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11+ and entrance exams explained

If you have a child in Year 4 or 5, you might be thinking about the 11+. As an 11+ tutor and writer, I understand that it can be hard to know where to start. To take some stress and uncertainty out of the exam, here is everything you need to know about the 11+, including background information, a breakdown of how the marking works, and resources to help your child prepare.

What is the 11+?

The 11+ is an entrance exam used to identify children who are suited to a secondary school that is more academically challenging. The exam is used by state-funded grammar schools, academies that use selective exams, and independent schools.

It’s taken when your child is at the end of Year 5 or in Year 6. The 11+ can be taken in your child’s primary school, their chosen secondary school, or at a local test centre. There is no single ‘11+ exam’ used across the UK. Rather, local education authorities (LEAs) and individual schools are free to choose an exam provider or create their own 11+ exam paper. You can find out more by checking the website of individual schools or your LEA website.

What does the 11+ test?

The 11+ exam subjects are English, maths, verbal reasoning (VR), and non-verbal reasoning (NVR).

VR is based on vocabulary knowledge so includes questions about anagrams, spellings, word meanings, word similarities and differences, and so on. NVR features questions about nets and cubes, picture sequences, patterns, and shapes. These subjects are tested in addition to English and maths to assess a child’s ability to analyse information and solve problems. Neither VR nor NVR are part of the National Curriculum, so they are not formally taught at many primary schools.

Some schools choose one subject, and others use a combination. The 11+ exam format can be multiple-choice, standard format (children put down their own answers), or a combination of both. Some schools have past papers or familiarisation tests you can download.

The two largest providers of the 11+ exam are CEM (Durham University), which has the subjects mixed on each paper, and GL Assessment, which has separate papers for each test subject. The Common Entrance Test (Independent Schools Examinations Board) and Moray House are also popular, and some schools produce their own test papers. In Northern Ireland, children sit the Northern Ireland Transfer Test.

How many exams do they sit?

Each 11+ exam is different. It’s common for children sitting the GL Assessment 11+ to have two or more 50-minute papers a week apart. With CEM, it might be two 45-minute papers in one morning with a short break between.

Some children sit different 11+ exams for each of their selective schools, but in other areas there is a consortium so that children only have to sit one 11+ exam to apply for a number of local schools.

What about the pass mark?

The tests are usually marked externally. The pass mark can change year by year, and from local authority to local authority, based on the competition in that area.

With state/grammar schools, it is normal to sit the exam, get the results a month or so later, apply for your choice of schools, and then find out which school your child has been offered later in the year.

Independent schools may be different, as it’s the schools and not the LEA who award school places. Some independent schools may want other stages as part of their admissions process – this information should be available on their websites. It is worth checking early as some schools have tight application deadlines.

Most 11+ exams are standardised. This just means they take account of your child’s birth date to make the exam fair, so don’t worry if you have a summer baby!

Where do I find grammar schools?

On your LEA website, you can find out information about secondary school choices and whether you’re in an authority with state-funded selective schools and selective faith schools. If you are considering independent schools, the Good Schools Guide website can be helpful.

Most school websites have information about admissions for Year 7 where you can find the exam type, subjects, formats, and – crucially – when you need to apply to sit the exam.

How can I help my child prepare?

The most important way you can help your child is by staying relaxed about the exam. Find out what kinds of tests they will need to take well in advance and you can work some gentle practice into their weekly schedules early on, with no need for last-minute worries.

Lots of past papers and practice tests are available online. Bond 11+ includes all sorts of helpful books and online support to get your child ready for their exams. There are also lots of resources available on Oxford Owl:

  • Download the free Bond Essential Guide to the 11+ Exam for advice on how to start your 11+ journey, an easy-to-follow 12-month plan, and more.
  • Bond Brain Training for Kids is a series of fun puzzle books that educate by stealth! They include number, word, and logic games and challenges. Try them out by downloading our 18 free activity sheets.
  • Our Kids’ activities: Age 9–11 page includes dozens of free activities that hone the skills needed for the 11+, including downloadable maths, reading comprehension, and writing ideas.
  • Our Non-verbal reasoning blog post breaks down what is often the least familiar section of the 11+ exam, and gives practical tips for tackling it.