Page 8 - Independent Schools Magazine
P. 8

 Is an UCAS-style application
system what the independent
sector needs to reform 11+ exams?
Stephen Lehec, Head Master at Kingston Grammar School, argues that
an UCAS-style school admissions system could provide the much-needed panacea for students, parents and schools facing the uncertain ‘free for all’ caused by the current 11+ system.
I have been a Head Master for
ten years and Head at Kingston Grammar School for almost four. Throughout this time, I have seen first-hand how the lottery of the current 11+ admissions process can have a profound and often negative impact on students, their parents and their chosen independent schools.
Kingston Grammar School is situated in an area of south
west London where there is high demand for independent school places, causing fierce competition and ‘conveyor belt’-style exams
as a result. Like most schools in the area, we are hugely over- subscribed and regularly receive over 800 applicants for around 100 school places at 11+. Due to this competitive environment, it would not be considered unusual for a 10-year-old student to sit anything between four and twelve separate exams in the course of the 11+ admissions process.
This is one of the central reasons why I have become convinced that we need to overhaul the system and replace it with a university- style applications process in which parents prioritise their choices
and students aren’t forced to sit limitless entrance exams.
The psychological impact on students cannot be underestimated: sitting one exam is difficult
enough but to have to sit multiple versions of similar exams over
and over again could potentially
be catastrophic if the student
does not have the maturity or emotional awareness to cope. It’s
a big ask of any 10-year-old and is compounded by the fact that it is often unclear why children ‘pass’ some and ‘fail’ others. It works out fine, of course, if the child passes for a school they really want to attend but not if they pass for one they, and their parents, considered as a ‘practice’.
8 Independent Schools Magazine
From the schools’ perspective, the current system is also fraught with real risks. Unable to forecast with any degree of certainty how many children will start in September
– because parents can make any number of applications and even accept multiple offers – they always make far more offers than there
are places. If, as the acceptance deadline approaches, schools realise they do not have the capacity to make good on those offers, they may start to withdraw them. In effect, that means schools could be forced to operate on a ‘first-come- first-served’ basis even before the admissions deadline is reached.
The result, of course, is that parents who think they have a guaranteed place for their child may suddenly find that they haven’t. Naturally, they are furious – and who can blame them? The lack of a coherent system and the admissions ‘free for all’, though, means many schools have little choice. They are forced into this unsatisfactory situation because the lack of a transparent system – as there is for universities or local authorities –to move to second, third or fourth choice preferences means schools have
to protect their own admissions numbers in such a drastic manner.
The situation is exacerbated by those schools who are not members of school associations and who may not have to adhere to the stipulated guidelines – meaning, too, that they may be less upfront with parents about potential capacity issues. Similarly, parents who, against advice, sit their child for eight, ten or even more schools, often indicate to many of them that they are their first choice, understandably hedging their bets.
It is easy to understand why schools offer over and above their actual capacity because they have no idea who actually wants to accept that offer; equally, we have
to understand why they may be tempted to renege on that offer. Every school wants to be a popular first-choice school but that dream becomes a potential nightmare if
it comes true and more parents accept places than the school can physically cope with. Some schools and their sites can cope better than others with what is commonly referred to as a bulge year. Some cannot – and no one school can consistently have higher intakes than planned without serious redevelopment. One also has
to ask: ‘Is that what the parents signed up to anyway? A bigger school with bigger classes?’
Of course, schools have a duty to the current students and parents
as well as to their new intake to ensure that their finite resources can adequately meet the demand. Resources, whether physical, financial or less tangible, need to be protected if all students are to receive the quality of education that their parents have signed up to and are paying for.
How do we fix this system that limps along, from year to year,
and decade to decade, and causes unnecessary stress to all involved? The answer thus far has been to just get on with it and continue
to stick your educated finger in the air, making the best guess possible based on past and current trends. However, a system for independent schools that was modelled on the well-established and successful UCAS arrangement, that stamps out the worst abuses and is transparent for all parties, could be a good starting point. Schools would be able to allocate places on a preferential rather than a first-come-first-served basis and give parents a clearer indication of whether their son or daughter will secure a place.
It would also reduce stress among children. It can’t be good for their
wellbeing to be dragged around eight or ten schools and sit multiple entry tests. Limiting the number
of schools able to be applied for would be hugely beneficial to all.
Revising the current system will, of course, cost money; to some, too, having a centralised admissions system will run counter to the ethos of independence. But what alternative do we have? To continue with the current lottery, where schools could only guess at demand and then compensate for a lean year by being overly ambitious the next?
At the moment it’s a gamble
for both schools and parents because there is no transparency.
A UCAS-style arrangement that simultaneously prioritised and narrowed options would give parents some degree of certainty that their children were likely to be accepted by their preferred schools as long as they met the criteria, and schools a reasonable indication that parents were seriously considering them. It would not be perfect but it would be a good start. Many more thousands of students go through the UCAS and the maintained sector cycle annually than independent school admissions; while they are not without their pitfalls and occasional errors, the practice is transparent and largely effective. Students sit a single test or set of exams and their offers
are based on clear criteria such as achievement or location.
Of course it will cost schools money to set up but they will save money on marketing, save an awful lot of time on guesswork, remove a significant amount of stress for the parents and, much more importantly, for the children involved. We owe it to them
to try and fix what is currently
an unhealthy, imprecise and unsustainable 11+ system.
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