Prep school final years are ‘exam factories’, says peer

Independent prep schools have been turned into “exam factories”, according to a leading figure in the private education sector.

Lord Lucas, editor-in-chief of the Good Schools Guide, is concerned that children’s final years at prep school have become “dominated” by intense preparations for tests to get into the top selective schools.

The Conservative peer said that in some private establishments – particularly in London – the final two years of junior school had been “turned into an exam factory”, which is impeding real learning.

Lord Lucas was referring to a variety of tests taken by prep-school leavers, including the 11-plus examination, Common Entrance and senior schools’ own in-house admission tests. He called for a return to “trust” between preps and senior schools, where junior schools could “recommend” good students, rather than relying on high-stakes tests.

“It takes the pressure off,” he told TES.

His comments came amid concern from state school teachers about the prospect of more high-stakes national tests, signalled by education secretary Nicky Morgan last week.

Unions claimed a return to such testing at seven would be “educationally harmful”.

Lord Lucas, an Eton-educated hereditary peer, has similar concerns about the independent sector. “Junior schools feel that the last two years need to be dominated by getting up to speed for the tests,” he said.

“The last two years have been turned into an exam factory, it is a great pity… Testing at 11 or 13 has come to distort a year or two of their junior school education, which has just become focused on the tests.

“Why do you need them? You only need them because there is a lack of trust. Anything you introduce which is high-stakes distorts education.”

Reacting to his comments, heads of senior schools said they were careful that the demands of their admission processes did not create hothousing effects lower down.

Tim Hands, Master of Magdalen College School in Oxford, a selective high-performing independent school, said many more schools were now relying on recommendation than five years ago.

“The whole movement of play seems to be in the reverse direction [to tests],” he said.

David Hanson, chief executive of the Independent Association of Prep Schools, added that good schools simply did not allow preparations for admission tests to overshadow proper learning.

“Whether you are in a state or private school, there’s going to be pressure but the best schools do their best to mitigate against that,” he said. “They won’t want exams to diminish the positive learning experience.”

But Lord Lucas’ concerns are clearly shared by some schools. An alternative to Common Entrance, designed to encourage schools to teach a wide range of personal, social and physical skills, as well as academic knowledge, is gaining momentum in the sector.

Fifteen schools are now involved in offering the Prep School Baccalaureate, which was launched in 2013.

James Barnes, communications director for the baccalaureate, said an increasing number of senior schools recognised the qualification, including Harrow School, Marlborough College and Uppingham School.

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