Common Entrance Examination
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Common Entrance Examinations (commonly known as CE) are taken by some children in the UK as part of the admissions process for academically selective secondary schools at age 13 or (for girls) 11. They are set by ISEB (Independent Schools Examination Board). Most of the secondary schools that use Common Entrance for admission are public schools; most of the schools that routinely prepare their pupils for Common Entrance are preparatory schools. Both kinds of schools are normally fee-paying, that is, they are particular kinds of independent schools. The name comes from the fact that, unlike many other selective secondary schools which each set their own entrance examinations, the secondary schools concerned agree to use a common set of examination papers. However, the marking of the scripts and all other aspects of the admissions process is still done independently by each secondary school.
English, Mathematics and Science are compulsory core subjects. Other papers can be chosen from French, German, Spanish; Latin, Greek; Geography, History and Religious Studies. Most senior schools expect candidates to offer Geography, History, Religious Studies and one or two languages, but pupils from schools which do not offer the traditional range of subjects or weaker pupils can offer a reduced number of papers: entrance requirements are dictated only by the senior school, not by the examination but some state schools do not require Common Entrance. Sometimes, it can even be up to 70% in every subject. There can also be different levels, in Mathematics and in Latin, Level 1 is the easiest, Level 3 is the hardest and sometimes it is Levels 1 – 2. School usually state their preferred level.
The Common Entrance examination has been criticised by headteachers who complain that it uses 3 to 4 years of the children's time at prep school preparing for an exam – this ties into criticism that the British education system (in both state and private sectors) is too exam based and does not encourage dynamic learning with the 'tick-box' system that is currently used. Other teachers have also said that this type of exam is simply too stressful for a 13-year-old. The youngest child to pass this examination was Lincoln Ken Ramkissoon at the age of 9 from Trinidad and Tobago in 1977.
Taking the test
There are three times a year the papers are sat. January, June (the most common month to sit) or November. The papers are sat Monday to Thursday. Candidates usually sit the CE exam papers at their own prep schools, at a fixed date, but not a time; but papers are marked by the preferred senior school, who mark them immediately and will, if necessary, arrange with the prep school to forward the papers to a second-choice school should the performance fall below the acceptance level of the preferred first-choice school.
Many schools also use the CE exam as the basis for awarding entrance scholarships and bursaries, but often also apply their own further interviews, tests, or examinations. Likewise artistic, musical or sporting achievements are not examined by Common Entrance, but may be taken into account by reports or other means.
Children often have to attend interviews at their preferred secondary schools, in addition to taking the Common Entrance examination. Headteachers' reports are also considered. Some secondary schools, particularly the most competitive, also require candidates to take a pre-test several years before Common Entrance.
Role in admissions
The exam has no official standing, because it is used only by the independent sector as a transfer exam to senior schools and it is not nationally standardised. Independent schools may naturally determine their entry requirements, generally or in individual cases, but the Common Entrance allows preparatory schools to teach almost all pupils to a common syllabus, and provides common basis on which a public school can compare candidates from different prep schools. There is no standardisation in marking and every senior school has its own mark scheme and own 'pass' threshold. This varies considerably between schools and therefore no reliable comparisons can be made between results achieved at different schools.
In practice, the Common Entrance exam, while providing valuable discipline and motivation, only rarely determines admission, and failure should be an exceptional event. It is in the interests of neither the schools nor the pupil for a candidate to either be admitted to a 'too-demanding' school, or to fail an exam. Prep schools should be able to assess and report their candidates' prospects accurately. Parents should be rightly disappointed if a prep school advises that a pupil can attempt Common Entrance to an inappropriate school, or if a public school allows an excessive number of candidates to sit the exam.
Past papers can be ordered online or by mail.
- Independent Schools Examinations Board website
- Common Entrance Preparation
- Independent Schools Council information
- Graham Jones (Spring 2007), "The Changing Face of Common Entrance", Conference Common Room 44(1), p. 18 (frame 20/56 of the pdf) – review of the first one hundred years of the exam.