An Uncommon Entrance Test

The Independent newspaper carried an article on Thursday about possible changes to the Common Entrance exam, the traditional gateway to some of the country’s major public schools for over 100 years. Change has been a long time coming. Many schools, including our own, long ago developed their own entrance assessments, as an alternative to the Common Entrance exam.

The next incarnation of Common Entrance was being discussed by a group of heads of independent schools at a conference being held at Wellington College on Friday. At the heart of the debate is the concern that the traditional test involves pupils in a great deal of rote learning and fails to explore whether they can think creatively and critically. The fear is that traditional entrance assessments reward those who have been ‘taught to the test’ and fail to examine whether a candidate has a deeper understanding of what they have learnt.

At the Stephen Perse Foundation we strive to identify pupils who show potential. Our entrance assessments have always been more layered than those of most other schools. Some schools rely solely on a series of written tests while others may include a single general interview. We don’t think that this allows the full potential of candidates to shine through. At sixth form level, all of our candidates sit a critical thinking paper, examining the logic, consistency and persuasiveness of the arguments on either side of a debate, followed by an interview based on their arguments. This helps us to identify those candidates who have the ability to think for themselves. At the Senior School, written tests are supplemented by interviews with subject staff, allowing us to explore any areas of concern and to find out more from those pupils who show real promise.

Whilst no assessment system is perfect, we are confident that our process is able to identify pupils who will benefit most from the education we offer. It allows us to make offers to pupils who may not have covered every topic or every technique. Sometimes it also leads to us turning away pupils whose raw scores may be in line but who we identify are already working at the upper limits of their ability and hence would struggle later. One of the reasons that we are the top-performing school in the region is because we identify pupils, regardless of background, who will respond best to the inspired teaching that we offer. We want to encourage a love of learning in each and every pupil, something that will stay with them on every step of their educational journey.

Entrance assessments also lie at the heart of the debate about how universities can widen access to encourage social mobility, including the possible introduction of quotas. Quotas seem a retrograde step and I believe that it would be better to encourage universities to re-examine their overall admissions process. Rather than relying primarily on A Level grades, they should find a way of identifying students who have the key skills they require such as the ability to assimilate new knowledge, to develop critical analysis in their field of study and to apply basic principles in a wider context.

A multi-layered approach to admissions encourages access. We are very proud that our rather Uncommon Entrance Exam has allowed us to make 11+ offers to pupils at over 30 different schools including over 20 different state primary schools. Any cohort of pupils from such a diverse set of feeder schools will, by definition, have learnt very different things. Our job is to make sure that we identify every pupil with the potential to become creative and critical thinkers, rather than offering only to those who have been well-taught or well-coached.

Our curriculum at every level offers a wide range of creative activities to inspire and to encourage different ways of thinking in our students and we are introducing Philosophy for Schools to Year 6 at the Junior School from the beginning of the Summer Term 2011 to build on the Theory of Knowledge that is already well embedded in the life of the Sixth Form College and the Critical Thinking course in Year 10 in the Senior School. Previously young people were educated for established bodies of knowledge, values and skills – the ‘knowns’. In the ever-changing digital world in which we now live, it is more important than ever that today’s young people are educated and equipped for the unknowns that will challenge and inspire them in the future.

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