Common Entrance: a new phase of assessment

Common Entrance is not under threat, but entering an exciting new phase that makes it better suited for the 21st century, believes Phillip Evitt, headmaster of Highfield School

As anyone involved in the prep school world will know, the nature and relevance of Common Entrance (CE) has long been a topic of discussion. However, 2019 saw this discussion take on a new focus and urgency, following the decision in the autumn term of 2018 of several leading senior schools to no longer require applicants to sit CE.

For the first time in many years, this discussion has moved forward in a genuinely positive and creative way. It confirmed what I suspected, that there remains a real appetite in both prep and senior schools for the continuation of rigorous subject assessment based on specifications which emphasise not just knowledge, but the application of knowledge.

As a result, the ISEB, prep schools and senior schools have explored together what should and could be done at 13+ that would be appropriate for a 21st-century education.

What is Common Entrance?

Examinations taken by boys and girls for entrance to senior independent schools at 11+ or 13+. The syllabuses are devised by the Independent Schools Examinations Board (ISEB), which is composed of heads from the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), 

The Girls’ Schools Association (GSA) and The Independent Association of Prep Schools (IAPS). The papers are set by examiners appointed by the Board, but the answers are marked by the senior school for which a candidate is entered.

As part of this we hosted a conference on ‘The Future of 13+’ at Highfield on 14 May 2019, attended by over 120 delegates from HMC, GSA and IAPS schools. Prior to the conference, the ISEB, under Durell Barnes, had been engaged in extensive consultation with prep and senior schools on the future of CE. 

All those who led the subject working groups and the curriculum steering committee, created by the ISEB as part of this consultation, spoke at the conference.

Barnes gave an overview of what the consultation had revealed and how he wanted the conference to help refine the direction of travel around some bold objectives: the creation of truly exciting specifications for schools, offering a balance between the acquisition of knowledge and its application, both engaging and exciting in itself, empowering teachers to develop pupils’ skills of analysis, reasoning and problem-solving, and crucially, without the pressure to simply regurgitate learnt material. 

Central to this is the development of resilience and confidence, the ability to express views coherently, both orally and in writing, raising cultural awareness, empathy, cross-curricular collaboration and the development of both independent and collaborative learning.

For the first time in many years, this discussion has moved forward in a genuinely positive and creative way 

These bold aims captured the imagination and engagement of the majority of delegates and the conference also acted as a real stimulus to the ISEB consultation. This has led to the emergence of some truly exciting proposals from ISEB for a reformed CE in line with Barnes’ objectives.

Their core aims for a reformed CE include preparing pupils not only for the next stage of their education, but for lifelong learning, based on the secure foundation of subject knowledge, concepts and skills, and the ability to apply what they know to new situations. 

These specifications will be predicated on a desire to encourage pupils to be truly enthusiastic learners, open to new ideas and experiences, curious, questioning and keen to experiment. To develop the confidence to weigh up evidence, think for themselves and make up their own minds.

They will have opportunities to learn from working independently and collaboratively, understand how subjects connect with each other, and demonstrate cultural awareness and empathy, developing an understanding of their own place in the world. 

common entrance
Highfield School held a conference last year to discuss the future of 13+


Considerable enthusiasm at the conference for the development of an extended project qualification has also been fully embraced by the ISEB who are well advanced on the creation of just such a module, which will provide the opportunity for fostering research skills. 

Given these proposals, it seems to me that a reformed CE built to reflect the needs of 21st-century education will continue to enable prep schools to recognise and acknowledge what has been achieved in years 7 and 8 – provide, where needed, an entry mechanism for senior schools, and indicate to senior schools what they can expect from the pupils who transfer to them in terms of knowledge, skills and understanding.

Far from 2019 witnessing the end of CE and despite some negative and ill-informed newspaper articles suggesting just this, it is clear that nothing could be further from the truth. 

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