A Guide to the 11 Plus Exam by Donald Bennet of BrightLeap

A Guide to the 11 Plus Exam by Donald Bennet of BrightLeap

Donald Bennet, founder of BrightLeap, answers some of the most frequently asked questions about the 11 Plus exam...

After graduating from Cambridge in 2010 with a degree in Maths, Donald Bennet began working as a private tutor both in London and internationally. Having worked with a variety of clients all across the globe (including members of various royal families), Donald has deservedly earned the title of one of the UK’s ‘super tutors’.

As well as his work as Education Director for London-based Bright Young Things tutoring agency, Donald is also the founder of BrightLeap, an online learning platform which helps students prepare for the 11 Plus exam. You can read more about how Donald began this venture in an earlier interview he did for The Tutor Website. As an 11 Plus specialist, who better than to provide this guide to the 11 Plus exam, than Donald?

First of all, can you explain to us what the 11 Plus exam is exactly and where it is used?

In a sense, there is nothing mysterious: it is an exam for 10-11 year olds for entry to secondary schools the following year, aged 11-12. It is mainly grammar schools and private schools that use it. Obviously, such schools only admit a relatively small number of students compared to the country as a whole, but the places they offer are often highly sought after. The 11 plus exams vary by region and type of school.

What does the 11 Plus exam involve? What subjects are tested and how many parts does the exam have?

The 11 plus is always meant to be a rigorous test of academic aptitude. There are commonly both Maths and English papers but also sometimes verbal and non-verbal reasoning papers. These are separated into sections that are usually between 20 and 60 minutes in length. Unless a candidate is exceptional, there is often a significant element of time pressure in the tests, which most 10-11 year olds will not be used to. Practice helps a great deal.

What is the difference between verbal and non-verbal reasoning?

Both are essentially logic puzzles but verbal reasoning is word-based whereas non-verbal is picture-based. For example, verbal reasoning could involve spotting short words within longer words. In contrast, non-verbal might have a sequence of four pictures and ask you to pick the image that would logically come next. I have found both (especially non-verbal) to be very rapid to prepare for. Students might never have seen anything like them, and yet they rapidly improve with just a few months of well-structured preparation. If only the maths and English were always so easy to prepare for!

In your opinion, what can parents do to help their children prepare to pass the 11 Plus exam?

The most basic element is to be informed about what test your target schools will be assessing your child with. Is it on computer or paper? What subjects are covered? How have other children from your school found it and how have they successfully prepared before?  Having asked all those questions you can start to look at how your child’s strengths and weaknesses might fit with the demands of the particular tests you are targeting.

This is where BrightLeap can quickly and cheaply make a massive difference. A nine or ten year old can try a variety of BrightLeap tests and you can use the scores to spot the weaknesses. Those areas will then need practice and possibly even help from a local tutor. After a period of time targeting all the problem areas, it is important to assess the suitability of the target schools for your child. If he or she is very far from the level required, it might be worth making more realistic plans.

If an entrance exam is too hard for your child after a good period of preparation, it is likely that the school wouldn’t be the right environment, at least not for usual entry aged 11.

The 11 Plus exam is said to encourage coaching from a young age. How soon do you think a child should start preparing for the 11 Plus? Is there a particular timescale you would suggest?

This is very much up to parents. I would have a serious think about schools when your child is seven or eight. It is so much better to prepare steadily for a couple of years, working calmly through all the problem areas in maths and English, than to attempt a crammed tutoring explosion in the last final months before the exam. Planning in advance will save you, your child and your tutor a great deal of stress and make success more likely.

What do you think are the most effective 11 Plus resources and study materials for children?

Having created BrightLeap with a team of colleagues, I can personally suggest that it can very usefully form the basis of preparation, initially in working through all the topic tests to assess and practice individual areas. Later, students can use the BrightLeap mock exams to get exam ready.

I use BrightLeap and my own bespoke paper materials alongside Bond books and Schofield and Sims books to mix things up with my own students. ISEB produce some useful materials, primarily the past papers of their exams, but their other materials are less good unfortunately. Both BrightLeap and paper materials tend to be relatively inexpensive so it is worth always using a range of interesting and high quality materials with your child.

What is the pass mark for the 11 Plus exam and what is a standardised score?

In general, there is not a fixed pass mark and it is up to schools to determine their cut-off on a year-by-year basis. Standardised scores are used by some grammar schools and essentially are just an adjusted version of your childs raw score on all papers combined. The standardisation weights the papers your child has sat in relation to how important they are (maths is deemed more important than verbal reasoning) but also adjusts for age.

Performance tends to improve with age so they adjusts the results to level the playing field for all ten and eleven year olds accordingly. Standardisation of scores is not yet very common though schools do sometimes have other ways of taking into account the exact age of applicants, for example sitting exams at various points throughout the year depending on birthdates.

What happens if a student narrowly misses out on passing the 11 Plus? How can you appeal an 11 Plus exam result?

It is usually impossible to do anything if your child doesn’t quite make it into a particular school. There are sometimes later entry points and this is worth bearing in mind as it might be that your child isn’t ready now but will be later. There is often an appeal process but from all that I have heard, it is unwise to expect any change.

I would suggest that it is highly likely that another school will provide a good fit for your child and you can reassure your child that everything will be fine. It can be a worrying few months for a child and parents can make this easier by being well-informed about the alternatives.

As an experienced private tutor yourself, what do you think makes a good 11 Plus tutor? What should parents look for when choosing a tutor for the 11 Plus?

Well firstly, with materials like BrightLeap and books alongside, a tutor is not always necessary. If you are able to provide some support yourself that may be enough. If you are sure you want a tutor, I recommend an experienced tutor, ideally with references or a recommendation. A tutor who is about to start intensive study themselves or likely to go abroad might be an unwise choice because of the disruption involved in switching tutors half way through the 11+ preparation. I would expect a tutor to be consistently on time, professional in their preparation and keen to engage with your evolving aims and demands from them.

What advice do you have for anyone interested in specialising in 11 Plus tutoring?

I would suggest using BrightLeap with all your students – we have designed a tutor facing login that allows you to assess and compare all your students at once. It is a real time-saver and adds value to your offering. I would also advise being familiar with the entry deadlines, entrance requirements and tests of local schools so that you are ready when new clients get in touch.

For more information on BrightLeap and their 11 Plus resources, visit their website at

Image credit: Brad Flickinger -

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