What is a grammar school?

Grammar schools are state-funded schools which select students based on academic ability. Grammar schools achieve impressive academic results, outstripping comprehensives and even competing with independent schools. Despite this, they have become politically unpopular, and it is currently illegal to found a new grammar school. Certain areas, like Buckinghamshire, have kept their grammar school system in place and are served by 13 grammar schools. Most areas in the UK have far fewer grammar schools.

How do grammar schools select their pupils?

Schools use entrance exams to test students' academic ability and potential. These exams are often referred to as "the 11+", a phrase which now refers to a few different types of exam. To see other possible meanings of the term "11+", click here. The grammar school entrance exam is taken in year 6, and many students will actually be aged 10 when they sit the test. Unlike fee-paying schools, grammar schools are not allowed to interview students, and so rely more heavily on these tests.

Is it difficult to gain entrance to a grammar school?

Pass-rates vary considerably around the country. The more grammar schools there are, the higher the pass-rate. In Buckinghamshire around 30% of students qualify every year, while in competitive areas the rate is around 3%. Most grammar schools publish the number of applications they receive each year, as well as the number of places available. In London, grammar schools are considered very difficult to get into.

When should I register to take the entrance test?

It varies from school to school, so it is crucial to check on their website. Typically you register between May and July of year 5 to take the exam in year 6. Be aware that arrangements can change from year to year.

What are the entrance exams like?

There are a range of different styles of entrance exam. Some schools, including Tiffin Girls' School and Henrietta Barnett, have two phases to their entrance exams.  The first stage is a multiple choice exam. If students pass, they are invited to take a longer, written exam a few weeks or months later. Others, like Queen Elizabeth Barnet, have a single test date. The most popular exams seem to be the (relatively new) CEM, or the more established GL.

Speaking in general, the exams are designed to test academic potential rather than ability, and as such are often closer to an IQ test than to a traditional academic exam. They typically place a high value on verbal and non-verbal reasoning, and can sometimes be taken on a computer in a multiple choice format. The tests feature a mixture of numerical reasoning, verbal reasoning, non-verbal reasoning, logic, spatial reasoning and reading comprehension.

Who designs the entrance exams?

The three main providers of pre-tests are the Centre for Evaluating and Monitoring (CEM), the Independent Schools Examination Board (ISEB) and GL Assessment. Additionally, some schools design their own entrance exams.

Can you study for the entrance exams?

Schools and test designers are somewhat secretive about the content of the tests and try to discourage preparation. The exception is the GL exam which has been used for decades and which publishes preparation materials.

In spite of these precautions, the data shows that prior schooling and coaching definitely influences the outcome of the exams. (Source) But it's important to remember that this is certainly not like preparing for any traditional exam, and parents should be skeptical of textbooks and resources which claim to know exactly what students will be asked. The exception is the GL exam which has been in use for two decades and which publishes preparation materials.

How do i prepare my child?

1. Do your research

Find out as much as you can about the entrance exams. Some don't include a verbal / non-verbal reasoning component, while many do. This type of information is usually available on the school's website.

2. Work on the essentials

My view is that preparation should emphasise the core body of Maths and English knowledge that children are expected to learn at this age. Mental nimbleness should be encouraged by asking thought-provoking, interesting questions which require problem-solving and deep understanding of the material.

3. Practice verbal and non-verbal reasoning...but not at the exclusion of real learning

If the exam includes verbal and non-verbal reasoning, some time should be spent learning the layout of typical questions. Although 'reasoning' is supposed to measure IQ, you can definitely get better with practice. However, too much detailed preparation for "reasoning" is probably wasted effort and learning the tricks to spotting the next shape in the pattern probably does little for your child's overall development, so think carefully about how much time you want to dedicate to this.

4. Timing is everything

Many students come unstuck when asked to work under the strict time pressure of the pre-test, so plenty of timed practice is crucial.

5. The big picture

It is not in your child's interest to focus all preparation simply on passing the entrance examination. Students should be well prepared not only for the test, but also for future academic life at their chosen school. 'Teaching to the test' will do little for their overall academic achievement, and an over-prepared child might find themselves out of their depth on entering the school.

Where can I find past papers?


Official past papers are not available for the CEM, and it is a relatively new exam. However, some schools do release sample questions and other materials to shed some light on general layout and flavour of the exam.

Latymer Grammar School Familiarisation Booklet 2017
London Borough of Bexley Familiarisation Test 2015


The GL exam has been around for two decades, and has released some official preparation materials. Searching on Amazon for GL pre-test gives plenty of results, most of them from GL assessment themselves. These should be reliable to use if your child will be sitting the GL. Additionally, most large bookstores will probably carry copies.


Inevitably, other textbook publishers have tried to approximate the test and sell practice papers. It is difficult to say how accurate they are. CGP have made some samples free to download for both the CEM and GL tests.


Over the years, I have helped dozens of students gain entrance into a wide variety of schools including Eton, Harrow, City of London and Westminster.  Read my testimonials.

I prepare my students for the specific exam they will be sitting, as well as working to develop the whole child academically. This means they will be fully ready for life at a grammar school as well as for the tests.