What are GL, CEM & ISEB?

Last updated: January 31, 2023


The two main exam boards used for the 11 Plus grammar school exams are CEM (Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring) and GL Assessment (Granada Learning). A third examining body, ISEB (independent Schools Examining Board), is used by over 70 independent schools. Recently due to Covid-19, more independent schools have been choosing to use the ISEB Pretest as this is online, whereas GL and CEM exams are paper-based exams and taken in exam halls.

When preparing for the 11 Plus exams it is important to know which exam board a school’s assessment will be provided by. The exam boards assess children in different ways, therefore preparations will differ accordingly. 

Exam boards broadly cover English, Maths, Verbal Reasoning and Non-Verbal Reasoning. However there are key differences in:

  • The format of the exam papers
  • The type of questions posed
  • The time given to students to answer the questions
  • Which schools they’re used for

Key differences between GL, CEM and ISEB

GL Assessment (Granada Learning) CEM (Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring) ISEB (Independent Schools Examinations Board)


September of Year 6

September of Year 6

There are two examination sessions each year, in November and January of Year 6 - most pupils sit the exam in January.


English, Maths, Verbal and Non-Verbal Reasoning.

Numerical, Verbal and Non-Verbal ability. CEM exams align more closely to the National Curriculum for Key Stage 2 than GL.

English, Maths, Verbal and Non-Verbal Reasoning. Standardised for the independent sector.

Mainly used for

Grammar school entrance exam

Grammar school entrance exam

Independent school entrance exam

Exam style

Multiple choice and standard answer format.

Schools can choose from English, maths, verbal reasoning and non-verbal reasoning. 

Papers are typically 50 minutes each

Multiple choice with a combination of topics in no particular order. 2 x 60 minute tests. 

Timings are allocated per section (6-12 minutes). Students can only proceed to the next section when they are told to do so and may not refer back to previous sections.

There are typically more questions than are likely to be answered in the time allocated, and the weighting of each subject for your child’s final mark will be unknown before the exam.

Multiple choice and adaptive online test. Subjects can be taken together or separately.

English - 40 minutes.

Maths - 40 minutes.

Verbal reasoning - 25 minutes.

Non-verbal reasoning - 30 minutes.

What is GL Assessment?

GL 11 Plus tests are the most commonly used grammar school entrance exam in the UK. Assessments are currently used by grammar schools in Birmingham, Buckinghamshire, Kent, Dorset, Lincolnshire, South West Hertfordshire, Warwickshire, and the London Boroughs of Barnet, Bromley, Enfield, Kingston-upon-Thames and Sutton.

Please note that it is worth checking the specific requirements of the schools you are interested in as they may change their assessments at short notice.

GL Exam Content

The exam contents are based on the English and maths national curriculum from Year 5 and 6. English exam topics will include reading comprehension and spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPaG)

GL Exam Structure

GL usually use separate papers for each subject.

GL uses an Assessment Question Bank which means that through a lot of practice and preparation a child can familiarise themselves with the type of questions and content posed in the exam. 

  • English: 49–56 questions in 50 minutes
  • Maths: 50 questions in 50 minutes
  • Verbal reasoning: 80 questions in 60 minutes
  • Non-verbal reasoning: 80 questions in 60 minutes

GL Answer Format

Assessment answer format varies within each paper, they include a mixture of multiple choice and standard format.

What is CEM?

In 2022, CEM exams were used by grammar schools in Berkshire, Gloucestershire, Medway, Shropshire, Slough, Trafford, Walsall, Wolverhampton, and the London Boroughs of Bexley and Redbridge.

The CEM is designed to enable children to demonstrate their academic ability without the need of excessive preparation. This ensures that exams support developed abilities in reading and maths that rely on genuine understanding rather than learning through repetition. With this assessment model, previous exam papers are not published. 

Important note: towards the end of 2022, CEM announced that from September 2023, they will be changing the format of its exams from traditional paper-based tests to online assessments. This change may have an impact on which schools use CEM as their exam provider. It is likely that the majority of schools that used CEM for paper-based testing will switch to GL Assessment.

Some schools may continue to use the online format of CEM exams, known as CEM Select.

CEM Select Exam Content

The CEM exams do not have separate tests by subjects.

Instead they group English and verbal reasoning skills together into one test known as the verbal reasoning paper, and maths (referred as numerical reasoning) and non verbal reasoning skills into another test.

Unlike the other two exam boards, CEM’s verbal reasoning paper will only have reading comprehension, no SPaG.

The exam contents are based on the national curriculum from Year 5 and 6.

CEM Select exams are split into six components of 20–30 questions each:

  • Comprehension
  • Anagrams
  • Missing words
  • Shuffled sentences
  • General mathematics
  • Pictures

CEM Select Exam Structure

Tests are 60 minutes each with each paper being split into shorter timed sections of 6 – 12 minutes.

Students can only proceed to the next section when they are told to do so and may not refer back to previous sections.

There are typically more questions than are likely to be answered in the time allocated, and the weighting of each subject for your child’s final mark will be unknown before the exam.

CEM Select Answer Format

CEM Select online assessments use multiple choice answering.

What is ISEB?

The ISEB Common Pre-Test is commonly used for entrance exams by independent schools. It is currently used by over 70 independent schools in England as part of their 11+ or 13+ entrance procedures.

Around 40 independent schools also use CEM as part of their entrance admission process. Therefore it is important to know exactly what type of assessments your target school uses. 

ISEB Exam Content

The content inside an ISEB test covers English and maths national curriculum objectives from Year 5 only. However, content is more unique to ISEB and standardised for the independent sector.

ISEB Exam Structure

The ISEB exam consists of four separate tests which can be taken consecutively or separately. The exams in total take 2 hours and 15 minutes with:

  • English and Maths: 40 minutes
  • Non-Verbal Reasoning: 30 minutes
  • Verbal Reasoning: 25 minutes.


Similar to the GL assessment, the English paper is split into two sections: reading comprehension and SPaG. Exams are taken online at the student’s own school or at the target school.

ISEB Answer Format

Answer format for all the papers are multiple choice only.

ISEB is the only one of out the three exam boards which have an adaptive test, this means that questions will vary in difficulty depending on performance.

There is an ISEB Test Walkthrough available for students to gain some experience and familiarise themselves in the tests.


Is GL harder than CEM?

Both grammar school exam providers assess similar strengths overall. Generally the CEM verbal reasoning 11 Plus exams mirror more closely to the KS2 curriculum in comparison to the verbal reasoning and English papers set by GL. Therefore it may be assumed that CEM is easier than the GL assessment. However, because of the structural difference in questions, CEM requires greater comprehension skills and a wide-ranging vocabulary. Meanwhile GL calls for additional strength in logical reasoning, spelling and grammar.

What is the 11+ pass mark?

The pass mark is different in each Local Education Authority (LEA) and may vary from year to year. To give you a rough guideline for practice papers, the aim is to consistently score 90% (or more) on practice papers.

How to prepare for the 11+

Examberry Year 4 and Year 5 courses are structured to prepare students for all exam types; they include excellent course material, practice tests, and teach exam time management and good exam technique.

The Year 6 course, which runs from September to December, is geared towards second stage grammar school exams and the independent sector.

For those who have not been able to attend our full 37 week courses we offer Year 4 Summer Intensive and Year 5 Summer Intensive 2 week courses.

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