The first part of this blog post series outlined what independent senior school entrance assessments used to look like. This second part explores how the process has developed in the last 20 years, and what the process will look like in the future. Including potentially the end of Year 8 Common Entrance exams…
In the 90s and noughties, independent senior schools began to distance themselves from this looser, inequitable admissions process. There were increasing pressures on senior schools to show strong GCSE and A-level performance in published school ranking league tables. Schools increasingly wanted to ensure they were offering places to those students who would most likely achieve strong grades in these exams, and go on to the more highly-regarded universities.
The new 13+ assessment process placed more emphasis on merit. There were still some ‘old school tie’ nods and winks when it came to offering places, but things had tightened up. The Year 6 and 7 school visits and interviews became more widely adopted by schools. There was a more clearly defined assessment process, where students had to show clearly that they had the necessary academic skills and potential, and that they would be able to make a substantial positive contribution to the school through their sporting and/or cultural interests (thus enhancing the school’s reputation more generally).
Independent senior schools also became more acknowledging of their classification as charitable institutions. They encouraged students to apply from varying backgrounds.
Given the CE syllabus was broader than the National Key Stage 2 Curriculum, state school students had been at a disadvantage sitting the CE exams as their primary schools wouldn’t have covered certain topics or wouldn’t have covered topics in the same depth. Now, the independent senior schools either stated clearly that they would be taking this into consideration, or wrote separate exam papers for those state school candidates based solely on the Key Stage 2 curriculum.
They also changed their scholarship and funding policies, offering means-tested bursaries. The schools were looking to create more of a ‘level playing field’ for all candidates. Prep schools were still very much the key feeders to these senior schools, but there was a higher student representation from maintained schools.
Meanwhile, some senior independent boys’ schools opened up their Sixth Forms (and possibly all years) to girls.
During the last five years, independent senior schools have introduced a more focused ‘pre-test’ assessment process.
As per the senior school 11+ entrance assessments, schools typically schedule their 13+ pre-test assessments for candidates in Year 6. Similarly also, the 13+ pre-test assessments consist of one or two stages of exams. There are separate tests in English and Maths, and likely also Verbal and / or Non-Verbal Reasoning. Where there are two stages in the assessment, only those candidates who perform at the appropriate level in the first stage are invited to the second.
Schools which have one stage of exams tend to write their own bespoke pre-test exams. Those which have two stages of exams increasingly use online multiple choice tests (most commonly the ‘Common Pre-Test’ created by the ISEB) for the first stage of the process, and then bespoke written exams in the second stage.
The pre-test assessment process also typically includes an interview with a housemaster and/or a member of the senior leadership team, with schools either inviting all candidates for interview or inviting only those who attain high enough scores in the exams. Some schools create a more comprehensive assessment morning or afternoon, observing how candidates approach a set of group activities/tasks and possibly even mock lesson environments.
On the basis of appropriate performance in this assessment process, and a suitably strong report written by the student’s junior school Head (this is crucial), the senior school will offer a conditional place – the condition being, as in previous years, that the student attain the school’s particular CE or school’s academic scholarship exam pass marks at the end of Year 8.
The shift to formal pre-testing seems to have come about for various reasons. Likely much is to do with planning. On the one hand, schools have been finding it challenging coping with the increasingly large number of 13+ applications, and are keen to reduce Year 8 assessment administration through early student filtering.
Perhaps more importantly, though, is the question of competition among schools – the pressure of those GCSE and A-level league tables again. Schools wish to recruit the students with the strongest capabilities and potential. With these pre-tests, schools can identify these high-capability / potential students early and secure commitment from them.
When a school offers a student a conditional 13+ place after the Year 6 pre-test assessment, it gives the student a limited period to accept the place. To show commitment, parents have to pay a substantial deposit (£2,000 is not uncommon), so the incentive is strong not to jump ship if another school offers a place later, or if the student performs better in his or her CE exams than expected. Schools are then in a position to know that places are pre-filled, and pre-filled with high-performing students.
With this shift in emphasis towards pre-testing, there has been increasing debate among prep and independent senior schools about the significance of Year 8 CE exams.
To quote the ISEB’s website at the time of writing, Common Entrance has been valued traditionally for its “high academic standards and rigorous syllabuses”, “academic breadth across 11 subjects, many of which will be continued at senior school”, and because it is a familiar, tried and tested benchmarking system so that “senior schools [using these exams] know what to expect” from candidates.
CE exams have often been championed for providing students with important foundation skills they will need for GCSEs, particularly the abilities to study independently, to organize and process large amounts of content, and to write answers with an eye on the mark scheme. There is an opportunity also for students to have an early experience of taking a comprehensive set of external subject exams prior to GCSEs.
However, while acknowledging these benefits, prep schools and senior schools have increasingly been feeling that the CE exams are out of keeping with modern, expansive approaches to education. After all, CE exams have remained similarly structured with similarly framed questions since first introduction some 115 years ago (they were first used in 1904).
Schools increasingly have been feeling that the CE exams rely too much on rote learning, don’t give their teachers scope for customizing lessons, and limit opportunities for the sort of applied and contextual learning that is important in the modern world.
Ultimately, there is a feeling that CE exams don’t inspire their students or teachers, and are only causing students unnecessary stress – students move from one exhausting, intensive exam-focused syllabus with CE subject exams straight on to the next with GCSEs.
Some forward-thinking prep schools have already committed from next academic year to stopping teaching the CE syllabus, instead taking up the Prep School Baccalaureate (PSB) curriculum. The PSB is a progressive, skills-focused curriculum where pupils’ progress is monitored more broadly on an ongoing basis. There are no final exams in Year 8.
Prep schools haven’t taken this decision lightly and have carefully considered key questions. “How will this move away from CE exams be perceived by senior schools? Will our school’s candidates be penalized in the pre-test assessments because they will not be sitting CE exams in Year 8? Will senior schools give more credit to those students they deem to have the determination and stamina to take on a full set of exams at the end of Year 8?
There have been concerns about student motivation also. Would those students who receive an unconditional senior school place after the pre-test in Year 6 take their feet off the pedal between Year 6 and Year 6 knowing they don’t have to sit any exams at 13+? Without Year 8 exams, how will senior schools judge whether those students to whom they offered places in Year 6 have fulfilled their potential two years later – will these senior schools feel more comfortable offering places to students who will reconfirm capabilities and potential in Year 8 CE exams?”
According to the ISEB website, around 180 schools currently use its CE exams. Any sector-wide abandoning of CE exams won’t be happening overnight then. The more cautious prep and senior schools will first watch how things go for those first movers.
Prep schools which have been moving to the PSB have taken this into account. One prep school Head I spoke with said she’s conscious that her school has taken a bold step moving to the PSB while other schools will still be teaching the Common Entrance syllabus. But her prep school and others have consulted widely with their target senior schools. The PSB is a carefully structured syllabus, which is gaining increasing recognition. It already has prominent independent senior schools as ambassadors, including Wellington School and Marlborough College.
In this time of transition, this Head has said to the senior schools that her school’s students will be following the PSB, but will – at least for the time being – still sit CE exams in the core subjects of English, Maths and Science.
However, some leading senior schools are going a step bolder, though. The Times reported at the beginning of October 2018 that from 2021 Westminster, St Paul’s and Wellington (senior schools which have traditionally used the ISEB Common Entrance) will be relying solely on their pre-tests to assess 13+ entrants. They won’t be requiring students from independent or maintained schools to sit any Year 8 exams:
Although students at these schools won’t have to sit Year 8 exams, Year 6 offers will be far from unconditional. Students still have to show their teachers and Headteachers that they are continuing to make appropriate progress, showing strong performance in the school’s own internal assessments and ongoing class projects. They have to show positive attitudes to learning and appropriate conduct. The junior schools will still be writing those crucial report for students in Year 8, and, no doubt, any student straying too far from the commitment shown in Year 6 will have their senior school offer withdrawn.