As more schools introduce the 11-plus and pre-tests, it’s unclear where the Common Entrance stands. Here some prep schools give their thoughts on the pros and cons of the 13-plus exam

David Paterson 

Headmaster/Woodcote House

common entrance

I still firmly believe in the Common Entrance (CE). To me, it’s absolutely vital pupils have an entrance exam. Because Woodcote is a prep school, we’re preparing them for what’s going to confront them in the future which begins with their GCSEs, which they will sit three years after leaving their prep school. Nor would we have prepared them for the discipline that will be needed to take their A-Levels and beyond. 

Of course, there are weaknesses with the CE. Lots of subjects aren’t great. For example, the History syllabus is much too narrow, whereas conversely, the Religious Education syllabus is much too wide: there’s too much to learn. With this in mind, I can envisage that Common Entrance may condense into just the core subjects, so Maths, English, Science and a language. 

I think the benefits outweigh some of the flaws in the system. The entrance exams keep a group of 13 year olds academically focused, which is no mean feat. We could, of course, have internal exams, but they wouldn’t carry the weight or the same gravitas as a public exam. 

There is, of course, the argument that they’re too young to be undergoing so much stress, but we’ve had no CE failure ever – which is the same as with most schools. It is by and large a formality, as most senior schools have made their decisions by pre-testing. So yes, the boys do get a bit stressed but we’re lucky to be a small school so we can manage that – and I believe we do it very effectively. Parents also tend to  get more stressed than the boys, but I think that’s for the school to manage and here we manage it very well.

Alastair Speers


common entrance

Common Entrance provides a vital set of ‘high stakes’ examinations that allow children to develop both academic rigour and a growth mindset. 

Whilst pre-testing is becoming the norm, this is largely based on computer tests that are closely linked to IQ levels. Success in Common Entrance is more closely related to hard work and effort, as opposed to innate intelligence. The CE exams therefore encourage a growth mindset that allows hard working children to celebrate their effort and successes as they move on to their senior schools.

Whether children have conditional offers to their senior schools or not, the Common Entrance creates an opportunity for children to experience the pressure of examinations within the nurturing environment of their prep school.  This is excellent preparation for the challenges of GCSEs.  The Common Entrance also develops academic skills that are necessary for success at GCSEs and beyond. For example, in English and the Humanities, CE papers allow children to develop and hone their skills in analysis, synthesis, reasoning and essay writing. 

All examination systems, by their very nature, have flaws. However, I strongly believe that the Independent Schools Examining Board have been working hard to successfully adapt the CE syllabuses, and as such, have put Common Entrance firmly back on the map. 

Parents concerned about the narrow focus of the Common Entrance, or the pressure it places on children, should talk this through with the prep schools they are considering – asking them how they support pupils and balance CE preparation with a broader curriculum. For example, at Sandroyd, all of our academic lessons take place in the morning, leaving the afternoon to focus on the extra-curricular and important character development skills. Showing that there is more than enough time in the day to fit everything in!”

Robin  Gainher

Headmaster/Knighton House

common entrance

The Common Entrance is still alive but the move by senior schools to pre-testing pupils and confirming places at the start of Year 7 creates an opportunity to reimagine our curriculum across the final two years of prep school. 

Moving away from the somewhat rigid CE curriculum and testing regime will help us create a better balance between factual knowledge and the development of real, transferable skills. We believe this will lay still stronger foundations for successful future study, examination performance and later life. 

By consulting widely with the senior schools our girls move to, and listening to them carefully on their requirements at entry, we think moving away from CE is the right thing to do for the girls given they have already secured their place. Support and enthusiasm from senior schools for us to drop CE has been crucial in our planning and in reassuring parents that their daughters will still be able to transfer to their senior school of choice.

When we set out on this project we asked ourselves two key questions: is Common Entrance fit for purpose in 2018; and is it what we want educationally for the girls when they reached the top of the school? In both cases the answers were overwhelmingly no. Instead we are developing an alternative KED Curriculum (Knowledge Enlightenment Discovery) which will be more intellectually sound in content and methodology and include more stretch and challenge for each pupil. Schools which persist with putting their pupils through Common Entrance are doing a disservice to them. It will probably survive but it will soon be extinct here at Knighton House. For our girls this change will ensure that every leaver goes on from Knighton intellectually confident: readier and better able to meet the challenges of senior school and the world beyond.

Marks Edwards

Deputy Head (Academic)/Dragon School

common entrance

In short, no: CE is not dead. However, we are certainly currently in a transition period. In reality, CE has never been wholly ‘Common’, as every school has different grade boundaries and is free to use the suggested mark schemes as they chose – nor ‘Entrance’, as increasingly places are provisionally allocated as early as Year 6. Indeed this early allocation of pupil places has become more pronounced with an increasing take-up among senior schools of the Common Pre-Test.

What we now need is greater transparency and agreement. It is very difficult for 12 and 13-year old children to undergo the anxiety of entrance exams just weeks before they finish at their prep schools. This anxiety has now been magnified by the proliferation of pre-testing.

One way forward would be that places offered at Year 6 and 7 are unconditional, something which a number of senior schools are now undertaking. However, this would not necessarily sound the death knell for CE, as there are many advantages to a Year 8 exam to mark the end of a child’s prep school education.