Peter Tait Education

Peter Tait Education

Common Entrance

GeneralPosted by Peter Tait Fri, October 05, 2018 09:52:34

The announcement in early October that St Paul's, Westminster and Wellington College were to abandon Common Entrance signals an end to a long-running battle to remove prep schools from the strait-jacket of the exam. It is some years since I spoke on this subject at conferences at Wellington College (and once to HMC Academic Deputies in Lisbon) and ten years since I wrote the article below - which I thought I should dig out for another airing to explain what the issues were - and not all were to do with education. For a time I was on the Board of ISEB, trying to help change from within before withdrawing my own school from the part of the exam and resigning. At that stage the Chairman of the Board was also the Headmaster of Westminster so pleased that the wheel has turned full circle.


In 1903, the first Common Entrance examination was established by the Headmasters’ Conference (HMC) in order to provide a common test for pupils wanting to enter their schools. Initially testing only Latin and Greek, other subjects were added over time although it was not until the 1960s that Science became a part of the mix. Conservative by nature, with a strong emphasis on rote learning and the acquisition of knowledge, the examination continued under the auspices of a committee of the Headmasters’ Conference determining and shaping the curriculum of the final two years or more of preparatory schools.

In the 1980s, the Independent Schools Examination Board (ISEB) was established, partly in a response to the new national curriculum, partly one suspects in a spirit of devolution to enable prep schools to be more involved in shaping their own curriculum. Subject groups were set up, headed by subject co-ordinators, to develop curricula and write examination papers. These groups were, in turn, responsible to academic committees of ISEB, and their work from time to time, subject to curricula reviews. The new body, however, far from handing any control for their curriculum to prep schools, ensured that the status quo remained – the Chairman was to be from an HMC school with the membership of the Board consisting of equal numbers of members from IAPS and the two senior associations, GSA and HMC. The Deputy Chair has invariably been a GSA Head. Other associations such as SHMIS and ISA are not represented on, nor do they benefit from, ISEB although they continue to use Common Entrance for the purpose of transfer.

Over recent years, the original purpose of Common Entrance, which was to provide a measure by which public schools could allocate places to their schools, has become blurred. More pupils entered public school from state schools or from overseas and were not subject to the same set of exams. An increasing number of schools were setting up their own entry criteria and examinations by-passing the common curriculum. More prep school pupils, likewise, were returning to the maintained sector and for them, Common Entrance was just a hindrance. None of which would be hugely significant if Common Entrance provided a well-grounded and well-rounded education not dominated by teaching to the test.

What has blurred matters more than a little has been the evolution of the body set up to administer Common Entrance, ISEB since the 1960s. While its initial brief was to provide a means of transfer between the sector, through its sale of old papers and, more recently, through a burgeoning publishing industry, it has become a significant source of income for the three associations although, of course, the monies are exclusively derived from the prep school sector.

In the summer of 2005, there appeared an article in Prep School magazine (ironically, directly following Michael Spinney’s article questioning aspects of Common Entrance) entitled ‘The Role of Textbooks’. While reading for all intents and purposes like an advertising feature, with its one illustration being that of one of their textbooks, this article by Nick Oulton, Managing Director of Galore Park, a publishing company founded only six years previously, was a vociferous defence of Common Entrance, extolling the success of prep schools and stating that ‘CE lies at the very heart of this success’ It went on to say that ‘It (ie the prep school world) bravely sticks to all that is best of the old in education, while embracing all that is new. And it is precisely this that drives the success of Galore Park’s prep school textbook range’ – textbooks written, as he wrote in the next paragraph ‘to support the needs of those preparing for CE’.

Nick Oulton, who is the husband of Claire Oulton, Headmistress of one of GSA’s flagship schools, Benendon, and an Executive member of ISEB from 2000-2005, no doubt saw prep schools as a potentially lucrative market. He would also have been well aware of the changes in the syllabus and the fact that new texts would be needed – something that perhaps could have been foreseen by ISEB and its marketing arm. With more than 570 schools with little cohesive voice and who traditionally did the bidding of HMC and GSA schools, Nick Oulton went ahead and made a formal approach directly to ISEB, seeking both their business and also, and most crucially, their endorsement for the increasing number of books they were producing, many of which were designed specifically to prepare pupils for Common Entrance, focusing on practice and testing (mirroring the publishing conglomerate spawned by the SATs tests). As the result of an agreement between ISEB and Galore Park in late 2006, a deal was agreed to outsource old papers and other publications to Galore Park in return for an annual payment of £180,000. By mid-2007, they had more than 140 books pitched at the prep school market, each with the ISEB imprimatur, for which ISEB are paid 5% by Galore Park. This is expected to be a significant source of income over the coming years, as Galore Park plays on the fears of parents and schools in getting pupils through Common Entrance, a fear often fuelled by prep school heads as a raison d’etre for their own existence. The sale of old papers alone is an industry realising over £100,000 p.a. with both schools and parents preparing their pupils for the barrage of exams (although it is estimated that only 30% of pupils enter public schools via the examination).

In a recent article in The Daily Telegraph (22 May, 2008), Nick Oulton attributed his success to ‘a crucial endorsement from an examinations board and a promotional flyer sent to the independent school sector to get Britain’s top private schools ringing up with orders’. Needless to say, no mention was made of his connection with ISEB, the fact that the publishing rights were not put out to tender and his access to the proposed syllabus changes. Since 2007, Nick Oulton has not always had a smooth relationship with ISEB, but the business partnership of his company Galore Park with the Board is a major impediment to any substantive change of the current curriculum.

In July 2007, annual profits from ISEB totalled £154,000, which were distributed three ways, with HMC and GSA receiving £57,750 each and GSA £38,500. The bulk of the Board’s revenue, some £555,000 each year comes from examination fees, (£74 per candidate at 13+ and £60 at 11+), income derived from the prep school sector and shared amongst the three associations.

Apart from the issue of two-tiered entry (pupils sitting scholarships or entry tests from the maintained sector pay no such fee; nor do scholarship candidates, even those using the Common Scholarship exams – a clear case of educational apartheid), it is arguable that the costs should be borne by the senior schools (such a move would inevitably lead to questions about the level of fees set and value derived from the exams) and not prep schools. A school that takes 150 pupils a year via Common Entrance on current rates would have to pay a total of £12,000 (the amount prep school parents currently pay). It is not difficult to surmise that they would find some other process that was both less expensive and better served their purpose if they were asked to cover the cost of what is, after all, their own entrance examination.

Not only are prep schools denied the independence to determine what they teach, therefore, or how they teach, but they have no control over an exam that is variously used for setting, selection, streaming, rubber stamping or qualification – or sometimes, I suspect simply because it is there and costs nothing to access. Prep schools have to accept that their sector is being used as an increasing source of revenue, with Common Entrance being the lever to prise open the safe – an arrangement in which IAPS is complicitous.

ISEB stated recently that it is the ‘servant of its patrons’ but not equally so. Prep schools are seen as passive partners whose expertise in the area of Year 7 and 8 education is constantly downplayed. In a response to criticism from a group of HMC schools in the South-East division in 2007, ISEB answered that its papers ‘ . . . are written by highly professional, highly dedicated subject specialists, the majority of whom are from HMC schools. They work in teams led, for the most part, by heads of department from HMC schools’

This assertion is quite accurate although whether it should be so is a matter of considerable debate. A review of the Common Entrance setting teams reveals that the four core subjects are headed by teachers form senior schools; not only that, but the teams are usually dominated by senior schools, aided and abetted by some of the most selective prep schools, There is little doubt that the leaders are strong on knowledge of their subjects, but arguably less so on what children are learning or capable of learning at ages 11-13 years.

The make-up of the teams makes interesting reading. English is headed by the HOD English at St Paul’s supported by a team of four, from Radley, St Mary’s Calne and two prep schools, Copthorne and St Andrew’s Woking

Mathematics is headed by the HOD from Brighton College supported by a team of two from Headington and Wellesley House School

Science is divided into three subjects, each headed by staff members from HMC schools (Clifton, Cheltenham and Cheltenham) with teams from Downe House, Harrow, Ampleforth, Malvern and St Paul’s Prep School, The Elms School, Clifton College Prep School, Tudor Hall, Quainton Hall School and St Michael’s Devon

French is headed by the HOD French at Eton supported by St Mary’s Shaftesbury and Dumpton

German is headed by Epsom College, Greek from Stowe, Religious Studies from Eton, Geography from Wentworth College (GSA) Spanish from Oundle, History, alone, has a team headed by an IAPS member. In summary, the four core subjects are headed by HMC schools as are four other subjects. One is headed by a GSA and one by IAPS

The grip is strong and the chances of effecting significant change to Common Entrance slight while there are such significant vested interests at play. There are many questions that still need answering: What is the original brief of ISEB? Is ISEB meant to be making considerable sums of money for its umbrella organisations? Why should GSA and HMC, as sleeping partners, be receiving money from the prep school sector? Who decides whether they should still have the influence they currently have over transfer, over curriculum? Why should prep school parents have to pay for Common Entrance when pupils entering from other sectors or sitting scholarships – even the Common scholarship – do not? ( a state of affairs that smacks of intellectual apartheid?) Who else was invited to tender for the business of ISEB in 2006? How is the future of ISEB (and Galore Park) affected if Common Entrance undergoes the very significant changes that are needed? And what avenues are open to effect the changes necessary?

If senior schools had to pay the costs for Common Entrance it seems inevitable, judging by their criticism of the exams, that there would soon be changes. A school taking in 125 new pupils each year would be faced with an annual fee of £10,000 for Common Entrance on current charges – enough I would argue for a review of the use of the exam and some decisions being made on what actual information / data was required and whether the current syllabus was fit for purpose. Because they neither pay for it, nor supervise it or even have to defend their marking, makes it a very attractive option for senior school. Nor can the cost of the exam be readily dismissed as being inexpensive simply because the costs are dispersed and not met by prep schools themselves – hardly relevant for an exam that is neither moderated or standardised, has no national standing, has variable pass marks and is simply a way of sifting, recruiting or confirming the places of potential customers.

The debate over Common Entrance has been going on for so long now it is hard to see it being properly resolved in the near future. In seeking a review, I was warned that the entrenched interests and the financial considerations of the three associations along with the resistance of schools to protect their brand would make any significant change unlikely. I was reminded of many efforts made in the past in the past that came to nought and I can well understand, now, two years on, why so little has changed. As long as educational considerations are subjugated to other factors, whether they be financial, ethical or simply matters of expediency, it is unlikely that significant change will happen in the future – and that, I would suggest, bodes ill for the independence of prep schools.