening and the Maths teacher says that a child really struggles with a particular topic – say algebra – there is nothing wrong with getting a few sessions of one to one support until they get it.  Same goes for English with source analysis or sentence construction for example. General tutoring with no specific focus can often be detrimental, particularly as the tutor may well be teaching techniques and ideas that are contrary to what is being taught in school. Childhood is really short.  Enjoy family time and resist the temptation to fill it with endless tutoring; I doubt anyone looks back at their childhood and wishes they had experienced (more) tutoring.  

How to prepare for disappointment

If you and the school think an application is overly aspirational, make sure you and, more importantly, your child, can take the potential failure. If there is a risk that they will be too disheartened, do not apply and take that possibility out of the equation. Ensure that you, as parents, do not build up expectation or desire that the child wins a place at a particular school.  A child will find a way of handling his or her own disappointment but what is far more difficult is handling the disappointment of their parents.  Take the pressure off, be relaxed and let the process follow through without any drama, regardless of outcome. I have worked in schools for almost 30 years, not once have I seen an exit group where a child does not have a school to go to.

How to prepare for senior school as a parent

I write this as a parent of two teenage boys. At primary school, you know your children’s teachers, their friends, their friends’ parents, you get great feedback from your children and their teachers as to what has gone on in school that day.  The vast majority of that disappears once they go to senior school and become teenagers! Children become more private, they have their own thoughts and opinions, and the senior school will seem more distant and the emphasis will be that children should be more responsible for their own learning rather than accountable to their parents. It’s a different stage of parenting but it is to be embraced, enjoyed and fulfilling as our ‘little boys’ become young men and go off into the adult world, where the whole cycle starts all over again…

About The Beacon

The Beacon is an independent prep school for boys aged 3-13 located in Amersham, Buckinghamshire.

Upcoming Open Event

Friday 12 May

09:00 – 11:00

To book an appointment, please click here.

Alternatively, contact Admissions on or call 01494 432764.

Follow The Beacon: