Introduction to CEM 11 Plus

CEM stands for the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring, a research group based at the School for Education, University of Durham (CEM 11+). The CEM produce 11 plus entrance tests for schools and local authorities. Many schools and regions have, in 2013, opted to use the CEM 11+ entrance test in place of GL-Assessment tests which have dominated the market.

CEM had built its reputation on profiling of primary pupils’ progress and potential using periodic tests (usually annual) assessing mainly reading and mathematics ability with products such as PIPS (Performance Indicators in Primary Schools) and InCAS which is a “diagnostic, computer-adaptive assessment”.

CEM traditionally has been a proponent of ‘Adaptive Learning’, which in simple terms are interactive computer based questions where the next question or ‘task’ is based on the response (and sometimes response time) of the previous question or task.

For example at the start an initial base level question is set, if the student gets it right the next question is pitched at the same or slightly harder level and if the student gets it wrong the next question is pitched at the same or slightly easier level. This is an iterative process. At the end of a series of questions or tasks the average or final level attained is used as yard stick to measure the relative performance of each student in the cohort.

Such tests are inevitably computer based and thus CEMs departure into written 11 plus exams it seems is both a departure away from computer based evaluation and the core values of ‘Adaptive Learning’ championed by the School of Education at the University of Durham.

The 11 plus exams market before CEM

The 11 plus exams, whose raison d’être is to measure the potential of a child in year 6 for entry into senior school at year 7, usually assess a child’s intelligence, speed and accuracy.

Granada Learning Assessment (GL-Assessment/GL) who commission papers from NFER (National Foundation for Educational Research) has for nearly two decades been the choice exam administrators for most UK Local Education Authorities (LEAs), independent grammar schools and many independent senior schools due to the excellent reputation of NFER.

Hitherto the four subjects traditionally tested in 11 plus exams are english, mathematics, verbal and non-verbal reasoning as demarcated by NFER. It is worth noting that for some super-selective schools English composition is also set which is independent of NFER.

To complete the national picture it should be pointed out that in some cases some schools do write their own papers, and in some regions head teachers from a consortium of schools take it in turn to write papers in English and/or mathematics whilst opting for GL-Assessment’s offering in verbal or non-verbal reasoning which are not only hard to construct but also difficult to make them age appropriate and unambiguous. Furthermore there are other providers such as Moray House (University of Edinburgh).

Details on the traditional GL-Assessment subjects and questions ‘styles’ (which in essence is ‘the syllabus’) are well documented on this website, with thousands of free to download questions to practice as printable e-papers or try to online. As you would expect from any professional examining body these styles are continuously tweaked and revised as is the standard of the vocabulary tested.

In recent years with a plethora of publications targeting the GL-Assessment “syllabus” (including a ‘how to’ subject guides by GL-Assessment, the exam administrators, themselves), coupled with a multitude of online resources and mushrooming tuition centres not only have the exams become more ‘transparent’ (thereby deemed “highly preparable”) but also deemed to ‘disadvantage’ parents not engaging a tuition centres. Furthermore many tuition centres had become ‘11-plus factories’ in that they sought to hardwire the child’s mind to process known GL styles of question, thus preparing them for the exam rather than the demands of academic rigour ahead or taking into account of their suitability for such schools.

Not surprisingly various authorities have reacted to the above by seeking an alternative examiner, in particular searching for 11 plus examinations that could not be “prepared” for and thereby supposedly eliminating the scourge of the tuition centre at the same time. Thus CEM, who market their 11 plus exams as “unpreparable” has surfaced as a leading candidate to replace NFER based examinations.


Given the suggested rationale cited two questions arise. Is CEM any less preparable? Were the authorities that have adopted CEM right to do so?

We can answer the first question by noting that in areas where CEM first took a foothold several years ago (e.g. Midlands) there are more tutors and tuition companies servicing the 11 plus entrance exams ‘marketplace’ than ever before. Given the longevity of these establishments since CEM was first introduced it is clear that parents certainly feel that investment in tuition preparation is a sound investment producing the desired results. Thus again it is boiling down to the depth of the parents pockets, so no change there, if you pardon the pun.

Moreover it is worth noting that the trend does not mean that NFER (National Foundation of Educational Research) got it wrong and CEM got it right. Both are highly respected research institutions in education pursing the same brief: measuring the potential of a year 6 child who has gone through the state’s national curriculum.

Whilst GL-Assessment (who market NFER products) has four core subjects (English, mathematics, verbal and non-verbal reasoning) broken down into sub-topics for their 11 plus assessment it is interesting to note that CEM cites verbal (including comprehensions and Cloze passages), non-verbal and numerical reasoning as the core subjects.

Furthermore CEM’s InCAS system (used for assessment of children aged up to 11 years old) assesses on very similar core elements as the GL question styles:

  • Word Recognition
  • Word Decoding
  • Comprehension
  • Spelling
  • General Mathematics
  • Mental Arithmetic
  • Picture Vocabulary
  • Non-verbal Ability

It naturally follows that if CEM advocate the above areas of assessment on their InCAS system for children aged up to 11 years in age then they are unlikely to diverge too far with their CEM 11 Plus exams.

Closer examination between the these two popular producers of the exam (NFER and CEM), shows there is considerable overlap between the two examining bodies however the “style” of questions (i.e. how the child is tested for a particular ability or piece of knowledge) will naturally vary between the two.

For instance GL-Assessment will test Comprehensions in a traditional style by having up to a two page passage followed by up to two dozen questions whereas the CEM exams are known to have both mini passages and short passages with as little half a dozen or less questions.

However CEM have also adapted ‘Cloze tests’ which are passages where some words or some letters of the words are removed and the student is asked to complete these words such that the passage maintains integrity (the missing words are either chosen from a multiple choice list, a word bank or partially revealed by exposing some of the letters). Thus almost the same ability is being tested, comprehension, albeit differently presented. There are arguments on the merits of both approaches.

Usually the reported CEM style of papers tend to be ‘mixed’ in nature, that is partially multiple choice and partially written answers. In the latter the answers are entered in boxes, one character or number per box. One should note that if an area is deemed to be setting solely multiple choice papers by the local education authority then there is likely to be a propensity to be heavily biased towards comprehension(s); since a number of CEM question styles reported on the forum of this website do not easily lend themselves to multiple choice presentation.

Is CEM 11 Plus “Preparable”?

In view of the fact that both the core institutions (CEM and NFER, National Foundation for Educational Research) have over decades built an excellent reputation in primary and secondary assessment it is highly unlikely that what and how it is being tested will be that contradictory.

It therefore follows that if it can be argued that GL-Assessment 11 plus exams are “preparable” then by corollary so are CEM 11 Plus exams, albeit to a lesser degree at the moment due to the lack of transparency (which at present is disadvantaging the less well-off parents).

The core of any primary school exam will be predominantly based on literacy, numeracy, vocabulary etc. which should form both the cornerstone of any child’s primary education as well as the core 11 plus elements being tested.

Parents will do well to bear in mind that irrespective of the examining body prevalent in your region these 11 plus exams are a primary school exam and not rocket science. Children who are naturally bright will excel at the 11 plus exams as long as they have some familiarity with the styles of questions especially those children who are likely to get anxious and perform below par and thereby miss out on a place they would have otherwise deserved.

The indication so far is that CEM adheres closer to the National Curriculum than NFER though this is not consistent across the regions where it has been adopted. Consequently it has fewer “styles” of questions but that is countered by a more demanding time pressure and higher level of vocabulary in order to spread the field.

However since many “CEM style” 11 plus publications are known to be in the pipeline it is only a matter of time that the CEM 11 plus exams will be no less preparable than any other examination board, but at least it is more flexible in its approach than equivalent GL papers by not committing to a set of styles and thereby becoming a moving target, which some tuition centres are exploiting parents with.

Concluding remarks

The CEM exams varies by region and in using higher levels of vocabulary in lieu of more demanding styles of reasoning tends to favour children from an independent schooling background which tend to work one to two years ahead of the national curriculum. Moreover it is disadvantage to multilingual children whose first language is not English but nonetheless children are just as bright and deserving. Making the question ‘styles’ more transparent i.e. public, will level the playing field for all the children irrespective of the ability of the parent to pay. At present the exams could discriminate against less well-off parents and immigrant children.

If not releasing the ‘syllabus’ or full sample papers or familiarisation papers approach is deemed correct by the authorities then the implication is that all the GCSE and Advanced-level (A-level) exam boards have got it wrong for years.

In time as more publications and online applications address these CEM styles it is likely to be proven to be no less “unpreparable” than any other exam.

Our thanks to our regional moderators from our forum (link) in constructing this article.

Current CEM 11 Plus Regions

Currently the following regions have adopted the CEM 11 Plus Exams.

Parts of the following regions use CEM

  • Berkshire, Reading – Kendrick School, Reading School (Boys)
  • Devon Grammar Schools
  • Essex – Chelmsford County High School
  • North London – Latymer School, Henrietta Barnet School
  • Trafford Consortium Schools – Altrincham Grammar School for Girls, Sale Grammar School, Stretford Grammar School and Urmston Grammar School.
  • Wiltshire – Bishop Wordsworth’s
  • Wirral Grammar Schools
  • Yorkshire – Heckmondwike Grammar

This list is not exhaustive and subject to change without notice.