25 Surprising 11 Plus Exam Myths That Just Won’t Die


During the time we’ve been working with families to support their children’s 11 plus exam preparation we’ve seen and heard many myths and misconceptions about Grammar schools.

Some of those myths appear plausible, but when examined further it’s possible to see how believing them could well jeopardise a child’s chance of securing a place at their preferred school.

That’s why we’ve written this blog post, so parents considering preparing their child for a Grammar school don’t fall foul of these ideas.

We’re sure this is not an exhaustive list and so as you read through this, if you find there are any particular myths we’ve omitted, let us know. We’d love to collate further myths in a subsequent post so other parents could benefit from your additional knowledge.

Relevant for private schools too

Many of the observations we’ve made about those myths will be helpful for parents considering sending their children to a fee-paying private independent school entrance exam.

This is especially relevant since many elect to use their local Grammar school test as a ‘trial run’ for their particular school’s exam, later in the year.

1. Our daughter’s only age (x) so we don’t feel there’s any need to start preparing yet

The ‘eleven’ in the eleven plus denotes when the children will officially transfer ‘up’ into their KS2 secondary school and not the age at which they sit the 11+ exam.  They would take the 11+ test during their final KS2 year, aged 10 or 11.

Because the 11+ tests require children to answer questions in a format outside of what they would have usually experienced in their KS2 year it’s important that they begin to familiarise themselves with these styles as soon as possible.

We are sometimes contacted by parents with children in year 4 (or below) who are concerned about getting their children ‘ready’ for the 11+ and at this age we’d suggest it’s best to ensure their maths and English is progressing at a good standard, rather than have them begin working through 11 plus work.

It’s better for children to prepare using a steadily increasing style of study. Some children find that doing some practice papers from age 8 or 9 helps since they become more accustomed to the formats by the time they take the exams.

2. But ‘everyone knows’ children can’t be tutored for the 11+ exam

Depending upon which Grammar school you’re hoping that your child will get into, your child will need to score highly in up to four distinct types of papers.

These are:

  • English
  • Maths
  • Verbal Reasoning and
  • Non-Verbal Reasoning.

But to complicate matters somewhat, different schools, or more accurately, different locations, are aligned with different examination producers, each of which have their own ‘take’ on what questions should be included in ‘their’ eleven plus exam.

And to add a further layer of complexity onto that, some areas exclude some questions from their 11+ exam papers, ones that others do include, and therefore children would not benefit by spending study time on those particular question types.

As you can see from this, unlike the awarding bodies for GCSEs and A-levels there is no requirement for all eleven plus exams to be ‘equal’ in what is being examined.

Lastly, significant parts of the eleven plus exams examine skills using question formats that students would not have seen during their KS2 studies.

Taking all of the above into consideration it’s very important that children taking the eleven plus are guided as to exactly WHAT will appear in any particular 11+ exam along with HOW to answer those questions.

If that guidance isn’t going to be provided by their parents then we would recommend working with a tutor to support them in their studies.

3. The Eleven Plus is the same as SATS

If your child is progressing well in their final KS2 year then they will probably achieve a good SATs result. There is a difference, however, between both the breadth of subject matter and the format of questions in the SATs and eleven plus papers.

The SATs questions are based upon specific targets set by the Government which is in turn based upon the KS2 syllabus. This syllabus has to support learning across the whole range of pupil abilities.

Grammar school entrance exams, or rather the schools themselves, however, are rather a law unto themselves. They’ve always striven to pitch their exams for the ‘top’ students and over time they’ve ‘adjusted’ their exams to ensure this.

This means that if your child is in the majority of KS2 classes, unless they carry out additional study practice they may well not be able to achieve a high enough pass to ‘make the cut’ and be in with a chance of securing a coveted place at their chosen Grammar school.

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4. It’s best to send him on a crash course closer to the date of the exam

By the time they take their 11+ exam it’s important that your child is confident in answering all of the questions they might see in the individual papers.

The best way to ensue this is to ensure they’ve developed their understanding over time, including any ‘tips and tricks’ that are pertinent to their particular grammar school’s exam type.

We find it’s best to enable children to build their skills over time, which ensures it’s stored for ready recall when taking their exams.

When cramming for an exam this means they’re exposed to quite probably missing key question types or not having sufficient practice, both of which could result in a score lower than they may have achieved with a smoother run up to the exam.

5. If she passes she’ll automatically be offered a place

If only if it were that simple! 

All Grammar schools receive more applications to sit their entrance exams than they have places available.

Let’s assume for a moment that your preferred Grammar school is ‘only’ oversubscribed by a factor of 4 for its, shall we say, 120 places in Year 7 KS3.

That would unless your daughter secures a place #120 or higher, ie, she outperforms 360 other children, after adjusting for her age, then she’ll not be in the ranking for a place.

Whilst it’s often the case that some of those children who sit (and achieve a passing score) for the eleven plus do not take-up their place, aiming to ‘scrape in’ with a tail-end score is a risky strategy for sure.

Many students will achieve identical scores and then each school will apply its own ranking protocols (usually based upon distance from school) to rank each.

Again, your daughters ‘just about’ score could mean she’s outranked by a child who lives nearer to the school.

It’s safe to assume that unless your child secures a very high mark there’s no guarantee she’ll be offered a place.

6. If they score highly they’ll get in anyhow

There is no, fixed pass mark that will ensure any child receives an offer.

Different schools have different criteria, which often includes location if there are tied results.

Others may select on faith, siblings, in care, special needs, and so on, so it’s never possible to state categorically in advance what is a minimum pass mark.

Test scores are adjusted to allow for the different ages of children which means that even if you were to know and compare the ‘raw scores’ that your child’s friends obtained, their final ranking order would not be clearly identified.

7. Tutors are a waste of money – I can do it all myself

We are both tutors and we have home educated our own children so we’d be the first to agree with you that it’s definitely possible for parents to tutor their own children for an eleven plus exam … but there are some downsides to ‘going it alone’.

You’ll need to allocate your own time to support their studies and to guide them when they are unsure how to answer particular questions. You’ll also need to benchmark their progress so that they don’t study too much and become disheartened but also not so that everything becomes a last minute rush.

Every year children tutored by their parents do get into Grammar schools, but many lose out.

Perhaps you might benefit from having a tutor some of the time to act as a check on how things are progressing for you and your child.

8. Home study will never work as we can’t get her to sit still for long enough at home

Are you sure? What does their class teacher say about this? Sometimes children are less willing to do extra work at the instigation of their parents, but will follow the directions of a tutor more willingly.

In that case having a tutor would be best since most tutors find children act more responsibly with them – a case of being ‘the outsider’.

Whether your tutor works in your home or online those sessions will act as a point of focus for your child – and there’s a secondary benefit of them being able to apply those skills to their school homework too.

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9. Not sure what the timescales are & I think we’ve left it too late

Perhaps. Every year parents discover they’re too late to apply.

Here’s a broad timeline for you to refer to, but check with your local Grammar school since they may work to a different deadline and whether they have an opt-out or opt-in model.

Let’s assume your child would go up into Year 7 KS3 in September 2021:

  • September 2019 – you’ve decided upon what Grammar school(s) to test for.
  • April / May 2020 – Schools would open their registration book for applications
  • September 2020  – Most Grammar schools set exams during this month.  Depending upon the format children may need to attend on multiple days.
  • October 2020 – Results would usually be sent out.
  • March 2021 – Final allocations of places would be confirmed.
  • September 2021 – If successful your child, in their nice, crisp new uniform, would start in their first Grammar school year as a Year 7 KS3 pupil.

10. I want to send her to a private school so why bother taking the eleven plus?

Assuming your child is currently in a state school the majority of private schools require them to take an entrance test, so as to determine what ‘set’ or ‘stream’ would suit them best.

If you’re hoping that your daughter secures a place in their higher tier set (and perhaps a scholarship and a bursary towards a reduction in fees) then you’d do well to ensure she has a strong grasp of the subject material they will expect her to know for the test(s).

One of the best ways to do this is to have her study relevant components of the eleven plus exam syllabus and then for her to sit the eleven plus exam for her nearest school.  The score attained would act as a guide to what she might achieve in the private school’s tests.

Additional Reading

If you are hoping she secures a scholarship place then these additional pages may provide a useful insight into the procedure.

Who knows, perhaps you and she might like the school so much that if offered a place she might decide to take it rather than go private!

11. Don’t all Grammar schools use the same exams?

Unfortunately no they don’t.

There are two 11 Plus exam boards that administer the test:

  • The Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University (CEM) and
  • Granada Learning Assessment (GL) (previously known as NFER)

Each are used in specific locations and have their own range of subjects covered and style of questions used in the exams.

Once you have narrowed down your preferred Grammar school then you’ll be able to confirm what would make up the components of ‘the eleven plus exam’ for that school.  They will probably have a copy online of a previous paper available for your reference .

It’s important to confirm the exact style they will use for the test because there are differences in their formats that will affect what your child will need to study and how they will be required to present their answers.

12. To save time we’ll get him to practise only the areas he’s weak in

How are you defining ‘only’?  With most Grammar schools being 4-7 times oversubscribed it’s important that children attempt to achieve the highest possible score in their entrance exams.

With this in mind we’d council caution with having your son only practise a few areas, since it’s only through regular practise that he’ll keep his skills, and speed, up to the required standard.

Remember also that if your objective of getting your son into a Grammar school is that they will stretch him academically, then practice across the full examination paper will only benefit him in this regard.

13. What score will he need to get in?

Each Local Educational Authority (LEA) has its own pass mark required to be offered a place in their grammar school.

Depending upon that year’s results the cut-off value might move slightly, but oversubscription usually means that even a middle-top score may not guarantee the offer of a place.

It’s worth noting that in those regions where there exists many grammar schools, (eg Buckinghamshire, Kent) the pass mark is lower than in areas with fewer grammar schools (such as Greater London).

14. Aren’t the Government trying to phase Grammar schools out?

The Conservative Government has always been positive towards the concept of Grammar schools and had included in their 2017 election manifesto a commitment end the legal ban on new grammars which was introduced by Labour in 1998

When Mrs May lost her majority this plan was shelved, however, with Mr Johnson is on-record as being ‘pro Grammar school’ and so it doesn’t appear that they will be phased out in the near future.

15. There’s only a few locations that still have Grammar schools

It’s true that Grammar schools are only in a few locations in the UK (and Northern Ireland) and since the Labour government introduced a ban on new grammar schools in 1988 no new ones have opened.

This restriction on locations has meant that demand for places in those schools has increased considerably, with parents often being willing to move so as to secure a place in one.

In the UK there are currently just over 3,400 secondary schools in England, of which 164 are Grammar schools, with approximately 167,000 pupils.

Those 164 Grammar schools are located within just 36 English local authorities, with a further 69 Grammar schools in Northern Ireland – Scotland and Wales have none.

So whilst it’s true that there are few locations that have Grammar schools, those Grammar schools are always heavily oversubscribed, which does suggest that parents have a clear preference to try to secure a place in one for their children.

16. Her school says she’s top of the class, so she won’t need any tutoring or practice

Your school’s assessment of her abilities will be based upon her understanding of the National Curriculum for her age and any SATs tests she has taken.

 The eleven plus exam will most probably include components that would never appear in those frameworks and so without some tutoring or home-supported practice your daughter won’t score as highly as other children who have a better understanding of those components.

For example, the Verbal and Non-Verbal Reasoning will include questions she wouldn’t experience in usual KS2 classes

If the Grammar school your considering applying to enter is oversubscribed then every mark will count and so it might be best to arrange for some structured support prior to her taking the test.

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17. She’s taken a few exams already so I’m sure she’ll do well anyhow

It’s good that your daughter has already experience of taking exams, but unless those exams included the same elements that constitute the eleven plus exam for your preferred grammar school then she may find she has gaps in her knowledge.

Considering again the issue of oversubscription and with such a small spread in marks achieved by top candidates, it’s important you ensure her skills are kept ‘top notch’ and so having her take some time to practice in advance of the tests would be recommended.

There are particular exam techniques that are best suited for the eleven plus and a qualified tutor should be able to assist your daughter in ensuring her existing skills are developed where necessary.

eleven plus 11+ exam gamble chance result pass

18. It seems like a lot of work – what if she doesn’t ‘get in’?

Many parents feel this too and feel that having their child go to a non-selective secondary school is perfectly acceptable.

Interestingly, there is research which suggests that capable children, whether attending grammar schools or comprehensives, will secure strong passes at GCSE and A-level.

The decision has to be one that you and your child take together, however, if you’re undecided then don’t leave any tutoring or home-support until the last minute otherwise you won’t be providing them with the best chance of securing a good result in a grammar school entrance exam.

19. You can’t revise for an English writing exam

Assuming your child’s in a state school rather than a private school or being homeschooled, they’ll be studying English as specified in the National Curriculum. This specifies what they need to know about the English language and which books may benefit from reading.

Even if they are at ‘the top of the class’ or in a Gifted and Talented group, although they will be required to write stories during their studies, the writing age expected for a good eleven plus score will be above that.

Examiners will expect to see stories that are well-written, well constructed and that contain a good range of language used in the appropriate context.

This means that unless children practice writing to a higher standard than expect in their class, and read books above their age, then they will be hard pushed to secure strong result in an eleven plus exam.

One way to address this is to set times in the evening free from distractions such as smartphones, game stations etc, and have them read books.  Then more books. Then more books.  The more they read the more able they will be to construct well written stories, (which will also support their English studies in KS3 for their GCSSE also).

20. What does ‘standardised’ mean?

This is best explained by reference to an example.

Let’s assume that two children, both in the same year but born eleven and a half months apart both sit the same eleven plus exam.  Let’s also assume they both scored 85% on the exam.

The older child would be expected to have a better use of English, understanding of maths and ability to work with Verbal and Non-Verbal Reasoning questions than the younger child.

The 85% mark achieved by the younger candidate would be ‘standardised’ using a statistical model to age adjust their score upwards to reflect what they would have been expected to score if they were eleven and a half months older.

If you’d like to understand more about the statistical methods used to produce standardised results here’s a link to the CEM website which explains how standardised scores are calculated.

This equalisation ensures no child benefits from or is disadvantaged by their age on the date of the exam.

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21. She panics in exams and so I don’t want to get her stressed

It’s usual for GCSE and A-level students to be a little apprehensive when the day of their exams falls near and that can be heightened when taking the exam.

That being so, for younger children aged 8-10 taking an ‘emotionally charged’ eleven plus exam it’s understandable that they may be anxious.

It’s important to ensure that as parents we don’t express our hopes and aspirations too strongly when discussing plans with our children – if they don’t get into their preferred school it may be something that the feel bad about for many months to follow.

 The best way to ensure that this level is kept as low as possible is by regular, structured practice, steadily increasing up to around the date of the exam(s).

The more your daughter can prepare for the exams, including sitting a mock in a school-like situation if possible, the more relaxed she’ll be when taking the real exam.

22. The local Grammar school is seven times oversubscribed – so we’re not going to bother trying

It’s true that oversubscription means the majority of children taking the eleven plus test won’t secure a place, however, every year some will.

With the correct preparation, and a steady, focused approach, your child can achieve the best score possible.

Who knows, when results day comes around they could find they’ve secured a place in the school after all.

23. I’ve been told my son needs to practice at least 3 hours a day to be sure to pass

Yes, your son will need to practice in the run-up to his 11+, but no, we wouldn’t recommend 3 hours a day every day for that period.

It’s easy for parents (and children) to be caught up in what can feel like an arms race style escalation between parents.

“I hear Jenny’s doing two hours a day. We must make sure James does three from now until September.”

“I’ve just discovered Ishmael’s been given lots of past papers. We’ll have to make sure we get lots for Fatima too.”

It’s never the amount of time spent preparing that counts, but the quality of the work your child does.

Little and often is better than overkill so as long as they can do some work every few days, building upon what they understand and exploring those areas they find difficult, then they should be on course for a good mark.

Whether that means they’ll secure a place … that’s down to what the other candidates achieve on the day too.

24. Children in Grammar school don’t do much better than those in state schools, do they?

Grammar schools are the only remaining type of state maintained school that is permitted to select pupils based upon an entrance test.

This means, in theory, that the students who secure a place will all be ‘academically focused’ which means that teachers will be able to stretch them further than in a mixed ability school.

Data does indicate that Grammar schools are amongst the top of the performance tables compared to comprehensive schools.

Alternative research, however, does suggest that the brightest and best students in comprehensives can achieve GCSE and A-level passes that can be compared favourably with Grammar school students.

In some counties there are many Grammar schools, eg Lincolnshire and therefore competition for places is somewhat less fierce, whereas in other locations such as Birmingham and Greater London, it’s much harder to get into one.

Some parents dislike the ‘hot house’ feeling that some Grammar schools have and for some pupils the intense study atmosphere is something they don’t enjoy.  It’s best, therefore, to visit a selection of prospective senior schools so you and your child can make a reasoned decision as to whether to apply to take their eleven plus entrance test.

25. Once my child’s been given a place they can let up on their schoolwork

The final few months of their Year 6 KS2 studies contains important work that will help to bridge the gap up to GCSE study.

All children entering a Grammar school will be expected to ‘hit the ground running’ as regards their work standards.

Grammar schools will regularly assess student’s work standards and if your child’s results are falling then they may well be moved down to a lower set.

The overriding objective of the Grammar school is to test their student’s abilities by stretching them, not just in their study skills but in the emotional maturity too.

That’s why we always council parents to ensure their children  are fully involved in their KS2 Year 7 studies up until the year end.

Bonus Myth

26. Multiple choice questions are easier than standard written ones.

That’s often said by parents who’ve not taken any exams in a few years!

The answers provided are invariably very similar and require students to have a strong grasp of the subject so as to filter out the ‘red herrings’ from the right one.

This is something a good tutor will be able to help your child work through as quick as possible so as to save time during the exam.

Written answers have their own particular issues too, including the need for children to write legibly and quickly, neither rambling nor being too brief.

So neither format is ‘better’ than the other and it’s important your child practices and is comfortable with whatever your preferred Grammar school(s) require.

Let’s stop these myths being spread any further

Hopefully this post has helped to clarify for you some of the beliefs you may have heard other parents talk about.  It might be that you held some of them yourself too.

Providing you can support your child’s preparation, either on your own or with the support of a quality tutor, then they have every chance of securing a high pass mark in their eleven plus exam.

Whether that will mean they are offered a place will always be down to the field of candidates taking the exam at the same time they do.

Additional reading

If you’re considering a Grammar school for your child you may find these other articles we’ve written contain useful and timely information.

What other Grammar school myths do you know?

We’re always interested to hear about other myths, stories or beliefs that are ‘out there’ and so if you’ve got any you’d like to tell us about, pop them in them in the comments below or you can email us or send them to us via our contact form.

And if you have any questions about Grammar school exams, private school exams or similar you can get in touch using those methods too.

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