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What’s the difference between CEM, GL & ISEB?

By Atom | Feb 1, 2023, 3:37 PM

What's the difference between CEM, GL and ISEB?

When approaching entrance exams for the first time, the terminology can be confusing. The exam boards you will most often hear mentioned are GL, CEM and ISEB. These are the largest providers of selective secondary school entrance exams in England.

All entrance exams are designed to assess a child’s attainment and potential, helping to determine whether they are likely to thrive at the school. However, there are key differences in:

  • Which schools they’re used for

  • Which topics are covered and the level of challenge

  • The exam format and structure

Let's explore the differences between the ‘big three'.

Comparison table

Click to download a pdf of the GL, CEM and ISEB comparison table:

CEM, GL and ISEB comparison table

What they’re used for

Grammar schools

GL (Granada Learning) Assessments provide exams for state grammar school entrance.

CEM (Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring) introduced their 11 plus papers later as an alternative. In late 2022, CEM announced they were switching to online exams and no longer providing standard 11 plus exams.

As such, most grammar schools are switching to GL for the 2023–24 admissions season. If you're applying for your child to enter Year 7 in September 2024, they will likely be taking a GL exam.

GL exam guide

Independent schools

The ISEB (Independent Schools Examinations Board) Common Pre-Test is used for entrance assessments by independent schools (private schools). It is currently used by over 70 schools across England for all or part of their 11 plus and 13 plus entry processes.

To complicate things slightly, ISEB also administers the Common Entrance test which is used by around 160 independent schools for 13 plus entry and streaming purposes. A handful of independent schools use adapted Common Entrance papers for 11 plus entry, too.

And to complicate things further, CEM also administers the CEM Select test which is used by about 40 independent schools as part of their admissions process.

If you have questions about which exam your target school will be using, we're happy to help – email us at [email protected].

When they take place

GL 11 plus

GL 11 plus exams take place in September of Year 6. Most local authorities set a specific date when children sit the 11 plus exam for all grammar schools in the region.

If a child is applying to multiple schools within the same grammar school consortium, they will only have to sit the test once, and their results will be shared with all relevant schools.


The ISEB Common Pre-Test is usually taken in November or January of Year 6, although this depends on each school's process. Again, children only need to take the ISEB once (per year) and their results will be shared with any senior schools they have applied to that use ISEB.

What is assessed

The key subjects covered on grammar school and ISEB entrance exams are broadly the same:

Similar skills are assessed, with differences to the structure and format of the tests:

GL 11 plus

  • Covers English, maths, verbal and non-verbal reasoning

  • English and maths national curriculum objectives from Year 5 and 6

  • English paper includes comprehension and SPaG (spelling, punctuation and grammar)

CEM Select

  • Covers English, maths, verbal and non-verbal reasoning

  • English is included within the verbal reasoning section

ISEB Common Pre-Test

  • Covers English, maths, verbal and non-verbal reasoning

  • English and maths national curriculum objectives from Year 5 only

  • English section is split into comprehension and SPaG

ISEB Common Entrance

The ISEB Common Entrance differs the most from the other exams in its content:

  • No verbal or non-verbal reasoning

  • 3 compulsory papers in English, maths and science

  • 13 plus candidates may be required to sit additional papers (e.g. geography, history, classics, modern languages, theology, philosophy and religion)

Exam structure

There are key differences in the timings and structure of the papers.

GL 11 plus

GL exams consist of papers separated by subject. Schools can choose a combination of the available papers, and some schools combine multiple subjects into a single paper.

Aside from these school-specific variations, the ‘standard’ GL formats as found in their 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

CEM Select

CEM Select exams are split into six components of 20–30 questions each, with approximately one hour total allocated:

  • Comprehension

  • Anagrams

  • Missing words

  • Shuffled sentences

  • General mathematics

  • Pictures

(Learn more)


The ISEB Common Pre-Test consists of four separate tests which can be taken separately or one after another. The exam takes a total of 2 hours 15 minutes. The timings of each test are:

  • English: 40 minutes

  • Maths: 40 minutes

  • Verbal reasoning: 25 minutes

  • Non-verbal reasoning: 30 minutes

Candidates will see as many questions as they have time for.

Exam format

GL 11 plus

GL 11 plus exams are traditional exams taken on paper. Children are given a test booklet with a separate answer sheet. Answer formats are a combination of multiple choice and ‘standard format’ which requires the student to write their answer in a small box.

The answers are marked by computers and leave no margin for human interpretation, so children should practise writing their answers clearly on the separate answer sheet.

CEM Select

CEM Select is an online computer-based assessment, with a combination of multiple-choice, drag and drop, and auto-complete question styles (learn more).


The ISEB Common Pre-Test is an online exam taken on a computer at the student’s own school (if the school is a registered testing centre) or the school the student is applying to. The answer format is multiple-choice only.

ISEB is the only adaptive exam of the 'big three'. This means that the questions become more difficult depending on how your child is performing.

We’re here to help

If you're preparing for entrance exams in 2023, why not join our Exam Preparation group on WhatsApp? Get access to free tips and advice, and ask us any questions you have about the admissions process and your child's upcoming exams.

Entrance exam preparation made easy

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  • Over 90,000 interactive questions in English, maths, verbal and non-verbal reasoning

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