Absolutely Education investigates admissions changes

Last October, Patrick Derham, head of Westminster School, used his column in The Times to proclaim a change to the admissions policy, an alteration which would generally have warranted only a tweak to the website. His very public declaration of the school’s intention to abandon 13+ Common Entrance from 2021 was summed up in the phrase ‘no longer fit for purpose’. Derham’s perspective is one clearly shared by St Paul’s School and Wellington College, who are taking similar action.

For those unfamiliar with this demanding hurdle, Common Entrance (CE) is a set of exams, whose traditional purpose was to act as a selective entrance test to leading public schools. Based on a curriculum set by the Independent Schools Examination Board, it involves compulsory papers in English, Maths and Science, and most UK-based candidates also sit additional tests from a selection that includes: History, Geography, French, Classical Greek, Latin, Religious Studies, German and Spanish.

Generally taken in the summer term of Year 8, CE was, until fairly recently, a do-or-die affair, with those failing to make the grade losing out on a place at their preferred school and having to scrabble around at the last moment to find an alternative. It was largely to avoid this distressing outcome that an increasing number of schools decided to allocate Year 9 places on the basis of a ‘pre-test’ (in Maths, English and reasoning) in Year 6 or 7.

The introduction of pre-testing has been taken alongside a more general re-think about what the secondary-school admissions process should involve, and Derham’s article comes less than a year after the London 11+ Consortium, an association of 12 independent girls’ day schools, announced they were replacing their 11+ entrance exams with ‘cognitive tests’, intended to provide an application process that is: ‘fair, clear, robust and accessible to children from all schools and backgrounds’. The move for assessment beyond the well-crammed has now become widespread, stemming both from concerns about the stress knowledge-dense testing puts on young people, and from the belief that the skills required to ‘future-proof’ education are no longer primarily dependent on data acquisition. Wellington College, for example, now invites candidates to an assessment intended to gauge creativity, critical.

Thinking and problem-solving; while leading co-educational boarding school Bradfield College has introduced a session of team problem-solving exercises along the lines of TV’s The Crystal Maze.

As far as St. Paul’s school is concerned, however, one of the key intentions behind the decision to abandon CE has been to give prep schools more latitude in what they teach.

admissions process
St Paul’s boys with Prof Mark Bailey

“Common Entrance provides a robust and quality curriculum,” says High Master Professor Mark Bailey, “but if it’s not required as an entrance exam, schools will have the flexibility to create their own curricula in Years 7 and 8. In our case, the curriculum is based on a good deal of the content in the Common Entrance syllabus, but the freedom from sitting the exams means that individual subjects now have the flexibility to dwell for longer on a topic or ignore one of the CE topics and undertake some project work instead.” This is an approach already in place at The Hawthorns School, a Surrey prep school which largely sends its pupils on to secondary schools where CE is no longer required.

“I’m a pragmatist,” says head Adrian Floyd. “When I arrived in 2015, many good senior schools were already relying on pre-tests rather than on essays on the Battle of Hastings as of old. There’s good stuff in Common Entrance, good skills and good knowledge, so we consulted 20 senior schools about what worked best for them and how we could develop our curriculum to meet their requirements.”

In response, The Hawthorns has introduced the ‘Compass’ curriculum, distinguished by its regular ‘inquiry lesson’, addressing philosophy and current affairs, and an independent project – “rather like a ‘baby EPQ’” – where students research a theoretical question and are given a mentor to investigate their hypothesis. To ensure the freedom given to prep schools is not squandered, St Paul’s are issuing syllabus advice for each subject, broadly in line with Common Entrance. “We trust our prep schools to follow our guidelines, and will gently monitor the progress of boys who hold Year 9 offers to St Paul’s,” says Professor Bailey.

In London, the withdrawal from 13+ Common Entrance can also be seen as a reflection of the fact that some leading senior day schools – such as Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith and Highgate School in north London – now have their main secondary-school entrance point in Year 7, reflecting the fact they draw their intake from both state primary schools and all-girls’ prep schools, which end in Year 6. This shift in emphasis, however, is not envisaged at St Paul’s.

“We believe in the five-year educational model,” says Professor Bailey. “We value the large influx of bright older boys we draw from across London in Year 9 and will work to maintain the size of this intake.” Here, scholarship exams will still be sat in Year 8.

While many schools will welcome the new freedom, the abandonment of 13+ Common Entrance is not seen by all as an unalloyed joy. For these naysayers, their chief concern is for the ‘late developer’, i.e. the pupil who has yet to blossom at the age of 10 or 11.

admissions process
St Paul’s boys playing cricket

“Even though this move is intended to remove stress, ironically, I feel that sitting an interview which will determine the next eight years of your life aged 10 is tough,” says Simon Barber, headmaster of Ludgrove School, a family-owned prep school that sends a high percentage of its pupils on to Eton, Harrow, Winchester and Radley.

Senior schools, of course, are well aware of this issue, and in recognition of how much children can change between Years 6 and 8, this year Wellington College only offered 70 percent of the places available through its pre-test, putting other applicants on a waiting list to be re-interviewed in the spring of Year 7. At this stage, their prep school will be required to send an updated report.

Simon Barber, however, feels it’s not only the late developer who loses out in the abandonment of CE; he believes its loss will be experienced by most of his pupils.

“There has to be an academic focus in Year 8, whatever you call it. The boys want to feel good about their academic achievement. They’ve worked hard and done well. That should be rewarded. They want a pat on the back.”

Dr Lisa Freedman –  Founder and Director At The School Gates – attheschoolgates.co.uk

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