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The 11-plus exam explained

Considering a grammar or independent school for your child? Find out how the application process works – and how to prepare for the 11-plus examination, from practice papers to online resources

By Mumsnet HQ | Last updated May 27, 2021

Young boy writing or studying with pen and paper school
  • The 11-plus exam boards

  • Applying for a grammar or independent school

  • Exam preparation

The 11-plus examination

The 11-plus is a selective entrance examination for secondary school, used in those areas of the UK which still have grammar schools, and also by selective independent schools across the country.

It is taken towards the end of Year 5 or the beginning of Year 6 at primary school. The content of the 11-plus exam varies between different areas of the country, but generally it will focus on a combination of the following four subjects:

  • English

  • Maths

  • Verbal Reasoning

  • Non-verbal Reasoning/Spatial Awareness

GL and CEM

There are two main exam boards for the 11-plus exam:

  • GL Assessment – previously known as NFER, GL Assessment develop and administer 11-plus exams in the majority of grammar schools in the UK.

  • CEM – developed by the Centre for Evaluation & Monitoring at Durham University.

Although they cover broadly the same topics, there are differences to the way the GL and CEM 11-plus exams work. We've summarised the key differences between GL and CEM below.

Where is it taken?

  • CEM regions: Berkshire, Bexley, Birmingham, Devon, Gloucestershire, Shropshire, Walsall, Warwickshire, Wirral, Wolverhampton

  • GL regions: Buckinghamshire (starting for 2018 testing/2019 admissions), Dorset, Kent, Lancashire & Cumbria, Lincolnshire, Medway, Northern Ireland, Wiltshire

  • GL and CEM regions: Devon, Essex, Hertfordshire, Trafford, Yorkshire

Which subjects are covered?

  • GL: English, maths, verbal reasoning and non-verbal reasoning/spatial awareness (schools can choose any combination of these to best suit their selection policy)

  • CEM: verbal reasoning, non-verbal reasoning and numerical reasoning ('verbal reasoning' encompasses many of the skills tested in the GL English exam, including comprehension. 'numerical reasoning' includes the core maths skills needed for the GL exam.)

What skills are tested?

In both GL and CEM 11-plus tests, there is a strong emphasis on English and maths core skills. For English, this will include grammar, punctuation and spelling, but particularly reading comprehension and vocabulary. For maths, this includes strong arithmetic skills and the ability to apply mathematical learning to problem-solving and data manipulation. For tests that include non-verbal reasoning/spatial awareness, logical skills will be sought, such as testing the ability to crack codes, visualise 3D shapes, etc.

Applying for a grammar or independent school: a timeline

  • Year 4: Ideally, you'll decide in this school year if you want your child to attend a grammar or independent school. This will give you plenty of time to research schools and to start developing your child's core skills in English and maths.

  • Beginning of Year 5: Visit potential schools with your child and get a feel for them to see if they're the right environment.

  • Year 5 (September): Create a 12-month preparation plan to get your child ready for the 11-plus exam.

  • Year 6 (September/October): Most 11-plus exams are taken.

  • Year 6 (October): 11-plus exam results are issued. This is before you will need to complete your Common Application Form which is the form used to apply for state secondary schools. If your child has passed the 11-plus exam for your chosen grammar schools, you can now list them in order of preference on your Common Application Form.

Preparing for the exam

The 11-plus exam is about testing your child's natural aptitude and the importance of a well-rounded education cannot be stressed enough. Reading widely, building vocabulary and developing mathematical skills are all key ways of helping to prepare your child for the 11-plus. With that in mind, here are some key pieces of advice that will help your child prepare for their specific 11-plus exam:

1. Find out exactly what exams your child will be taking – this can change from school to school, not just region to region. Also bear in mind that schools may change the examiner they use, so do keep checking. Look not just at the exam board, but subject, format, length of test and any additional tests set by that school (such as creative writing).

2. If your child is sitting a GL Assessment-examined test, use plenty of past and practice papers to familiarise your child with the question types in each subject. Note: plenty of exam prep using practice papers is also important for CEM, but the types of questions that appear in the real CEM 11-plus exam are much more unpredictable.

3. Past papers and mock tests are not available for the CEM tests but there are familiarisation papers available for schools and local authorities to help children understand the format of the test they will be taking.

A good way to start is by working hard to develop a deep and rich vocabulary:

  • Use a vocabulary book to record new words and their meanings to ensure that your child really understands the new words they are meeting and can use them in context.

  • Read widely with your child and use 'grown-up' words in ordinary conversation, explaining their meaning as you go.

  • Practise synonyms and antonyms. For example, encourage your child to use more sophisticated words to describe something, or complete crosswords together.

  • It is also important for children to be agile and to be able to move between subjects and question types easily, as CEM 11-plus tests are mixed.

4. For both tests, but especially the CEM-examined tests, time management skills are key:

  • Make sure your child does plenty of timed practice and is accustomed to managing their time carefully.

  • Use practice test papers to set mock tests under exam conditions to help them get used to formal exam conditions – getting used to working in test conditions will help your child feel less intimidated by the real exam.