Independent schools: Test results are the key

How do schools go about selecting their pupils? Hilary Wilce watches the process in action
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The Independent Online

At this time of year selective independent schools are busy choosing pupils for next September. Deliberations usually take place behind closed doors, but Tim Hands, head of The Portsmouth Grammar School, believes schools should be transparent about these things, and invited The Independent to sit in on his school's annual meeting where places and scholarships are awarded.

So here, for the illumination of anxious parents everywhere, is how it is done at one school.

At four o'clock on a damp February afternoon two dozen people gather around a long table at the school, with tea and cakes to keep them going. They include all the teachers who have done interviews, as well as senior and administrative staff. Two hundred and twenty six candidates are applying to join the school at 11, and have taken tests in English, maths and verbal reasoning, and had an interview, which has included reading aloud and discussing a passage from Margaret Atwood's novel Cat's Eye, and talking about an object they have brought in.

The meeting opens with some discussion of the objects presented this year - a baseball glove, a broken tooth, a poem - and comments on the general field. The head of maths, Michael McCall, believes "the top end was good, but it was weak at the very bottom end."

On the table are piles of test papers, and in front of the interviewers are their own notes about candidates. The master document is a list of candidates, ranked by overall scores, but with marks and grades listed for English, maths and verbal reasoning.

The meeting works quickly through the candidates who have reached the necessary benchmark to get in, only pausing where there are issues of concern. One girl has a big problem with maths, but is brilliant at English. Another has a school reference that says "punctuality and attendance have been a problem." His interviewer says tartly, "the family goes off to Disneyland every spring. That might affect punctuality and attendance."

One girl "was withdrawn to the point that she practically hid behind her mother," says her interviewer. "She wouldn't give anything. It was beyond shyness."

Borderline cases are considered carefully. One boy, says his interviewer, did not learn English until he was six and has also had to move school because he was being bullied. "He's a lovely boy, very artistic." But Claire Jepson, head of English, has concerns. "He was fourth from bottom in my list."

Hardly anyone is ruled out without lengthy consideration, although Candidate 210 quickly emerges as a charming but dodgy character who seems to have cheated in both his maths and English tests, and whose school's reference is a blank. Several people comment that he'll probably go far in life.

The Portsmouth Grammar School is a very high-achieving co-educational day school - last year 85 per cent of its A-levels were A or B grades - but only slightly oversubscribed. It has a large junior school, from which the bulk of its entrants usually come, even though they take the same entrance test as everybody else, and, because of the school's academic profile, local primary schools know that it is only worth putting in their strongest candidates.

However, even these strong candidates often have erratic results. In a number of cases, maths is a problem, although Candidate 208 has done poorly in verbal reasoning. But that "looks ethnic" says Tim Hands, reading the name, and Michael McCall points out that there is a growing suggestion "that VR scores can be ethnically biased."

Another lad, from a poor part of town, is, says his interviewer, "chirpy, talkative, fun and bubbly. A real Pompey lad." His reference says "he occasionally indulges in silly behaviour with his friends" but the meeting seems to think that's forgivable and that he could do well at the school. It is hard not to think that a boy's whole future may have turned on this discussion. One issue cuts across all boundaries of class and background, and that is that whenever a child's academic performance seems awry, there is often a fragmented family behind it.

This is highlighted most clearly when the meeting discusses its "Ogdens" - scholarships originally funded by philanthropist Peter Ogden, to help needy children afford private school places. Some applicants are clearly trying it on, and are swatted aside by the bursar who cites incriminating evidence of holiday homes and property portfolios, but genuine candidates often have difficult family circumstances.

"He lives with his grandparents...."; "She doesn't see her father..."; "They're living in a B and B..."

Later, Tim Hands ruminates on the extent to which bursaries now pick up the bills that absent fathers should be paying. It is, he says, an issue that all schools wrestle with, although he is a convert to Peter Ogden's original demand that anyone eligible for one of his bursaries should get a home visit. "It's a really good way of seeing what's going on."

After the places and possible Ogdens have been decided, most people leave. Glasses of wine are poured, and the senior staff dole out bursaries and scholarships.

Interestingly, it's not the overall top performers who are the golden boys and girls, but those who have shone in particular areas. Tim Hands grumbles, "I'm being bullied this year by the heads of maths and English to reward talent, instead of stodginess" but the school also distributes new governors' awards that reward a wide range of performance and potential.

At the end of nearly three hours, 216 places have been offered, four candidates have been put on the waiting list, six have been turned down, and most of the school's overall £600,000-plus bursary support has been handed out. From that, it is expected that about 150 strong candidates will start next September.

The deliberations have been detailed and thoughtful, and while state schools might envy the freedom to turn down difficult characters, plenty of candidates have been accepted who will need help with dyslexia and other problems.

So how does a child shine in a competitive procedure like this? Schools like applicants who are sparky and engaged at interview. Sporting talent looks attractive, as do genuine hobbies. Candidates who are over-groomed or over-confident are off-putting, as are those who do not seem to want to come to the school, however keen their parents are for them to do so.

But at the end of the day, doing well in your entrance tests is by far the best thing any would-be pupil can aim for. "We are a competitive school," says Tim Hands. "We are looking for results."