Common Entrance exam may be phased out

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It will have been the bane of half the Cabinet’s lives as they sweated over whether they would do well enough to get into the private school of their parent’s choice.

Now, though, the Common Entrance exam – which has survived as the gateway to ever major independent school in the country for more than 100 years – may be on its way out.

A group of heads of independent schools –including KCS Wimbledon, Haileybury, St Edward's Oxford and Wellington College – will be meeting tomorrow to see if they can devise an alternative to it.

Opponents of the Common Entrance say that it is too “content-heavy”. It involves pupils in a great deal of rote learning to pass it and does not tease out their thinking skills and inner talents.

As a result, in the same way as the national curriculum tests for state school pupils in maths and English at 11, that produces too much “teaching to the test” so that, although young people get good marks, they lack a deeper understanding of what they have learnt.

The schools involved in tomorrow’s conference are working on their own alternative – a prep school baccalaureate fashioned along similar principle to the International Baccalaureate, used by growing numbers of secondary schools as an alternative to A-levels.

“What we are really talking about is what is a suitable education for the 21st century,” said Joe Davies, headmaster of Haileybury in Hertfordshire.

“Common Entrance has its merits but is it really the best framework for we can offer boys and girls in independent education from the age of nine to 13? Does it enable them to think for themselves?”

Andrew Halls, headmaster of KCS Wimbledon, added: “On the one hand it produces the basis for a broad and systematic education that in the best prep schools enables pupils to travel far into the realms of knowledge.

“On the other hand, it can seem a tiresome straitjacket producing lifeless schemes of work that can make lessons seem more like a treadmill than a journey of discovery.”

The exam was first introduced to determine selection at both 11 and 13 to private schools in 1904.

Dr Anthony Seldon, headmaster of Wellington College which will host tomorrow’s conference, said: “Can we learn from other academic models, such as the IB’s Middle Years and Primary Years programmes?

“How do we ensure that Common Entrance is fit for the 21st century?”

*A-levels could be with us for the next 60 years, according to Simon Lebus, chief executive of Cambridge Assessment, told a conference yesterday.

Speaking at a conference organised by UCAS – the university admissions service, he said one of their strengths was that they still left space on the timetable for sixth-formers t follow other forms of “enrichment and development”.

He also suggested that universities – who have complained the plethora of A-grade passes made it difficult for them to select the brightest candidates for popular courses – should make more use of student’s individual marks in determining who got a place.