For many parents and 10 and 11 year-olds across England, the eleven plus test is a big deal.
I have experienced the stress of the 11+ exam twice with my children who are now teenagers. If your child has received their results and didn’t get what they wanted (i.e. “failed the eleven plus”) this is for you.
11 Plus: A Defining Moment?
My mother used to tell me the story of how she passed her practice test for the eleven plus test, but on the actual day she fell short of the pass mark by a couple of points and she went to a secondary modern school instead of a grammar school. She always wondered how her life might have been different if she had gone to grammar school.
But actually, there is every chance that it wouldn’t actually have been that different at all.
Isn’t it awful though, that children – including academically bright children – can feel they have failed at age 10 or 11?
Let’s think together about how we can avoid that, reframe what success means, and ensure your child still feels good about themselves regardless of their 11+ score.
The 11+ Exam Rollercoaster Ride
Eleven plus results day – and the weeks and months afterwards – can be an emotional rollercoaster.
I decided to write this article to help you reflect on how to support your child’s emotions following the 11 plus results.
In particular I will focus on those children who feel they have “failed the eleven plus” and how to support them.
What Is The Eleven Plus Test?
The eleven plus is a brief test which determines whether a child is placed in a grammar school or an upper school for their secondary education. (Upper schools used to be called secondary modern schools.)
It is also known as the secondary transfer test.
There is no precise percentage of pupils who “pass” the 11 plus exam, as this depends on the number of grammar school places available. However, the pass mark is usually around 80 per cent.
Beyond determining grammar school qualification, the test results don’t really have any bearing on the child.
For example they will be tested again in their first year of senior school and beyond to determine ability sets and predicted GCSE results.
The eleven plus tests pupils in four areas:
- Verbal Reasoning
- Non-verbal Reasoning
The test takes 45-60 minutes and usually takes place at your child’s school.
It’s completely optional.
You can see some sample questions and practice papers at the 11plusguide.com website.
Eleven Plus and the Grammar School System
The eleven plus exam system is used in only a minority of areas of England these days, including Buckinghamshire, Kent and Devon.
Wales and Scotland no longer have grammar schools.
In Northern Ireland the eleven plus is an important part of the secondary education system.
This article focuses on the English grammar school / selective system is this what I am familiar with.
There are 164 grammar schools remaining in the country. In the past there were many more. There are also some partially selective schools.
There are other state schools which offer separate entrance exams.
Eleven Plus Exam: Why Does This Selective System Exist?
The idea behind grammar schools is that they are highly academic schools centred upon academic excellence, aimed at the most able of students. This focus and the pace of learning may not suit all students, even those who are very high achieving.
For example, some neurodivergent children may struggle with the pace and level of independent learning required (e.g. autistic students or students with ADHD).
Lots of parents send their children to 11+ tutoring. This is controversial as critics of the system feel this is “hothousing” and children may not end up in the school that meets their needs the most.
But many parents feel that they have no choice in order to get the best education for their child, as so many other children attend tutoring.
Of course, for lower income families this can lead to an unfair disadvantage, and is one of the reasons why the system is so controversial.
If Your Child Has “Failed” The Eleven Plus
It’s black and white. Either they achieve the 121 pass mark or they don’t.
The average score is around 100 as the test is standardised.
Children who had always considered themselves bright may feel shattered if they have “failed the eleven plus”. There are huge emotions to deal with, both for them and for you.
Sadly, the 11+ is quite crude. Yes, it picks out some of the brightest children who are well suited to grammar school.
But does it miss other children who would be suited?
Almost certainly. I have seen this for myself amongst families I know personally, and those I have worked with in my clinic over the years.
Also, the eleven plus test defines success according to very narrow criteria, and that’s because our education system does the same. Everybody is defined by their grades in academic subjects.
And yet, children have not failed if they “fail the eleven plus”.
There are so many ways to achieve success.
If your child “failed the eleven plus”, which of the following groups do they fall into?
- A child who is academically able across the board – an all-rounder – but narrowly missed out on a place at grammar school. For this child the sky’s the limit. They could end up choosing any career path. Not going to grammar school won’t stop them in their tracks.
- A child who is academically “average” but who excels in a certain area like sport, music or computing. It doesn’t matter which secondary school they go to. This child still has the same potential and will still be able to follow the area they are passionate in.
- A child who is struggling academically and doesn’t excel in any particular area. This child may find their confidence soars at upper school. Though they may need to work hard in areas they are struggling to get a required mark, they will discover that there are thousands of jobs and careers which are more concerned with your character traits and skills rather than your academic ability.
Recognise Your Own Emotions
You might be thinking, this is all very well and I know what you’ve said is true, but I still feel emotions like:
- Sadness (for me and for my child).
- Guilt. (Maybe I should have pushed them harder? Maybe we should have moved to a different areas so they didn’t have to go through all this pain?)
- Anger (e.g. at the system).
- Resentment or envy of other families whose children have passed the 11+.
Whatever you’re feeling, it’s okay. It’s acceptable.
Actually, it’s helpful to name these feelings.
Then accept them.
You’re feeling what you’re feeling.
It can be helpful to write them down.
If you have a partner, it’s okay if your feelings are completely different from theirs, and it’s okay if you feel resentful that their feelings are not the same as yours.
Remember that the intensity of these feelings won’t last forever.
11 Plus Results: Regulate Yourself First
It’s vital that you find ways to manage your own emotions, so that you have the emotional space to support your child.
Here’s what to do if your emotions are heightened at the moment.
- Soften your shoulders.
- Soften your stomach.
- Relax your face.
- Take some very deep, slow breaths.
The breaths should last five seconds or more (in for 5, out for 5) and the breath should go deep into your belly.
Do this for 5 minutes.
It will trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as “rest and digest”. This is the part of the nervous system which tells your brain, “I am okay. I am safe.”
Do this as many times and as often as you need to.
You can also try lengthening the out-breath, which is highly effective. This short video is a great demonstration.
Make sure that self care is a priority for you and your child.
My article on Adult and Child Mental Health will help you to tweak your routines for a healthy lifestyle.
Allow Negative Emotions
All emotions are acceptable. Anger, resentment, anxiety, sadness… all of them.
If your child has a very strong reaction to finding out they didn’t get the required score and feels that have failed the eleven plus, first of all you may need some “in the moment” tools to calm your child.
Follow the strategies in our article called 5 Emotional Regulation Activities For Children.
You may also find it helpful to read the article called 5 Quick Tips For Staying Calm With Your Child.
In the longer term, your child may have deeper feelings emerging, or existing negative beliefs becoming triggered such as “I am not good enough”. If your child is resilient, they will bounce back from this experience. It may make them feel stronger and more determined. In order to bolster their resilience, focus on the strategies below.
Whilst you should not try to block out or suppress the way your child is feeling, it’s a good idea to plan some enjoyable activities to remind them of the lighter side of life. Eventually balance will be restored but it may take time.
11 Plus: Celebrate Effort Not Achievement
You have a right to celebrate. Your child has shown great courage in stepping up to take the eleven plus exam.
They may have navigated many challenges along the way.
They may have shown great dedication and lots of hard work.
Whatever the outcome, your child has learned some useful life lessons.
They have learned that they can successfully face stressful situations, for example.
They have also learned how to prepare for a test, and this will be very handy in secondary school.
So, how will you celebrate your child’s efforts?
Coping With 11+ Results Disappointment: Take a Whole Child Approach
Don’t let your child feel that one set of test results defines them. They are so much more than that.
Also, they are so much ore than their academic ability.
They will need extra reminders of this in the next few days and weeks (or more).
Look for opportunities to reinforce your child’s sense of themselves in a positive way.
For example, discuss these questions with them or create a visual poster:
- What are my character strengths that will make me happy and successful?
- What are my values? In other words, what’s important to me and how am I going to “live” my values in my life?
- What are my skills and talents?
Moving on From The Eleven Plus Exam: Emphasise the Positives of Different Schools
My son didn’t get a place at his first choice of secondary school (though this was unrelated to the 11+ process) even though we live in the catchment area.
All the other boys in his friendship group got a place.
We had to find unique positives about his allocated school – which luckily is a very good school – to help his brain process and manage the new reality.
Here are some of the many positives we identified:
- It has a “Robot Wars club”. (This was the thing that really sold the school to him! In the end Covid hit us and the Robot Wars club stopped taking place, sadly.)
- It is a much smaller school so it will suit him as he was quiet and shy (less shy now that he is older!).
- It is in the middle of a busy town so he can visit the shops after school.
Every school has unique positives. You may not yet know which school your child will be allocated but you can make a list of the unique positives of each school with your child.
11 Plus: How to Deal With “Successful” Peers
If your child wanted to go to grammar school one of the hardest things is having to react gracefully to wards others who have passed.
It’s hard for you as well as your child.
You may feel that your child is just as bright and the horrible sense of unfairness may hit you when you witness their happiness.
The average parent recognises that the eleven plus results are private and not for open discussion. However, a small minority of parents and children may lack this awareness.
There’s no easy solution but it’s okay to feel all this. It doesn’t make you a bad person. Eventually you will be able to feel happy for this family.
Plan your response in advance and help your child to do the same.
For example, you may decide to prepare a simple stock phrase such as “congratulations on getting a grammar school place, that’s great news”. Then aim to steer the conversation on to a different topic.
It’s helpful to plan what you will say to other parents if they ask about your child’s results, and what your child will say to their peers.
They might decide to say, for example: “I didn’t get the pass mark but I came close and I’m looking forward to secondary school.”
Appealing the Eleven Plus Result
There is an elephant in the room. If your child failed the eleven plus by a narrow margin you may decide to appeal.
This can be a tricky and stressful process.
Be sure your child wants this, and think carefully about whether this is the right thing for them in the long term.
The appeals process can take a number of months and results in a prolonged period of uncertainty.
If you decide an appeal is the right decision for your child…
First of all, make an appointment to see your child’s primary school head teacher.
If they support an appeal, you stand a much higher chance of success.
The primary school can provide you with a Selection Review pack. This will detail the full process for appealing and your next steps.
The process for grammar school appeals may differ from area to area.
Be prepared for a further rollercoaster of emotions over the next weeks and months. Ideally, chat with another parent who has been through the process.
Summary: How to Support Your Child If They Have “Failed the Eleven Plus”
You, your child and your partner may be feeling very complicated or strong emotions right now, and these emotions may be different for each person.
Remember that the emotions will lessen as time passes.
Allow yourself and your child to feel these emotions, but try to plan some enjoyable activities to give everyone a break from tricky or big emotions.
Your child still has the same unique strengths, skills and abilities they had before they got their results.
Their potential to thrive and succeed is still the same.
The world is their oyster.
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years.
In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children. Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need. Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.
Join They Are The Future’s free Facebook group for regular tips on supporting teens and pre-teens with their mental health! Join the group: Parent Tips for Positive Child Mental Health UK.