Thoughts from the Study: Exits and entrances
Peter Tait explores the reasons for the shift in senior school entrance procedures.
Common entrance found itself in the news late last year, with the announcement that three well-known senior schools would no longer be using the exam. For parents, this was potentially rather unsettling as Common Entrance has been a steadfast prerequisite for entry to many such senior schools for decades. But the reality is that the entrance examination landscape has been in a state of flux for some time.
For several years, entrance into a growing number of senior schools has been through pre-tests and interviews, usually conducted in Years 6 or 7, with the result that – in some schools' eyes – Common Entrance finds itself in a less prominent position. Parents, however, should not worry; senior schools are as keen as ever for pupils to fill their schools. So what is driving this change in entrance procedure and the shift away from Common Entrance? One reason cited is the extra marking load on senior schools and that it's a 'burden' which children just no longer need to go through. Some go further, arguing that by rejecting it, prep schools are then free to teach a wider curriculum.
Parents should treat all this rhetoric with a pinch of salt. Senior schools have long benefited from an exam they have not had to pay for – that lot falls to parents. Nor have they had to prepare, supervise or even justify the exam, so there were clearly more pragmatic reasons for change. The most obvious is that filling their rolls earlier makes good business sense. As a result, across the country, different arrangements are in place whereby children are tested through a series of isometric or 'pre-tests' – usually verbal/non-verbal reasoning, Mathematics and English, and usually in Year 6 or 7. These are normally followed by school visits and interviews, after which a place is offered – or not.
For prep schools, the staggering of entrance exams over two years, plus subsequent interruptions for school visits and interviews, have added to an already unsatisfactory situation that exists with scholarship exams that happen anytime from January to May in the final year, usually with their own syllabus and bespoke test papers. Early testing should give prep schools freedom to teach a different curriculum – if only the senior schools could agree common test days for entrance and scholarship exams. Sadly, this seems unlikely. At least with the current arrangements, there's less pressure on children than in the past, when places were not offered until June of the final year. Any remaining pressure can be reduced by parents not placing unhelpful expectations on their children. Few parents believe any examinations are 'tutor-proof', but should only embark on tutoring if it is done in full partnership with the school.
"But above all, parents should feel reassured that despite the uncertainty of change, the amount of stress for families should be reduced."
So where does this leave Common Entrance and the Independent Schools Examination Board (ISEB) that offers the exam at 11+/13+, the Academic Scholarship used by a number of senior schools and the Common Pre-Test? The headline in one publication – Requiem for the Common Entrance Exam – was perhaps rather premature considering that there are still many well-known senior schools who use it for its original purpose, and more who use it for streaming and setting.
As always, it is sensible for prospective parents to ask prep school heads about their school's transfer arrangements for moving on at 11+ or 13+ (and many schools will have information evenings on this subject). But above all, parents should feel reassured that despite the uncertainty of change, the amount of stress for families should be reduced. There is also the added benefit that the shift to testing ability and potential earlier allows children (and also their parents) to really enjoy the final half-term in the summer of Year 8, previously a time of intense cramming. Instead, it's a useful time to learn without the pressure of exams.
The decision by some schools to move away from Common Entrance offers a challenge to ISEB to re-engage with prep schools by introducing new courses, modifying their curriculum or repositioning and selling Common Entrance as an exit exam. Even when faced with other options, it may be that the Common Entrance curriculum is still the one many schools will feel most comfortable with. For prep schools, it is an opportunity to move from their initial premise of being 'preparatory' to being 'independent' – and with it to be able to develop their curriculum and look at learning in ways senior schools can not.
For any child at a prep school, these are the years when good work habits are formed and the foundations are put in place for life-long learning. If your child's prep school has done its job properly, he or she will leave the school at 11 or 13 years of age, having learned how to learn. It's a milestone which cannot be underestimated because alongside it comes the even more important achievement of being capable of taking responsibility for his or her own education. Pupils should leave their prep schools with the ability to become fully independent learners.
As with everything – even Brexit we're told – change offers opportunities. In the light of changes to senior school entrance, emboldened prep schools are looking much more expansively at what they teach and the opportunities open to them for the betterment of pupils. Life is full of entrances and exits – the important thing is usually what happens in between.
Peter Tait was Headmaster of Sherborne Preparatory School in Dorset for 17 years. A former chair of the IAPS Education Committee, Peter writes extensively on education in the national press. Peter has been a contributor to Attain for many years.