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The ultimate 11 plus guide: exam preparation plan

Jun 29, 2023, 8:53 AM

Complete guide to 11 plus exams

Are you considering a grammar school for your child? Whether you’ve got a particular school in mind or you're just starting to research options, this guide is here to help you and your family confidently navigate 11 plus admissions.

Our team has helped tens of thousands of parents and children prepare for the 11 plus. We've collated our knowledge here (along with some free resources) for you to help your child prepare for the next chapter in their education journey.

What is the purpose of the 11 plus?

The 11 plus (or 11+) is an entrance exam used by grammar schools – state-funded secondary schools in the UK that admit pupils based on academic ability. Children take 11 plus exams in September of Year 6 to determine whether they get a place in Year 7 at one of England's 160+ grammar schools.

The 11 plus aims to test your child's attainment in core subjects and identify their academic potential. This information is used to decide whether they are likely to thrive in a grammar school environment.

Private senior school entrance exams are sometimes also referred to as the 11 plus. Although the main subjects tested are the same as for grammar school entrance, the application process and the level of difficulty varies. This article focuses on grammar school exams. (Find information on applying to private schools here).

11 plus overview

What subjects are on the 11 plus?

Standard 11 plus exams typically assess four subjects:

Not all schools or regions choose to use all four subjects. Schools can combine any of the papers with their own test content.

The English and maths tests cover all Key Stage 2 national curriculum objectives. This includes Year 6 level content that children have not yet encountered at school, as they sit the 11 plus at the start of Year 6.

Verbal and non-verbal reasoning are not national curriculum subjects, so are not often taught in primary schools. Rather than testing learned knowledge, these subjects are designed to test cognitive ability by assessing children's ability to think critically or abstractly to decipher patterns, spot connections and solve problems.

What format is the 11 plus?

11 plus exams are taken on paper, and questions are a mixture of multiple-choice and 'standard' format (a box for a written answer). Children are given a separate question booklet and answer sheet. The answer sheet is often marked by a computer.

What is GL and CEM?

GL Assessment (Granada Learning) is the most commonly used exam board for UK grammar school entrance exams. Until recently, another provider often used for 11 plus exams was CEM (Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring). In late 2022, CEM announced they were switching to online exams and no longer providing standard 11 plus papers.

How many questions are on the 11 plus?

The number of questions and the timings are decided by the local authority, consortium, or school itself. Some schools also combine multiple subjects into a single paper.

Aside from these school-specific variations, the ‘standard’ formats as found in the GL exam board's official practice papers are:

  • English: 49–56 questions in 50 minutes

  • Maths: 50 questions in 50 minutes

  • Verbal reasoning: 80 questions in 60 minutes

  • Non-verbal reasoning: 80 questions in 60 minutes

The exam papers in detail


The 11 plus English exam tests your child’s language skills in a variety of ways. It is primarily a reading exam. The structure varies, but a common arrangement is:

  • A reading comprehension text with 20 questions, followed by

  • Three spelling, punctuation and grammar sections with 12 questions each

Reading comprehension

In the reading comprehension section, your child will see a text of around two sides of A4 in length. They are asked questions about the text to assess their literal understanding, as well as their ability to infer implied meaning, deduce information, and understand vocabulary in context. The text may be fiction, non-fiction, or poetry, traditional or contemporary.

Reading widely for fun, across many genres and eras, is a helpful way to prepare for this section. This will help your child to build familiarity with a broad vocabulary.

Depending on the format of answers chosen by your school, your child will be given multiple choice options (most common), or standard format answer boxes for written answers.

GL English Example 1.png

(All example questions shown in this article are from 11 plus exam papers on Atom Nucleus.)

Spelling, punctuation and grammar

Next up are questions to assess your child's knowledge of spelling, punctuation, grammar, vocabulary and word meaning. These are often cloze questions, where students have to pick the correct word out of a bank so that a passage makes sense.

There are generally two types of question formats:

  • Complete the sentence

  • Spot the mistake

This can be a combination of 24 spot the mistake and 12 complete the sentence questions, or vice versa.

GL English Example 2.png

Creative writing

Although the 11 plus doesn't include creative writing as standard, some schools add their own creative writing paper. Most grammar schools will only assess the creative writing task in 'borderline cases' (such as when deciding between two candidates who achieved the same score in the main exam papers).

Currently, grammar schools in Essex, Kent, Medway, Barnet, Bromley, Kingston-upon-Thames and Sutton include a creative writing task as part of their 11 plus.

In this exam, children are given an imaginary scenario and 30–45 minutes to write about it. Examiners will be looking for correct grammar and punctuation, a clear structure with paragraphs, and descriptive and figurative language.

Explore the free resources below to learn more about how to help your child build skills and knowledge to excel in 11 plus English.


The maths 11 plus exam assesses your child's knowledge of Key Stage 2 national curriculum content – and their ability to reason and apply this knowledge accurately.

Overall, the two skills that parents should treat as the highest priority for maths 11 plus preparation are number fluency and numerical reasoning.

  • Number fluency: practice mental calculations, order of operations, and understanding fractions, decimals and percentages

  • Numerical reasoning: practice understanding what is being asked in a question: translating worded problems into maths sums, and interpreting data and graphs

Strong number fluency means:

  • Knowing multiplication tables and division facts

  • Being able to confidently perform mental calculations with the four operations (+ - x ÷ )

  • Understanding place value when working with larger numbers up to a million and with decimals

As well as having number fluency, your child will need to understand the key concepts in all other areas of Key Stage 2 maths:

  • Data

  • Geometry

  • Measurement

  • Ratio and proportion

  • Algebra

Number fluency questions come up most often – there tends to be about five number questions for every question on the other topics.

The maths questions are in a multiple-choice format. They occasionally have a small standard format box for a written answer, but this is uncommon as most are marked by computer.

GL Maths Example 1.png

Some worded problems are included, for example:

GL Maths Example 2.png

Verbal reasoning

The 11 plus verbal reasoning exam tests a child’s ability to connect, spot patterns with, and manipulate written information. Verbal reasoning relies on a broad vocabulary base and understanding of word meanings both in and out of context. It can identify pupils whose strengths lie in English, history, languages and the arts.

The test will require them to:

  • Apply logical thinking and problem-solving skills

  • Find and follow patterns and rules

  • Determine word meaning

  • Spell accurately

  • Apply core maths skills

  • Work systematically

Having a wide vocabulary is helpful for this exam as many of the questions rely on knowledge of synonyms and antonyms.

GL Verbal Reasoning Example 1.png

GL Verbal Reasoning Example 2.png

Some people claim that reasoning exams can't be prepared for, but this is not true. Students who are familiar with reasoning question styles are at a distinct advantage in the exam. Children are unlikely to have seen reasoning questions at primary school. If they encounter them for the first time in an exam hall, they'll spend valuable time trying to understand what the questions are asking them, rather than simply answering to the best of their ability.

Introduction to verbal reasoning from Anna, our Chief Learning Officer

To avoid confusion and give your child the best chance of answering quickly and accurately on exam day, we recommend practising with all types of verbal reasoning questions. Regular practice can also help train the brain to identify patterns and solve problems quickly. Here are the question types that often appear on the 11 plus exam (all of which your child can practice on Atom Nucleus):

Finding words

  • Jumbled words

  • Anagrams

  • Hidden words


  • Synonyms

  • Antonyms

  • Odd ones out

  • Spot the connection

  • Homonyms

Building words

  • Join the words

  • Transfer a letter

  • Morph the word

  • Missing letters


  • Statement logic

  • Deductions

Codes and sequences

  • Letter, number and symbol codes

  • Letter and number sequences

Non-verbal reasoning

The 11 plus non-verbal reasoning exam assesses children's ability to problem-solve using visual information. The test is designed to determine spatial skills, aptitude, and the ability to think logically and recognise patterns. It can identify pupils with strengths in STEM subjects (maths, sciences).

Non-verbal reasoning questions are similar to what you see in an IQ test, with shapes and patterns that need to be continued or grouped, and rule-finding exercises.

GL Non-Verbal Reasoning Example 1.png

GL Non-Verbal Reasoning Example 2.png

The most important thing when trying to crack the code or pattern in a non-verbal reasoning test is to pay attention to every image and shape provided. Placement of dots, angles, lines, shading, rotation: everything is significant!

11 plus non-verbal reasoning papers often contain 80 questions, split into four sections of 20 questions each. These sections are separately timed, meaning students must stop when told, before moving to the next section at the same time as everyone else.

Anna introduces non-verbal reasoning

As with verbal reasoning, the key to success here is for your child to practice these types of questions so they're not surprised and confused when they see them on exam day. Here are the question styles that are likely to appear (all of which children can practice on Nucleus):

Interpreting shapes

  • Odd one out

  • Matching groups

  • Matrices

  • Find a code

Manipulating shapes

  • Parts within a shape

  • Rotations and reflections

  • Nets and cubes

  • Combining 3D shapes

  • 3D shapes from above

Don’t be disheartened if the first few times your child attempts non-verbal reasoning questions they struggle to understand or decipher the task. These are new and unfamiliar skills, so it's a good idea to start practising little and often at least 12 months before the exam. This way, your child will steadily build skills and confidence to solve problems quickly and correctly.

11 plus scoring FAQ

How is the 11 plus scored?

First, the 11 plus answer sheets are marked, usually by computer. Next, a statistical process is applied to give each subject equal weight. The marks from each paper are then combined to give each child a total score. Subjects may be weighted differently depending on the school.

The score is age standardised to remove any disadvantage for children who were born later in the year.

Depending on the region, selective schools tend to take children with the top 5–15% standardised age scores (SAS). Grammar school entry is more competitive in areas with fewer grammar school places per applicant (such as Greater London), and less competitive in areas with more grammar schools (such as Kent).

What is the pass mark for the 11 plus?

There is no single pass mark, as scoring cut-offs will depend on:

  • The admissions criteria of the school

  • How many people take the exam in a particular year and how they score

We can provide estimates for your target schools – please email us at [email protected] stating the schools you're interested in.

If your child is regularly achieving an 80% pass mark in their mock tests then they stand a good chance of being considered for the grammar school of their choice. Atom Mock Tests provide your child with an SAS equivalent to the scoring used in real 11 plus exams. We recommend that students aim for a SAS of at least 120 when practising for grammar school entry.

Is the 11 plus hard?

In short, yes. The 11 plus is designed to test children’s potential to thrive in an academically demanding grammar school environment. It’s intended to challenge the top 25% of a cohort, with a number of questions covering academic content not yet taught in the classroom, under stringent time constraints. However, by starting preparation early and with the right tools and support, it's possible for children to build a solid understanding of all the topics and techniques they need to excel.

How many children fail the 11 plus?

The 11 plus is designed to identify pupils with the highest academic performance and potential, so unfortunately, about 85% of children sitting the exam will not be offered a place at a selective school.

Should my child sit the 11 plus?

It's entirely up to you and your child. The goal is for your child to end up in an educational environment where they will thrive, and this will not be the same for all pupils. Before deciding whether you want to apply to grammar school, it can be helpful to consider these points:

  • Does your child regularly attain ‘exceeding expectations’ on their school reports?

  • Are your child’s results in English and maths above average?

  • Will your child need a large amount of tutoring to pass the exam? If so, will they be able to keep up with the expectations of their target school?

Talk to your child’s teacher. Do they think your child is likely to pass the 11 plus? They will have a clear idea of whether passing is achievable, and where your child’s strengths and challenges lie.

The grammar school application process

If you want your child to start grammar school in September 2024, you would usually need to register for the 11+ in spring or summer of 2023.

How to apply to UK state schools diagram (Click to download PDF version)

  1. Research and shortlist schools. Your local authority website will have information about grammar schools in your area and their application processes. Most local councils will allow you to list 3–6 schools on your child’s application in order of preference. You should have at least one alternative in mind in case your child does not get a place at their first-choice school.

  2. Spring–summer: register for 11+ exams Your LA website will have information on how to do this. You will need to register with the school or local consortium.

  3. September: your child takes the 11+ exam.

  4. Mid-October: receive 11+ results.

  5. Late October: submit local authority application form. You must submit an official application on your local council’s website, with your list of preferred schools in order. Only include grammar schools on the list if your child passed the 11+.

  6. March: National Offer Day. You will get an offer of a school place. The offer will be for your highest-ranked school that is able to offer your child a place. If none of your preferred schools can offer your child a place, they will be offered a place at the nearest school to your home with space available.

How to prepare for the 11 plus

When to start 11 plus preparation

The ideal time to start preparing for the 11 plus is in the summer term of Year 4 or early autumn term of Year 5. Starting early and practising often in bitesize chunks will minimise stress and pressure.

In the webinar below, Gemma, Head of Customer Success at Atom, explains how to structure your child's 11 plus preparation throughout Key Stage 2.

Key steps for 11 plus preparation

Build curriculum knowledge

When preparing for an exam it can be tempting to jump straight into using past papers. However, this is not an effective way to learn, and can cause children to feel demotivated. Learners should build a secure understanding of the 11 plus content before being tested under exam conditions.

Build exam technique

Once your child is confident with the 11 plus curriculum, begin to introduce practice tests to help them get used to question formats and timings. They will develop essential time management skills, and become familiar with what to expect on exam day. Atom Nucleus offers unlimited 11 plus test papers tailored to your target schools. GL publishes a limited number of free familiarisation papers which you can print and mark yourself.

Celebrate progress

To keep motivation high, be sure to celebrate each milestone in your child's revision, no matter how minor! Small rewards and plenty of breaks help young learners to stay engaged.

Support wellbeing

Preparing for exams can feel overwhelming for young people. Here's how to prepare mentally and emotionally, and how to help your child manage test anxiety should it arise.

All-in-one online platform for 11 plus

Wondering how to make sure your child covers the depth and breadth of the entire 11 plus curriculum, stays on track with their progress, and gets help when they're stuck? Online learning is a particularly efficient, cost-effective (and fun) way to do this!

Atom Nucleus is an 11 plus online course that gives your child everything they need to prepare for grammar school exams.

Children work independently through over 90,000 interactive practice questions in English, maths, verbal and non-verbal reasoning. Teacher-created helpsheets and videos help them discover new concepts and consolidate their learning.

Atom's algorithm keeps children on their ideal learning path, tailored to their unique learning style and pace to keep them challenged and motivated.

See how Atom Nucleus works

Try answering some 11+ questions

Let's go!

Unlimited 11 plus Mock Tests

Atom gives children access to unlimited Mock Tests tailored to your target schools. They're designed to mirror the format and style of real 11 plus questions, so your child will go into the exam knowing exactly what to expect.

And what's more, everything is automatically marked for you.

Know they're on track for success

Atom’s Parent Portal gives you at-a-glance progress reports and detailed transcripts.

You can see how your child is performing in each subtopic compared to their peers, making it easy to celebrate those milestones together.

Example of Atom Nucleus Parent Portal

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Ask us anything

We understand how important this next step is for them, and for you. Our Education Experts are on hand to support you over email or LiveChat. Please don't hesitate to get in touch with any questions you may have about the 11 plus or your target schools.

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