Understanding the 11+
The 11+ 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 for state schools, 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 (and many selective independents) 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 can help them prepare for the exam - 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 selective schools still test applicants’ English and maths, just as their parents and grandparents were tested decades ago. Others test verbal reasoning (VR) and/or non-verbal reasoning (NVR) too - a fairer system, many believe, as this is a better indicator of raw intelligence than English/maths tests which can be coached for and which advantage those from private 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.
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 in October - 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 to 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.
Will a tutor help?
With such competition for places it will come as no surprise that, despite the schools’ reassurances, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find children who haven't received some coaching.
The type and quantity of tuition varies: some children receive a little extra help to ensure they understand the way questions are presented; others are carefully coached from a tender age - not just in the three Rs but in the nuances of verbal and non-verbal reasoning and other tests which, ironically, are ostensibly designed because they 'cannot be coached for'.
Undoubtedly, one-to-one tutoring with an experienced and friendly tutor brings on any child faster and more enjoyably than anything else. But be warned that such tutoring can be expensive and, in grammar school areas, it is decidedly a seller’s market. Increasingly, small group tuition companies have sprung up 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. And be warned that there are no laws in the UK which govern ‘tutoring,’ meaning that anyone can call themselves a tutor. (See our extensive section on tutors & tutoring which tells you all you need to know).
How can I help my child prepare without a tutor?
Many schools set their own practice papers and often publish them on their website. You can also buy practice books at local bookshops.
What if my child fails the 11+?
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. And the more parents who care about education and who have aspirations for their children that 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.
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 schools that we haven't visited. Register to find comprehensive examination results information.