For anyone moving to the UK or from a state primary school, the idea of a formal assessment at such a young age can feel daunting and overwhelming. But, if you have your sights set on a place at one of the UK’s most selective or competitive independent schools, your child may need to sit their first formal exams.
Play-based assessments can begin from the age of four if you’re looking at entry into certain UK pre-prep schools, with more formal assessments at the age of seven for prep school.
To help you understand the admissions process for pre-prep and prep schools in the UK, this is your essential guide to everything about the 4+ and 7+ assessments.
A UK pre-prep takes children from as young as three years old and will prepare them to move to a prep school aged seven. The main point of entry is the 4+.
4+ entrance exams are becoming increasingly popular with selective schools where competition for reception places can be high and where schools are keen to set and maintain standards. And, while most schools won’t disclose exactly what they look for in these tests, they certainly aren’t trying to ‘catch anyone out’; instead, they are really checking to see if prospective students would fit within their environment through being engaged, socially aware, co-operative and able to perform certain tasks.
The main point of entry to a UK prep school is at 7+ for Year 3, and many selective schools will ask students to sit a formal test, known as the 7+, as part of the admissions process; this may be set by the school or by an external agency.
This test is fairly competitive, not only because of the number of applicants for places but also because at this stage and age, schools really are looking at a child’s ability and potential and are therefore making selections based on aptitude. Schools are looking to see if prospective students will thrive and be able to keep up with the pace of learning.
From the 4+
While every school assessment is slightly different, children are typically asked to join the teacher in a designated classroom with around 12 other children (usually less).
Most 4+ assessments are play-based with staff looking to see how children interact with their surroundings and with each other. They’ll also include some one-to-one time with teachers who may ask them questions to see how they engage with adults and if they can follow basic instructions.
Children may be asked to demonstrate certain abilities such as express themselves, show their fine motor skills through arts and crafts, count up to a certain number, write their name, draw something specific, problem solve with puzzles or shapes and show an understanding of sounds and words. Teachers will be looking at how well the children can concentrate through activities such as reading a story to the group before asking questions to understand levels of comprehension, concentration, curiosity and confidence.
The assessment is usually approximately an hour long and can vary from school to school, so do ask the school to share any information beforehand.
From the 7+
The admissions process for 7+ entry differs between schools as there’s no standardised process but typically children are required to complete written or online maths, English and reasoning (verbal and non-verbal)
tests. These will be held at the school with each subject taking approximately 30 minutes and time allocated for breaks.
Some schools will also set up observed activities to check how well children behave socially, looking at interaction and cooperation with others. You should also expect to provide a report from your child’s current school.
Depending on the assessment results, children may be invited back for an interview where they’ll be expected to answer questions on their family, their current school, hobbies and interests and also their opinions. Some schools may want to hear a child reading and then ask questions about the chosen text. Interviewers will be looking for communication skills and responses that show personality and go beyond one-word answers.
The application deadline is typically early in the autumn term for entry into the next academic year. The offer of a place is typically sent out in February, and should be accepted by a deadline in early March.
4+ assessments generally take place in the October – February, when your child is three years, before the start of the next academic year (in the following September).
The 7+ assessments are generally taken in December and January in Year 2 for entry into the next academic year (in the following September).
For the 4+
The main advice here is not to prepare; if your child is reaching milestones and you’re fostering curiosity and helping your child to be confident and social then that is all the preparation required. Also, as parents are expected to leave their child for the assessment, you can help your child to overcome any separation anxieties by building their confidence and independence.
The skills which schools look for at the 4+ are those which can be developed through play and interaction at home.
A few tips include:
Build confidence. Remember that your child will need to feel comfortable leaving your side and spending time in a place they don’t know. Set up regular play-dates, meet with people and allow your child the opportunity to spend time away from you sometimes.
Reinforce the idea that the test is also just a ‘play-date’ – make it fun – talk to them about it and don’t show any stress or concern.
Read to your child as often as possible to expose them to new words and ideas – ask them questions about what you’ve read.
Get the arts and crafts out – perfect for practicing fine motor skills through sticking, cutting and colouring.
Help your child with shapes through puzzles and games and always ask them lots of questions as well as encouraging them to ask too – curiosity is key.
For the 7+
The message from most school heads is likely to be, ‘do not tutor your child to pass the 7+’. If you are applying to one of the UK’s most academic and selective schools, your child will be expected to perform at a high standard; the assessment needs to be a true reflection of your child’s current level or potential, and so tutoring them to pass an exam will not help them in the long-term.
As Abingdon Prep School told us:
“Finding the right school ‘fit’ for your child to ensure they flourish and are happy, is key to the decision-making process. At any school, the admissions process will provide the opportunity for parents and children to find out if a school is the right ‘fit’ for them, as well as indicating to the school where a child sits in terms of their development and ability.
“In very general terms, our entry assessments are adapted to the age of the child applying for a place; and they are designed to be informal and friendly to get the very best out of our young candidates. We do not encourage children to prepare for our assessments – as an academically selective school, we learn at pace and we want the results of our assessment to offer a true reflection of a child’s natural ability.”
However, it can help (particularly for students coming from state schools in the UK) to make your child familiar with test techniques and an exam setting. Contact the school to find out about the kind of tests they will be setting – some use outside agencies and others create their own – and they’ll be able to tell you if there are any past papers or materials that you can access and practice with.
The best way to get your child ready is to encourage reading and conversation. Expose them to age-appropriate documentaries, talk to them about what’s happening around the world, explore together. And go through possible interview questions, covering everything from their favourite sports and activities to playing ‘would you rather’ – and ask them to explain their answers!