Some schoolchildren work on the 11+ exam for months in their primary school years. Others have never even heard of it. Meanwhile, some parents are very keen for their kids to sit the examination, whilst others are simply not able to. All in all, the 11+ is one of the more mysterious of examinations, and one that raises the more questions.
Unfortunately, there is no way to spin that the 11+, or Eleven-Plus – or indeed the transfer test or the grammar school test – is in fact a simple thing. With some counties sitting the test – with some where it is optional, and in others where it is automatic – and with it being run under a host of different names, there are plenty of reasons for you to be confused.
We’re here, however, to make it all a little clearer. Because if you want your child to sit the 11+ exam, you need to know what you are doing – and so does your kid.
So, here’s everything you need to know about the 11+ exam – including whether your children should bother taking it at all. Check out our introduction to the Eleven-Plus whilst you're here!
What is the 11+?
The 11+ is the selective entrance examination used in England and Northern Ireland for admission to secondary grammar schools and independent schools. It is designed to assess and identify the pupils who are most academically able, and it is usually sat by students when they are in year 5 or year 6.
What makes it a little complicated is the fact that it is no longer compulsory. This was the case up until the 1970s. However, the education system has changed since then – and now the test is only used by those grammar schools that still exist and independent schools too.
So, if you are happy with your child being in a comprehensive secondary school, there is absolutely no reason to take it. And, as we said, in many counties – in which the grammar school no longer exists as a thing – you won’t be able to sit it anyway.
Where is the 11+ still Used?
So, in which parts of the country can you still take the 11+ exams?
The 11+ exam is still used in 22 counties across England to determine admissions to grammar and independent schools. These are the following: Berkshire, Bexley, Birmingham, Buckinghamshire, Cumbria, Devon, Dorset, Essex, Gloucestershire, Hertfordshire, Kent, Lancashire, Lincolnshire, Medway, Shropshire, Trafford, Wiltshire, Walsall, Warwickshire, Wirral, Wolverhampton and Yorkshire. These are the counties that share the 164 grammar schools remaining in England.
Meanwhile, whilst Northern Ireland officially abolished the 11+ in 2008, the so-called ‘ex-grammar schools’ continue a test which is almost identical to the old admissions examination. This is known as the Northern Ireland Transfer Test.
The Exam Boards
What’s important to know is that where you live – or, at least, where you hope to sit the test – will determine which sort of exam you take. This is because the examination boards which facilitate the exams differ from region to region.
One of these is CEM, the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring. Known for being based out of the University of Durham, CEM run exams in Berkshire, Bexley, Birmingham, Buckinghamshire, Devon, Essex, Gloucestershire, Hertfordshire, Shropshire, Trafford, Walsall, Warwickshire, Wirral, Wolverhampton, and Yorkshire.
The other is GL Assessment, who provide assessments for entrance to selective schools all over the world, including for overseas ministries and British and bilingual schools worldwide. They run exams in Devon, Dorset, Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent, Lancashire & Cumbria, Lincolnshire, Medway, Trafford, Wiltshire, and Yorkshire.
In Northern Ireland, the transfer test is administrated by both GL Assessment and a company called AQE, Association for Quality Education. Whilst GL Assessment exams are usually used by Catholic grammars, and AQE exams by other selective schools, the BBC reports that these will soon be merged into a single examination authority.
Note that both GL Assessment and CEM exams are available in Devon, Essex, Hertfordshire, Trafford and Yorkshire.
These do change as different regions change their policies. CEM, for example, is known for its attempts to make selective entrance exams ‘tutor-proof’ to prevent certain children from receiving an advantage.
If you live in a region in which both exam boards operate, you will need to contact the school to which you are seeking entrance to ensure that you sit the right exam. After all, these are about the schools to which you are applying.
Does My Child Need to Take the 11+?
No. There is absolutely no obligation for your child to sit the eleven-plus exam. If you and your child are content with their going to state schools – and if you are not particularly interested in private schools or selective secondary schools – then you don’t need to do anything else.
Remember that the 11+ is only relevant for schools in England and Northern Ireland. If you live in Scotland and Wales, you don’t need to worry about it either.
However, if you do want your child to attend such a school, they will need to sit the entrance exam. This takes place at the end of key stage 2, during the final two years for primary schools. If you are hoping that your child will take secondary education at a grammar school, we repeat, yes, they will need to take it.
The Case of Buckinghamshire
You usually have to sign up to sit the exam. However, the opposite is true in Buckinghamshire: you will be automatically entered into the 11+ exam and, if you want not to take it, you will have to opt out. Buckinghamshire is the only case of a county in which this is the case.
How Do I Know whether My Child Should Take the 11+?
So, you know that you don’t have to take the test. However, might you want your child to take it nonetheless?
Of course, you might. And the answer depends really on how your child generally performs at school. If their exam results are much higher than the average, or if they seem endowed with an academic ability that is exceptional, you might want to consider asking them if they want to sit the test.
Otherwise, you can ask your child’s teacher whether or not they think it would be an appropriate move.
Ultimately, there is no harm at all in trying. And so, if you or your children haven’t quite made up your minds, you may as well have them sit the exam papers and see. You cannot go into the grammar school system without having sat the test – so it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Remember, though, many a comprehensive school these days perform better than even an independent school or two. Check the situation in your local area before committing in your mind to having grammar school pupils for children.
What Does the 11+ Test?
Finally, then, let’s talk about what the eleven-plus will actually test in your children. You know that it is a school entrance exam, but what will your children need to prepare? Can they even prepare?
The 11+ test differs from region to region across the country – with the different exam boards and the different individual schools all making a difference. Meanwhile, as we mentioned above, some of the exams – those run by CEM – are designed precisely so that you cannot prepare.
However, the majority of 11+ exams will consist of tests in the following topics:
- Verbal reasoning
- Non-verbal reasoning
The first two topics tend to follow the state curriculum – so you will be tested here on topics that you are taught in school. You can find out more in our article on the English and Maths Eleven-Plus.
However, verbal and non-verbal reasoning are not subjects that are taught in primary schools across the UK. Verbal reasoning involves word problems, instruction comprehension, and vocabulary knowledge – including synonyms etc. Meanwhile, non-verbal reasoning involves ideas such as patterns and symmetry, understanding sequences, and identifying the basic patterns of geometry. Check out what all that is about in our article on 11+ Verbal and Non-Verbal Reasoning.
The four of these subjects together – English, maths, verbal and non-verbal reasoning – are thought to give a fair and holistic assessment of a child’s intelligence and ability. So, if your child wants to attend a grammar school, they will need to be prepared for the range of these tests.
Find out about 11+ exam preparation!
To conclude, 11+ exams are essentially for entrance for grammar schools or independent schools across England and Northern Ireland. However, they differ dramatically by region. So, before applying to anything, contact the relevant school in your area.