Tom Dawson, headmaster of boys’ prep school, Sunningdale, advises parents on how to navigate the entry process into senior school
A baby is born. Congratulations and huge smiles on the parents’ faces was followed by a dash to the telephone to put their precious child down for the most prestigious schools to guarantee a place at 13. Until recently that was all parents needed to do until Henry or Henrietta was approaching their final year at prep school.
Not so anymore. Although introduced with the best of intentions, the process of entry into senior school involving pre-testing is now fraught with uncertainty, nervous tension and a battery of tests from the tender age of ten. Eton introduced a pre-assessment first, but now most of the leading senior independent schools have followed suit.
Now, pupils can expect to be tested in Year 6, often using the ISEB Common Pre-Test, then again in Year 7 at their chosen school and finally sit Common Entrance or a Scholarship exam in Year 8. Were this to be for one school, the process might not be too stressful. The reality, however, is that because competition for places is so fierce, pupils will apply to at least three schools, and sometimes many more.
The ISEB Common Pre-Test was originally designed to reduce the number of tests that the pupils had to sit. The utopian aim seemed to lean towards a UCAS-style system where a pupil would sit one test and the results would be shared between senior schools, who could then select the pupils they wanted to interview. To some extent this has happened. However, one problem is that different schools ask pupils to sit the tests at different times, so lessons are missed and time is lost in sitting an abundance of tests.
What schools have failed to appreciate is the stress that this puts on the pupils. Children are, quite rightly, ambitious and, often their parents even more so. So, at a time when children’s mental health how can we, in our schools, help them through this process and make it as painless as possible?
Preparation is key. It saddens me that we have had to give over some lessons in the timetable to familiarise our boys with the type of tests that they will face. Education should be about opening our pupils’ eyes to the wonders of the world, to the joys of language and to an appreciation and enjoyment of learning. It should not be narrowed down to focus on testing.
Not only do the pupils need to be prepared for the tests themselves but they also need to be able to cope if the results do not go their way. Building resilience in children is essential but we must guard against destroying their confidence, through subjecting them to a succession of failures. This is where the school and the parents come in.
It is essential that the prep school head is open and honest about the advice they give to parents. We want to keep the parents happy and do the best we can for their children but we must be realistic in the schools that we advise them to apply for. It is important to aim high, we owe that to the pupils, but we must aim high with realism. What I try to do is suggest three schools for each boy; two of which are at the top end of his ability and one which is a safer bet. What worries me is that a number of fantastic schools, who traditionally accepted a broader range of children, are raising the bar. Why? What is wrong with being a broader church? The top pupils at most of these schools will do just as well as at others. If the school accepted a broader range, they would get fantastic pupils with different strengths.
The parents themselves have a crucial role to play in making sure that they do not put their children under unnecessary strain. I urge all parents to listen to the advice of their child’s prep school head and also not to heap pressure on their children to get into a particular school.
Children love to please and if they know that mum and dad are desperate for them to pass into school x, they will be terrified of letting them down. We spend a good deal of time explaining to the boys that, while they must give it their best shot, they will ultimately end up at a school that is right for them and if they don’t get into a particular school, it is not because they have failed, it is simply because that school does not feel they would thrive there.
We all want our pupils to succeed and we want them to get into fantastic senior schools. Most of all, though, we should want them to be happy and a part of me can’t help wishing that the process was all so much simpler.