Does the rise of the pre-test spell doom for Common Entrance?

I often reflect on how much my job and the school have changed in my ten years at Westbourne House.  Perhaps two of the most significant changes centre on compliance (enough said) and senior school entry. Like me, I am sure it is the latter which you find of most interest!

It is a slightly provocative question, but are we seeing the slow death of the Common Entrance exam due to the rise and rise of pre-testing?

First, a little bit of background on both:

The Common Entrance exam at 13 is the mode of entry for the majority of the independent schools that we feed at Westbourne House. It covers all subjects, with some sat at different levels, and normally takes place in the early part of June in Year 8. Something few of you may know is that individual schools mark the papers with no moderation across different schools, and indeed set their own grade boundaries. Comparing grades from different schools is not therefore a straightforward matter! I increasingly hear children confused by the grades they get in the final analysis as they have been used to percentages hitherto, which makes target setting quite difficult.

In my view the upside of Common Entrance is that it sets the bar high and gets children to a good standard (which is approaching a year ahead of children in the state sector), often increasing a child’s output, and setting them up really well for GCSEs. The downside is that it is yet another exam, which can increase stress levels quite significantly at a point where some children are not really mature enough to deal with it. On balance, I do feel that it has value, but in my view there are modifications that could be made in one or two areas to make some subjects less ‘dry’, as well as broadening the foreign language possibilities. Perhaps a focus on the likes of critical thinking skills would also be welcome.

Pre-testing has been around for some time, particularly in those schools that were very competitive to get into, such as Eton. More or less every independent senior school that we feed has adopted pre-testing as the norm now, partly as a result of more competitive entry, and also, I suspect, to give the impression that they are competitive to get into! They are also keen to know which children are joining them, and so the pre-test provides a means of assessing how serious a family is about their school. The ‘Good Schools Guide’ gets straight to the point, ‘The value of these tests is questionable, not least because children’s intellectual development occurs at different rates.’

The pre-test usually involves some assessment of English and Maths skills, a cognitive test (verbal and non verbal reasoning) and an interview. In most cases, the test can be sat at Westbourne House and completed online. Many schools are now using the ISEB Common Pre-test to cover all the academic assessment, which is a welcome development.

A decided plus around pre-testing is that it gives parents and children some certainty that they are likely to get in to the school of their choice at an early point, rather than having to wait until Common Entrance in June of Year 8. It also makes for a level, meritocratic playing field for the most part. Perhaps of greatest importance, it takes away the hideous prospect of a child failing Common Entrance in the last few weeks of their time at Prep
School – almost.

However, it also requires parents to make choices at a much earlier point than used to be the case, as well as forcing children to sit a potential plethora of tests at quite an early age. And what about the late developer? A common sentiment expressed would be along the lines of ‘If he/she’d been tested at ten or 11, there’s no way he’d/she’d have been offered a place. But he/she’s gone on to do very well.’ In fairness to the schools, they are willing to listen to me when a child starts to develop strongly, but it is not a path for the faint hearted. Reassuring words come from the Headmaster of Harrow School, Jim Hawkins, ‘We are not just looking for academic aptitude. Places go to those who have impressed us most in terms of ability, character, attitude and their potential to contribute and thrive here. This is why those interviews, as well as the current school’s reference, are crucial to a candidate’s success’ – words echoed by many a school Head.

Many schools are now accepting children off the back of pre-testing and some are even going as far as saying that CE is not necessary. So perhaps what is looking more likely is that CE will be used to decide which sets the child will go into at their new school. Is this a positive development? In my view, yes – it takes away the possible stigma of failure at the last moment, and yet still provides motivation for the child to reach their full potential at CE.

All educational debates have two sides, and balance is always key. At Westbourne House, we prepare our children for academic success throughout their school life. We don’t believe in ‘teaching to the test’; we have a broad curriculum of a very high standard and know that our children have the knowledge and skills to perform well in pre-tests.  

We also believe that the child’s wellbeing is paramount, and putting too much emphasis on preparation for pre-tests can result in an anxious child.

However, we do want the children to feel confident and, to this end, we plan in a small amount of pre-test preparation as well as practise interviews. We also speak openly with parents to advise them on which schools we believe are right for their children.

At the end of the day, the best last-minute preparation for your child is some time to relax and a good night’s sleep.  As for the parent, try not to worry too much - things have a habit of working themselves out for the best.

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