By Colin Baty, Head of Bedales Prep, Dunhurst
Common Entrance, used by many independent schools as a basis for selection, will soon be no more. For some, this represents further evidence of educational dumbing down, with more arts, sports and drama in the school curriculum coming at the expense of rigour. This will have little effect on what we do at Bedales Prep, Dunhurst: as well as encouraging academic rigour, we already give plenty of time to what are generally perceived as the more creative subjects, sport and working outdoors. However, I have also taught a curriculum designed to prepare pupils for the examination, so I speak from a fairly informed position when I say that the passing of Common Entrance may prove a great opportunity for prep schools.
Teaching for Common Entrance can mean a pretty prescriptive educational diet, and it is sometimes difficult to provide a balanced curriculum. It is hard to squeeze in everything that you need to which, despite one’s best intentions, can be at the expense of enquiry, inquisitiveness and debate – all of which we favour at Dunhurst. Education at that age should be about having fun and developing a love of learning, but at its worst, teaching to Common Entrance can feel more like preparation for GCSE. I don’t believe that getting children of this age to jump through such hoops is good for them. Evidence around adolescent mental health suggests that we should exercise caution, and I am far from convinced that the prize is worth the tears that I have seen.
Of course, exam stress is mitigated to some extent by senior schools now offering unconditional places based on pupils’ performances in pre-tests. Nonetheless, Common Entrance still seems to me an antiquated way by which to select. I am more comfortable with an admissions process that helps us to learn about each child. In this way, we form a view on how they might contribute to the life of the school, and whether the school, in turn, can give them what they need. Available data and schools talking to each other can help parents and schools alike make good decisions for children’s futures.
I am optimistic about the move away from Common Entrance. It could, and should, encourage schools to depart from the subject/knowledge-based curriculum, and to embrace project and cross-curricular approaches that are much better attuned to modern working orthodoxies. And I hope it also gives schools licence to keep what happens in their classrooms current. In my school, our own Global Awareness programme gives us the scope to teach in a way that properly accommodates climate change and related activism such as that demonstrated by Greta Thunberg. We owe it to our pupils to allow them to discuss what is happening in their world now, so that their education feels vital and real, and so that they might become the active citizens of the future (as well as academic high achievers, of course). It is life, and not just exams, for which schools must prepare our children.