11 plus preparation: The parents’ guide to passing

by | Sep 8, 2022 | Exams, Front page posts | 0 comments

Let’s start right at the beginning…

What is the 11 plus exam?

Interestingly, ‘11 plus’ is a much more general term than you might imagine. It’s the name given to any entrance exam taken in the school year the child turns eleven. There are multiple 11 plus exams across the UK. Some are set by individual schools and involve specific written papers, marked within the school; others are far more generic multiple-choice exams taken by thousands of children across a large area of the country.

What is it an entrance exam for?

In the UK we have the remnants of a post-war grammar school system. After the Second World War all children took the 11 plus exam. Those who passed went to a grammar school with an academic emphasis, those who failed went to their local secondary modern school for non-academic children or a technical college. This system was mostly scrapped in the early 1970s, but some grammars remain.

The entrance exam is optional now for children who would like to go to grammar school.

There are privately set 11 plus exams too, for paid secondary education. By far the largest exam is the ISEB Common Pre-test—a global, on-screen exam set as an entrance test for some of the UK’s most prestigious public schools.

Furthermore, there are multiple small 11 plus exams set by individual private and public schools.

There is content overlap between most of these exams, particularly in the maths content. The styles of questions and layout differ between each 11+ exam, so individually targeted preparation is essential.

When is the test?

This varies from area to area and school to school, but usually it happens at some time in the academic year the child turns eleven. In Kent (in the south-east of England) the exam takes place in the first week of the September term. In other counties it takes place in January. It’s usually reasonably early in the year to allow time for the papers to be marked and school places allocated.

What percentage of UK students decide to take it each year?

Although I’ve read that 100,000 pupils take the exam each year, realistically this is impossible to calculate. If 100,000 take the 11 plus exams for entrance into state grammar schools, there are an additional number of thousand taking the ISEB Common Pre-test and that number is not released publicly. Plus of course, individual private school hopefuls should be in that number too. Whatever the actual number, it represents just a small percentage of the UK school population. Most children in the UK go straight to their local comprehensive school at eleven and don’t take an entrance exam at all.

How do you know if the 11 plus is right for your child?

The exam is only for those who are comfortable in an academic environment and enjoy learning in school. If your child is at the top of their primary school for mathematics and English then they would potentially be a good candidate for the 11 plus.

A high reading age can be key, though this depends on the particular version of the 11 plus your child would be taking. Some children are great at mathematics and generally bright and confident, but if they don’t read a lot, their vocabulary and ability to infer meaning from the text is likely to be a problem. (If choosing books is the problem, then make sure to check out out very comprehensive 11+ reading list, which includes 100+ books, sorted by category, which will draw in even the most reluctant reader.)

We don’t pre-assess children who come to us for 11 plus training. Most children won’t perform to the best of their ability until we have given them our own confidence and exam training. And what’s the point of testing previous knowledge? We teach the whole curriculum anyway so we choose to assess them in their clubs by teaching them for two sessions. After these have passed, we discuss a child we have concerns about, and contact their parents for a frank chat over a cup of coffee.

What does the exam cover?

This varies from area to area, exam to exam. Most 11 plus tests will test some or all of these subjects:

  • Mathematics
  • Reasoning (verbal, non-verbal and spatial)
  • English

Why is it such a difficult exam for many children?

Grammar schools and academic private and public schools have limited places. The competition for them is fierce. In Kent, for example, the grammar schools complained that too many children were scoring too highly and they couldn’t offer them all places. The exam was changed and an English paper was added to allow greater differentiation in the scoring.

The ISEB Common Pre-test is the gateway to a place at some of the most exclusive public and private schools in the world. Unsurprisingly, the aggregate scores tend to be around 10 points below those of the standard area-wide 11 plus results. Some of the most wealthy, professional parents across the globe are working to secure a place for their children.

Why is studying and practice so necessary?

Never underestimate your enemy! The exams are just hugely challenging. Unfortunately, it is naïve to think that because your child is able and a high achiever at school, they will be able to ace the test. They won’t.

Children are not taught reasoning as part of the school curriculum. Bright children can work it out; but those who have worked hard on the subjects beforehand will get more questions right in the given time. It isn’t a level playing field—trained children have the confidence, the knowledge and the speed to score more highly than those who are untrained.

Some 11 plus exams demand a learnt, strategic approach (paper by paper) to enable a pass or high score on the day.

For example, my local 11 plus has just 25 questions on the mathematics paper and needs to be completed in 25 minutes. Harder questions with multiple steps are mixed in with quick, knowledge-based questions. Children who work carefully through from beginning to end don’t reach the end in the time given. Often our brightest young mathematicians fail their first mock exam because they underestimate the erratic organisation of the questions, or calculate every last answer (when estimation would have worked for some).

Fortunately, by the time they get to the big day, those tactical errors are behind them. So much so that often a perfect score follows.

Confession time.

I’m a complete 11 plus geek.

I’ve been poring over the details of these exams for more than two decades and absorbing information from multiple sources as I go.

At the moment I am responsible for more than 200 children taking their 11 plus exams next year.

And I have a further 200 signed up to start with my company for the following year’s entrance exams.

My role is to hand-hold parents through this confusing and anxious time. Our children attend a weekly hour-long teaching session in clubs with six children per group. Some clubs are taught in rooms; others are taught on Zoom (where children are further afield).

My company, Griffin Teaching, has been preparing children in this way for 11 years. Beforehand, I worked in a top London prep school where my job was to get children into some of the most academic schools in the country, including St Paul’s, City of London and Westminster—among others.

How to prepare your child for the 11 plus (step-by-step guide)

  1. Find out exactly which exam your child is taking. Ask the school if you are unsure and make a list of what is included in the exam.
  2. Find out exactly how many questions are on each paper and the exact timings allowed.
  3. Avoid asking teachers at your child’s school for help choosing resources. They are really busy with other priorities and will politely fob you off with generic materials. Do, however, keep an eye on any academic concerns raised by your child or their teacher. These should be addressed quickly and positively so as not to become a distraction.
  4. Speak to an experienced local tutor and challenge them on the detail of your child’s exam. Confident tutors will know everything about it and will reassure you that they have the training in hand. Tutors should not be bringing workbooks to their lessons with your child. The best tutors know more about your exam than this and pick and choose the precise materials that are an exact match. Avoid choosing your own materials to buy.
  5. Book at least one early mock exam that matches your exam. Check the timings carefully as if these are not quite right, it is likely that the exam isn’t a good match either. Most companies call their mocks ‘GL style’ or ‘CEM style’ but offer the same mock in multiple areas. This should be a red flag.
  6. Praise your child, listen to them when they are feeling overwhelmed and tackle their concerns directly. Put in place a light programme of well-organised work.
  7. At all times, keep your own concerns to yourself and don’t ever discuss the exam in front of your child.
  8. Keep a strong and varied reading programme going in the background.

Alternatively you can allow us to manage all of this for you.

When should my child start studying? At what age/year?

Children should not spend more than a year preparing for their 11 plus exam. In previous years they should focus on a strong and varied reading programme at home.

In addition, a mental mathematics app habit—securing times tables at speed to 12 x 12—is all they need to be sure of.

In school, handwriting and writing content are always important to keep an eye on. Whether it is for an exam, or simply to set them up really well for their next school, the value of fluent writing cannot be underestimated.

What children should not be doing is reasoning work for more than a year before they are to take their 11 plus. Reasoning is so easy to teach in a year with a “little and often” approach. Any reasoning training done beforehand is simply a waste of time.

At Griffin Teaching we begin our teaching clubs one year before the exam, our local exam is the Kent Test 11+. Just like the ISEB Common Pre-test, this has a broad curriculum of all the 11 plus subjects (mathematics, English, verbal reasoning, non-verbal/spatial reasoning).

For some school-specific exams we spend just one term of hour-long lessons working on considered and detailed comprehension answers, creating a powerful writing sample under exam conditions, and pushing their mathematics attainment up to a higher level.

What would an ideal study schedule look like?

To teach the content of the 11 plus, one hour a week of lessons should suffice throughout the academic year before the exam. Our own classes are formally planned (very tightly to include all content) and are broken down into 30 minutes of mathematics, 20 minutes of English, and 10 minutes of mixed reasoning. We set one 20-minute homework assignment per week to consolidate the lesson learning.

In school holidays we have a manageable well-resourced revision programme in place. We expect our students to complete 40 minutes of carefully targeted revision first thing in the morning four days per week.

The rest of the day is there for the children to focus on fun, friendship and family time.

How many hours of study per week is reasonable?

Pushing children to complete hours of study per week is wrong. It comes from the fear parents have that their child isn’t doing enough. Years of experience has taught me that our system is perfect. Momentum and co-operation is retained and all the content is learnt and practised:

Put simply, this is what’s necessary while students are in school:

  • One hour in a group lesson
  • 20 minutes of homework which consolidates the lesson work

Then, during the holiday from school that is closest to their exam:

  • 40 minutes first thing in the morning, 4 days per week

We have a programme of exam mocks—matched exactly to the Kent Test 11 plus exam—to give our children exam confidence through experience.

On exam weeks we cut back on their revision time rather than running both together.

CEM vs. GL: What’s the difference?

These are the two most powerful exam boards in the UK.

GL sets most formal 11 plus exams, based originally in West London, they manage the process and the data afterwards.

CEM is based at Durham University. Their papers usually demand human markers (rather than the cheaper scanning option used by GL).

Many companies have jumped on the bandwagon of providing GL or CEM-style resources but do approach these claims with caution.

Both boards offer example content, but even their own resources are unlikely to match the timings or exact content of your child’s exam. They don’t offer different resources to different areas so the match is often poor (and risks confusing your child on the day of their exam).

How can parents assess which part of the exam to focus on with their child?

All areas of the exam need to be addressed in a balanced way. Even if your child is great at mathematics or a strong reader even this element of the exam will demand huge confidence and a tactical approach.

The work we set is carefully balanced between the subjects. As soon as you allow one element of the exam to fall into the background, your child’s score on that paper will drop.

Most 11 plus exams have a final age-adjusted, aggregate score awarded at the end of the process. If your child is great at one element I would encourage them to show how they can shine.

A top score on one paper will lift the aggregate and help to mask a weaker score in a different area. For example, if your child has dyslexia and struggles with spelling and comprehension, then encourage them to fly in the non-verbal/spatial paper.