The Eleven Plus (11+) is an optional exam that students can take at the end of primary school. It affects admission to grammar schools and independent schools. Students take the 11 plus exam in year 6 when students are applying for secondary schools and they are 11-12 years old (hence the name).
In this 11 plus guide, we will look at the background of the eleven plus and the benefits to a student who passes the exam. We will cover enrolment and the format - including when and where to take the exam - topics covered in the examination and how to prepare. If you want further help to prepare for the 11 plus, you can search for a tutor for 11 plus tuition to help your child pass the 11+.
A brief history of the 11 plus exam
The 11 plus exam was first introduced to the UK in 1944 when it was also known as the transfer test. It was associated with the now phased-out Tripartite System, which arranged state-funded secondary education.
The entrance exam was a test mainly for grammar school entry. Those students who passed the grammar school test would be placed in a regional grammar school. All others would attend a technical or secondary modern school, now replaced by comprehensive schools.
Only England and Northern Ireland still use the eleven-plus exam. The number of grammar schools has also dwindled. There used to be over 1200 grammar schools across the UK. There are now 243 grammar schools in the country, 163 in England and 69 in Northern Ireland.
The Eleven Plus exam is normally required by independent schools, which use academic selection.
If the pupil attends a state primary school in an area that still has grammar schools, they are automatically enrolled for the 11+ exam. They don't have to sit the exam: it is the decision of the parent or guardian to take the test.
11 plus guide to grammar schools and independent schools
Before looking at the exam in detail, we will cover the types of schools in secondary education that use the 11+ exam.
Firstly, there are two main types of schools in the UK:
- State schools - These schools are government-funded and free for the student to attend. This includes comprehensive schools and grammar schools.
- Independent schools - To attend an independent school, the student's parents or guardians need to pay fees (not including scholarships and/or bursaries).
A grammar school aims to take the top performing students in their region, selected by the eleven plus exam. Grammar schools historically took the top 25% of pupils and secondary modern schools - now comprehensive schools - took the remainder.
The curriculum varies for each grammar school. The following subjects will generally be included:
- Art and Design
- Computer Science
- Classical Education
- Design and Technology
- Several foreign languages to choose from
- Physical Education
- Religious Education
Grammar schools mostly focus on the National Curriculum and subscribe to the same national exams as comprehensive schools.
Some areas like Kent and Buckinghamshire still have a full grammar school system, while others have none or a partial system. Follow the link to view a full list of grammar schools by region.
There are both primary and secondary independent schools, which charge fees to attend. It varies for each school how selective they are, with some independent schools being very selective and others not.
The range of subjects offered is much greater than in state-run schools, including grammar schools. There is a bigger range of languages to learn, such as Latin, while students can learn subjects as diverse as Astronomy and the History of Art. Average class sizes are much smaller, which typically means a better learning environment - 15 compared to 22 for a state secondary school.
The fees to attend an independent school vary from approximately £12,000 per year for a junior day school to over £35,000 for a senior boarding school. Most independent schools offer scholarships and bursaries that are generous to support talented, disadvantaged children.
When and where is the eleven plus exam?
- If you are taking the 11 plus to apply for grammar schools, the 11-plus exam normally takes place in early/mid-September. It varies depending on the individual school and the region you live in - follow the link to see entrance dates in your region. Independent schools normally have the exam in January - February.
If the student goes to a state primary school, they will take the eleven plus exam in a classroom at school. If they go to another school, such as an independent school, they will sit the exam at a central location, like a local grammar school.
11 plus test - Exam format and practice papers
The Eleven Plus test focusses on up to four subjects: Maths, English, Verbal Reasoning and Non-Verbal Reasoning.
The number of the above subjects covered in the test depends on the area you live. It also depends on whether you are applying for state grammar schools or independent schools. We recommend asking the student's preferred secondary school and the local authority.
The English subject is a written piece of work. All other subjects will be multiple choice answers.
The duration of the 11 plus exam varies between 40 - 60 minutes. The test duration depends on the number of subjects covered.
You can download free 11 plus exam papers and other practice materials in verbal reasoning, non-verbal reasoning, English and Maths from GL Assessment. These free resources for exam practice include practice papers with answers and other online resources.
1 - Verbal reasoning
Verbal reasoning (VR) is used to test a child's potential rather than just learned ability. Specifically, this subject tests the student's English grammar and vocabulary. The questions focus on problem-solving and following sequences with words and text.
Some children are more naturally suited to verbal reasoning tests. Good informal exam preparation for verbal reasoning tests is doing puzzles of all types - including crosswords, sudoku, word games and jigsaws.
There is a wide range of verbal reasoning question types. It is important to find out what question types will be used in your region and then prepare with practice questions.
The most common type is prepared by GL Assessment. There are 15 or 21 question types on each paper (21 is the most common). The format may be standard (there are no answer options and the student writes the answer from scratch) or multiple choice.
2 - Non-verbal reasoning
The non-verbal reasoning (NVR) test looks for the ability to solve problems regardless of the student's educational background and knowledge of English. Diagrams and images will be used and the student will be asked to find similarities in shapes or codes.
Each question will have 3 - 5 shapes. The student is asked to find the shape that will best complete the sequence. There are numerous parts to each NVR question, such as the fill of the shape or the rotation of the shape. Maths is important in non-verbal reasoning as some questions may require basic counting skills.
NVR requires good spatial awareness. It will come naturally to some students and can be developed as a technique in others partly through playing with jigsaws, interlocking puzzles, and visual logic games like Nine Men’s Morris and Sudoku.
11 plus exam preparation for this test is useful but has less benefit compared to revising for Verbal Reasoning, English and Maths.
3 - Maths
The Maths subject will include tests on mental maths, maths concepts and problem-solving. The topics will focus on what the student is currently learning in primary school and won't stray away from the key stage 2 syllabus.
There are three categories that the Maths papers may be:
- GL / NFER - NFER stands for National Foundation for Educational Research. This is the most common Maths test
- CEM Numerical reasoning - This includes short calculations that don't require reasoning, such as 256 x 437. This tests the student's times table, four operation skills and ability to work quickly. There will also be multi-part questions, like a graph with information and five to six questions on the image. Finally, there will be two-step problems, where there is missing information to be worked out before finding the answer.
- Grammar/independent school written Maths test
The following topics have appeared in the previous eleven plus Maths papers. It's recommended that students are familiar with the following and work through 11 plus practice papers:
- 4 basic operations: addition, subtraction, multiplication and division
- Angle calculations
- Column graphs
- Highest common factor and lowest common multiple
- Metric system
- Marking and interpreting scales
- Nets of shapes
- Perimeter and area (squares, rectangles and compound shapes)
- Pie charts
- Prime factors
- Prime numbers
- Reflection and rotation
- Sequences and number patterns
- Simple probability
- Simple ratio
- Volume of cube and cuboids
The 11 plus exam for independent schools may include questions beyond the KS2 syllabus at the end of the paper, which affects any scholarships awarded
4 - English
The English paper tests the creative writing skills of the student. It will normally contain a variety of topics and the student needs to plan, structure and write a paper.
Unsurprisingly, pupils who read a variety of books regularly have an advantage over those who don't. This helps to develop the student's vocabulary, which is prioritised in marking the English 11 plus paper. It is recommended to deliberately expand the student's vocabulary, including by reading, having discussions and using a vocabulary development programme, such as with the National Literary Trust.
The English subject can be where some students lose marks. Preparation sometimes focuses too much on Maths and Non-Verbal Reasoning at the expense of English. Long and detailed preparation is particularly important for students who come from a family where English is not their first language, which puts them at a disadvantage.
The topics covered in the English subject include the following:
- Comprehension test - Students may be given a text of 500 - 750 words. This could be a classic text like William Golding or factual like a newspaper. There are questions about this text.
- Vocabulary test - Students may be asked what specific words mean in the text. This can include a CLOZE exercise, which asks you to replace missing words from a text.
- Literary devices - There may be a test to assess the understanding of literary devices that are used to create the text. For example, poetic devices like similes or personification that create a poem.
- Spelling, punctuation and grammar - There will normally be a section on differences in spelling, punctuation and grammar. These questions can be varied, like asking the student to correct mistakes in the text.
- Creative writing - The 11 Plus exam largely uses questions that are multiple-choice, making it easy for schools to assess. Creative writing won't always be included in the English subject. It is recommended to check the inclusion of creative writing in the exam with your region or/and the independent school you are considering applying to.
- Literacy reasoning - Questions in literacy reasoning are more likely when the 11 plus test doesn't have a Verbal Reasoning subject. Instead, they will include some literacy reasoning questions as part of the English subject. This includes rhyming words, crosswords and putting jumbled words into sentences.
One of the exam providers is CEM (Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring) by Cambridge University. CEM recently made the decision to switch to online. This means all CEM tests from September 2023 will no longer go ahead. If your child is currently in year 5 and taking the 11+ tests in September 2023, they will no longer be doing a CEM test for the 11 plus exam.
After the exam
The eleven plus exam results are normally received in October as a standardised score. Some children will be almost a year younger than their peers when they take the test. With this in mind, a score was considered the fairest way to present the results.
The standardised score takes into consideration the age of the child when assigning a mark. For example, a child born at the end of August is at a disadvantage compared to a child born in September at the start of this academic year. If both students get the same "raw score", the standardised score for the younger student will be higher to account for their age.
After you receive your results, you normally have until the end of October to apply for secondary school places. Most places are allocated at the beginning of March and you will hear shortly afterwards.
If the parents or guardians of the student want to challenge the score, they can lodge an appeal. Reasons for appealing include maladministration (the admission authority made a mistake in the admissions process) or that the school being applied for is oversubscribed.
This post was updated on 01 Aug, 2023.