Entrance exams and tutoring – reducing the burden on pupils

Mark Lauder, Ashville CollegeMark Lauder (Ashville College)

Shortly after arriving at Ashville as Head in 2010, and after a couple of years assessing the entrance exam processes into the Senior School (Ashville is 3-18 and we admit into year 7 from our own prep school as well as feeder schools) as well as the overall structure of examinations thereafter, I concluded that the overall burden of exams on our 10 year olds and above was unnecessary both for the nature of the information it provided and for the information we needed to make decisions on entrance and scholarships.

We therefore embarked upon a transition to a new structure. We wanted to evolve the process to ensure we retained standards, maintained the integrity of the process and captured the information required albeit in a different form, and this required benchmarking. We also wanted to maintain a degree of benchmarking against external candidates for those from our own prep school. Finally, we wanted to lessen the anxiety and exam burden on our younger pupils if possible and restore valuable curriculum time taken up by exam preparation, tutoring and the usual anxiety so unhelpful for 10/11 year-olds.

Entrance ExamThe structure we replaced was fairly traditional. Year 6 pupils from both our Prep School and feeder schools took numeracy, literacy and NVR tests in January, having been prepared by Year 6 teachers.  All external candidates were also interviewed and references were provided.  Internal candidates met with me before Christmas in groups to have the chance to ask questions and hear more about the process from me. Music, Art, Drama and Sports scholarship candidates, internal and external, were assessed and tested on during the week through stand-alone processes. Academic scholarships however had been offered based on a simple ranking of exam performance. This last point was the real issue that had to be resolved before I could dispense with an entry exam for our own prep school pupils.

We set up a small group to discuss and determine what we were looking for in our scholarship candidates, led by the Academic Deputy and comprising Key HoDs. A visit to Manchester Grammar School was helpful in developing a new scholarship assessment day that entrance candidates were invited to after tests. This levelled the playing field and introduced a broader range of subjects and teams of teaching staff observed and assessed candidates performances over a variety of areas, not just test scores.  This had the additional impact of increasing the common room’s attention to scholarship and teaching to most able.

Activities Week 1With this issues solved, we then scrapped the entrance exam for our own pupils, replacing it instead with an initial performance review of Year 5 in June to identify weaker candidates who might need further support and a formal discussion in November of every Year 6 pupil with their class teacher, the Head of Prep, the Head of Learning support, the senior Academic Deputy, the Registrar and myself.  At that point we reserve the right to test for entry but have yet to use it as early identification of issues as a result of this change has led to greater levels of targeted support early on.  Only prep school pupils who wish to be considered for a scholarship have to present for an exam and help is provided in school for them but no longer in lessons, allowing the curriculum to proceed uninterrupted.  All external candidates have to follow the original entrance processes.

Activities Week 2The net result of all of this has been a lessening of stress and disruption, an increase to over 90% of retention into year 7 and a robust and valued scholarship assessment day that pupils and staff enjoy and which gives a wealth of information that tests cannot and schools cannot teach to the test for this process – which we tell them.  The processes are more time consuming for senior staff but are invariably better in terms of knowledge provided about pupils and in terms of communication with parents.

In addition, the move to after school of entrance exam assistance and preparation has freed up a month of classroom teaching, has limited the anxiety issues to all but a few pupils (who may be looking elsewhere) and has engaged parents in the discussion about what is and is not reasonable in terms of overloading on tutoring, preparation and practice for entrance exams.  Transition is therefore smoother and year 6 more valuable for the learning Year 7 requires. And for those who insist on entrance exams as a ‘rite of passage’ which gives a sense of having earned a place to pupils, that is less important to me based on the sense of achievement I see regardless of a test or not and moreover, when we say no (and we do) to a pupil progressing, it is done early, sensitively, is based on an accumulation of information and does not come as a shock in Year 6 or leave the pupil concerned feeling a failure at age 10.

The benefits have massively outweighed the drawbacks.  And so we have also cancelled end of year exams in Year 7 and 8, assessing more regularly instead, and we now use the end of term for activities week – and my pupils spend dedicated time on outdoor and leadership education – buts that’s another article for another time!

This is a longer version of an article in issue 7 of HMC Insight Magazine. Click here to view the article.