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Grammar school entrance exams explained

If you have a child in Year 4 or Year 5, then you may be thinking about upcoming...

09.06.2021

If you have a child in Year 4 or Year 5, then you may be thinking about upcoming grammar school exams. Grammar schools are a popular option for parents as they offer an academically challenging environment without the price tag of private education, which can cost upwards of £15,000 a year. However, navigating grammar school entrance exams (commonly known as the 11+) can be difficult as every school and region has its own system, and so Scholato wants to help make the process as transparent and stress-free as possible.

Firstly, what is the 11+?

The 11+ is an exam, or a set of exams, that students take at the beginning of Year 6 (normally in September) in order to try and gain admission to a grammar school. Parents are sent the results of the exams in October, and then on the basis of their child’s scores, parents will put down a list of school choices on their Common Application Form. Families will be told if they have been awarded a place on National Offers Day in March.

If my child passes the 11+, are they guaranteed a place?

Unfortunately, not necessarily. Grammar schools are incredibly oversubscribed and in general more children pass than there are places. The criteria will differ from school to school, but priority is usually given to looked after children, children with pupil premium, and those who live closest in the catchment area. Occasionally priority is also given to children who already have siblings at the school, or whose parents are members of staff. Every school should publish a yearly admissions policy on their website which outlines their individual process in detail.

What format does the 11+ take?

This also varies from school to school. Whilst some schools set their own exams, most use one of the two main exam boards: CEM or GL. This is often dependent on region; for example, schools in Kent, Lincolnshire and Dorset use GL, whereas schools in Bexley and Birmingham use CEM.

Both CEM and GL test skills related to English, Maths, Verbal Reasoning and Non-Verbal Reasoning, usually across two papers lasting 45 minutes to an hour. The majority of questions are multiple choice, although students should expect some standard answer questions.

The main difference between the exam boards is that GL tends to have separate sections for English and Verbal Reasoning, whereas CEM incorporates English-style questions into its Verbal Reasoning section.

How should I best prepare my child for the 11+?

The Maths and English questions are based on the KS2 National Curriculum, and so it’s important to firstly make sure that your child has mastered these key skills. Students should focus on consolidating their subject knowledge and ensuring there are no gaps in their learning before they move onto past papers, otherwise they will quickly plateau. 

Verbal and Non-Verbal Reasoning questions will be less familiar as these are not taught in primary school. Practice really does make perfect; there is often a ‘knack’ to reasoning questions and the more question types students are exposed to the more confident they will feel. 

Verbal Reasoning in particular often relies on students having a wide vocabulary, and so students should be reading widely and at least for 20 minutes a day.

Where can I find 11+ past papers?

GL have lots of free resources and past papers on their website, and you can also find lots of CEM resources on blogs such as this one. It may also be worth investing in some CGP books; they offer lots of resources for both GL and CEM papers, including practice papers, 10 minute tests and exercise books, as well as this free 11+ Parents’ Guide

Most schools normally publish at least one past paper or question guide. However, this is changing, and more and more schools are becoming reticent to share details about the exam for fear of students being overly coached, so don’t be surprised if a school’s website doesn’t give much away. This also explains why some schools are now setting their own exams, or incorporating new elements, such as Devonport High School for Boys in Plymouth, which now has an additional Creative Writing paper.

How soon should I start preparing my child for the 11+?

As admission to grammar schools is fiercely competitive, it is important to start preparing early, but at the same time to remember that too much too soon is likely to have a negative impact on your child’s wellbeing, stress levels, and ability to learn. Most parents start preparing their child at the beginning of Year 5, so 12 months before the test, and this is absolutely plenty of time – any sooner and you risk burn out. The key is to make the experience as fun as possible: lots of rewards and praise, lots of breaks, positive reinforcement and variety. It doesn’t have to be all past papers; practicing skills (such as times tables) through games and play can be equally effective.

Are the results of the 11+ age-weighted?

Yes: test scores are adjusted in order to take account the age of the child when they sit the 11+. For example, say you have two children sitting the same 11+ exam: Tom, who is born in early September, and Jack, who is born in late August. Tom is nearly a whole year older than Jack, and given that children are exposed to 1000+ new words a year, Tom will be at a significant advantage. Even if Tom and Jack achieve the same raw score in the 11+, age standardisation will mean extra marks are awarded to Jack in order to compensate for the ‘unfairness’ of his younger age.

Should I get a tutor for the 11+?

This will depend on personal circumstances such as financial situation, amount of free time and your child’s academic ability. However, many parents find a tutor’s input extremely valuable, as they offer specialist subject knowledge and experience and tutors can also help a child’s holistic development by focusing on their confidence, independence and resilience. This article may be of interest if you are looking for a tutor for your child.

Kristina Murkett is a teacher and a freelance writer specialising in education, film, literature and women’s rights.

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