Common Entrance - Worth Fighting For?
In the last issue of Attain, an IAPS Headmaster wrote passionately for the need to reform the Common Entrance. Tom Dawson, Headmaster of Sunningdale School, feels that the case is not yet proven.
Common Entrance has long been the culmination of five or so years' education for independent school children. That in itself does not justify its continued existence as the principal prep school examination at eleven or thirteen but it does mean that there needs to be a very good case for something better if we are to replace it.
As James Barnes said in his excellent article (Autumn 2007 issue of Attain) many regard Common Entrance as a 'gold standard'. While perhaps not going quite that far, I am certainly in the camp that believes that Common Entrance provides a challenging and effective test to assess the relative abilities of pupils of a similar age. There are, of course, aspects of the various exams which I feel need altering, no system is perfect, but the concept is sound.
Independent preparatory schools are renowned for their excellent education. This is not simply an education in the academic sense of the word but an all round education that prepares children academically, socially, and to a certain extent physically, for life at public school and beyond. The aim of any good prep school has to be to fire children with enthusiasm for a range of different interests, be they academic, sporting, musical, artistic or dramatic. We all want to give children a love of learning that they will take with them into adolescence and adulthood.
Every teacher longs to be thought of as one who inspires the children in front of him to love the subject he or she is teaching. I don't think that anyone can disagree with this. What I do disagree with, though, is that Common Entrance somehow stifles this process. It is good teaching that develops an interest in a subject in a child. It doesn't matter what curriculum you follow, a good teacher can bring it to life and take his or her pupils along with them.
For so long now different exam systems have been tried, tested and tinkered with and we are left with a public exam system that satisfies very few. I wrote a few years ago about the constant changing of the A Level system and said then that the whole thing would turn full circle and we would be back where we started. I hate to say 'I told you so' but isn't that exactly what we are now seeing? The Pre-U exam created by Cambridge University in conjunction with some of the leading public schools seems to be remarkably similar to the old A Levels. It has been created because the current AS and A2 system, which allows pupils to re-sit modules in which they have underperformed, plays into the hands of the slightly less able candidate and does not give the very able candidate the chance to shine. I am not sure that I want to 'dumb down' Common Entrance to the same extent. A child who performs well at Common Entrance at 13 is probably already capable of at least a C grade at GCSE.
This is a credit to the system. Common Entrance is not outdated, it has simply stuck to its guns by not being afraid to have high expectations of the children it tests.
It has been said that the curriculum at Common Entrance is too restrictive. I would argue that there needs to be some sort of commonality in what children at prep school are being taught. At prep school we would not expect two Year 5 sets to be taught different science topics according to the whim of the teacher they happen to be taught by. It would create real difficulties when they reached Year 6 because when the sets changed, as they are likely to do, the new teacher would be unsure of what had been covered and end up having to go over the old ground all over again to make sure that there were no gaps. So it would be at public schools across the land if prep schools did not have a common set of syllabi to follow. It is the understanding of 'the nuts and bolts of subjects' that Common Entrance examines so well. A child who performs well at Common Entrance is a child who has very firm foundations which the public schools can then build on. I would rather build a child's success on the rock of sound knowledge than on the sand of a wishy-washy curriculum of creativity without the factual knowledge to back it up.
It has also been said that Common Entrance limits the time for school trips, DT, music and other extra-curricular activities. I look at schools the length and breadth of the country and see that this isn't so. The standard of music in prep schools is outstanding and almost all prep schools take their sport very seriously. At Sunningdale, we have our own house in Normandy where we take the boys on a regular basis. On these trips they study, French, of course, History on the battlefields and Geography on the beaches. They are also expanding their cultural knowledge of another country. This doesn't negatively affect their CE results, it enhances them. The Headmaster of a major public school said after their success at A2 this year that it was because of the range of extra-curricular activities that they did so well and not in spite of them. The same applies at CE.
I would totally agree that there are areas of certain subject syllabi which need looking at. I am also very aware that the Independent Schools Examination Board, the board which produces the Common Entrance exams, consults regularly with heads of department at prep schools to make sure that their views are taken into account. I do have a slight concern, though, that there are those in the prep school world who want to see CE made easier. At a fairly recent ISEB meeting of Modern Languages teachers, I heard several teachers state that the candidates should not be expected to be able to use the past tense as it was too difficult. I was astounded! Not only was I appalled at the low expectations they clearly had of the children they taught, but what these teachers failed to realise was that the past tense is infinitely easier than the present! I for one am so glad that the French paper has been changed to a one tier paper that will clearly distinguish between the different levels of attainment.
Let us be realistic about what Common Entrance really is. It is true that there is a growing trend towards pre-testing children at eleven for places at public schools. Many public schools are over-subscribed and they, of course, want to make sure that they are selecting the best pupils. I hope, and I currently believe, that public schools take into account more than purely the academic ability of the pupils. I worry, though, that the dreaded league tables are fast putting this in jeopardy. That aside, though, what is certainly true is that public schools do not want to fail children at Common Entrance. It doesn't do anyone any good, least of all the children themselves. So why bother with CE?
For one thing, the children, believe it or not, actually like it. This may sound very strange; can they really like exams? Children like the opportunity to show the knowledge they have acquired; they enjoy a challenge. As long as they have been given the preparation and the tools to cope with what is put in front of them they like being put to the test. Children gain a wonderful sense of achievement when they do well in a Common Entrance paper. They understand that they are doing the same papers as hundreds of other children across the country and if they manage to get a good mark they know they have done well. It also provides them with a very clear way of measuring their progress. They understand Common Entrance. It is a simple system that requires little explanation. It also provides a clear focus for them to aim for. The weaker candidate cannot cope with an unlimited curriculum and the brighter candidate can shine within the bands of Common Entrance. Let us not forget also that for the very bright the scholarship route is always available.
Another reason for maintaining the status quo is that Common Entrance actually does test pupils' knowledge and understanding. That is exactly what it does. Take any subject at Common Entrance and compare the exam papers to the syllabus and you will see that the papers are designed to do just that. It is the culmination of a two year syllabus and it examines how much the pupils have been able to take in and what they are able to do with the knowledge they have acquired. Common Entrance requires children to have the discipline to learn and to acquire the study skills that will stand them in such good stead for what they will face at their public schools.
The way forward as I see it is clear. Let's not mess around with a system that works. Let's make sure that we have the teachers that are capable of inspiring the children to enjoy learning. This should be our focus. Bring the subjects to life through excellent teaching and the children will be able to achieve great things. I do not see the current system of Common Entrance as accepting mediocrity, quite the opposite. It encourages children to work hard to achieve success. This is not something I will let go lightly.