Back to blog

Guide to grammar schools

By Atom | Feb 1, 2023, 3:43 PM

Guide to grammar schools

Are you considering a UK grammar school education for your child? We've collated everything you need to know, including:

  • The origins of grammar schools

  • The pros and cons of a grammar education

  • How to apply to a grammar school

What is a grammar school?

A grammar school is a secondary school in the UK that admits pupils based on their academic ability. All children applying for a place at a grammar school will need to sit an entrance exam in Year 6 – the pupils with the highest scores are then eligible for a place in Year 7.

Historically, the purpose of grammar schools was for teaching Latin, and over the centuries, more modern languages. In the late Victorian era, the curriculum at grammar schools became more varied.

In 1944, the Education Act created the Tripartite System – a system of state-funded secondary education in England and Wales. The three types of schools in this system were:

  • Grammar schools: admitted only the top 25% of intellectually-able students and provided an academic curriculum. The assumption was that most of these students would go on to university. Most grammar schools were single-sex (separate schools for boys and girls).

  • Secondary modern schools: non-selective schools which were originally intended for children who would be going into trade jobs from the age of 16.

  • Technical schools: very few of these were actually established.

This system changed during the 1960s, with comprehensive schools introduced to reduce class inequality. Now, children from any school are encouraged to apply to higher education, regardless of their school type.

While most grammar schools are still single-sex, an increasing number are becoming co-educational (teaching boys and girls together) in the sixth form – and some former single-sex schools are introducing co-education from Year 7.

Are grammar schools free?

Yes – unlike fee-paying private (independent) schools, you do not need to pay school fees if your child attends a grammar school. Grammar schools are funded by the state (government) and are the only state-funded secondary schools in England that can select their pupils based on their academic ability.

A few grammar schools have boarding facilities, which will require parents to pay if their child is using the boarding provision (although this is significantly less than the fees charged by independent boarding schools).

Parent webinars

Expert Education Advice

Get friendly and up-to-date advice on applying to grammar schools, the 11 plus exam and your child’s education from leading educators and admissions specialists. No subscription needed.

Upcoming webinars

What entrance tests do grammar schools use?

Grammar schools are academically-selective, which means that they choose their pupils based on their performance in an entrance exam known as the 11 plus (11+). The test name is relevant to the age of pupils when they start secondary school.

Children take the 11 plus in September in Year 6 (the final year of primary school). The content of this test can vary depending on the individual school, the local 11 plus consortium (if the school is a member) or the exam board delivering the test. The 11 plus will assess children on some, or all, of the following subjects:

  • English: tests include sections on reading comprehension or creative writing, or a mixture of both. Children are also commonly assessed on their spelling, punctuation, grammar and vocabulary.

  • Maths: all 11 plus exams test children on their knowledge and application of the content taught on the Key Stage 2 maths national curriculum.

  • Verbal reasoning: 11 plus verbal reasoning tests your child’s ability to reason and solve problems with written information.

  • Non-verbal reasoning: Non-verbal reasoning involves analysing visual information and solving problems using shapes, diagrams and pictures.

Most grammar schools use 11 plus tests designed by GL Assessment – although some create their own bespoke exams.

What are the advantages of grammar schools?

Academic results

As grammar schools select the highest-achieving children in their year group, it's inevitable that many of these children will go on to achieve great exam results at GCSE and A level. As the pupils at grammar schools all tend to be of a high academic ability (normally within the top 25% of their cohort across the UK), they can be stretched and challenged further in the classroom. In comparison, non-selective schools may have more mixed-ability classes which can slow down the pace of teaching.

The following grammar schools currently top the UK league tables based on their 2022 exam results:

  1. The Henrietta Barnett School (London Borough of Barnet)

  2. Queen Elizabeth's School (London Borough of Barnet)

  3. Wilson's School (London Borough of Sutton)

  4. Tiffin Girls' School (London Borough of Kingston upon Thames)

  5. Altrincham Grammar School for Girls (Greater Manchester)

  6. Pate's Grammar School (Gloucestershire)

  7. St Olave's Grammar School (London Borough of Bromley)

  8. King Edward VI Grammar School (Essex)

  9. Colyton Grammar School (Devon)

  10. King Edward VI School (Warwickshire)

The best grammar schools in the UK

Stimulating environment

By default, many children who are able to work at the top academic range of their cohort are prepared to work hard to achieve good results. Grammar schools can provide a stimulating environment where working hard and achieving success is celebrated.

Social mobility

While most private schools offer financial assistance to families who have a low household income (known as bursaries), these funds are often limited and do not always cover the full cost of the school fees. In contrast, all grammar schools are free, which means that all bright children from lower-income families have a chance of getting a good-quality education.

What are the disadvantages of grammar schools?

Exam pressures

Some people think that the 11 plus exam can cause unnecessary stress in primary school children (particularly in highly competitive areas, such as London). As children are still developing their cognitive skills between the ages of 10–11, it's thought that late developers, or children born towards the end of the school year, are disadvantaged.

However, it's important to note that the 11 plus test is age-standardised. This means that the 'raw marks' your child receives in the exam are not the final score; a statistical process takes place to take into account your child's exact age in years and months. For example, if your child was born in July and they sit the exam in the September of the year they turn 10, they will have more points added to their test than a child born in January of the same year.

Class privilege

Some people argue that selective entrance exams such as the 11 plus invite a need for private tuition to 'coach' candidates for the test, which many parents may not be able to afford. People are concerned that pupils who reach the required standard in the exam and secure a grammar school place come from higher-income families.

If you're concerned about the cost of 11 plus preparation, there are plenty of low-cost and free 11 plus resources available. If your child is receiving Pupil Premium, you will be able to access 11 plus content on Atom Home for free – for more information, contact [email protected].

How do I apply for a grammar school?

The key admissions dates will vary from school to school, so it's always best to check with your target school before you begin your child's application. However, all grammar schools follow the same schedule:

1. Register for the 11 plus

The first stage of the process is to register your child to take the 11 plus exam. You will be able to do this either on your target school's website, or on the website of the local authority in which your target school is located. If your child's target school is a member of a consortium, you may be able to apply via the consortium website.

Most grammar schools open the registration process in the spring when your child is in Year 5. The deadline for completing the application is normally in June or July in Year 5, but can be as late as early September in Year 6 for some schools.

2. Take the 11 plus exam

Your child will sit the 11 plus test in September in Year 6. This is nearly always taken at your target school and usually on a Saturday morning.

You will find out how your child performed on the test (although you may not receive the exact score) in October – but note that this does not guarantee your child a place at the school.

3. Apply for a school place

In addition to registering your child for the 11 plus exam, you will need to list your preferred school on the secondary school common application form (CAF) issued by your home local authority (e.g. London Borough of Sutton, Gloucestershire, Medway, Birmingham etc.)

You should only list your preferred grammar schools if your child has met the qualifying score in the 11 plus test. Schools usually publish a qualifying score, or a guidance, in their admissions policies.

You will receive the results of your child's score in mid-October. The common application form must be submitted to your local council by the 31st October in the year before entry (when your child is in Year 6).

4. Allocation of school places

You will find out which school your child has been allocated a place at on 1st March 2024. This date is the same for all state secondary school places in the country. Your child will be allocated a place at your highest-preferred school for which they meet the entry criteria, as long as places are available.

If your child's target school is oversubscribed and you do not meet the oversubscription criteria, they will be offered a place at another school in your area. You can choose to appeal this decision via an independent appeal, but bear in mind that only a small proportion of appeals are likely to be successful.

Where is my nearest grammar school?

There are over 160 grammar schools in England and a few in Northern Ireland and Wales. There are no state grammar schools in Scotland.

We've compiled a list of all the grammar schools in England with details about how to apply to each one. Take a look at our helpful guide to find out which grammar schools are near you.

Find a grammar school in my area

Personalised 11 plus prep for your child

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 Home is the award-winning online 11 plus practice platform 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.

11 plus practice papers

Atom Home gives children access to unlimited online practice papers tailored to 11 plus tests across the country. Our online tests are 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.

Try Atom Home free for 5 days

Begin your child's journey to grammar school today. Use the full features of Atom Home free for 5 days – cancel anytime.

Start free trial

Personalised 11 plus support for you

We know how keen you are for your child to do well in the 11 plus, to give them every chance of securing a place at their school of choice. Our dedicated team of Education Experts are on hand to support you and your family every step of the way:

Ask us anything

We're happy to help with any questions you may have about admissions processes and helping your child prepare for entry to grammar school on the Wirral and in Liverpool.

Email us

Exam prep WhatsApp groups

Why not join over 2,000 parents in our community WhatsApp groups? You’ll get access to free resources, advice and admissions updates.

Join today

Subscribe for the latest education advice

Subscribe to Atom’s mailing list and get free resources to help your child master core subjects, excel in their entrance exams and build academic confidence.

Get exclusive discounts for Atom Home, invitations to parent webinars, and much more, direct to your inbox.

Subscribe now

Atom Learning Ltd. is registered and incorporated in England and Wales. Company Registration Number: 10867907 VAT number: 316903508 Copyright Atom Learning Ltd. All rights reserved.