What does it mean for teachers and pupils to come away from Common Entrance?
Having now embarked on year one of moving ourselves away from Common Entrance after undertaking a thorough consultation phase with senior schools, teachers and parents, I wanted to explore further what impact it will have in the classroom for teachers and the girls. Our Heads of Maths and Science at Knighton have written their thoughts and reflections.
From Vicki Dunkerley, Head of Maths at Knighton House
The choice to leave Common Entrance and change our approach is an opportunity that is both daunting and exciting.
Discussions with maths teachers from other local prep schools, show that we share a common concern with Common Entrance. As teachers, we find ourselves racing through the curriculum to cover all the content in enough time to prepare for the tests. Many of us feel that our pupils do not get the depth of teaching we desire to give them nor are we able to give them the opportunity to discover the beauty and joy of mathematics that we feel so passionately about. Sadly, pupils leave with enough knowledge to pass an exam but without the depth of understanding that allows them to sustain their thinking on a deeper level, as evidenced by the need to reteach topics in Year 9.
Some argue that Common Entrance prepares children for later life and promotes a growth mindset. I would have to strongly disagree with these notions, particularly in maths. Currently the exams focus on closed questions. For those pupils who get wrong answers, it is hard for them to maintain a positive view of their ability to achieve. Instead, pupils who are given opportunities to succeed through open ended tasks and use of mistakes as a learning tool without high stakes exam pressure, will be ready to flourish in their senior schools.
As the changes we are implementing begin to make a positive impact on our girls, I believe it will be obvious to see through new levels of confidence and self-belief, a greater willingness to make mistakes and learn from them and the ability to apply the mathematics they are learning across a broad range of situations. My hope is that our girls will call themselves able mathematicians and develop a real interest in the subject.
Crucial to this is developing a teaching and learning programme that leads to a deep understanding of mathematical concepts. Trying to teach a large quantity of material in a short time with the goal of passing a test does not lend itself to this. Returning to the theories and ideologies of individuals who have studied education such as Vygotsky and Bruner, it is clear that the classroom must include opportunities to talk using mathematically accurate vocabulary, abstract concepts should first be understood using manipulatives and pictoral representations and time must be given to exploring, understanding and connecting ideas before moving on. The state sector is leading the way in this, with a focus on pupils achieving age related expectations and mastery of the subject. Visiting a local first school, I saw evidence of the above and children who grasped concepts quickly were given tasks to use their knowledge to move on to a greater depth of understanding rather than being given more content.
This leaves just one hurdle; assessment for senior schools. It is important that senior schools receive relevant information from us about each individual. Does this mean that there is still a need for an exam? Teachers are professionals who have much to offer and this includes their ability to accurately assess where their pupils are at and build up a far more accurate picture than a snapshot exam at the end of the year.
From Sara Skellorn, Head of Science at Knighton House
For many years now every science teacher I have spoken to who teaches in a prep school has been moaning about the common entrance exams. Discussions have been held during formal meetings, informal chats and visits to schools. The complaint is not about an exam but the exam and the effect the exam has on what we have to teach.
In science, we are already trying to teach three subjects in one. The volume of curriculum content is huge, as is the number of skills and the language skills required. In a recent discussion with staff at Bryanston, having looked through the syllabus, it was remarked that they could sit the dual award GCSE at the end of Year 8! This volume of information is daunting for many of our pupils and for those weaker pupils, the Level 1 paper still requires the same volume of knowledge which doesn’t really help.
The exam itself often contains questions which the pupils find extremely challenging to decipher. This means huge swathes of time have to be given to learning how to do the exam. There is no denying that there will always be a place for time spent on exam technique, however, when the advice from the exam board doesn’t then match their questioning style or
Science is one of the most amazing subjects in a school to teach (in my opinion!). Where else can you allow children to set things on fire and show them things they have never seen before?! Making the volume of content so huge there isn’t time to explore the ‘what if’ questions and the ‘I want to find out more about’. Moving away from CE allows a freedom of time and concepts to be taught. Moving away from CE doesn’t mean the key ideas such as cells, forces, energy and the periodic table are lost; just they are explored further in an age appropriate, accessible way. We can then assess pupils on what they have actually learnt and understood, rather than their ability to interpret questions, unpick language and apply to situations far beyond their life experience.