What is the Eleven Plus?

A blog investigating the term '11-plus' and providing advice on the variety of exams associated to the eleven plus.

June 19, 2021
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Yes, it’s that well known term, ’11 plus’ but do we really know what it means? This week we clarify and hopefully clear some of the confusion surrounding it. The name has stuck across several years and many only associate the 11-plus to the grammar school test. We hope our experience in all things eleven plus will help guide parents and help demystify all the jargon surrounding the exams.

Where it all began

The term was first introduced in 1944 by the Education Act and Tripartite System. The Tripartite System was the implementation of the Education Act 1944 and arranged the structure of transition from primary to grammar, secondary technical and secondary modern schools. The main aim of the 11-plus test was to help determine which school would be best for each child. Similar to today’s test, there was no ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ and only the eligibility of marks was referred to. The holy grail of a pass to grammar schools was emphasised by the lack of technical schools available and therefore the Tripartite System had major flaws from the onset. This is where the intensely competitive arena of grammar schools and their prestige began.

Grammar and independent school tests (11 plus)

It’s important to be aware that the eleven plus exam takes place in both independent and grammar schools but they are different tests. The exam varies greatly from school to school but are all termed as ‘11+’ due to the age of pupils at the time of the test.

Grammar school tests

The 11 plus exam sat in grammar schools are either through GL or CEM (Durham) exam boards. This is crucial to find out before you even submit your child’s application as you could waste much time and money on the incorrect topics and workbooks. The booklets on the school’s websites can be very helpful. To summarise the grammar school test differences, please find a useful breakdown below:

1. GL Tests

The GL assessments are more modular in their topics and approach. One or more of the following are picked for the tests and these could be verbal reasoning, non-verbal reasoning, maths and English. The Kent Test also uses GL assessments across all four topics. A useful familiarisation booklet is available here online.

2. CEM tests (Durham University)

The CEM exam tests all areas of 11-plus (NVR, VR, English and maths). Developed by the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring, the University of Durham takes pride in providing a ‘tutor-proof’ assessment.  Since this however, there has been some admission that the test is not as robust as originally thought.

3. In-house tests

Occasionally, grammar schools can add in a written test which is created in-house. This could be a creative writing task or a traditional comprehension test. Again, make sure you know if this is the case and plan enough time for the prep and let your tutor know if something changes.

Independent schools tests (11 plus)

Independent schools always assess their pupils and a usual time for this is at the 13+ stage, or more formally known as common entrance. There has been an increasing number of pupils moving to independent schools at year 7, for example a pupil who does not currently attend a feeder prep school and would not be preparing for common entrance. Assessments are sat in Year 6 (hence the 11-plus terminology) as pupils get ready to join senior school. The tests are normally always written by the teachers and test English, maths and NVR. Because verbal reasoning testing is not always necessary, some schools purchase materials from GL (see above). Again, it’s very important to find out what the tests involve and give your child enough time to work through all the topics carefully and specifically to the school’s testing requirements. Be very careful in avoiding a ‘one test’ all approach for the 11 plus. The schools all have their own tests and share little. The questions vary hugely and some focus on problem solving or a mixture of topics in the maths papers. The best way to find out more is to ask the school and go to an open day. If the tests are published on the website, make sure your child takes them as a mock exam at home or with their tutor. If the papers are not available, look for traditional and challenging comprehension tests, creative writing tasks and maths questions from independent publishers.

Resources and guides

There are literally thousands of 11+ materials rapidly populating bookshops and it’s really important to find the best materials if you don’t have a tutor to advise you. It can be a bookshop minefield looking for eleven plus resources as there will be rows and rows of 11+ papers ready to jump off the shelf. With their bright colours and confusing terms, it never surprises me that families end up buying as many as possible or show me the pyramid of textbooks at the first lesson. This isn’t just daunting for your child but for tutors too!

So, what books should you look for? My first question would always be which exam your child is sitting and for which school (we’ve already discussed this). This immediately narrows down the options available and makes your search for books specific.  Don’t be tempted to buy any ‘11 plus’ book. CGP, one of the biggest providers of 11+ materials, has different streams of textbooks for GL, general assessments and CEM so make sure you buy the correct ones.

The next question is: do you really need books? Does the school provide past papers? If so, this would always be a great starting point. The other option is to pass the practice papers directly to your tutor for guidance or ask them if they have copies from past pupils they may have taught. Please bear in mind that some papers (normally CEM) are nearly always unavailable so you will be relying on purchasing papers from independent authors. Another source of help can be friends with older children; can they recommend books or do they have old copies? So many books end up in the bin when they would be useful donations or given to friends.

There we have it! We hope the ‘11 plus’ has been defined properly in its entirety and you have a good starting point for your child’s studies.