11+ practice and progress

About 11+ Exams

In England, the 11-plus or Eleven plus is an examination administered to some students in their last year of primary education, governing admission to various types of secondary school. The name derives from the age group for secondary entry: 11-12 years. The Eleven Plus examination was once used throughout England and Wales but is now only used in a number of counties and boroughs in England. The Transfer Test is especially associated with the Tripartite System which was in use from 1944 to 1976.

The Transfer Test examination tests a student's ability to solve problems using verbal reasoning and mathematics. The intention was that it should be a general test for intelligence. Introduced in 1944, the examination was used to determine which type of school the student should attend after primary education: a grammar school, a secondary modern school, or a technical school. The base of the Tripartite System was the idea that for this purpose skills were more important than financial resources: different skills required different schooling.

Exam Structure

The Eleven Plus was created by the 1944 Butler Education Act. This established a Tripartite System of education, with an academic, a technical and a functional strand. Prevailing educational thought at the time was that testing was an effective way to discover to which strand a child was most suited. The results of the exam would be used to match a child's secondary school to their abilities and future career needs.

When the system was implemented, the technical schools did not appear on the scale envisaged. Instead, the Tripartite System came to be characterised by fierce competition for places at the prestigious grammar schools. As such, the Eleven Plus took on a particular significance. Rather than allocating according to need or ability, it became seen as a question of passing or failing. This led to the exam becoming widely resented by some although strongly supported by others.

The structure of the Eleven Plus examination varied over time, and among the different counties which used it. Usually, it consisted of three papers:

  • Arithmetic - A mental arithmetic test.
  • Writing - An essay question on a general subject.
  • General Problem Solving - A test of general knowledge, assessing the ability to apply logic to simple problems.
Some exams contain:

Most children took the Eleven Plus transfer test examination in their final year of primary school: usually at age 10 or 11. In certain counties (Berkshire, Buckinghamshire) it was also possible to sit the test a year early - a process named the Ten Plus; recently, the Buckinghamshire test was called the Twelve Plus and taken a year later than usual.

Originally, the transfer test was voluntary; currently, some 30% of students in Northern Ireland do not sit for it.

In Northern Ireland, pupils were awarded grades in the following ratios to pupils sitting the exam: A (25%), B1 (5%), B2 (5%), C1 (5%), C2 (5%), D (55%) and there was no official distinction between pass grades and fail grades.

Current practice

There are 164 remaining grammar schools in various parts of England, and 69 in Northern Ireland. In counties in which vestiges of the Tripartite System still survive, the Eleven Plus continues to exist. Today it is generally used as an entrance test to a specific group of schools, rather than a blanket exam for all pupils, and is taken voluntarily. For more information on these, see the main article on grammar schools. The largest area still operating the Eleven Plus after the system was phased out in Northern Ireland in 2008[4] is the county of Lincolnshire (although the test is optional, the education system is completely Tripartite - every major town has Grammar and Comprehensive/Technical Schools). Kent students can take the test though generally only those who are expected to pass will do so.

Eleven plus and similar exams vary around the country but will use some or all of the following components:

In Lincolnshire children will sit the verbal reasoning and non-verbal reasoning, alongside their SATs which will include reading, writing, maths and chosen schools will have a science test. In Buckinghamshire children sit tests in verbal reasoning, Mathematics and Non-Verbal Reasoning. In Kent children will sit all four of the above disciplines, however the English paper will only be used in circumstances of appeal. However, in the London Borough of Bexley from September 2008, following a public consultation, pupils sitting the Eleven Plus exam will only be required to do a Mathematics and Verbal reasoning paper. In Essex, where the examination is optional, children sit Verbal Reasoning, Mathematics and English. Other areas use different combinations. Some authorities/areas operate an opt-in system, while others (such as Buckinghamshire) operate an opt-out system where all pupils are entered unless parents decide to opt out. In the North Yorkshire, Harrogate/York area, children are only required to sit two tests: Verbal and Non-Verbal reasoning.

Scoring

The scoring used varies between different areas. As an example, in Kent, mathematics and writing are each given twice the weighting of verbal reasoning.

A pass mark is used to decide whether students are eligible for a grammar school education. Usually, the pass mark is between 121-160. Students who achieve the pass mark are given the opportunity to study at grammar school while those who fall below that are often not. Should a score be close to, yet slightly below, the pass mark, then the candidate may appeal to get into grammar school. Generally a student who scores between 121 and 130 has achieved just enough to pass. Those scoring 130 to 145 are most likely fairly able to carry on to grammar school without a problem. Students who score between 145 and 153 are considered extremely bright. Those that exceed a score of 153 are rare yet exemplary cases. Passing the exam does not necessarily secure the candidate a place in the school. But higher scores are placed higher on the waiting list.

What sort of schools have 11+ testing?

Selective state schools, commonly known as grammars, choose their pupils at least in part based on academic ability, whereas comprehensives have only non-ability based criteria for allocating places, such as distance from the school to a prospective pupil's home or affiliation to a particular religion.

Children who are hoping to attend private secondaries might also face an 11+ test, set either by an individual school or a consortium of schools.

Whilst grammars are nowhere near as common as they were fifty or sixty years ago, over 200 still remain, concentrated in a few areas of England and in Northern Ireland where the 11+ is also known as the Transfer Test. There are no remaining selective state grammars in Scotland and Wales. A few secondaries retain the word grammar in their name for historical reasons but are actually now comprehensives or private schools.

who can take the 11+ exam?

Many grammars have catchment areas and pupils must live within the area by a set date to be eligible to take the exams and potentially gain a place. A few schools, sometimes known as 'super-selectives', have no catchment area at all and anyone living anywhere can apply - selection is solely down to who does best in the exams. This means that places are especially hard fought for - by way of an example, one North London super-selective reportedly had over 2000 children sit their 2013 tests for just 96 places.

Some grammars are faith schools too and for these, proof of observance of a particular religion might be important if the school is oversubscribed (which being a grammar, it inevitably will be).

Do all children sit the same test nationally and what do they cover?

Tests are set locally, either by the school, a 'consortium' of schools or at county level.

What's tested therefore varies. There is usually a mix of some, or all of, verbal reasoning, non-verbal reasoning, maths and English.

If you have a specific school in mind, it's very wise to check which subjects are included in their tests. Specialist 11+ website and discussion forums.

SHOULD YOUR SON OR DAUGHTER SIT THE 11+

If they're obviously highly able or conversely a grammar school education is clearly not right for them, it's a relatively easy decision but for parents with children anywhere in between, whether to do the 11+ can be less clear-cut.

Your first port of call should be their teacher or headteacher. In areas where the 11+ is very common, you should be able to receive guidance on all this from them. Parents' evenings late in year 4 or early in year 5 are a good time to start getting an indication of your son or daughter's suitability.

In some places where only a small proportion of children take the 11+ exam, schools will not provide much of a view on this, due to lack of experience or an unwillingness to get involved. In this case, it might be worth finding a well-thought of local tutor (see below) and getting them to assess your child.

Check the tutor knows the schools you're considering well and has prepared children for them in the past. You will have to pay for the assessment, which might take one or two hour-long sessions.

Is there a set percentage of children who will get into a grammar, e.g. the top 10%?

It varies greatly between schools. For some super-selectives, a tiny proportion of children who sit the exams will gain a place, in other areas with lots of grammars and fewer applicants per place, it might be that 20% or 30% succeed.

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