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Starter Guide to 11+ Exams – The Basics

10/08/2023 / 11+ Tuition

What is the 11+?

The Different Types of Schools

The Main Providers of the 11+ Exam

Schools with Different Assessment Requirements

What is the 11+?

The 11+ is an entrance exam children take for selective secondary schools or ‘grammar schools’ in a few schools in England. There are no selective schools in Wales.

Most English state schools are non-selective. This means they do not assess children for entry but may use other criteria, such as how close the child lives to the school and whether the child already has brothers and sisters in the school, to decide who gets a place in Year 7.

However, there are currently 164 fully selective schools in England. A smaller number are partially selective or offer a bilateral system, meaning some of the intake is selective. Some areas, such as Kent and Buckinghamshire, have many grammar schools. Other areas have none at all.

All selective schools are highly oversubscribed. As well as applying strict geographic criteria to ensure that the school is serving local children first and foremost, children who aspire to go to a selective school have to take an assessment.

This assessment is sometimes called ‘The 11+ Exam’, an ‘entrance exam’, ‘aptitude test’ or ‘The Year 6 Test’ and is most commonly taken in the first few weeks of Year 6. The child’s parent or guardian is responsible for entering them for the exam and ensuring they attend. Increasingly, it is common for exams to take place on Saturday or Sunday. In this blog ‘the 11+’ can be taken to mean any form of assessment that a child sits for entry to a selective state secondary school.

Parents are often told that they do not need to prepare their children extensively for the 11+ other than letting them attempt the familiarisation papers offered.

In reality, children taking the 11+ usually begin informal preparation in Year 4, with more formal preparation during Year 5. With potentially hundreds, in some cases perhaps thousands of children competing for a few hundred places, it is understandable that parents will want to give their child the very best chance of passing the 11+.

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One of the aspects that makes the 11+ complicated is that the requirements for the exam differ from school to school – if only the children all sat the very same paper! Instead, there are different exam boards, different subjects and different ratios of questions.

There can be confusion between providers of the actual exam papers, such as CEM and GL, and providers of commercial practice material, such as CGP and Bond.

What are the schools that use the 11+

Thirty-six Local Authorities (LA) have selective schools. Many local authorities have only one or two selective schools. Some areas are considered highly selective – Kent, for example, has 32 selective schools.

Which schools require assessment?

England has three different types of selective state schools (non-fee paying).

  • Fully selective schools – 100% of the intake is selective.
  • Partially selective schools – a certain percentage of the intake is selective, e.g. 25%. There may be a music or a sports assessment in addition to the academic selection.
  • Bilateral schools – with a selective and non-selective stream.

Fully selective schools

These are the most common type of selective schools in England. These schools are all highly oversubscribed. This means they will have far more pupils wanting places than places available. It is not uncommon to have hundreds or even thousands of children applying for less than 200 places each year.

Some schools are mixed, meaning they accept boys and girls. Others are single-sex, accepting only girls or boys. This tends to be more common in areas with lots of grammar schools. If there is a school for boys, a mixed or girls’ school will always be nearby.

Partially selective schools

Partially selective schools can use an entrance exam to select a certain percentage of their intake each year – usually between 10 – 30%. The rest of the intake will be based on other factors, such as having a sibling already in the school and geographical proximity.

This method of selection is much less common. However, the places available will still be heavily oversubscribed and will require the same degree of preparation as for fully selective schools.

Many schools that have operated partial selection have stopped doing so in recent years or plan to do so in the next few years. This may be due to competition from other fully selective schools, a decline in pupil numbers or other local factors.

If your local school has a partially selective element, you will need to enter your child for that assessment just as you would for a fully selective school. Read the material provided by your Local Authority very carefully to ensure that you meet all the required application deadlines.

Bilateral schools

There are very few of these types of schools currently left in England. These schools have a ‘selective stream’. Pupils take an entrance exam and, if they successfully gain a place, will be taught in a selective class within a year group of non-selective pupils.

The exact details vary from school to school. In most cases, the selective pupils are taught separately for academic subjects, such as maths, science and English, but join the rest of the year group for other subjects. They may also be entered for more GCSE subjects. Depending on the school, it may be possible for your child to join the selective stream later on if they consistently prove their aptitude for the challenge.

Who are the main providers of the 11+ exam?

There are two main exam providers for the 11+ exam material. Most selective schools will use one of these two providers in part or all of their 11+ exam.

CEM – Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring

GL – Granada Learning

CEM and GL are exam boards. This means they create and set the material for the 11+ exam.

Finding out which examination provider makes the material for your child’s exam is one of the first and most important steps you must take when preparing a child for the 11+. There are many differences between the syllabus and question type of GL and those of CEM. Your child will be best prepared if they have worked through and practised the correct material.

Commercial practice material, such as that produced by publishers such as CGP or Bond, will be ‘in the style’ of CEM or GL but is not produced by the exam boards themselves.

How do I find out which provider the school uses for the 11+ exam?

Schools and Local Authorities can make it surprisingly difficult to determine which exam provider creates the exam for your child’s school. Some schools and Local Authorities state that they do not provide any advanced information (usually with the claim that children do not need to prepare for the exam). Others might say that the assessment is Verbal Reasoning or Non-Verbal Reasoning but not say whether the tests are GL or CEM.

It is essential to find out this information and there are ways to get started:

  • The Local Authority website might have more information if the school’s website is unclear.
  • The school or Local Authority may provide familiarisation papers with the exam provider’s details.
  • Friends who have children who have previously taken the test may be able to help.
  • If you have a good relationship with your child’s teacher, they might know more information.
  • You can contact the school, but be prepared for a refusal, especially if they have not given any information on their website.
  • Many forums and sites claim to list the providers, but these should be treated with caution for reasons explained below.

An experienced 11+ tutor will be very valuable here. A high level of experience with familiarisation material will mean they can use even limited information given by the school and Local Authority to ensure the best possible preparation.

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It is common for a school that has used the same exam provider for many years to suddenly change providers, even part way through the academic year, for example, from CEM to GL. 

Not only must you make sure that you are not using outdated information when choosing resources to help your child prepare for the exam, but you must also keep checking throughout the year, at least once a month and perhaps even more frequently in the summer term (the most likely time for a change). The most common change currently is CEM to GL.

If you are faced with a sudden change of exam board, a tutor can also be very helpful. They will be experienced with such changes and help your child make a smooth transition from one examination provider to another, building on the skills they have already developed with the other exam board and helping to keep the child’s confidence high for the new assessment.

What if I am applying for schools that have different assessment requirements?

This is less common in areas with high numbers of selective schools, as they are likely to use a consortium system (see below). However, it may occur in certain areas. It is a personal decision for parents to enter their children for exams with different content, but many do.

If your child is sitting assessments with different exam boards, you cannot assume the assessment will be similar. Particularly for Verbal Reasoning and Non-Verbal Reasoning, there is a great deal of difference in the question types between CEM and GL. You must ensure that your child has spent time with both types of questions. This is another area where a good tutor can help, as they will be able to ensure the overlap is successfully covered and priorities, in terms of the exams and school preferences, can be time managed.


Areas with a larger number of selective schools may offer consortium testing. This means that selective schools group together so that children will only sit one exam for all the selective schools in their area. This reduces pressure on the children, who only have to do one test.

Arrangements vary from area to area. It is of the highest importance that you read the information on your Local Authority website meticulously. This is usually helpful and clear and will provide a step-by-step guide of what you need to do. You will need to apply for the consortium assessment, as you would for any selective application (applications usually open from the Spring to Summer of Year 5).

The consortium test will theoretically give the child the option of applying to all the schools in that consortium (although boys and girls will take the same test for single-sex schools, they will only be eligible for schools of their own sex). However, you can rank the schools by order of priority on the CAF (Common Application Form), and geographic criteria still strongly apply.

Some schools automatically offer places to the highest-scoring students, then offer places to children who pass in order of geographical proximity until they run out of places. This means that your child may officially pass the test but not be offered a place on school allocation day (1st March).

You should always put selective schools above non-selective schools on the CAF. Schools often tell parents in their admissions information the exact catchment area within which all places were offered in recent years. If you live outside this area, your chance of getting a place is effectively zero, even if your child scores highly in the test.

What if there is no obvious provider of the exam content?

Some Local Authorities produce their own exams, particularly for maths and English, rather than using the test content from CEM or GL. If schools produce their own exams for maths and English, they are more likely to be based on national curriculum content, but it will very likely stretch what a child would typically cover in Year 5 and what a child would cover in Year 6 in the case of maths.

Verbal Reasoning and Non-Verbal Reasoning exams are unlikely to be produced by the school because the questions are difficult to create; Local Authorities are much more likely to draw on the experience of an assessment provider such as CEM or GL. Therefore, if Verbal Reasoning and Non-Verbal Reasoning are an element of your child’s exam, persist in finding out which exam board the exam will feature using the methods listed above.

Spatial Reasoning (SR) is a part of the Non-Verbal Reasoning curriculum involving manipulating and interpreting 3D shapes. Some schools include Spatial Reasoning as part of their Non-Verbal Reasoning, while others choose not to. Spatial Reasoning forms part of the commercial practice material produced by CGP, Bond and other commercial preparation material publishers for the 11+. Knowing whether your child will need to do this as part of the assessment is essential.

Some schools have either included for the first time or increased the number of Spatial Reasoning questions in their assessments, as this skill is considered particularly useful for assessing STEM potential (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths).

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To learn how 11+ tutoring can help your child give us a call on 0800 772 0974 or you can request a tutor using our online form.


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