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Independent Schools in the UK: Complete Guide

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

About Independent Schools

St Pauls Girls School
Image property of St Paul's Girls' School, www.spgs.org

This comprehensive guide aims to give you a clear and concise overview of key information regarding independent schools. First, it is important to understand what an independent school actually is!

An independent school, also known as a private school, is a school which is privately administered and funded (fees are directed to parents/guardians of their students) as opposed to being government funded or administered.

Private schools are still inspected by the government through Ofsted or the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI), if they are members of the associations that make up the Independent Schools Council. You can search for a school’s Ofsted report here and a school’s ISI report here

All children applying for a place at an independent school will usually sit an entrance exam, known as the 11 Plus (11+). Independent schools entrance exams tend to vary more than grammar school entrance exams because individual independent schools may administer their own exams and have their own unique admissions process. 

Candidates looking to gain a place in Year 7 typically go through the admissions process when they are in Year 6 although the application process often starts when they are in Year 5. There can be variations to this, some schools may require registration years or weeks in advance of the start of the first school term.   

Independent schools are sometimes part of consortiums, which are groups of two or more schools that use the same application process, entrance exam, exam dates, and exam provider.

Key information for 2024 entry into Independent Schools at 11 plus (11+)

  • Registration


Registration is when you, as your child’s parents or guardian, submit an application for your child to sit the school’s 11 Plus (11+) entrance exam.

Independent schools may open their registration at any point of the year, or they may just leave their registration portal open year round. Generally, registration portals open anytime from April to June, when your child is in Year 5 (it is important to note that each school has a unique registration process so registration dates and deadlines can vary from these months).

You will likely be asked to fill out a registration form and submit a registration fee (which may be non-refundable) through either the school’s or the consortium’s website; you may also be asked to provide additional information like a reference from your child’s current school.

Registration for bursaries and scholarships may be included in or separate from this process so it is important to check if you need to submit multiple forms if you are hoping to apply your child for a bursary or scholarship.

  • Open events


Open events (usually held in the morning or evening) are opportunities for prospective students and their parents to visit the school in person or online through a virtual tour.

Open events can include guided tours, Q&As, pamphlets, the opportunity to walk around the school & speak to staff members.

Schools usually have booking forms & information about their open events on their websites.

  • Exams


Most independent school 11 Plus (11+) entrance exams take place in the November to February that your child is a year 6 student.

Some schools will choose to have one test day with multiple papers and others may have multiple stages where pupils who score the highest in Stage 1 will be invited back for a Stage 2 test and potentially an interview.

Exam types and formats can vary depending on if the school, consortium, or an exam board like Granda Learning (GL Assessment) or Independent Schools Examination Board (ISEB) writes the exam. 

You can read more about the format of 11+ exams below.


  • Interviews


Some schools require interviews with prospective students as an extra admissions procedure. 

These interviews are often informal, 10-20 minute conversations and are a way for the school to get to know your child to see if they are a good fit for the school.

Sometimes these interviews are included in the final offer-making decision.

These interviews may occur before or after either stage of the exams.

  • Results 


Final results of the 11+ exams may be sent out at any time following the exam and/or interview process depending on the school; you will definitely receive results before 1 March 2024 as this is National Offer Day.

It is important to note that high results in the 11+ exam do not automatically mean that your child will be offered a place in Year 7 at the school of your choice 

Many schools will have priority and/or oversubscription criteria in place, giving priority to children based on varying factors such as rank order of an age-standardised test score, if they are a (previously) looked after child (PLAC), live in the catchment/priority area (a map or eligible postcodes may be listed on the school’s website), or have a family member at the school as a staff member/student. 


  • Appeals


If you are unhappy with the school place your child has been offered, or feel there has been a mistake, you are often given the chance to appeal this decision. 

The appeals process will vary depending on the school or the consortium so it is important to check what the process is for your chosen school, typically in the case of independent schools appeals decisions are made via an independent panel.

Common questions about Independent Schools

  • How does scoring in exams work?


Children will typically take their 11+ independent school exam anytime from November – February in Year 6.

The content of this test varies depending on the school, consortium or the exam board administering the test, however, it will assess some, or all, of these subjects: English (with creative writing), maths, verbal and non-verbal reasoning.

All marks from each paper your child sits are combined and they are given a total score, the score is usually age-standardised, reducing the risk of children born later in the academic year having a disadvantage.

If the school you are applying to has two stages to their exam, your child may receive two sets of scores: the first following Stage 1 giving them admittance into Stage 2, the second following Stage 2 which is their final test score.

The final test score will then be placed in rank order, places will be allocated based on the school’s admissions criteria; it is important to note that test score alone cannot guarantee admission into the school and other admission criteria can often take priority.


  • What is a school’s priority admission criteria?


Most independent schools prioritise admission for children from disadvantaged backgrounds often (previously) looked after children, children with medical or social needs (e.g. with an ECHP), or children who are eligible for Pupil Premium (free school meals).

It is important to note that although these children are often given priority admission, they still usually have to achieve a qualifying score in their 11+ exam which is set by the school or consortium.

Independent schools may have a priority or catchment area which will consider the distance a prospective student lives from the school when determining places.

Sometimes a school will give priority to the children who have familial ties to the school, for example, if they are the child of a current staff member who has been at the school or they have a sibling currently at the school.


  • What is the PAN?


The Published Admissions Number, or PAN, is the number of spaces available at a school for the relevant age group.

You can find the PAN of many of these schools in our Exam Information posts on key schools here.  


  • What is a consortium?


Consortiums are groups of two or more schools that use the same application process, entrance exam, exam dates and exam provider as each other. Schools in a consortium tend to be in the same county or region as one another.

The aim of being in a consortium is to reduce the number of entrance exams a child has to take, as you can be considered for any of the grammar schools in a consortium by taking one 11+ exam.

Some examples of independent school consortiums are: 

  • The London 11+ Consortium
  • North London Girls’ School Consortium

The 10 Highest-Ranking Independent Schools in the UK

The information used in this list was published by the Sunday Times in their Parent Power 2023 article. The list is ranked using the school’s A Level and GCSE results from 2022.

Girls (11 to 18) – A Level: 99.5% (A*-B) – GCSE: 97.9% (A*/A/9/8/7)

Boys (7 to 18) – A Level: 98.8% (A*-B) – GCSE: 98.9% (A*/A/9/8/7)

Boys, mixed Sixth Form – A Level: 99.3% (A*-B) – GCSE: 97.7% (A*/A/9/8/7)

Girls – A Level: 98% (A*-B) – GCSE: 98.3% (A*/A/9/8/7)

Girls – A Level: 98.3% (A*-B) – GCSE: 97.2% (A*/A/9/8/7) 

Mixed – A Level: 98.7% (A*-B) – GCSE: 96% (A*/A/9/8/7)

Boys, mixed Sixth Form – A Level: 97.5% (A*-B) – GCSE: 98% (A*/A/9/8/7)

Boys – A Level: 97.8% (A*-B) – GCSE: 97.3% (A*/A/9/8/7)

Mixed – A Level: 98.4% (A*-B) – GCSE: 93.8% (A*/A/9/8/7)

Girls – A Level: 97.2% (A*-B) – GCSE: 96% (A*/A/9/8/7)

Exam formats and boards for Independent School 11 plus (11+) entrance exams

Besides the school’s own exam board, the main exam boards for the 11+ exam are: Granada Learning (GL) Assessments, CEM (Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring), and the Independent Schools Examination Board tests (ISEB).

In the case of GL Assessments, the exams tend to be paper-based and non-adaptive, meaning the difficulty of the questions does not change depending on your child’s answers. The exam may test a combination of subject areas including English, maths, verbal reasoning and non-verbal reasoning depending on the school. 

Whereas, in the case of CEM, the exams have now switched to being entirely online multiple-choice tests which are marked by a computer. CEM covers all the topics mentioned above, however, all the subjects are integrated in shorter timed sections. CEM exams require greater comprehension skills and a wide-ranging vocabulary, focusing on national curriculum content, whereas GL Assessment papers tend to place more emphasis on logical reasoning and spelling.

In the case of the ISEB Common Pre-Test, the online, adaptive, multiple-choice 2.25 hour exam is made up of four sections: English, maths, verbal reasoning and non-verbal reasoning. Some independent schools use the results of the ISEB Common Pre-Test as the sole decider for their admissions whilst other independent schools use the pre-test to filter candidates into their own Stage 2 Assessment. 

One of the main differences between independent and grammar school exams, is that independent school exams might have a creative writing task as part of the English section of the exam. For this task, typically your child is asked to continue on from the extract provided in the reading comprehension section of the task. They will be marked on spelling, punctuation, grammar (SPAG), paragraph/sentence structure, vocabulary, and originality.

Pros of applying to an Independent School at 11 Plus (11+)

  • Consistently impressive academic results: the highest-ranking independent schools take up the top-performing spaces in the national ranking league tables for schools, namely The Sunday Times Parent Power National Ranking with their students achieving outstanding GCSE, A Level, and/or IB results


  • Expansive co-curricular/extra-curricular programmes: as these schools are privately funded, parents/guardians/school administrators can contribute financially to exciting events, trips, and facilities for the students like visits abroad, technological devices, sporting facilities


  • Catering towards special educational needs: some independent schools offer teaching for students with special educational needs


  • Diverse curriculum: as there is not a requirement for these schools to follow the national curriculum, there is space for your child to have a diverse educational experience through the school’s own curriculum which may break beyond the boundaries of the national curriculum

Cons of applying to an Independent School at 11 Plus (11+)

  • The pressure & stress put on children: As children are in Year 6 when they take the 11+, with many starting preparation in Years 4 and 5, many people worry about the extra pressure placed upon children as these exams can often be unnecessarily stressful, and beyond this, if they gain entry into an independent school they may have to upkeep high academic standards particularly if they have a scholarship or they may lose said scholarship


  • Class privilege & expenses: Some argue that selective entrance exams like the 11+ invite the need for private tuition; independent schools are generally expensive and not always affordable for lower income families


  • Oversubscribed: Place for well-known independent schools, like those in London, are very competitive so they can have higher admissions standards making them very hard to get into and your child may end up on a waiting list; it is likely you will have to begin preparations for admissions well in advance


  • Longer days: Longer classes, longer breaks, and co-curricular/extra-curricular activities may lead to lengthier days

How to prepare your child for an Independent School's (11+) exam

The most useful way to prepare for an 11+ entrance exam is to use practice tests to familiarise your child with the exam content and format.

These tests can help your child to build their confidence and improve their performance in the exam.

For independent school 11+ preparation, we recommend the following packs: 

11+ Practice Tests

Key Recommendations for a multiple-choice exam

Key Recommendations for a standard format exam

Further Recommendations

Mock Exams

Find out more about Examberry’s in-person mock exams: please click here.


Find out more about Examberry’s in-person and online tuition courses for independent school 11+ preparation: please click here.

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