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A GUIDE TO THE 11+

11+ | ISEB | CEM | GL | UKISET |



What is the 11+?

The term 11+ used to refer to a single national exam that students sat in year 6 to determine whether or not they would attend their local grammar school. This nationwide exam, administered by two boards (CEM & GL) does still exist in certain counties which have local council-funded grammars and is also employed by certain independent schools, however, with the diversification of school types, it has become far more common for selective secondary schools to set their own admissions exam. Therefore “the 11+” has come to be used as an umbrella term for all of the different admissions procedures found across schools in the UK to select students for entry at year 7.


Schools’ admissions procedures may involve multiple rounds, interviews, group assessments and (computerised) pre-tests. In this blog post we demystify this ever-changing and overcomplicated set of exams.



What do the 11+ exams test?

Although each school sets its own exams, the subjects tested are common to all, with at least one Maths and one English paper. Some also test Verbal and Non-Verbal Reasoning. There are no syllabuses available so in theory the schools could have a question on anything related to Maths or English. The 11+ has always been designed to test “academic ability” rather than “academic knowledge” so they often seek to test their applicants on things they would not have encountered before.

Typically in Maths papers, the last few questions will be multi-step worded problems that require the applicant to not just calculate the answer but first establish what they are being asked to calculate and how. Simultaneous equations and nth term sequences have been known to appear in such questions, which students do not encounter until secondary school. That said, it is possible to put together a realistic curriculum of study for the Maths 11+ paper, whilst practising the more general problem solving and lateral thinking skills that the hardest questions demand.


English papers typically test reading comprehension and writing, normally creative writing, although some schools occasionally offer a discursive option. The format of these papers varies a great deal. The reading comprehension could be an extract from a novel, or a poem, and the questions could be in multiple choice format or require extended writing. Some papers also have questions on English grammar and more general language skills.


Verbal Reasoning and Non-verbal Reasoning papers have also become quite popular in recent years. These are designed to roughly approximate to IQ tests. Often in multiple choice format, the Verbal Reasoning papers typically test a candidate’s vocabulary through exercises on synonyms and antonyms, as well as logical deductions and other “word games”. Non-verbal reasoning papers test various mental skills such as symbolic patterns, 3D object manipulation and numerical sequences.


When do the exams take place?

The exams start in the autumn of year 6, as early as September for some schools, and finish around February. Typically, the state schools hold their exams earlier from September to November, and the independent schools from December to January. February is normally reserved for interviews and secondary stages.


What are the pre-tests?

Computerised pre-tests have become increasingly popular in recent years, due to increasing competition for places. The pre-tests allow them to filter out a fraction (typically a third or a half) of the applicants before they get to the stage of taking the school’s own entrance exam. Some schools, like SPGS, have their own computerised pre-test (tailored for them by CEM); others use an external exam, the ISEB, which is normally taken in the candidate’s primary school in exam conditions. The ISEB includes Verbal Reasoning, Non-Verbal Reasoning, Maths and English, without a writing component. The ISEB is adaptive, meaning it generates different candidates for each candidate depending on how many of the early questions they get right. Their grade is then weighted against their age to give an “SAS” score typically in the range of 70-130. International candidates are required to take the UKiset pretest which tests English language proficiency in addition to the above.


How does the selection process work?

Once again this varies from school to school, however, one consistent aspect of the selection process is that unlike national exams, schools do not have a “pass mark”. Rather, they offer a number of places to the top X% of applicants who applied. This will be greater than the number of places they can actually offer at their school, based on the assumption that not all applicants will accept their offer. The more competitive the school is, the closer the number of offers will be to the number of places available. This means that candidates are in direct competition with their peers. It’s worth noting that the difficulty of a school’s test is not necessarily correlated with how hard it is to get into. The difficulty of the 11+ tests varies a great deal, not just between school but also from year to year.



How should I prepare?

Unfortunately there are no shortcuts. The 11+ exams are a good test of core numeracy and literacy, in addition to the IQ-style VR and Non-VR tests. Therefore, it is advisable to start preparing well in advance of the exams.


For English, it’s essential to do a lot of reading, particularly fiction. Discussing what the student is reading with a parent or tutor is also paramount to move beyond “understanding” a text to “interpreting” it and analysing languages choices made by the author. This will inform how a student writes their own stories, making them more engaging and emotive to the reader. Learning new vocabulary on a regular basis is strongly advised. Students should understand grammatical concepts like “pronoun”, “tense” and “person” and have a good grasp of English spelling and syntax.


In Maths, students need reliable methods at their fingertips for mental and long-form arithmetic, and must be familiar with a fairly wide range of Mathematical areas including the above, area and volume, probability, data, shapes and basic algebra. (If you would like an exhaustive list of subjects that have appeared in 11+ papers do get in touch). In addition, however, students should be encouraged to think about solving problems through lateral and logical thinking, combining different methods to tackle “multi-step” questions.


For Verbal and Non-Verbal Reasoning tests, we have found that the candidates who in general have most success are those who begin their preparation at an early stage, with regular constructive feedback as they develop. In these disciplines there is no substitute for a good deal of practice.


In all of these, time management is of the utmost importance. Candidates who do not finish their papers do not score highly, so experience on pacing and exam technique have a huge impact on a student’s final mark.


Is there a difference between state and independent schools?

Increasingly, selective secondary schools are operating more like independent schools in their admissions, conducting their own selection process, sometimes with national or bespoke pre-tests if they are highly over-subscribed. The schools with the highest ratio of applicants per place are the elite London grammar schools such as Henrietta Barnett, Queen Elizabeth’s and Tiffin School. As a broad generalisation the independent schools may be more forgiving of a candidate who is weak in Maths but who displays a particularly strong ability in English, whereas the state schools have a more rigid selection process, requiring successful applicants to be all-rounders.


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