To win a place at private school, 11-year-olds have to prepare for and sit a number of entrance exams and then smile through lots of interviews, which can be exhausting for child and parent alike. So, the suggestion that the independent sector should adopt a UCAS-style selection application system sounds great, although, as ever, the devil is in the detail.
I can certainly see the benefit of youngsters sitting just one exam and parents prioritising their choice of schools, just as they do when applying for university. But the suggestion by Stephen Lehec, head of Kingston Grammar School that it would “stamp out the worst abuses” by schools is, I believe, a little naïve.
Firstly, who would write this exam? It makes sense to choose someone who is experienced and knowledgeable about entrance exams, which would probably mean plucking someone from a well-respected private school. However, you then face the implication of bias or, even worse, run the risk of cheating as happened when Eton’s deputy headmaster was found to have leaked questions to colleagues on a paper of which he was the chief examiner.
Standardised exams are all well and good but independent schools pride themselves on being, well independent, and so many will want to do their own. After all, out of 1,300 private schools, only 190 use the common entrance exam at 11 or 13 with the vast majority devising their own test.
Unlike the state system which follows the same curriculum and tends to match pupils with the school closest to their home, fee-paying schools revel in their uniqueness. Some are academic hothouses producing excellent results while others have nurturing environments, which help develop rounded individuals. Some are known for sports, others their arts. It’s very much a case of matching your child with an environment in which they’ll flourish and a one-size fits all exam doesn’t fit with that.
Currently, landing a place in a school can be a lottery, with schools making more offers than they have places and then having to withdraw some, which causes great distress to families.
Lehec told The Daily Telegraph a centralised admissions system would provide comfort to parents. “It can’t be good for a child’s wellbeing to have to sit eight or ten entry tests and dragged around eight or ten schools,” he said. “It would be a lot less stressful for them if applications were limited to four or five schools.”
There is truth in that, but I predict that if this idea went ahead, some ‘elite’ institutions would break away just as Oxbridge has always done with UCAS applications (and just as more Unis are following suit, ignoring A Levels and setting their own bespoke exam or interview). The result could be an even more confused, tiered system than we have now.
Most top branded independent schools pride themselves on being different, a system that attempts to streamline this and standardise their offering is unlikely to be well received. For international students a major selling point of our independent school system is that it is challenging/ stressful/ unique to gain entry also so I feel any new additions to the entry requirements must bear this in mind or otherwise there could be a serious drop off in applications.
Additionally, as having one exam would level the playing field somewhat, parents would inevitably shortlist and prioritise the schools highest in the league tables or the ones steeped in history and tradition in which case they will be oversubscribed and others will be undersubscribed.
The other area that many top schools claim they have resolved is that of tutoring. Many say their tests are “tutor proof” – so having a uniform method of entry similar to the SAT system in the US would not help their cause. Whether or not any test is tutor proof I would strongly disagree with however that is a separate debate.
It’s a nice idea Mr Lehec, and there is definitely some food for thought, but right now I can see it creating more problems than it’s aiming to solve.
Stephen Spriggs, Managing Director, William Clarence Education
About William Clarence Education: The leading education advisory and consultancy service in the UK. With an unrivalled reach into the UK Schooling and University Network, William Clarence helps and advises families from around the world to reach their maximum potential and gain access to the very best of UK education. With close links to former Heads of Schools and senior figures within the education industry, William Clarence is proud to offer expert advice that puts your child at the centre of the process. Their business works with families at every stage of their academic journey including School Placement, University placement, Oxbridge Applications, US College Admissions and Homeschooling.