Choosing between private (one-to-one) and small group tutoring for the 11+

by | May 22, 2024 | Exams, Schools & teachers, Teach | 0 comments

Only 5.3% of state-funded pupils in the UK take and pass the 11+ exam (source).

The numbers aren’t much higher for private schools—6.4% of private school students take and pass the 11+ exam (source).

Why set out these rather depressing statistics on pupil success in the 11+? 

Because before we dive into a discussion of the rights and wrongs of private one-to-one tuition versus small group tuition, it’s useful to understand the outcome of successful tuition. 

Children who go on to pass their 11+ entrance exam will be competing with the most academic students in the UK. They will be expected to be on a par with some of the most highly educated students in the world.

Full disclosure, my 11+ tuition company—Griffin Teaching—delivers a considered and carefully developed weekly 11+ programme in a small group, club-based format. So I do have a bias here, but I also have experience. I’m totally immersed in the world of 11+. And my teaching and tutoring creds are second-to-none. 

So why do I recommend small-group tutoring over private tutoring? Well, the money involved in private tuition is eye-watering, but that isn’t the reason. 

Even if you are prepared to pay for it, private one-to-one tutoring is not the right route for 11+ preparation.

The often-overlooked downsides of private 11+ tuition

  1. School is a group experience: If you are considering an academic school for your child, they should be able to happily work in a group of 6. Children who come in smiling each week to our little clubs are confident, independent learners. They value the teaching input as the content is mostly new to them. They find the calm, collaborative environment inspiring. When they need support, or a proper explanation of something tricky, they ask. If they are too shy to ask at first, their confidence builds quickly with a bit of nurturing from their experienced teacher (who finds the job a total joy). There is an inclusive ‘we’re in this together’ vibe. Even the most exclusive academic schools teach in classes of 10 or 12. Grammar classes are 30+. If learning alongside 5 other engaged and intelligent children isn’t for your child, perhaps a grammar school isn’t a good fit.
  2. Developing an effective 11+ curriculum is a full-time job: Individual teachers working for themselves in the hours they have free around child-care or a full-time job do not have the time or inclination to research this subject fully. It has taken us years to develop our curriculum to fit in all the different subject subtopics, in a way that the children don’t realise is a terrible squeeze. Every time we teach a subtopic we learn and record what works and what doesn’t. Then next time we teach it, we improve the content as a direct response to this. I’ve been preparing children for different 11+ exams for decades. The depth of my understanding of the subtle differences between each exam board, school and individual child’s response to the content cannot be underestimated. And don’t get me started on the terrible workbooks you can buy and generic 11+ AI platforms.  Lazy/loose/generic content is a particular bug-bear of mine.
  3. It’s a bit risky to rely on just one person to tutor your child: If your child is relying on an individual teacher, what if their circumstances change? In most situations your child will just miss the odd lesson or two. But sometimes teachers give up their students mid-year. It isn’t their life’s work to teach your child, just an hour a week’s commitment. Whereas group tuition companies do everything they can to support parents as their business depends on the strength of their reputation. We are often approached by frantic parents scrabbling around tutor-less in the weeks and months before the exam.
  4. Private tuition feels too ‘serious’ to children: One-to-one tutoring is serious and burdensome for a child. It hits home that they have a worrying task ahead of them and ratchets up their anxiety.  As a one-to-one tutor in Hong Kong, however cheery I was, sitting in a room with a well-meaning adult is not something any child looks forward to. Once the child started to work, we both sat in silence listening to the incessant hum of the air-conditioning unit and the ticking of the clock. 
  5. Private tutors often don’t give children space and time to learn: The small tutor group arrangement negates the risk of ‘helicopter tutoring’ where the teacher hovers over the child in rescue-mode. I was a private tutor early in my career. I have a busy brain and am eager to do my best for every child I teach. So I read over their shoulders and bombarded them with hints and tips! This is stifling for the child. If a tutor is being paid well, they don’t feel that good about sitting back quietly while the child works. They want to please you, so they constantly intervene.

The unexpected benefits of small group 11+ tuition

  1. We attract amazing teachers: Any teacher with real classroom experience jumps at the chance to teach a tiny group of six children. It brings back the buzz of whole-class teaching – but without any behaviour issues or long days trapped in a chilly Victorian building. They don’t have to pretend they can teach dance anymore. Or computer science. With group tuition (or at least with ours) you get highly qualified, experienced teachers. Not just people who are doing 11+ tutoring on the side.
  2. High expectations all around:  In a whole class situation, it would be a poor teacher who didn’t differentiate their teaching to address the seven year ability spread present in a single year group. But when a small group is preparing for an academic exam, everyone is covering the same content. They have to – it’s the syllabus. And according to the OECD PISA research, successful school systems, ‘have low levels of differentiation…where all students, regardless of their backgrounds, are offered similar opportunities to learn…(children) are more likely to perform above the OECD average.’ Children respond to those around them and lift their attainment to that of their peers.
  3. It’s more fun: If you are the parent of a bright child you will know that they enjoy learning and have a curious mind. It sounds ridiculous but it’s true. They rush into their group, sit down in their usual place, and immerse themselves in the routine of the format. Our lot do maths first, then English and finally, reasoning. The content is varied but the format stays the same. It saves time-wasting and children respond well to the consistent structure.
  4. Healthy competition: All children in our groups have the potential to pass the approaching exam. It isn’t fair to keep children who are unlikely to thrive at grammar school; we share concerns as kindly as we can and they quietly leave us. So the competition that develops is gentle and positive. For example, when children first see non-verbal reasoning they love it. A pure brain-teaser and a complete leveller. Last year one of my girls, who struggled with the comprehension and maths content, was streets ahead of everyone else in spatial reasoning. She enjoyed explaining the worst of the questions to the rest of her group. Children quickly recognise that they have different strengths, allowing them to empathise with their club-mates and push themselves that little bit harder in a safe, supportive space.
  5. We have experience with and can help with specific learning difficulties: Grammar schools and academic private schools welcome children with specific learning difficulties and generally support them very well. Group tuition companies such as ours are fully up-to-date with the arrangements offered by the 11+ exam boards/schools and we guide multiple parents successfully through this process every year. Often, we are the first to observe a potential specific learning difficulty and we have specialists to hand who allow us to lean on them for advice (to share with anxious parents).
  6. Consistent teaching, all week long: We have multiple clubs running on different days in different venues. So no child of ours misses a party or a football match. We arrange swaps if you prefer live teaching every week. And the content is set up in our private web-base if some weeks you would rather access it at home. On our side of the bargain, if one of us is ill, we cover each others’ lessons so that the children don’t miss out.

Now, sometimes one-on-one 11+ tuition is what a child needs…

In the world of 11+ preparation, there is a place for one-to-one tutoring. 

Some children join late and need an hour or so of catch-up teaching. As the exam approaches, anxiety builds as external pressures start to bite. If a child is weepy and worried then a one-to-one session is the right way to support them. A single session always gives them the boost they need, and they head for home confident and (always) smiling.  

It sounds like a huge promise to say to all of my parent clients that I will personally offer the odd one-to-one private tutoring session to their child if they need it. But, of course, as the exam approaches hardly anyone needs it. 

Of the 200+ per year students I prepare for the 11+ exam I probably offer out a maximum of 10 individual tutoring hours. Just enough that children feel listened to and reassured. 

And parents feel I have their back. Because I do!