The Value of 13+ Common Entrance
The pros and cons of Common Entrance at 13+ have been hotly debated in recent years. Criticisms include suggestions that the curricula are too prescriptive (resulting in the stifling of creativity and fun in the classroom); the required standards and expectations are too high resulting in excessive demands being made on pupils, teachers and parents; papers are marked by the senior schools themselves so there is a lack of consistency and standardisation; and a 13+ entrance exam that can be failed as well as passed puts undue pressure on the candidates.
That said, many (myself included) believe that Common Entrance still has enormous value, nearly 120 years since the first papers were set.
Increasingly, Common Entrance is not a pass/fail exam (although of course pupils can fail, especially to the more competitive schools). Therefore, the papers give pupils a chance to "show off" what they have learnt thus impressing their senior schools.
Pupils derive enormous benefits from preparing for and writing public exams at prep. school age.
The exams cover rigorous common curricula. The fact that many subjects are being taught at a level approaching GCSE not only encourages academic excellence and intellectual curiosity amongst pupils, it also sets a high benchmark for the teachers. CE means that pupils have all had the same solid grounding when they arrive at their senior schools.
Common Entrance allows for flexibility – those who have joined a prep. school late and so perhaps do not offer French or Latin can still be considered by their chosen senior school. It also caters for a range of abilities: many of the subjects have papers set at different levels. Equally, senior schools understand that a pupil might take a higher level paper, achieve a comparatively lower grade, but demonstrate an ability to cope with a more demanding syllabus – and this is interpreted accordingly.
Scholarship requirements tend to be based – loosely – on the respective Common Entrance schemes of work. Many schools use the Common Academic Scholarship papers published by the Common Entrance exam board - the ISEB. Thus using the ISEB syallabi as a basis in a prep. school is beneficial to scholars as well as CE candidates.
Common Entrance is important as young people must have something at which to aim. A "rite of passage" is valuable, whatever the exam. It gives focus to children in their final years at prep. school, and their preparation for CE equips them with a broad range of skills and academic knowledge.
Of course there is no such thing as a perfect admissions system and it would be narrow-minded to claim that Common Entrance is fault-free. However, whilst not wishing to put undue pressure on pupils, we are surely failing them if we relax our high expectations and remove all possible hurdles? For an exam to be worth the paper that it is written on it has to be possible to pass as well as to fail; to get low grades as well as high. Those who do best are invariably the ones who are prepared to put in the hard work – but surely this is good preparation for life?
Most importantly, pupils who work hard, earn top grades and pass in to their first choice senior school deserve to feel a genuine sense of pride in their achievements – and that is precisely what Common Entrance allows.