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A guide to grammar schools

11 plus
Guide to grammar schools

What is a grammar school?

A grammar school is a secondary school in the UK that admits pupils based on their academic ability. Essentially, this means that pupils will sit an entrance exam when they are in Year 6; the pupils with the highest scores will be eligible for a place at the school from Year 7 onwards.

Historically, the purpose of grammar schools was the teaching of Latin – and, over the centuries, more modern languages. In the late Victorian era, the education provided at grammar schools became more varied.

In 1944, the Education Act created the Tripartite System – a system of state-funded secondary education in England and Wales. The three types of schools in this system were:

  • Grammar schools: admitted only the top 25% of intellectually-able students and provided an academic curriculum. The assumption was that most of these students would go on to university. Most grammar schools were single-sex (separate schools for boys and girls).

  • Secondary modern schools: non-selective schools which were originally intended for children who would be going into trade jobs from the age of 16.

  • Technical schools: very few of these were actually established.

This system changed during the 1960s, with comprehensive schools introduced to reduce class inequality. Now, children from any school are encouraged to apply to higher education, regardless of their school type. There are an increasing number of grammar schools becoming co-educational (accepting both boys and girls) whether in the sixth form only or throughout the school.

Are grammar schools free?

Yes – unlike fee-paying independent schools, you do not need to pay school fees if your child attends a grammar school. Grammar schools are funded by the state (government) and are the only state-funded secondary schools in England that can select their pupils based on their academic ability.

A few grammar schools have boarding facilities, which will require parents to pay a fee if their child is using the boarding provision (although this is significantly less than the fees charged by independent boarding schools).

What entrance tests do grammar schools use?

Grammar schools use the 11 plus (or 11+) to select their pupil intake. If you are applying to a grammar school, your child will take the test in Year 6 – their final year of primary school. The content of this test can vary depending on the individual school, a school consortium or the exam board the school chooses to deliver the test. It will consist of some, or all, of the following subjects:

  • English

  • Maths

  • Verbal reasoning

  • Non-verbal reasoning

Find out more in Atom's complete guide to the 11 plus.

Find out everything you need to know about the 11 plus.

What are the advantages of grammar schools?

Academic results

By design, grammar schools only take the highest-achieving children in their year group. It is therefore inevitable that many of these pupils will go on to achieve great GCSE and A level grades. Additionally, grammar school pupils tend to be of a more equal level of ability and can be challenged further in the classroom. In comparison, non-selective schools may have more mixed-ability classes which can slow down the pace of teaching.

In 2021, The Sunday Times Parent Power's Best Schools League Table revealed that the top 10 state secondary schools in the country, based on that year's exam results, are all grammar schools:

  1. Queen Elizabeth's School, Barnet (London Borough of Barnet)

  2. The Henrietta Barnett School(London Borough of Barnet)

  3. Wilson's School, Wallington (London Borough of Sutton)

  4. Tiffin Girls' School (London Borough of Kingston upon Thames)

  5. St Olave's Grammar School (London Borough of Bromley)

  6. Pate's Grammar School (Gloucestershire)

  7. Reading School (Berkshire)

  8. Altrincham Grammar School for Girls (Greater Manchester)

  9. Colchester Royal Grammar School (Essex)

  10. King Edward VI Camp Hill School for Boys (Birmingham)

Stimulating environment

As grammar schools are academically-selective, it can be assumed that many grammar school pupils want to work hard to achieve good results. This can create a stimulating environment where working hard and achieving success is celebrated, and pupils are less likely to be bullied for wanting to excel.

Social mobility

While most independent schools offer financial assistance to families who have a low household income (known as bursaries), these funds are often limited and do not always cover the full cost of the school fees.

As grammar schools are free, bright children from lower-income families have a better chance of receiving a 'good education'.

What are the disadvantages of grammar schools?

Exam pressures

It has been argued that the selection process used by grammar schools – namely the 11 plus test – can cause undue stress in primary school children. It is also possible that children are still developing their cognitive skills at the age of 10-11, so people believe that late developers may not be taken into account.

If your child is younger than many of their school peers (i.e. if they were born late in the academic year, such as between June and August), you can be assured that the 11 plus test is age-standardised. This means that the 'raw marks' your child receives in the exam are not the final score – a statistical process takes place to take into account your child's exact age in years and months. For example, if your child was born in July and they sit the exam in the September of the year they turn 10, they will have more points added to their test than a child born in January of the same year.

Class privilege

Some people argue that selective entrance exams such as the 11 plus invite a need for private tuition to 'coach' candidates for the test, which many parents may not be able to afford. People are concerned that pupils who reach the required standard in the exam and secure a grammar school place come from higher-income families.

If you're worried about the costs of tutoring your child for the 11 plus, be reassured that a private tutor is not a necessity. There are many free resources online that you can harness to help your child prepare for the exam. If your child is receiving Pupil Premium and/or Free School Meals, they will be able to use Atom Nucleus – our online learning and 11 plus preparation platform – for free.

Atom Nucleus – access 11 plus content, resources and mock tests.

How do I apply for a grammar school?

The admissions process will vary slightly from school to school, so it is advised to check the website for the individual school. Most schools will follow a similar schedule:

1. Register your child with the school

Parents/carers will need to register their child for the 11 plus at the specific school. There will be an application form available on the school website; most schools will require that this is completed in the summer term before the year of entry (i.e. summer 2022 for entry to Year 7 in 2023). In some areas, the test is organised by a consortium of schools – the website will clarify where you need to apply.

2. The 11 plus test takes place

Your child will sit the 11 plus test in the September of the year before entry. You will find out how your child performed on the test (although you may not receive the exact score) in October – but note that this does not guarantee your child a place at the school.

3. Apply for a school place with your local authority

You will need to apply for a place at a secondary school through your local authority, using a form known as the Common Application Form (CAF). Most local authorities will ask you to list three or four schools in order of preference (or six, if you live in London). If your child qualifies for more than one school (based on the school's catchment area and, in the case of grammar schools, your child's 11 plus result), you will be offered a place at the school highest on your list. This means that you should list your top target school as number one. The deadline for submission of the CAF is 31st October 2022 for all local authorities.

4. National Offer Day

Your local authority will notify you on National Offer Day (1st March 2023) to let you know which school place your child has been offered. This will be the highest-ranked school on your application that is able to offer your child a place. You will need to accept this offer by a set date.

Where is my nearest grammar school?

There are 163 grammar schools in England out of approximately 3,000 state secondary schools in total. The county of Kent has the most grammar schools in the country with over 30 to choose from. There are no state grammar schools in Wales or Scotland, but some do remain in Northern Ireland.

We've compiled a list of all the grammar schools in England with details about how to apply to each one. Take a look at our 11 plus grammar school consortiums guide to find out which grammar schools are near you.

Where is your nearest grammar school?

We can help your child prepare for grammar school entry

Is your child preparing for the 11 plus?

Atom Nucleus – our platform for home learning – contains 90,000 teacher-written practice questions and unlimited mock tests that mirror the format and structure of the major 11 plus exam boards, including GL Assessments, CEM and school-specific entrance exams. We also offer live exam prep courses and daily lessons to help build your child’s skills in a friendly, encouraging and interactive way.

You can start your 5-day free trial of Nucleus today to ensure your child is fully confident and prepared for the admissions process.

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