Friday, 13th October 2017
Along with a large number of prep school and senior school heads, I attended a meeting at Summer Fields School in North Oxford yesterday. The point of the meeting was to discuss the entry processes for senior schools. As you may know, this is becoming ever more complex as schools line up to introduce pre-tests – there are now very few senior schools who do not do so. The advantage to senior schools in holding pre-tests is that they have the ability early on to take a view on all those pupils who are interested in going to that school and, in an increasingly competitive world, this is understandable. On the other hand, anyone who has any experience of pupils between the age of 11 and 13, particularly boys of course, will know that they tend to change a great deal in that time and for many, it is a period of rapid academic development. Many schools, having tested people at 11, miss out on some of those who end up being the very best candidates. The other complexity of pre-testing is that many parents understandably enter their children for a number of schools and as such a young person's last few years at prep school tend to be taken up by taking various different exams – all senior schools are independent of each other and therefore they have not developed a common approach to testing. There was a strong sense at the meeting that we ought to try to come to some consensus about having a common testing window so that almost all pre-tests occur in a short period of time. This has to be a good thing, I would have thought. In the past couple of years ISEB, the organisation responsible for Common Entrance (run by Peter Kirk, the person who will, incidentally, be doing my appraisal next month) has introduced a Common pre-test which very many schools have opted to use and which a number of our boys took last year. This has gone some way to producing a sense of homogeneity to the process but, as it happens, many schools are at the moment using it as a first screening to then decide who will be allowed to go forward to their own pre-test. Anyhow we will see what happens, but the mood of the meeting was very much that we should be moving towards a more uniform process.
The other matter on the agenda was Common Entrance itself and its nature. There was very strong support for the exam as a concept, very many people throughout the sector arguing that it was still an important set of exams despite the pre-tests. Indeed, the registrar of a well-known senior school argued that it allowed his school to know what most of the pupils arriving at the school had covered.
Another matter which many senior schools expressed strongly was the value of boys and girls staying at prep school until the age of 13. Many of the heads present represented schools which start at 11 but even they were happier for prep school boys to arrive at their schools at the age of 13 when they had properly benefited from all that our schools have to offer – Forms 7 and 8 in a prep school is a magical time where responsibility can be exercised, where senior boys can show their maturity rather than being towards the bottom of a large institution in which they have little stake. Having taught at two senior schools which have pupils starting at 11, I know that the 11 – 13 year olds are viewed differently. In a prep school they are the senior pupils who need to be treated in a more adult way and who need to be intellectually stretched, as for many of the able teachers in prep schools they are the pupils who provide real intellectual satisfaction. I noticed two days ago that my son in Form 7 had been doing one of Donne's Holy Sonnets. This remarkable collection of poems, written in the early 17th century when Donne was Dean of St Paul's, is often set for A Level and so one might expect that it would be beyond prep school pupils. However, the handout which had been supplied by his teacher with the poem was a model of explanation and, in conversation with my son, I realised that though one or two subtleties of the poem had evaded him, he had gained a huge amount of understanding of the work and that he had thought a great deal about it. His teacher's expectations had been high and he had certainly risen to them. Aspiration of this nature is typical, I believe, of the senior part of prep schools and it occurs in an environment which the pupil knows and with staff who understand the pupils. As such, it is an extremely positive experience. Hooray for Forms 7 and 8.
Talking about our school, thank you very much to you all for supporting our Open Morning tomorrow and for bringing your sons in on a Saturday morning. There are a good number of people coming so it will be very important to have the boys in school; they are, after all, our greatest advert and it is a day upon which to be very proud of our boys. Their enthusiasm for the school is always obvious and it is clear that very many of them are destined to become excellent salesmen! Life is a series of opportunities! Thank you again for your support and have a good weekend.