While writing in the week that our Form 8s are hunched over their exam desks and tackling this summer’s Common Entrance exams, it seems a good time to reflect on teaching towards CE.
In truth, I haven’t done much CE teaching for a few years and this year has been a refreshing experience and reminder of the quality of these exams. There are demanding comprehension tasks on both a prose passage and a poem supported by an interesting choice of imaginative writing tasks. In addition children are given the choice between writing discursive essays or a response to their reading, both in and out of the classroom. The tasks are challenging and require some sensitive reading and feel for language as well as an ability to write accurately and persuasively. They are a very significant stepping stone towards GCSE exams and present different challenges for a range of abilities. I have enjoyed teaching towards them and I haven’t noticed a significant difference in the level of challenge provided by these and a number of scholarship English papers used by local independent schools.
In a wider context, it is very fashionable to ‘knock’ CE: too much learning, too prescriptive, too repetitive (as I might have suggested, none of those criticisms can be levelled at the English papers). In the hands of nervous or unimaginative teachers, there may be evidence of this – especially with exams in the Humanities.
It is worth remembering, however, that although the idea of CE and a common curriculum and set of examinations to make sense of entrance to independent senior schools was first created in the latter years of Queen Victoria’s reign, criticisms were already being voiced in articles written before the First World War….and these exams have remained.
They remain popular with the major public schools who see them as delivering a rigour and consistent quality that has been lacking in other curricula such as the Early Years Programme or Prep School Baccalaureate.
The Independent Schools Examination Board that creates the curriculum and exams includes teachers from both prep and senior schools and they create examinations which are carefully trialled and reviewed. These exams are then marked at a child’s chosen senior school allowing for that school to mark to its own standards as best suits their candidates. While moderating grades to achieve consistency is always difficult (comparing grades amongst the children going to different schools never really works) there is something healthy in masking some of this potentially debilitating competition for 13 year olds. Different levels of papers have also allowed schools to differentiate the challenge even further.
What I like best about Common Entrance, however, is the very personal nature of the communication between prep and senior schools. Children are not just candidate numbers and the inevitable exam disasters and ‘off days’ can generally be negotiated. And don’t forget, that an exam system that can turn around results within a week, allowing prep schools to keep meaningful teaching going right up until the midst of the final term, makes very favourable comparison to any of the larger examination systems.
As I watch a row of focused faces and pens hurrying over the papers, I do reflect that I’m rather glad I don’t have to do examinations any more but - having watched one of my own children struggle through CE and then feel amply prepared for the challenges of the public exams he faced three years later – I say ‘Long live Common Entrance!’
Welcome to Cargilfield! We hope this short film gives you a glimpse of what life is like for the girls and boys at our school. We would love to welcome you in person to tour Cargilfield and explain more fully exactly what makes a Cargilfield education so special and so different. Please get in touch with Fiona Craig, our Registrar if you would like to find out more; her email address is [email protected] or you can telephone her on 0131 336 2207.