The Eleven Plus Exam: Secrets of Success

Posted on September, 2020

The Eleven Plus Exam

The Eleven Plus Exam is an emotive topic. Many parents we meet have a sense of dread at the thought of their child not passing the Eleven Plus Exam. 

This means they can be susceptible to practices that feed off emotion rather than thinking about the process in a systematic way. 

But even with an action plan, not every child will be successful at gaining entry to a grammar school. This prompts the question:
Which factors contribute to a student achieving success in the 11 plus exam? 

Read on to find out. 


I have witnessed a few parents spend time and money investing in a tutor for the 11 plus exam, only to realise that they are fighting an uphill battle, even if a tutor has a track record of success, is skilled and experienced. 

This leads to the question, what factors determine whether a child will pass the eleven plus? 

The true answer to that question is complex. Of course, a skilled tutor can increase a child’s chances of success. Just as important for a child’s success is the combination of the overall network of support, communication, maturity, exam performance, and his or her innate skill. 

This blog post will help the reader understand the reasons why some children have distinct advantages over others. It will provide some tips that you may be able to utilise along the way. 

Innate Skill

Children have a whole variety of gifts: some are skilled logical thinkers from an early age; some can craft intricate stories or have immense confidence around others; others hold the power of communication; a few have incredible artistic talent and vision; others gifted when it comes to athletic ability. 

These gifts exist as a unique combination within each child. A child’s ability to retain knowledge and think logically are key components to the Eleven Plus Exam. Tuition and other activities can enhance and bring out the best in a child. It is therefore important that parents have realistic expectations; that is to say that there needs to be a foundation on which to build their child’s trajectory of learning.  

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Learning Style

It is also important to consider what type of learner a child is. A good tutor will work with every child by understanding the relative strengths and weaknesses of that child, and by communicating realistic expectations to parents. Time and time again, I have noticed that the children who are the most successful are the ones where the parents have taken an active interest in what their child is learning and working alongside the tutor. The effort is almost more important than the ability. 

Book cover: Mindset, The New Psychology of Success, by Dr.  Carol S. Dweck

“no matter what your ability is, effort is what ignites that ability and turns it into accomplishment.”

Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology Of Success

Nature vs Nurture

The nature vs nurture debate has always been fraught with controversy; however, most scientists would agree that a combination of both is significant. IQ or Intelligence Quotient is also a controversial subject as it significantly limits the concept of intelligence. When it comes to the 11 plus exam, however, IQ is a significant factor as it is designed to resemble curriculum relevant IQ tests (especially the Non-Verbal component). IQ can be measured on a bell-curve or ordinary distribution (see below):

Bell-curve distribution of intelligence for Eleven Plus Exam.

By Dmcq – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Grammar schools select students who sit in the far right of the distribution: 100 and up (roughly the top 25%). This means that many children are already excluded. It is a flawed system, as performance on tests varies greatly depending on the type and format of the test. As there is no one consistent test across the country, the process becomes very challenging.

Like adults, children are also susceptible to nerves and inconsistency. To help overcome this, it is always helpful to have ‘a trial run’ in the form of mock 11 plus exams and holiday courses as these will help with familiarity.

In all scenarios, identifying specific problems, setting attainable goals, and developing a strategy to help the child make progress are the keys to success. This along with having a good tutor, a professional, on your side will certainly help children excelling beyond their usual average performance.


A particularly significant factor when it comes to the 11 plus exam is maturity. People mature at different rates, and it has become evident that this impacts how students cope with the Eleven Plus Exam. This, in my view, is a big problem with an exam that aims to select the top students.

Early bloomers have an advantage over their peers as they are better able to understand and pick up information, grasp more mature matters, approach study in a more organised manner and so on. The 11 plus exam attempts to acknowledge this difference in maturity by standardising the test scores, meaning that the natural advantage an older child has will be negated through this process. However, this is but one of the factors that determines maturity. These other factors cannot be taken into account by the exam.

Fostering a mature attitude in a child is important. A big part of maturity is understanding duties and responsibilities. Parents should introduce duties and responsibilities to their child early.


Here are some basic duties that children can be encouraged to take on, alongside completing schoolwork. I have provided ten, but there are certainly more:

  1. Making their bed
  2. Folding their clothes
  3. Clearing and setting the table
  4. Helping parents prepare food
  5. Helping parents do grocery shopping
  6. Brushing their teeth
  7. Spend time with younger siblings
  8. Tidying away toys
  9. Vacuuming and dusting their rooms
  10. Saving money

Bright yellow, spacious kitchen exuding with positive energy, demonstrating the value of hard work and how important it is in everything, including 11+ plus exam

These basic duties and responsibilities may not seem important, but they contribute to the overall development of the child. They allow the child to understand and empathise with others, prepare them with some of the tasks necessary to be competent adults, and also build the relationship between them and their parents. They also learn that hard work is a necessary fact of life. If parents can provide their children with structure and help them feel that they can accomplish many tasks in a day, this does wonders for their children’s confidence. It also helps parents sleep easier knowing that their children are capable.

I recently watched a show on Netflix called STAY HERE (2018) about people who were renting out living space on Airbnb. In the fourth episode, it focused on Gordy’s Yellow Block Inn, a beautiful Brooklyn Brownstone residence that focused on group accommodation (see below).

kitchen table with chairs for children to sit and study

The thing that I noticed about Gordy was that he exudes positive energy, and the hard work he put into running his business. He has three children, and he clearly taught them the value of hard work as they would help him run the business. I have little doubt that they will grow into accomplished adults as long as they continue on the right path.

This idea of maturity, therefore, goes far beyond the eleven plus.

11 Plus Exam Performance

As the eleven plus is an exam, with no opportunity for re-sit, the child’s destiny is decided by test performance on the day. This is one of the main criticisms of this exam. It is, without doubt, a harsh system that results in passes or fails, and there is a lot of pressure that rests upon the child.

There are many bright children, who are brilliant in class and excel above the rest; however, struggle deeply under timed-conditions. Sometimes bright children under the pressure of the exam misread questions, get sections mixed up, forget simple facts, and panic. Those with less maturity, also tend to struggle a lot more under these circumstances. Tuition can help children handle this pressure by simulating the pressure of the exam, giving them a lot of exam practice and encouraging them, but it is still a unique characteristic of the child.

It’s Personal

I tutored my cousin for a while to help him pass the Bexley exam. He did manage to achieve high-scores in the real exam, but I noticed a huge difference in how he approached questions under timed conditions, and when he was able to take his time and be relaxed. When he was relaxed, he would usually achieve perfect scores (especially in mathematics). However, as soon as I set the timer, he would make many uncharacteristic errors. When we talked together after the exam, he described how nervous he was, but was pleasantly surprised at how well the exam went.


I have known even the coolest and most level-headed of children get nervous on the day of the exam. The only way to assuage these feelings of anxiousness is to tell the student that you are proud of what he or she has achieved so far.

Another tip for how to build confidence in a student is not focusing on test scores but on possible areas of improvement. When my cousin got 82 out of 100, I knew in my mind that this was a strong score, but I certainly did not focus on that when we were going through the paper; I focused on the 18 questions he got wrong, established whether there was a particular pattern to the mistakes or not, and considered whether he had any gaps in his knowledge. Afterwards, we engaged in further practice. I certainly would advise against making any comments to the child about whether they will pass or fail; always focus on how the student can improve his or her understanding.

“So what should we say when children complete a task—say, math problems—quickly and perfectly? Should we deny them the praise they have earned? Yes. When this happens, I say, “Whoops. I guess that was too easy. I apologize for wasting your time. Let’s do something you can really learn from!”

Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology Of Success

All students can benefit from tutors and parents taking this analytical and positive approach.

The Support Network

Group of support people for a child taking 11 plus exam, holding hands and signifying the importance of strong communication. ”

A support network comprises those people in the student’s life who provide the help needed for the child to succeed. This usually includes family, peer-groups, teachers, and tutors.

Everyone has their own support network, and 11 plus students are no different. While the child needs to be responsible and needs to work hard, most parents who have successfully brought their child through the process will probably attest to the fact that it was a challenge for everyone involved.

These links in the network, ideally need to work well together. Maintaining strong communication between all parties is key.

11 Plus Exam: Peer-groups

The parents’ duty during the process is to understand the formal aspects of the process and gather information about the school. This information can be relayed to tutors and teachers. Furthermore, parents need to encourage certain behaviours from their children. Most children do not spend enough time reading, and certainly do not progress to the level expected in the eleven plus. Encouraging healthy reading habits early is important as a child’s literacy rate at an early age determines their academic outcomes.

In the 11 plus exam, children have to navigate quite difficult texts and require a strong vocabulary. A child reaching minimum standards in terms of their literacy in school is well-off the standards required at 11 plus. Furthermore, a student needs to read a wide range of texts. Children learn by example so if they see their parents reading and interested in finding out about the world, they are more likely to take on these habits. Peer-groups can also influence children’s attitudes towards books. I remember when I was a child, my friend used to recommend books to me, and I always took on his recommendation. Audiobooks are also a great way to introduce a child to more literature.

11 Plus Exam: Parents

Furthermore, parents can ensure that their children have a safe and non-distracting study environment. Children have so many advantages these days in terms of access to information, but modern life also comes with many distractions. Limiting the effect these distractions can have on a child is important.

Finally, parents need to support their child’s learning. This can involve taking them on educational visits to zoos and museums, watching documentaries together, playing family board games, encouraging them to learn how to play musical instruments, and taking an active interest in their school work. All of these activities foster a love of learning.

Reading Matters

Three Reading facts (from the National Literacy Trust):

  • 10-year-olds who enjoy reading have a reading age 1.3 years higher than their peers who do not enjoy reading
  • 12-year-olds who enjoy reading have a reading age 2.1 years higher than their peers who do not enjoy reading
  • 14-year-olds who enjoy reading have a reading age 3.3 years higher than their peers who do not enjoy reading
  • Children who say they have a book of their own are six times more likely to read above the level expected for their age than their peers who don’t own a book (22% vs. 3.6%).
  • At the beginning of 2020, 1 in 6 (16.3%) children and young people aged 9 to 18 said that they listen to audiobooks.
  • During the lockdown, nearly 1 in 4 (23.4%) children and young people said that they have listened to audiobooks more than before lockdown.

Eleven Plus Exam: Tutors

A good tutor will be an authority on the 11 plus exam and have the knowledge and experience to guide a student through the minefield. They can provide children with a more tailored approach to education, and can help students become more confident. The tutor has a responsibility to ensure that a child learns at his or her own pace. It helps the child build a strong understanding of the material.

Tutors should be highly-educated and reputable. They should have high subject knowledge and understand that a child can be a different type of learner which means that children learn in different ways and at different paces. It is the tutor’s job to explain and communicate the concepts in the best way possible to increase the student’s knowledge base as well as their confidence.

11 Plus Exam: Teachers

Teachers have the almost impossible task of somehow controlling a class of children and improving the overall academic and social level of the group. Furthermore, they need to understand each different type of learner and communicate this it with the parent.

Meme, highlighting the difficulties and stress of being a teacher to Eleven Plus Exam students!

A teacher is mainly interested in children reaching the government required level for their year group. On the other hand, the 11 plus exam is an additional goal. While there are some teachers who may recommend that certain students take the exam, there are teachers and schools who actively discourage 11 plus exam preparation in various ways. One is by setting additional homework in year 5 so that children spend additional time studying at home.

I was lucky, my year 5 teacher recommended that I take the 11 plus and independent school exams.

Juggling all of these tasks and responsibilities can also limit the effectiveness of teachers, and this is why we believe schools should work in partnership rather than at odds with tutors to help students achieve their potential. We have had instances where teachers are keen to pass specific information about students’ areas of weakness on to us so that we can provide more tailored one-to-one guidance. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.

Specialist vs generalist

Furthermore, teachers at UK primary schools tend to be generalists when it comes to subject knowledge. In many countries around the world, especially in Asia, subject specialists are brought in to teach at the primary level. I believe that many primary school teachers in the UK would struggle with some of the material for the Eleven Plus Exam. Some of the independent school 11 plus exams are even more challenging. This is because the questions often reach the Key Stage 3 level.


I have taught a few gifted students at year 6 level who are extremely skilled at mathematics and English. By the time we were close to the exam, they are often working closer to GCSE level than year 6 SATS.

Another issue is that primary schools are not all equal. Many schools have higher levels of attainment. This can be down to multiple factors: staffing, leadership, social-economic status of students, area, funding, etc. These individual factors affect the academic level of their students as a whole.


The 11 plus exam is a challenging journey for everyone involved; the journey can be made easier by understanding. It is not simply a matter of placing a child in front of an 11 plus exam textbook or even merely teaching them the content.

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