THE last rites are being pronounced over Britain’s most longstanding examination. The Common Entrance (CE) for admission at age 11, 12 or 13 to independent schools, usually from preparatory schools, is to be scrapped in 18 months. It was never universally deployed as an entrance test and now many leading public schools have decided to drop it as part of a diversity drive to recruit more children from state primaries. This might be described as an exercise in self-preservation given the onslaught private schooling faces from any future Labour government.
Introduced in 1904, CE is not an especially competitive test. There are syllabuses and exam papers but, whilst mark schemes are published, it is left to individual schools as to whether or not they use them. ‘Pass’ marks vary widely. They are high for prestigious institutions but lower where academic standards are less demanding.
For over a century CE has worked well, ensuring that privately-educated children transfer to a public school that is in line with their aptitude. Alternative entry pathways via scholarships and bursaries open up places to a wider range of children, including those from less-privileged backgrounds.
The greatest benefit of CE, however, has been to provide a suitable learning framework and curriculum structure for preparatory school pupils. The 13+ version has been roughly equivalent to GCSE. The exam provides academic hurdles a little more in line with what is expected of similarly aged children in the best school systems around the world.
Its demise marks the culmination of a dumbing-down process that kicked off with the government ban on the GCE O-Level from 1988. This protected what was then the new GCSE exam from competition. The O-Level is now available only for export. It is the main 16+ exam in Singapore – the world’s top-performing school system, according to the OECD.
I recall an exchange of letters in the late 1980s between the Campaign for Real Education and the then shadow trade and industry minister, Tony Blair. We had complained to Blair that the Tory government of the day was allowing the exam boards to operate as a cartel by, all together, refusing to offer O-Level within the UK. It had been replaced by a dumbed-down exam, the GCSE, which exercised monopoly status. Blair replied that that whilst it might be true that the exam boards were operating a cartel, one would have to show that this was against the public interest for any action to be taken.
Almost three decades later, I informed Michael Gove, who was then education secretary, of Blair’s comment. He told me, in the presence of others: ‘Of course the GCSE monopoly is against the public interest.’ The best he could do, though, was to toughen up the GCSE syllabus. He had not worked out that all this would mean would be lowering of the ‘pass’ mark – to 14 per cent in GCSE maths this summer.
The ban on the O-Level was the start of a downwards spiral for examinations. The integrity of the system has been devalued by rampant grade inflation of performance at GCSE, A-Level and university degree level. These days, our educational qualifications currency is heading towards Weimar, Zimbabwean and Venezuelan value. The termination of Common Entrance is a final nail in the coffin. It is a remarkable example of a self-inflicted wound from a rare area of real excellence in our educational landscape, the independent sector.
The prospect of imminent execution under a Labour government has panicked private school leaders into a policy of appeasement. The Sunday Times quotes the usually sensible Professor Alan Smithers as claiming: ‘Prep schools worked well in another era but are now reaching their sell-by-date.’ He adds: ‘The sector is likely to be decimated as the schools, which specialised in cramming children for the [CE] exam, struggle to find a new purpose.’
What tosh this is, Alan! As a one-time state school teacher who went on to become head of a preparatory school, I hope I know a thing or two about this topic. If you are seeking examples of cramming, you should pop into a state primary school, grinding kids into the dust in preparation for SATs. In contrast, most preparatory schools, for most of the time, are educationally liberating. They provide both a rich and varied curriculum and a wide spectrum of extra-curricular activities, with the added advantage of far more male teachers than in state primaries.
The Sunday Times reports that the number of prep school pupils this year is down by 3,000 but admits that this is still above the number six years ago. There are 194,592 children whose parents still choose to pay fees of up to £30,000 a year. Many have to scrimp and save to so do. They want the best primary schooling available. Around a third of state primary school pupils are currently failing to reach even the so-called ‘floor standard’ in their SATs. Professor Smithers may be correct when he states that state primary schools are much better than they were, but too many are far from being good enough.
Prep schools are a breath of fresh air within primary schooling. In my experience parents choose them as much for the breadth, depth and quality of schooling they offer as for any passport to a particular public school. In the school of which I was head, for example, all children studied three foreign languages, including Mandarin and French, from the age of five. Four other languages – Arabic, German, Spanish and Ancient Greek – were offered as options. Five of those languages, by the way, were not part of the Common Entrance exams the pupils later sat.
Were we a hothouse? Ask the pupils who raced into school in the morning and whose regular school rock music concerts attracted rock stars to watch them play. Some of these pupils are now household names in the popular music world. And, yes, Mozart and Mendelssohn did get an equal share of school performances.
If only we could work towards making our state primary schools more like preparatory schools. Better still, ditch the pitiful 16+ GCSE exam, and have all pupils, state and private, sit a version of the Common Entrance at age 13 before they move on to a secondary school that matches their aptitude: grammar or technical.