Independent Schools: Make a fixed date with destiny: Common Entrance was once a make-or-break exam; now it's more of a flexible assessment tool, says Elaine Williams

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Mention Common Entrance to those who went through independent school 20 years ago and they will still recall that first real pre-examination angst.

It was the terrible hurdle you had to get over to go to the senior school of your first choice. If you failed, you didn't make it, it was as simple as that.

Common Entrance is still used as the qualifying exam for entrance to independent senior schools, but many that have suffered recession - rural boarding schools in particular - are not in the business of turning candidates away.

For many schools it has increasingly become a common form of assessment rather than simple qualification - a test used for the accurate setting and evaluation of a pupil's ability and potential. Although centrally written and administered by the Common Entrance Board - made up of curriculum committees whose membership comprises heads and teachers of subscribing schools - it is marked by the candidate's chosen senior school.

For those institutions in the happy position of having more candidates than places, Common Entrance is still regarded as a genuine qualifying exam.

Other schools, says Richard Gordon, director of studies at the Dragon School in Oxford, are less rigorous.

'The market place is so fluid,' he says. 'Many schools would love to have sufficient children up to standard. They may have 120 on their books for 100 places, but that is no guarantee of numbers. Many parents these days put their child down for two or three schools.'

Common Entrance has changed substantially in two ways. It is less often used as a qualifying exam in the strictest sense and its syllabus has undergone major reform, not least to accommodate changes engendered by GCSE - more course work, shorter written answers - and the national curriculum.

Like many other bodies in the state sector, the Common Entrance Board awaits the final orders from Sir Ron Dearing's review of the national curriculum in order to make appropriate changes. Greek and Latin are now optional and French, for example, which long comprised grammar, composition and translation, is now 25 per cent spoken, 25 per cent aural, reading comprehension and composition. A second foreign-language paper is now being considered.

The first Common Entrance examination was in 1904, devised to try to set a common standard and syllabus and prevent children from having to endure different exams at different times for every school. That first exam included English grammar, composition and literature; French; Greek; Latin; arithmetic; algebra; geometry; English history and geography. Scripture - now religious studies - was added in the Thirties and general maths in 1954.

Science was not included until 1969 - although naval candidates during the Second World War borrowed a science paper from the Board of Admiralty as an alternative to Latin. Common Entrance for girls was introduced after the war.

However, the fluidity of the independent school market has brought about a greater desire to adopt what is perceived as the best in state school provision. Indeed, when national curriculum key-stage testing was introduced, it was felt that Common Entrance was in danger of being superceded.

In the end, says Robin Peverett, director of education for the Incorporated Association of Prep Schools, the nature of testing at key stages two and three 'only served to prove how good Common Entrance is'. National curriculum testing, he adds, grouped children into broad bands, whereas Common Entrance 'differentiates much more clearly, say, between somebody in the middle with 50 per cent, and a weaker candidate with 44 per cent.

'It means we can set accurately and it is a way of giving children a challenge,' he adds. 'They can aim for a certain percentage, rather than just acquiring a level that everybody else is also getting. Children enjoy the competition of it. It is challenging without being punitive.'

Independent prep schools have always been involved in the piloting of key stage two tests, as a way of comparing the performance of their pupils with national averages and of influencing the nature of national tests. During teacher boycotts, they were about the only participants.

This summer, in a comprehensive survey, those prep schools that carried out the tests were asked for an evaluation. Only 50 per cent said they were properly professional; two-thirds said they lacked sufficient differentiation, and less than one-third said they were good enough to replace traditional prep school exams.

In effect, Common Entrance is used as a very flexible tool. Report forms for subjects not included in the examination, such as technology, accompany the candidate's exam papers and allowances can be made for bright pupils who under-perform in examination conditions. Pupils with special needs are either given longer to take the exam or their difficulties are taken into account when awarding senior school places. Telephone calls between heads often precede the arrival of papers.

Not all independent schools use Common Entrance. Indeed, to a small extent, it is losing ground. Highly academic schools such as Winchester and competitive London day schools set their own entrance exams, something Mr Peverett believes is regrettable. He doubts that a child benefits from having to take five or six different qualifying exams.

The great advantage of Common Entrance was its fixed dates: 'That spares the child,' he says, 'from being hawked around, as with the London system.'

Moreover, he believes it was a very professional exam, with papers well set out and including clear grievance procedures: 'If, for example, it becomes clear that a paper is too hard, this is circulated quickly so schools awarding places can take this into account. Complaints are taken on board and people really feel that they have a chance to change things. There is a real sense of ownership.'

But some schools have complained that Common Entrance has dragged its feet over moving into line with the national curriculum: 'We don't change anything without giving a year's notice and sending out sample papers,' says Mr Peverett. 'That slows us down but it allows people to adapt their teaching.' Time to adapt their teaching is a luxury state school teachers have been denied in recent years.