More than one government minister at the Department of Education has said to me that Common Entrance is one of the best things about independent schools and that they wished the state sector had it. The reason they say this is that in state schools, Key Stage 3 (age 11-14) is so often a period of relative fallow, with little learnt and no drive. The great thing about Common Entrance (CE) is that it strongly motivates prep school pupils to work.
What they are being motivated to do is to commit their knowledge to long-term memory. Having information in your long-term memory is very important. You cannot think critically or analytically about a subject if you do not know something about it.
And it is simply not true that we ‘forget what we learn at school’. I can still remember most of the poems, most of the science, and much of the French I learnt at prep school.
Too many children are taught things but learn very little. It is commitment to the long-term memory that is the most important element of learning. Boys, especially, need to be driven to memorise information and exams like CE are that driver.
Those who say that senior schools no longer need CE to select pupils are correct, but in most cases this has been true for decades. When I ran the CE part of admissions at Eton, we quickly worked out that the results of CE maths alone was a better predictor of GCSE success than an average of all CE subjects together. So why did we not abandon or ignore all subjects other than maths? Because CE had a far more important role to play than deciding which very few boys we were going to fail.
More importantly, it guaranteed that prep schools would maintain a broad curriculum. Focussing only on tests in maths, or maths and English, would have been adequate in terms of deciding which boys to pass or fail. But accepting papers from a full range of subjects guaranteed that they would all be taught at prep school and taught well.
Marking CE scripts was a good reminder to senior school staff what it was that prep school pupils had been studying and what they knew. Senior school staff are inclined to ignore what their pupils might or might not have learnt in the past. Marking CE, however, forced them to understand their pupils better.
We were generally pleased with what the prep schools were teaching. After all, senior schools were always consulted about the frequent syllabus changes made to each subject. The syllabus was supported by excellent textbooks – books which are so often missing from state schools at the same age.
But are exams not stressful? They are a bit stressful, certainly, as they have been for the past century. Stress is needed to make boys, especially, do the work. Stress is a part of life and the stress of CE is a great preparation for GCSE. Undue stress nearly always comes from over-anxious parents, not from the exam itself.
Parents send their children to independent schools because they get their children good results. If they are to survive, independent schools need to ensure that their results are clearly better than most state schools. CE is one thing that lifts the academic standard of prep school-age pupils above the norm and sets them on the road towards successful GCSE grades.
I am sure that CE can be better. I know that exams have weaknesses as an assessment method. But anyone who thinks that what we all need these days is ‘skills’ and not knowledge, or that teacher assessment of coursework is a better or fairer way of ranking pupils, is just wrong.
Above all, know that CE is so much more than an entrance exam. It is a curriculum. It determines what subject knowledge pupils will take with them to their next school and, with luck, to life thereafter.
Barnaby Lenon is chairman of the Independent Schools’ Council and has been a governor of 16 state and independent schools, a former teacher at Eton and Headmaster at Harrow for 12 years until 2011. He has recently published two books, ‘Much Promise: Successful schools in England’, and ‘Other People’s Children: What happens to the academically least successful 50%?’