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 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.


At 11+, Common Entrance consists of two English examinations, as well as an examination each in Mathematics and Science.[1]

At 13+, Common Entrance consists of examinations in Mathematics (three papers: a (listening) mental mathematics paper, plus written non-calculator and calculator) English (two papers), Latin, Classical Greek, Geography, History, Religious Studies, plus either Physics, Chemistry and Biology OR Science. In addition, there are a choice of four modern languages: French, German, Mandarin, Spanish, which are assessed via written, spoken and listening papers.[2]

In some 13+ subjects, a Level 1 (foundation, aimed at those who would score under 40% on Level 2) or Level 2 (harder, more knowledge required) paper is required; these subjects are French, English, Spanish, Mandarin and Science (Level 1 candidates sit a single Science paper, Level 2 three separate papers).[3] In addition, in Latin and Mathematics, Levels 1, 2 and 3 are offered. Level 3 is a higher level, requiring more knowledge and skills than Level 2.[4] All other subjects consist only of one level.

A still higher level 13+ scheme called Common Academic Scholarship, is designed for scholarship candidates, and single Scholarship papers are set in each of Mathematics, Geography, English, French, Science, History, Religious Studies and Latin. Scholarship candidates do not sit the Common Entrance papers, only Common Academic Scholarships. The syllabus for Common Academic Scholarship is identical to Common Academic Scholarship, except in Latin, where the required knowledge goes beyond Level 3. The papers, however, should be more challenging than the normal papers.

Most senior schools expect candidates to offer Mathematics, English, Science, 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. Schools may also dictate that pupils do not sit Level 1 papers, or that they must sit Level 3 papers where available.


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.

Taking the test[edit]

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.

In practice, the Common Entrance exam 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.

Some secondary schools, particularly the most competitive, base their admission decision primarily on an 11+ pretest. The format of these tests vary, but they tend to consist of IQ style tests as well assessments of maths and English. A successful 11+ pre-test is therefore a conditional offer, subject to satisfactory performance at Common Entrance, the pre-testing is however designed to identify children who are likely to succeed at Common Entrance, and it is normally not intended that children offered places following pre-test will be rejected at 13+, barring a calamitous performance at that age.

The exam is not a regulated qualification, and the results, unlike the GCSEs or A Levels taken several years later, are not granted in form of a certificate. The examination will help the senior school with admissions, and also with possible streaming/subject setting.

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.


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