Pre-testing for entry to independent senior schools
Pro test or protest?
Eton started it, now they've been followed by Marlborough, Wellington and getting on for a dozen others. What are they after - precocious sophistication or just flattery and a politician’s ease with untruth?
Increasing numbers of senior independent schools, that admit children at age 13, are pre-testing children at age 10 or 11. Is this a move to create a new elite or a genuine way of ensuring a great marriage between school and pupil?
Are schools that pre-test genuinely over-subscribed or just adopting a clever marketing ploy, to push parents to pledge their allegiance ever earlier?
Certainty is important to parents – but it is not the be-all and end-all of existence. Other factors come into play: allowing children to develop breadth and character as well as academic skill; judging children when they are ready for it; allowing a chance to a child who is a less than obvious candidate; seeing the whole child and not just part.
Whichever applies, do share your views on pre-testing. Would you like more or less of it? Or only as a way of selecting some children? What system would you prefer? What you think of pre-testing for entry to independent senior schools?
We said that we thought that this was a bad idea and were promptly challenged by one of the schools concerned to justify our views and to suggest alternatives.
What is happening?
Some schools set a computer-based test, others interview, most do both.
These are supposed to need no preparation – indeed to be proof against it. Many parents and prep schools do not agree. Children who pass the pre-test at 10+ and accept an offer of a place still have to pass Common Entrance – but are 95% certain of a place. Those who fail the test have an outside chance, at best, of entry at 13.
As one pleased parent says:
“For Tom, having to be ready for the pre-test exams and interview focused him and spurred him on. As he has mild SEN, I was not certain that St Cakes would take him: they did, but asked him to take extra English to bring him up to scratch. Had they refused him, I would have been enormously grateful to have had a couple of years to find an alternative (I had no plan B).
The pre-interview – was, I think, a great thing for Tom. Like most 'dys' kids he's pretty good orally and basically it was him interviewing the housemaster. For 'dys' kids to get that opportunity (rather than CE which merely highlights their struggle with written English) is great. I actually feel a good pre-test is far more multi-sensory and potentially fairer on SEN kids than just written papers.
If anything getting the conditional place spurred Tom on and gave him a real focus and goal to work towards – he knew he still had to get through CE (he thought in all subjects) and was doubly keen to ensure his place.
My other son took a computerised test. They were told they couldn't prepare (and didn't) but schools were sent a sample so kids got used to the computer bit. Those who got through were then interviewed on a different day.
The school introduced the computerised bit as they felt some schools were over-inflating their pupils’ IQs. (It's not uncommon for schools to boost kids and tell parents how good they are; in some schools it’s hard for parents to judge how well their kids are really doing). The kids seemed to enjoy getting together for the computer test.
Will had no problems – bright as a button – and knowing he has a place has done him no harm either. He’s busy on scholarship work - hoping to be good enough to take one and so avoid CE. This will give him extra time, in the summer term, to spend on music, sport and the outdoors. I would say that he is (and surprisingly so) more focused than ever - and it certainly isn’t parental pressure.
So my experience as a parent of pre-tests has been positive.
Entry based on Common Entrance may be fine where prep schools know the score and advise well, but many from state and less focused independent schools are not necessarily getting it right; pre-tests iron out these disadvantages.
Computer testing is, I think, age and sex related to remove bias due to gender, summer birthdays etc. At 10 or 11 boys, especially, are still very young and not fazed by tests. Perhaps this is the best time to test them, while they are still unstressed and untroubled. Adolescence, and the focus on self that comes later, is the real stress.
Testing isn't necessarily used to take those who come 'top'. I suspect at St Cakes they have a pass-mark, then interview and select from all those who 'pass' they're looking for kids who will cope academically but who have something extra to offer too. If so parents’ anxiety and extra tuition is misplaced.
Schools that pre-test say that there is no reasonable alternative.
- To rely on Common Entrance would mean hordes of disappointed parents when the results come through.
- Being dependent on CE may potentially bankrupt recruiting schools who suddenly find the registrations don't convert to bums on seats.
- Pre-testing parents whose children don't make the cut have a couple of years to find somewhere else and do so armed with a more realistic picture of their child's ability.
- If top schools do not offer certainty, then parents of children they’d love to have as pupils may well opt for the security of a guaranteed place at a less prestigious school (a common feature of the London day system).
- Prep schools that are at ease with pre-testing say that it helps them with the process of guiding parents towards realistic expectations.
- Parental pressure has made it an embarrassment for prep schools to have any child fail to get into their school of first choice, pre-testing and firm guidance as to where else to apply removes this discomfort.
- The 11-13 prep experience is anyway over-rated as a developer of a broader character - kids seem to spend most of the time going through past CE papers [a criticism of CE which we may return to another time].
As Charterhouse says in “Why we don’t pre-test at 11”,
“There has been discussion recently about entrance procedures to senior schools and the disruptive effects that pre-tests can have on boys’ education in Years 6 to 8. We have considered introducing our own pre-test but have decided against doing so.
Charterhouse recognises that many boys develop rapidly between the ages of 11 and 13 and often make considerable academic progress during their last two years at prep school. We don’t think it is educationally sensible, therefore, to base our decisions for entry at 13+ on a single test at 11.
Instead we rely on the prep school’s advice which we seek in the January two years before a registered boy is due to start at Charterhouse. Prep schools know that, on the academic front, we seek to recruit bright boys who will achieve at least 60% in Common Entrance and who, after five years with us, will go on to top universities – as happens every year. We also want to know about the boy’s personality and about his other interests and talents. This helps us to choose boys who are going to make the most of the opportunities that Charterhouse has to offer.
The selection we make at 11 is based on the information the prep schools provide. We need to know whether or not a boy is likely to be up to our standard by the time he takes Common Entrance. In some cases, we make it clear that passing Common Entrance might present difficulties, and that we will keep in close touch with the prep school to monitor the boy’s progress over the next two years. During this time we will pre-test if necessary, or mark practice Common Entrance papers, and then give our advice about the boy’s prospects.
Boys who are likely to fail Common Entrance are usually withdrawn, while others, who make good progress from 11 to 13, pass comfortably and go on to flourish at Charterhouse."
Getting the right results - Against pre-testing
- The tests don’t pass the right children. They are too limited, and too early in pupils’ lives. As one head of a school that pre-tests says ‘ we should be developing the whole child, rather than concentrating just on the testable aspects of their intellect’. Quite.
- What the pre-tests and interviews look for is ill-defined and perhaps untestable – potential, or enthusiasm for coming to the school.
- Pre tests could narrow the diversity of a senior school’s intake towards the conventional academic. What about a child's ability to thrive in the environment and feel happy in their own skin?
- They can add to burn-out. We've heard too many stories of kids who've gone through senior school, achieved stonking results and then imploded, burnt out and crashed at uni.
- Pre tests are just another factor which feeds the culture of insane competitiveness and anxiety in parents. This in turn puts pressure on the young child and can contribute to problems further down the line.
- We are already over-examined – adding another at 10+ oppresses children and restricts prep schools' abilities to teach as they would wish.
- Such exams discriminate against children from state schools and those educated abroad.
- Pre-testing is mostly for the benefit of the senior schools: it allows them to cherry-pick the best children, and be sure of their intake several years ahead – and pocket a large deposit.
- The pre-exams are a marketing opportunity for the schools, another day when they can strut their stuff for parents.
Does pre-testing mark schools out as selective, not recruiting?
Pre-testing had become a matter of status at some senior schools, a marketing ploy, a badge to say that ‘we are in the top league’ rather than something done to benefit children and their parents.
Yet, plenty of oversubscribed senior schools – and the parents that apply to them – do very well without pre-tests, eg Radley, Oundle, St Edward’s Oxford, King’s Canterbury, Shrewsbury. Parents applying for them (as for the examined entry to top London day schools) know the rules – they book a place in some less oversubscribed school as well, or at least have a list of such places that they’d be content with if their child misses their first choice. Very little goes wrong in practice because prep schools and senior schools communicate, as Charterhouse describes above.
Alternative selection strategies
- Straightforward selection on Common Entrance results: the grammar school system.
- Selection when you put your name down, with a modest academic hurdle.
- The Charterhouse system, as described above – on the list at 11 and guidance thereafter. The key element of this is the trust between the senior school and the prep schools.
- The Canford system: Canford spent ages considering whether to go for pre-testing and decided not to for many reasons. One was that they did not want to upset their feeder preps, nor local families, old boys etc who have been planning for their children to come to the school for forever. Instead Canford introduced what many schools have - a two tier system. Half the places in year 9 are filled by families putting their kids' names down (very) early. This tier only has to pass CE at a fairly low level. The other tier is for people who come along later: these places are doled out by a highly competitive pre-exam at age 11+. Scholarship candidates (a third tier) can, of course, put their names down up until virtually the day before the scholarship exam is sat in the January before year of entry. The school thinks that this is a kind system that allows for excellence to shine through and latecomers to have a chance of entry, while still caring for the loyal Canford community.
Questions and answers...
Schools have set their agendas but do they pass muster?
How would you like popular senior schools to organise their selection? By the date you apply? By the score in an entrance test? By conversation with trusted prep schools? By a pre-test? Or something else – and on its own or in combination? Does it matter? Should all schools follow the same pattern or does the path taken say something about the school and the child/family it suits.
What matters is your views, not ours...
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