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How to cope as a parent or tutor when your local authority switches to a different 11+ exam board

How to still make the most of the preparation that the child you are supporting has already done

When I heard the news in January that my local grammar schools would be changing their exam provider from this September’s test onwards, I was rather panicked, to say the least! Birmingham Grammar Schools Consortium have been using CEM (Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring) tests since I began working as an 11+ tutor around 7 years ago; I’d become very familiar with the question types, format and timings of the CEM tests and had built up a large bank of resources and ideas for my teaching and also for advising parents. However, Birmingham (and Warwickshire) grammar schools made the decision this year to switch to GL Assessment (GLA).

As I already have tuition students in Years 4 and 5, I needed to act fast and soon began researching the GL tests. My first port of call was the Birmingham Grammar Schools website, which has been updated to reflect the changes. I found the most useful aspect to be the new familiarisation test, which allowed me to see what the GL format and some of the questions would be like, and also to pass this on to the parents of my tuition pupils for them to have a go.

I then had a look at the free resources on the GL website. Unlike CEM, GL produce their own materials (although not past papers), which can be purchased from their website, as well as 10 hours of free familiarisation materials. As it was specifically noted that private tutors must not use these free resources with their students, I went through them to familiarise myself with the differences (and similarities) between the two exam boards, then passed on the link to the parents of my tuition pupils for them to try themselves.

The familiarisation materials showed that the questions were not as different as I had expected (or feared!). Further research showed that GL use a bank of question types for both verbal and non-verbal reasoning, which has made the transition from CEM much easier. There are 21 types of VR questions and around 13 types of NVR questions.

Verbal reasoning (VR)


I found that the GL verbal reasoning questions are much more like the ‘old school’ question types (hidden words, completing word pairs, odd word out, analogies) that I remember from primary school; my students appear to have found these more fun and rewarding than the vocabulary-heavy ones in CEM. (This isn’t to say that I won’t continue with activities to build a wider vocabulary, as this is still useful – both for the 11+ and general school work).

And there doesn’t seem to be any sign of the dreaded ‘shuffled sentences’ that have featured in CEM tests in recent years! There are, however, several question types involving numbers, which is something different to be aware of; plus codes for letters – another question type not really included in CEM.

Non-verbal reasoning (NVR)


I’d read that one of the main differences between non-verbal reasoning in CEM and GL is that the latter uses more spatial reasoning questions. However, I’d found these cropping up more in CEM practice materials and tests recently, so had already found resources to help with teaching this aspect of NVR before the exam board change. Some students can struggle with spatial reasoning (as can I!), so I have resources such as laminated cube nets (I now also have a magnetic, write-on cube net that can be moved to give different configurations of faces) and wooden 3D shapes, as well as a book of 10-minute tests focusing specifically on 3D and spatial questions. The rest of the NVR questions in GL seem very similar to those used by CEM.

English


There doesn’t seem to be much difference between the English questions used by the different exam boards – comprehension is pretty standard and it’s good to have lots of example texts and questions to draw on –  so I’ve continued to use the comprehension activities that I have in my current (CEM) resources. I’ve also started using more past KS2 SATs papers – both the reading papers and grammar, punctuation and spelling tests, which are freely available online – as the GL website states that their tests can include content up to what would be taught at the start of Year 6. This is good practise for future learning in primary school, but it also means that students get an awareness particularly of grammar and punctuation aspects that they may not have learnt in school.

Maths


Again, GL say that their tests include maths up to the start of Year 6, but I have always made a point to focus on maths that may be taught above the level that children are doing at school anyway – more for familiarisation than difficulty level. Algebra is the main area that springs to mind, but also questions such as angles and area of triangles, ratios, percentages, BIDMAS/BODMAS, speed and averages (mean, median, mode and range), particularly if children are starting 11+ preparation in Year 4, or younger.

In summary, here are my suggestions for parents facing a change of 11+ exam board:

  • Visit the website of your local grammar school / consortium, to find out about the format of the test (for example, some – like Birmingham – are multiple choice, whereas others are write-in; some areas only assess VR and NVR, while others cover all four aspects).
  • Download the familiarisation papers and parent guides from the GL website (including 3 different practice papers with answer grids and answers for each area: VR, NVR, English and Maths).
  • Mix and match some GL-specific resources (particularly the mixed assessment papers, so you have experience of how the papers are set up) with resources you already have (rather than throwing everything out and starting again), but keep in mind the differences between the different exam boards’ question types.
  • If your new exam board has a bank of question types (as GL does), work through these in turn.
  • Continue to play lots of games and puzzles, to develop lateral thinking, word skills, pattern-seeking, logic etc. But also to keep learning fun!
  • Remember that timed practice is still really important – start with small chunks (e.g. by purchasing some 10-minute test books or just using a section at a time of a practice paper) and build up to full timed papers.

Juliette Green, April 2022