The UK’s 11+ Exam, A Guide for Expat Parents

Every year, many families will make the difficult decision to leave the UAE in order for their child to attend secondary school in the UK. For British residents looking for places at state selective grammar schools, there is the 11+ exam to consider, as we explore in this special WSA guide.
The UK’s 11+ Exam, A Guide for Expat Parents
By Jenny Mollon
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If you want your child to apply for a Year 7 place at a state-funded grammar school or a selective, fee-paying independent school in the United Kingdom, then you’ll need to prepare them for the 11+ Exam. Here’s everything you need to know about how to apply, when to apply, what the exam involves, and which schools use the 11+ as part of their admissions process.

What is the 11+ Exam?

The 11+ (or 11-plus) is a selective entrance exam generally taken at the beginning of Year 6 in a primary or prep school, and normally in September. The exam is part of the admissions process for Year 7 at the UK’s grammar schools, which are state-funded secondary schools with a strong focus on academic achievement, and some fee-paying independent schools.

For those families looking for state (government) grammar schools, it is important to note that in many areas of the UK, students are required to be UK resident at the time of application for the 11+ exam. Some individual local education authorities may make exceptions to this, and we therefore advise parents to make early enquiries as to requirements in their chosen location.  

As Wales and Scotland no longer have grammar schools, the 11+ is only taken in certain parts of England and Northern Ireland.

The content for the exam varies between different areas of the UK but will generally be based on some or all of the following types of questions: English, maths, verbal reasoning, and non-verbal reasoning. Students will typically sit two or three 11+ exams, which usually last between 45-60 minutes.

Given the impact of the pandemic, there have been some calls for changes to the 11+ exams, to make allowances for school closures in 2020 and 2021.

What are the entrance tests for 11+ at UK independent schools?

Most independent schools write and mark their own exams for 11+ entry (and all other year groups). While students can enter schools at any stage in their education, typical points of entry are at 11+ (Year 7); 13+ (Year 9) for independent boarding schools; 15+ (Year 11) and 16+ (Year 12).

For 11+ entrance, exams can be based on the GL and CEM 11+ exams, the Common Entrance Syllabus, and the National Curriculum for England.

Only a small number of independent schools, mainly all-girls schools, use the Common Entrance exam at 11+, which includes English, maths and science tests. (The Common Entrance is more widely used as part of the selective admissions process at age 13.) There are two exam sessions each year, in November and January. Schools using the Common Entrance 11+ as part of their admissions process are:

  • Benenden School
  • Downe House School
  • Queen Anne's School
  • Queenswood School
  • Sherborne Girls School
  • St Mary's School
  • St Swithun's School
  • Westonbirt School
  • Woldingham School
  • Wycombe Abbey School

The London 11+ Consortium (formerly known as North London Girls' Schools Consortium) is a group of 12 independent schools in North London which have come together to reduce the number of assessments sat by pupils. The London 11+ Consortium exam has replaced lengthy English and maths papers with a 75-minute, multiple choice cognitive test consisting of maths, verbal and non-verbal reasoning.

These schools include: Channing School, Francis Holland School (Regent’s Park and Sloane Square), Godolphin and Latymer School, More House School, Northwood College for Girls, Notting Hill and Ealing High School, Queen’s College London, Queen’s Gate School, South Hampstead High School, St Helen’s School London, and St James Senior Girls’ School.

When do I apply for the 11+?

Most grammar schools will open their registration for the 11+ exam in April or May for the following academic year, and parents need to register their child by June, July or August. For example, in Warwickshire the registration process for the 11+ for September 2022 entry opens on Monday, May 10 2021 with a deadline of Wednesday, June 30 2021. Late registrations are not accepted under any circumstances, so make sure you are aware of your council’s deadlines.

The 11+ exam is organised by a consortium of grammar schools in some counties; in others, you will need to enter your child for a test at each school. The exception is Buckinghamshire which automatically enters all primary children for the 11+ exam and parents need to opt-out if they want to withdraw their child from the process. Visit your local education authority website for details of their entrance procedures.

As well as applying for the 11+ exam, you will need to include your choice of grammar school/s on your secondary school application; this has to be submitted to your local education authority by October 31 for the following academic year and can include your preferred choice of both grammar and state schools.

For independent schools, you may need to apply as early as Year 4 for entry to Year 7, so start thinking about attending open days and making a shortlist of schools while your child is still in Year 3 or 4.

What is covered in the 11+ exam?

The subjects covered and how your child will be tested will depend on which county you live in and which school you apply to; local authorities or individual schools decide which subjects to test.

The 11+ will typically include English, maths, verbal reasoning and non-verbal reasoning. Each test has a multiple choice format, but the English may ask for a written piece of work.

There are two main exam boards for the 11+ Exam. GL Assessment (previously known as NFER) 11+ exams are used by the majority of grammar schools including Berkshire, Bexley, Buckinghamshire, Devon, Gloucestershire, Kent, Shropshire, Walsall, Warwickshire, Wirral and Wolverhampton.

CEM administers the 11+ exams for Birmingham, Cumbria, Dorset, Lancashire Medway, Northern Ireland and Wiltshire. Schools in other counties including Devon, Essex, Hertfordshire, Trafford and Yorkshire use a combination of the GL and CEM exams.

GL Assessment practice papers are available to buy, and its website outlines what can be expected in each test.

The GL English exam paper includes comprehension exercises, where children have to read a passage of text and answer questions on it; use of capital letters and punctuation; spelling, where children are asked to spot mistakes; and grammar.

The GL maths exam paper will test knowledge of times tables; quick mental arithmetic; understanding of shapes, space and measures; applying the four basic operations (+ - x ÷); and graph reading.

The GL Verbal Reasoning exam includes processing verbal information; similarities and differences between words’ applying logical thinking and problem-solving skills; identifying patterns; and demonstrating the understanding of the rules and meaning of language.

The GL Non-Verbal Reasoning exam covers topics including identifying odd-one-out shapes; identifying the next shape or diagram in a sequence; finding mirror images and reflections; finding symmetries of a shape; and finding rotations of shapes.

CEM tests are produced to each school or local authority’s exact requirements, so the exam papers differ by area. Typically, the CEM exam includes verbal (English), numerical (maths) and non-verbal tests. CEM does not produce practice papers.

What is the pass mark for the 11+?

Local authorities will provide different information in your child's 11+ results letter. You may be told if your child is 'likely to gain a place' at a particular grammar school; they may be given a pass or fail; or they may be given a Standardised Secondary Transfer Test Score (SSTTS). Students are generally required to have a SSTTS of 121 or above to be considered for a Year 7 place.

Achieving the STTS does not guarantee a place at a grammar or independent school; each school sets its own additional admissions criteria.

When are the 11+ exams and results?

For most grammar schools, testing is scheduled to take place during your child’s final primary school year, around September. 11+ results are posted between October-December, but school places are not confirmed until March 1 on National Offer Day.
At independent schools, exams are held from November to January. However, some independent schools, especially in London, have formed themselves into consortia so that your child sits one exam which is then used as an application to a whole bunch of schools, and most give out their results at the same time – usually in February.

Can you retake the 11+ exam?

No. Your child can only take the 11+ exam once.

How much does the 11+ cost?

The 11+ is free for students applying to a grammar school. At independent schools, you will be charged an application fee, which is around £100.

How do I prepare my child for the 11+?

Opinion is divided on how to prepare your child for the 11+. Should children only go to a selective school if they are genuinely bright enough to cope with the work once they get in, or is it only fair to tutor a child when they may be competing against 1,000 other students for one of just 100 places?

You can choose to prepare their child using resources available, such as the series of Bond 11+ books or GL past papers, or to send your child to 11+ tuition group. Many independent schools will post past exam papers on their website to help you prepare.

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