What are selective and super-selective schools?

Selective and super-selective schools explained
Places at selective and super-selective schools are highly sought after, with many applicants for every place – but what's the difference between these types of school, and how does the application process work?

If you live in one of the UK's grammar school areas, you're probably well aware of how much competition there can be to get into one of these very academic schools. But while grammar school entry is designed to be challenging to ensure that only the highest achieving pupils succeed, some secondary schools have even more exacting entry requirements and admit just the top few per cent of pupils who apply. These are often known as super-selective schools, but what does this term actually mean?

What are selective and super-selective schools?

A selective school is a school that offers places based on children's ability. Children are usually selected as a result of their academic ability, which is assessed through the 11+ test, although some schools have also places that are open to pupils based on their skills in other areas such as music, sports or languages. State grammar schools and many independent and private schools use academic assessments to decide which children qualify for a place, whereas comprehensive schools admit children of all abilities. 

The high demand for places at selective state schools means that, in some areas, the most sought-after grammar schools have far more applicants than places. Rather than setting a pass mark for the 11+, these schools may choose to only admit the children who achieve the very highest scores in the test. Typically, they disregard catchment area and often there is no sibling entitlement to a place; instead, any child can take the test, and places are allocated purely based on results. The schools that pick the very top performers are informally known as super-selective, and in some cases pupils may need to score as much as 99.5 per cent in the 11+ to win a place.

What are the benefits of a selective or super-selective school place?

As well as the prestige, there are many benefits to gaining a place at a selective or super-selective school. For example:

  • Your child is likely to be with like-minded peers who have a strong attitude to learning and a desire to do well.
  • The schools have a particular focus on achievement and create a strong learning environment, in which they help their pupils achieve good results.
  • A more traditional form of education is offered, with firm discipline considered a high priority.
  • Your child may have a wider range of academic subjects to choose from at GCSE and A level, including single sciences, further maths and more languages.

Super-selectives in particular pride themselves on their academic results, and many of them have good links with the top universities, including Oxford and Cambridge. 'Our son Alex has always been very bright and nerdy, so a selective school has really suited him,' says Maxine Lintern, mum to Alex. 'It’s provided him with some great opportunities with such a wide range of subjects on offer, and they certainly allow a child’s individual skills to flourish.'

'The children at my daughter's school are expected to work hard and are pushed a lot, but only because the school knows they are dealing with a group of very able children,' adds Kelly Clare, mum to Carlotta. 'The subject choice is wide, and the school has not only maintained Carlotta’s interest in learning but also inspired her further.'

But there are downsides. With competitiveness comes a pressured and potentially stressful environment, so it’s important to think about your own child and how they deal with things. Some children thrive on this kind of challenge, whereas others may find it difficult to cope and be more comfortable in a school where there is less academic pressure, even if they're bright enough to qualify for a selective or super-selective school place.

How do these schools select their pupils?

The majority of selective schools allocate places on the basis of academic ability, assessed by the 11+ exam. This usually combines elements from four main areas: verbal reasoning, non-verbal reasoning, maths and English

The chances of your child getting into a selective school depend on where you live. According to national figures, almost half of pupils who attain the basic pass mark in the 11+ exams still fail to gain a grammar school place because the competition is so fierce. In some areas like the outer boroughs of London, where there are fewer grammar schools, several thousand children regularly apply for as few as 180 places, so places go to the top performers. For example, at the four grammar schools in Kingston upon Thames and Sutton, only the top performing three per cent of children, on average, get a place. In contrast, areas with more grammar schools, like Buckingham, have a much higher pass rate, around 30% each year. For super-selective schools, children only stand a realistic chance of gaining a place if they have a near perfect score.

Can you increase your child's chances of a selective school place?

Although 11+ tests are designed to be hard to tutor for, and many schools discourage pupils from being tutored, it's very difficult to get through the test without some preparation. In some areas, and particularly for super-selective schools, there's a definite culture of tutoring with some children beginning extra-curricular sessions as early as Year 3.

If you have the skills and time to help your child prepare at home, you may decide against tutoring, but, at the very least, you'll need to make sure your child has an understanding of all the concepts covered in the exam. Maths papers, for instance, typically include subjects that your child won't learn about until Year 6, and as the test is taken at the very beginning of the autumn term, you can't rely on your child covering them at school. It's also important that your child is familiar with the format of the paper, and develops good time management skills, as the test usually involves completing a large number of questions to a tight timescale.

'We got Alex some online tutoring prior to his entrance exam to get him used to the questions,' says Maxine. 'Computers are his thing so it worked well and helped develop his confidence and time management.'

'We all want the best for our children and if you live in a grammar school area, it’s very easy to get taken in by it all even if it's not the right path for your child,' adds Kelly. 'We opted for the tutoring route and it certainly helped build up Carlotta’s skills and confidence. But your child does need an innate ability to be able to cope on their own merit and deal with the demands of a selective school.'