Skip to main content

This is the must read article for any parent of a child under eleven years of age who is contemplating a selective or independent school education. We unravel the mystery behind 11+ testing and examinations and explain what you need to do, when and how, to ensure maximum success for your child.

But hurry, you may not have a minute to spare....

At certain times of year, in various parts of the country, parental faces are drawn and pale, their brows knitted, their fingers knotted and, except at night when they wake, screaming, they speak only in low voices.

All they will say is, at first, “450 for 80 places - it can’t be true!” and later on, meaningfully, “have you heard?”

What is the 11+?

The 11+ is found in both the state system and in the independent schools sector, and is the entrance exam procedure for getting your brightish little button into a fee-paying or state grammar school. Much of the country abolished the 11+ several decades ago but a few local authorities such as Bucks and Kent retained a large number of grammar schools and run county-wide entrance tests. In some other areas, such as Barnet and Kingston, a few grammar schools exist in tandem with the comprehensive system found in most of the country. These grammar schools set their own entrance exams..

Grammar schools select their pupils on the strength of their performance in the 11+ examination so they, in effect, cream off the local brightest and best - or, at least, those children whose parents believe in this type of selection - and give them what many believe to be a superior academic education. The downsides, of course, are the effect on other local schools in grammar school areas, which lack the brightest and most motivated children, and on the children who are dubbed ‘failures’ at 11 years old.

What does my child need to know?

There is no uniformity to the exams. Many grammar schools and particularly selective independents still test applicants’ English and maths just as their parents and grandparents were tested decades ago. Others test verbal reasoning (VR) and non-verbal reasoning (NVR) too - a fairer system, many believe, as this is a better indicator of raw intelligence than English/maths which can be coached for and which advantage those from prep schools. VR and NVR cannot really be coached, though practice undoubtedly helps. The raison d’etre of preparatory schools is - as their name demonstrates - to prepare their pupils, help them get into good senior schools - state or independent.

The credit-crunch and protracted economic down-turn mean the pressure is on schools to propel their alumni into the few grammar school places around.

When does it happen?

There is no synchronicity to when the 11+ happens. However, state grammar schools must now give out initial results before the closing date for all secondary school applications - so in many cases you need to sign up by July of year 5, and exams often take place in September of year 6.

Even the independents make little effort to synchronise testing and exams happen from November - January in general. However, some independent schools, especially in London, have formed themselves into consortia so that your child sits one exam which is then used as an application to a whole bunch of schools, and most give out their results at the same time – usually in February.

Credit crunch knock-ons

Grammar schools are likely to be increasingly high profile now that our credit has been crunched. Fewer parents can now be confident that they will continue to have the finances to support Sanjay and Shazia through expensive education and they, and countless like them, now pin their hopes on getting places at the local grammar - if any. This is also having an impact on house prices. Richmond in Surrey needed few incentives to see its house prices rise under normal circumstances but if anyone wants to know why they are holding up better than most in current circumstances, look no further than to the two Tiffin grammar schools in nearby Kingston Upon Thames, both fully reviewed in The Good Schools Guide.


Tutoring is, therefore, one of our few thriving industries. Witness the number of tutor agencies now advertising themselves on the net. Beware of these! There are no laws in the UK which govern ‘tutoring’. Anyone can call themselves a tutor. (See our extensive section on tutors & tutoring which tells you all you need to know).

Undoubtedly, one-to-one tutoring with an experienced and friendly tutor brings on any child faster and more enjoyably than anything else. But tutoring can be expensive and, in grammar school areas, it is decidedly a seller’s market. Your child may be brainy, you may never have considered independent education if only because of the cost, but you don't want him/her disadvantaged because you haven’t the cash for tutoring.

No cash - what can I do? Who do I ask?

Increasingly, small group tuition companies have sprung up here and there and many do a good job at far less cost than individual sessions. They can never be as good, as they exist to impart information and technique rather than to address the needs of your own individual child, but they can often be good enough - especially for a child who enjoys going. The best known of these is Kumon, but there are numerous others, many run by worthy local teachers.

Rely on personal recommendation rather than ads. If a parent whose child is the same age as yours, and therefore a competitor for a place, tells you a company is rubbish, don’t trust them. Trust someone who went through the process the year before.

The Good Schools Guide Educational Consultants will give you sensible independent advice based on your child and on where you are. We offer you a personal consultancy on all aspects of your child's education.

Eleven Plus papers

Many schools set their own practice papers and often publish them on their website. You can also buy practice books at local bookshops.

Don't panic!

Your local comprehensive may not spill out pristine, quietly spoken, well-mannered children destined for Cambridge and bound for a worthy career as a dentist or noble public servant, but many state schools do, and do so very well. Whatever the picture, before you stride through their doors on a visit, why not take a look at the information The Good Schools Guide carries, even for state schools that we haven't visited. Subscribers will find comprehensive examination results information.

A decade of investment and some enlightened planning have made for more good state comprehensive schools than hitherto - some very good. The more parents who care about education and who have aspirations for their children who send their children to these schools, the better the schools will get. The breadth of opportunity and the dedication and inspiration of many comprehensive school teachers are impressive and, to many, a revelation once they go and see. So - go and see - and do let us know what you find. It is, after all, the business of state schools to put the independents out of business. You could be in on the start of something.....

Related articles

  • What school league tables do not tell you

    League tables have caused a lot of agony and misunderstanding. As raw statistics, they are more or less meaningless. You will observe, for a start, that results swing wildly according to which newspaper you happen to look at. Among other things they don’t tell you: the pupils’ IQs, school policy, examinations taken or quality of education overall.

  • Questions to ask when visiting a school - academic matters

    Don't rely on league tables  - look beyond the headlines. Check-out our detailed analysis of results for English state schools to uncover how well a school does for a child like yours. Whether the most able, least able or Annie Average, what matters is how enthusiastic the school is about teaching and developing a child.

  • When to put your child’s name down for a school

    A handful of schools literally demand that you apply for a place as soon as your child is born, which means it’s never too early to start planning your child’s education. In fact, it’s a process that can start even before you’ve conceived – and that goes for all parents, wherever they want their offspring to go to school. From embryo to 18, read on to find out how to survive the education highway. Our lively look at education planning for children of all ages and their parents aims to guide you through the schooling stages in both the independent…

  • Extended Projects - stretching the able

    With a myriad of courses on offer, plus year on year improvements in pass-rates, it is seemingly harder than ever for savvy, innovative, intellectual students to shine and to take the right path. Developed by The Edexcel Examination Board in conjunction with teachers and academics, students undertaking an extended project qualification can earn up to 70 UCAS points, (just over half an A level).

  • Post 16 curricula and examinations

    What you study post-16 is likely to shape a huge chunk of your future. If you are considering university study or apprenticeships at 18, make sure you scrutinise course requirements before choosing your advanced level study courses. It's important to think about the type of examination you opt for - A level, Highers, Pre U, IB etc.

Subscribe for instant access to in-depth reviews, data and catchment:

30,000 Independent, state and special schools in our parent-friendly interactive directory.
 School exam results by subject and performance GCSE, A level or equivalent.
 Which schools pupils come from and go onto.
 Honest, opinionated and fearless independent reviews of over 1,000 schools.
Comprehensive catchment maps for English state schools by year of entry.
School data comparison by results, relative success and popularity.
 Independent tutor company reviews.

Try before you buy - The Charter School Southwark

The Good Schools Guide subscription

GSG Blog >    In the news >

The Good Schools Guide newsletter

The Good Schools Guide Newsletter

Educational insight in your inbox. Sign up for our popular newsletters.

Is your child a future entrepreneur?


The fifth issue of Chalk & Chat, The Good Schools Guide’s exciting digital magazine, is out now.