A Complete Overview of the 13 + Common Entrance Exams in the UK

As a parent, you might be considering which independent senior school you want your child to attend. To prove their academic abilities, many independent schools require potential pupils to take 13 plus entrance exams.

The 13 plus exam process is perhaps a little intimidating because you want your child to excel in their studies in a proactive learning environment.

We'll take an in-depth look at what the 13 plus exams are, how the exams are structured and the admissions process to understand what's involved.

1. The exams will give your child a head-start on acing their GCSEs if they get into an independent senior school.

2. A more significant range of entrance exams at 13 plus has transformed the school selection process.

3. While the exams are structured according to the school's specifications, there are core subjects that always come up, so your child must be familiar with certain subjects.

4. When it comes to marking, it's vital to know what examiners are looking for and how it may differ according to entry requirements.

5. Arguably the most critical step is registering your child to sit the 13 + entrance exams, so you need to know the key dates and understand the application process.

What is the 13 plus entrance exam?

The 13 plus entrance exams are for pupils who want to attend an independent senior school in England. Each school chooses which subjects will be tested in the exams and for some subjects there can be two or three levels they want to examine. Ultimately, they offer a way into some of the best senior schools in the country based on your child's academic ability.

Entry into an independent private school improves your child's chances of attaining higher grades in their GCSEs. Statistics from the Independent Schools Council in 2019 show, "95.6% of Year 11 exams at independent schools graded C/4 or higher, compared to the national average of 67.3%."

When do common entrance exams take place?

The 13 plus or Common Entrance (CE) examinations happen in Year 8. There are three sessions in the year – November, January, or May/June.

Who sets the 13 plus exams?

The organization in charge of producing the 13 Plus Common Entrance exams are The Independent Schools Examination Board (ISEB). Each year they join forces with highly experienced teachers and headteachers from some of the best independent schools to set the tests. Schools can also set their own 13 plus entrance exams.

Over time the exams and the assessments offered to students have been adapted to be more inclusive. These changes have been transformative for students taking the exams and the schools who use these tests in their selection process.

The ISEB and schools have added tiered papers, online Common Pre-Tests, exams in Mandarin Chinese, and Common Academic Scholarships to diversify the exams.

Which senior schools use 13+ exams?

There are over 2000 independent schools in the UK. Many independent schools are selective and use the Common Entrance exam at 13 plus (ISEB) or their own 13 plus exam.

Independent schools are private schools, which means they are fee-paying. They can also be referred to as public schools. They are not government funded and don't have to follow the National Curriculum. Some senior schools also offer scholarships.

Several independent schools have junior schools, so they tend to set the entrance exams themselves. Alternatively, either you as the parent or your child's prep school register and enter pupils to sit entrance exams.

What subjects are included in the 13 plus entrance exams?

There are 11 potential subjects which will go on to be taught at a senior level. English, Mathematics and Science are the 13 plus core subjects, and these are compulsory. Pupils can also sit exams in French, Geography, German, Classical Greek, History, Latin, Religious Studies and Spanish. Each core subject and languages have examinations at more than one level.

The 13 plus exam structure

The written exams typically take four days to complete with time set aside for oral and listening exams for subjects such as modern languages. Individual 13 plus exam papers take anything from 40 minutes to just over an hour to complete. The oral and listening tests for languages will be shorter.

As mentioned, they sit these tests in Year 8, and different schools will have their own set of requirements, so it's best to have an idea of how marking works.

Common Academic Scholarship at 13+

Scholarships at 13 plus are sometimes awarded to children who do exceptionally well in their Common Entrance exams. It's important to know this because you need to decide if you want your child to sit this type of exam, especially if they excel in an area such as sports or music.

Many schools will use the ISEB Common Academic Scholarship examination papers. They prepare their questions based on the same syllabus as the Common Entrance exam. The exam covers the following subjects - English, Mathematics, Science, History, Geography, Religious Studies, French and Latin. These papers tend to be marked by the senior school.

Common Pre-Tests

In Year 6 or 7, your child can sit a Common pre-test which will enable the school to have a list of students who will likely be suitable applicants for entry into Year 9. Primarily, they assess your child's potential. These tests are set by GL Assessment which offers multiple-choice questions and covers English, maths, verbal reasoning and non-verbal reasoning.

Your child only needs to sit these tests once even if you are applying for several schools. If they impress a prospective senior school in these examinations, they might receive an unconditional offer from an independent school. Most commonly, your child will receive a conditional offer which will be based on the outcome of their 13 plus entrance exams in Year 8.

There is a small chance that highly selective schools will tell parents their child cannot sit the 13 plus examination for that school, but they may run a reserve list. Do check with your school to see exactly how they use the Common pre-tests in their admissions process.

Assessment in Mandarin Chinese

The ISEB also have an assessment in Mandarin Chinese, which is done online, and it's automatically marked. Although an online test, it can only be carried out in school.

How are the exams marked?

Some schools may only need a level one or two in a particular subject to pass, but it depends on the school. It might be that your school requires your child to attain a level three in a subject to progress.

The entrance exams or CE papers are sent to the senior school to be marked. There is a marking scheme set out by ISEB for the Common Entrance at 13 plus exams, but it's up to the school how they mark it.

Therefore, it's essential to check with your prospective school what their entrance criteria and mark scheme are. If you don't secure a place at your first choice of senior school, they can send on the papers to the second choice.

Exam stages – Key dates

The exams will be held a test centre or your child's school on a set date that they will provide you with, but here are the key dates to remember:

• Visit school open days at the end of Year 6 with your family and get an idea of which school would suit them best

• October (Year 7) – ISEB Common Pre-Tests in Year 7 for entry in Year 9

• October (Year 8) – The deadline for entrance exams and scholarship applications which might require a deposit fee

• November to January (Year 8) – Scholarship assessments and 13+ entrance exam days (may also be in January and/or May/June)

• January (Year 8) – 13+ entrance exam days

• May/June (Year 8) - 13+ entrance exam days

• The speed of the results will differ from school to school, so do check with your potential school what their marking timeframe will be

Registering your child for 13 plus entrance exams

If your child attends a state school or an independent school who don't use entrance exams, they will need to be registered by a parent or guardian. You can register online via the ISEB website. You will have to find out whether your school can provide space to do and invigilate the exams. Alternatively, you might need to use a test centre.

For prep school attendees that do use CEEs, they will most likely be registered by their school. They should also be able to sit those tests at their school.

For both the 11+ and 13+ Common Entrance exams, there is a registration fee of £125 charged by the relevant exam conducting organisation.

Why are formal examinations so important?

Your child is about to enter senior school. Therefore, being familiar with the formal examination process will boost their confidence when it comes to doing their GCSEs and A-Levels.

The path they choose after leaving school will require important life skills, and exams such as the 13 plus will prepare them for what lies ahead.

Our ClassRX tutors come from leading institutions such as Oxford, Cambridge and Ivy League schools. They are well-equipped to offer your child their expertise at a time that suits you. They can familiarise your child with the exam process by using 13 plus past papers and practise papers in a safe and engaging learning environment.

Do you want your child to go into their exams confident and well-prepared? Send us a message to see how we can help them excel in their exams.


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ISEB. (2020). Common Entrance at 13. Retrieved from ISEB: