The nightmare of private school "entrance" tests

Francis Gilbert's picture
I was talking recently to a parent who has children at private schools. Apparently, there’s huge consternation in many London prep schools (private schools which educate children until 13) because Highgate School has changed the way it admits children at 13 years old. This school used to make children sit entrance tests a year before they were admitted but have now changed their policy, asking for the entrance test to be sat two years before admittance. According to the parent, this is because most prep school children also sit the City of London tests at the same time and usually favour City above Highgate if their child is accepted at both schools. It appears that Highgate have decided to get around this problem by making children sit the tests in Year 7 (11-years-old) for admittance at 13 years of age (Year 9). This way if these pupils get in, they’ll basically have to accept a place before getting an offer from City and allegedly have to put down a hefty deposit years before actually going to the school. If you look on the relevant place on their website, you’ll see that the arrangements of the tests have changed. Apparently though, City are now changing things and are aiming to have their entrance tests early.

Speaking to other parents and pupils from various private schools over the years, I’ve become aware that these entrance tests are pretty traumatic for the children concerned — especially if they fail. Many of these children are bitterly disappointed if they don’t get into their preferred school and feel intellectually inferior to people that have gone there for many years afterwards. A lot of parents feel that if their child doesn’t get into a top private school that they’ll be disadvantaged for life because they won’t gain the contacts that going to schools like these supposedly grant. The fact that our Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister come from two supposedly top private schools has only exacerbated the hysteria. I think the thing is that once you’re in the private system, you can easily become infected with this kind of hysteria because many conversations with other parents are all about where your child is going next: whether they’re going to pass the entrance test to the next top school, or when they’re in the Sixth Form, whether they’ll get into Oxbridge. Many of these children are tutored to death outside school in order that they can jump through the various hoops that these institutions put before them. There’s also quite a bit of covert bullying with children being labelled as failures by their classmates if they fail the relevant tests.

It makes me feel sad for these children; I think they’d do just as well if they were at state schools and probably be much happier.

If these schools are so great, why don’t they admit children by lottery and junk these appalling tests and terrifying interviews? That would be the fair and honest thing to do.
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Nigel Ford's picture
Tue, 04/10/2011 - 18:10

In respect of your final para Francis, they would argue that there is a market for these schools on the basis of how they conduct their entry criteria. That isn't to endorse the terrible pressure on these young kids, and no doubt the parents feel their status in society is contingent on how well their offspring perform in these exams.

I've written about my twin nieces who attend a primary school in Kent and how getting in to a grammar school seems to carry as many kudos as an A'level student who attains a place at a Russell group university. The difference between the private and state school pupils who take these exams at 11 to determine their particular senior school is that there isn't the same disparity of income in the private sector to pay for extra tuition so the playing field is more level.

In my own prep schooldays back in the early 70s there were different public schools with different Common Entrance pass marks to access them and every year there was the upset child who had just fallen short of 60% for Charterhouse or Westminster so other arrangements had to be made.

Any parent who decided he/she no longer wanted to play russian roulette with their children's future and throw their lot in with the comprehensive sector should be applauded for their maturity. Sadly not too many I suspect.

botzarelli's picture
Wed, 05/10/2011 - 14:26

Let private schools make their entry processes as traumatic as they like. It is up to parents to decide whether they want to bring their children up to face entrance exams and do cramming and private tuition. They'd do the same if their children were at the local comprehensive because that's what they believe gives their children the best upbringing.

Not all children will be traumatised by such an approach. Some will thrive - my own experience is that it wasn't until I went to a prep school in Year 6 that I started to learn and enjoy school, I liked the structure and competition compared to my primary schools where being good academically didn't matter very much so I didn't bother very much. But I also remember less academic children worrying themselves over whether they'd get the CE marks to get into the school their parents had chosen for them. They might have been happier without the stress. Not all children are the same and unless there is provision for different sorts of education in the state sector what hope is there for those who don't suit mixed ability education? I'd prefer that my son, who just started reception, stayed in the local non-selective state system, but if it doesn't suit him with all the support we and the schools can give, should he just have to grin and bear it regardless, just because some are ideologically opposed to alternative approaches?

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 05/10/2011 - 16:13

You and your child may have to grin and bear it if he does not pass his 11+ or fails the entrance exams for grammar or private schools, no matter how much extra tutoring you invest for him. Another selective state sector option open to you is faith schools, for which you’d have to demonstrate that you practice your religion. Or you’d have to fake it. Once selection is added to the mix, choice is eroded, so I can’t see how different sorts of education in the state sector is going to benefit everyone equally, only the financially or class-advantaged.

Often, when the rightwing speak of the ideological opposition to selection they mean to smear the more liberal minded, who they like to see as wanting to hold back more able children in order to maintain a status quo where everyone is dumbed out. Nothing could be further from the truth. We want each and every child to flourish and attain their own individual academic goals and mixed ability schools, if properly resourced and allowed to flourish, are capable of delivering this. It is the self regarding element of rightwing ideology which is opposed to equal rights for everyone, wishing to reserve access to better education to those who can afford school fees, those who are regarded as worthy and superior by virtue of knowing the way round to passing exams precisely at age 11, those happy to embrace the narrow and exclusive curriculum dictated by new Academies and Free Schools and those who can fall back on claiming faith. It’s the majority of others who are excluded from this cabal who have to grin and bear it and accept second best.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 07/10/2011 - 15:35

Up here in Cockermouth we have a community school that everyone goes to. No-one bothers wth private school because that means leaving the community which is so supportive of all our children. Lower population density means less movement of kids between schools.


Here's a video the teachers made to cheer up a year 11 leavers assemby after the issue of the death of a child in the yeargroup had been properly dealt with.

Turn it up loud now...

My ex-husband went there and a quarter of a century after he left his bond with his four closest male friends is still extremely strong because they have a geographical and community base to reinforce their friendship from school. One of them lost a parent recently and they were all right in there to support him.

The staff at Cockermouth school were told to become an academy or they would lose 10% of their budget. The school voted not to on the grounds it was immoral.

Although our fantastic secondary schools have been hammered by Ofsted, we've managed to protect some incredible primary schools that are class apart from 'Ofsted outstanding' school as many of our secondary schools used to be, partly because Ofsted never really got the hang of how to destroy combined yeargroups schools so deeply intelligent constructivist approaches survived.

Let's give it up for the fantastic teachers in Cockermouth and Cumbria.
One more time now:

Do feel free to come and visit.

Warwick Cairns's picture
Wed, 19/10/2011 - 20:27

You pays your money and you takes your choice, I think.

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