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Prep Schools: Prep School Baccalaureate vs. Common Entrance

09.12.2011 Over the past 15 years, pre-university qualifications have significantly developed. Along with A Levels we now have alternatives including the International Baccalaureates Diploma and Cambridge Pre-U. As a result, schools, universities and pupils have all benefitted. So there is a strong argument to applying the same principle to the preparatory schools sector.

Every 12-year-old wants to relax, play football or chat with friends after a hard school day. But this will probably not be the case if they are banking on getting into a senior independent school any time soon. 20,000 or so children prepare for Common Entrance exams every year. Therefore a great part of their free time over the last school months is inevitably spent grasping a pen or computer mouse and getting down to revision and a bit of exam practice. Common Entrance has been the “gateway” to senior schools for more than 100 years. The system ensures that young children gain a solid grounding in the core academic curriculum, which then acts as a sound preparation for the more rigorous demands of secondary education.

Nevertheless, Common Entrance is currently being closely scrutinised. For its critics, this kind of system represents the worst excesses of the “cramming culture”; promoting short-term coaching for the sake of passing an exam, rather than enthusing young minds with independent thoughts.

Now, a powerful delegation of preparatory and senior schools is debating about developing an alternative exam system along with its adjoining syllabuses. The programme 'Prep Schools Baccalaureate' (PSB) is being established.

The Prep School Baccalaureate (PSB) would – on the whole – be based on the National Curriculum, which in turn is what Common Entrance is based on. The mode of delivery and its emphasis, however, would be different. What is important for 10-13 year olds is developing a passion for learning. Best practice within PSB schools would enable pupils to produce high quality work, driven by genuine interest in their subject. The PSB would enable the brightest pupils to fly higher, while ensuring that all pupils show what they can do – not what they cannot.

Progress and achievement will be tracked in all areas – not just the academic. Pupils will be assessed by teachers over a two-year period. Scores will be made up of a mix of end-of-year tests, modular assessments and teachers’ own judgements of pupils’ progress in the classroom. The system will also take more account of extra-curricular activities. In this way PSB will reduce stress among pupils by cutting down on high-stakes end-of-course exams, unlike Common Entrance where the result of its final exam was believed to show a pupil’s achievements gained within the last few years of hard study. The situation was made worse if a pupil felt unwell or was just too nervous when sitting a test on the exam day.  

PSB is supported by numerous strong preparatory and senior schools. It will be first assessed from September 2012. A pilot group of 10 to 15 schools will employ the Prep Schools Baccalaureate, with more added soon. Schools initially involved include The Beacon, St Edward’s, Wellington College, Marlborough College, Eagle House, Charterhouse, The Hawthorns, Lambrook and Moorlands School.

So far it is hard to say whether PSB will be embraced. If we remember The International Baccalaureate – a similar qualification for sixth-formers – we will see that it has been in existence since 1968 but is still only used by a minority of schools compared with those offering A Levels. Still, the PSB system definitely deserves some careful attention, and as always, it is pleasant to have an alternative.


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