Mastering the 11+ exam: how to prepare your child for success

Competition for places in grammar schools and academically selective independent schools is extremely high. There are typically around 100,000 applications for just 20,000 grammar school places. Similarly, the competition for places in independent schools can be intense, particularly in London. 

Grammar schools and some independent schools use the eleven plus exam to select the most academically able children for their schools. This means that preparing well for the exam is extremely important. 

Here is the information that you need to know if your child is planning to take the eleven plus. Post pandemic, parents are particularly aware of the pressures on children, so we’ve tried to provide advice on the best stress free ways to prepare your child. 

What is the 11+ exam?

The eleven plus exam is used by schools that select pupils by academic ability, including state grammar schools in England and some independent schools. It tests a child’s skills in English, Maths, Verbal and Non-Verbal reasoning. 

The eleven plus exam is also referred to as:

  • 11+ exam
  • eleven-plus exam
  • eleven + exam
  • secondary transfer exam

There isn’t a single 11+ exam. Local education authorities and individual schools choose an exam provider or create their own exam papers.

The main exam providers are:

  • GL Assessment
  • CEM - Centre for Evaluating and Monitoring
  • ISEB - Independent Schools Examination Board

However, some schools use different examining boards and others create their own exams. Do check with the individual school for information on which exam they use, the exam content and timings. Most schools will have this information on their website alongside practice papers and other helpful information. 


What is the content of the 11+ exam?

The subjects usually covered are:

  • English
  • Maths 
  • Verbal reasoning
  • Non-Verbal reasoning 

Some schools set an additional writing exam as well. 

Most of the core English and Maths skills should have been covered by your child at school, although it is worth checking if all the Maths needed for the exam has been taught. Verbal reasoning is based on vocabulary knowledge and includes questions about spelling, anagrams and words with similar meanings. Non-Verbal reasoning questions are symbol and picture based. They test a broad range of skills including pattern recognition, picture sequences, shape recognition and manipulation and spatial awareness. Verbal and Non-Verbal reasoning aren’t usually taught in primary schools so your child will probably be unfamiliar with these tests. 

When are the 11+ exams taken?

They are usually taken in the September of Year 6 but do check the details for the schools your child is applying for. The results usually come out a month later. Registration for the exams usually opens in April or May and parents will need to have registered their child by the summer. Schools will have information on their websites about the specific content and structure of the exams and the deadlines for registration. 

Most eleven plus exams are standardised, which means that they take into account each child’s date of birth so that the exam is fair for all, independent of when they were born in the year. 

Eleven plus exams can only be taken once. Some schools have other exams at ages 12 and 13  but there often aren’t any places available then, particularly in grammar schools. 

Do I need to prepare my child for the 11+ exam?

Even if your child is doing very well academically and you don’t want to put any additional pressure on them, it is still worth doing some preparation work. Children generally perform better when they are feeling confident and are familiar with the material. Helping your child to understand the format of the exam and the type of questions that will be asked will help prevent any confusion. Trying out practice papers will build confidence. Verbal reasoning and Non-Verbal reasoning skills aren’t part of the National Curriculum so your child probably won’t have experience of this type of test. State primary schools are told not to teach to the eleven plus exams and tend to concentrate their efforts on SATS tests. Although Verbal and Non-Verbal reasoning tests are designed to test a child’s natural academic ability and not to be coachable, practising the tests has been shown to improve results. If possible, introduce your child to these questions as far as possible before the exam. Some children might find one or other of these tests harder and will need more time to work on their skills and become more confident. 

Children with Special Educational Needs should receive additional support in eleven plus exams. 

When should I start preparing my child for the 11+ exams?

The advice from the experts seems to be the sooner the better. A lot will depend on the academic level that your child is working at. If their core Maths and English skills are strong and they mainly need to practise papers and familiarise themselves with the Verbal and Non-Verbal reasoning skills, less time is needed. If there are areas of their English and Maths skills that aren’t at the required level, more time will be needed to improve these. It’s not uncommon to start eleven plus preparation a year or more in advance. 

If you are short of time, the advice is to focus on the following areas:

  • Address any weaknesses in English and Maths 
  • Do some practice papers, particularly in Verbal and Non-Verbal reasoning
  • Practise working under timed conditions 

How can I best prepare my child for the 11+ exam?

A lot of this will depend on what works best for you and your child. Think about how your child learns best. Do they need direct support from you or a tutor or do they learn best from working more independently? Are there lots of areas that they need to work on or do they just need to familiarise themselves with the exam structure and content? Your child’s teacher should be able to give you advice on this. They should also be aware of the level that your child is working at and possible areas that they might need support with. 

Your child will need to have a solid foundation in English and Maths skills. There is no point in focusing on the detail of the tests if these foundations aren’t there. A lot of the general advice on supporting children’s learning generally will be helpful in preparing for the eleven plus exam. Encourage your child to read widely, improve their vocabulary and develop and practise their mathematical skills. 

There are lots of ways to do this:

  • Make reading a part of your child’s daily routine if it isn’t already. Just before bedtime often works well. When possible read with your child to make sure they are fully understanding the vocabulary and discuss the book together. However, do make sure that reading is seen as something enjoyable to do and not as another task or item of homework. Research shows that children who develop a genuine love of reading, read more and go on to do better in exams. 
  • Try to set aside time to have conversations with your child which will help to broaden their vocabulary. Maybe discuss issues in the news, sport or any subjects that interest them. 
  • Keep a vocabulary book of new words or introduce a word of the day. Encourage your child to describe things in a more detailed way and clarify exactly what they mean. Use more advanced language in ordinary conversation, explaining meanings as you go.
  • Encourage your child to practise their mental maths skills and to apply them to everyday problems. Play maths games and use mathematical language with your child. 
  • Introduce your child to Verbal and Non-Verbal reading questions as far in advance as possible. Use practice questions and papers. Familiarising them with these types of questions will give them confidence and help to identify any areas of weakness. 

There are lots of revision guides available, both as books and online. The Bond 11+ series comes highly recommended. Do check that any guides cover the exam that your child will be taking and that the style of learning they use suits your child. 

Schools will often set their own practice papers, usually available on their website. If they do, prioritise doing these papers as they will be the best guide to what is likely to come up in the exam and to the format of the exam. 

In all exams it is critical to get the timing right and this is something that children will often not have had experience of. Make sure that your child has the chance to do plenty of timed practice and knows how much time to spend on each section. Working with practice papers under timed conditions will help with this. It should also build your child’s confidence and mean that they are less likely to be intimidated by the actual exam. Encourage your child to sit practice tests in different rooms in the house or different environments and talk to them about what the set up will be in the actual exam so that it won't be intimidating for them. 

Tutoring for the 11+ exam

Increasing numbers of parents are turning to private tutoring to provide extra support for their children’s education in general and the eleven plus exam in particular. Recent figures show that over a quarter of children have had some tutoring and this rises to 40% in London. This number is considerably higher amongst children taking the eleven plus. Some group tutoring might be available in grammar school areas but most parents opt for individual tutoring either in person or online. 

Our top tips for choosing a tutor:

  • Start looking early. Particularly in grammar school areas, it can be hard to find a tutor and good ones often have long waiting lists. 
  • Ask your child's teacher for advice on the specific help that your child needs and how much help they will need. They might also be able to recommend local tutors. 
  • Book an initial assessment with a tutor to check that your child gets on with them and for advice on how much tutoring would be helpful. 
  • Check that the tutor you are considering is used to tutoring for the specific exam that your child will be taking. Get personal references and recommendations.

Expert online tutoring on demand

Online tutoring is gaining in popularity due to its flexibility and impressive success rates. A larger choice of tutors also enables a child to be more closely matched with a tutor that suits them. Post pandemic, children are more used to learning online and often enjoy the convenience of it. One innovative online provider, Examflicks, offers even more flexible learning by mixing high quality online resources with personalised tutoring. Its 5-minute bitesize topic-by-topic tutorials can, like Netflix, be streamed as little or as much as required. Learning programmes are optimised for each student - at a time, pace and place of their choosing.

Founder of Examflicks Nav Johal says, "The global pandemic caused disruption to society at so many levels, not least the education of young children. Parents understandably have become more engaged and concerned in their child’s well-being. They were faced with a dilemma of how to advance their child’s progress from a primary to secondary whilst avoiding the pressure of additional classroom tuition. Examflicks offers a service where parents are in control. They can determine the best pace of the 11+ prep their child needs from the comfort of their home." 

Whichever approach you do decide to take to exam preparation, it is worth checking in with your child regularly, to make sure that they are making good progress and enjoying the sessions.


Examflicks offers a service where parents are in control. They can determine the best pace of the 11+ prep their child needs they need from the comfort of their home." 
Nav Johal, Examflicks, 11+ tuition on demand

Which study techniques work best? 

The general advice for any revision is to try and make it as active as possible. Make sure that your child is engaging with the material, not just staring at it or copying out notes. Quizzes, games, problem solving activities and puzzles work really well to encourage active learning and reinforce knowledge. Try and get your child to recall the information without support as this helps to embed information and reveals any gaps in learning. Flashcards, mini tests and trying questions on practice papers work well for this. 

Repetition of learning is also important. Children learn much more effectively if they continually review and repeat their learning. If you can, get your child into the habit of going over what they learned in their previous session before they start any new learning. This approach will have huge benefits for their current and future learning.  Reviewing what they’ve learned at the end of a session is also important, as is returning to the learning after short and then longer periods in a process called spaced repetition. Again frequent quizzes and mini tests are a good way to encourage this type of learning. 

Encourage your child to work out which ways of learning work best for them. Visual aids, such as mind maps and sticking up notes around their rooms work well for some children. Mnemonics, a way of remembering information using words or phrases, can be effective and a fun way to learn.  Audio revision material or even making their own revision recordings and listening back to them can be effective for some children. Others might prefer watching video explanations online. If in doubt, mix it up as much as possible to keep revision fun, varied and effective. The online 11+ on demand tuition website Examflicks does this really well. Children can choose from worksheets, recorded tutorials and online tuition, all easily accessible in one place. 

It can be tempting for children to spend more time on the parts of the test that they are strongest at. Encourage them to prioritise their areas of weakness, to spend more time on them and start working on them sooner. 

Do encourage your child to do lots of practice questions and papers. This will reinforce learning and build confidence. Schools will often provide sample questions and previous papers on their websites. 

Remember that most children at this age will work more productively in small bursts of about 25 mins followed by a break. It is easier to build up their concentration spans gradually than suddenly expect them to be able to concentrate for the whole of an exam. 

Avoiding stress in the build up to the 11+ exam

Thankfully there is now a lot more awareness of mental health issues amongst children and of ways to support them. Nobody works well when they are feeling stressed. Post pandemic, parents seem more reluctant to put their children under unnecessary pressure. Although it can be a stressful time, do try and keep life as normal as possible and stay aware of how your child is feeling. 

The usual guidance applies regarding making sure that children get enough sleep, exercise and healthy food in the build up to exam time. Try to keep a balance between revision and free time so that your child always has plenty of time to relax and catch up with friends. The eleven plus exams can be a stressful time for parents as well, so do make sure that you try and stay as calm as possible as well! 

Try and make the revision and exam part of a process and praise your child for their efforts rather than putting pressure on the result. The work that they do will be valuable, whatever their result in the exam and whichever school they end up going to. 

It is important to reassure children that even if their exams don’t go as well as they would like, they will still enjoy and do well at whichever school they end up going to. They will still get a good education, have lots of opportunities and make friends.