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Different Examinations, Common Thinking

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It's been an interesting year in the world of the educational examination. Every August we've become accustomed to GSCE and A-level results bettering the preceding year's results. The upward curve of achievement seemed as unassailable as Usain Bolt on the running track, but the finishing line is now in sight for these qualifications.

Against the back-drop of falling grades and re-marking scandals, education minister Michael Gove has reinforced plans for a new qualification from 2015; one that would replace coursework and modules with longer, written exams. Lessons for the government could well be learnt from a tried and tested examination system that has been proven to work for over a century.

The Common Entrance exam is used as an admissions process for academically selective independent secondary schools. Children attend preparatory school to ready themselves for the exams and sit them aged 13. The final result is determined by how the pupil performs on the day. Sound similar to Mr. Gove's proposals?

But despite the exam being the decisive factor in progressing to senior school, the preparation pupils undergo sets them up for life. The very best schools work with each and every pupil to help them discover their individual study needs in terms of absorbing information. This is the approach we take at Downsend and it has once again paid off with a 100% pass rate this year. The skills of information retention are invaluable and often lost in module system where pupils undergo a conveyer belt of cram/exam/results and repeat.

As a former captain for Saracens rugby team, I often use the analogy of training for a must-win cup final when describing the end-year exam. Coaching for results is integral to success on the sporting field, but after the trophy has been lifted the process which prepared you for victory stands you in good stead for the next challenge.

While the training a child at a Cognita school undergoes ahead of the Common Entrance is the academic equivalent of one of the regime of my old teammates at Saracens with silverware in sight, the overarching commitment is to developing accomplished, well rounded, confident pupils. These are the pupils who don't just excel at exams, but on the pitch, on the stage or in the orchestra. This is what highly selective senior schools demand- young people who have had their education approached holistically.

Common Entrance exam papers are the same across all schools but are sent to and marked by the schools to which the pupil is applying. Different schools have different pass marks - the pass threshold at one school could be significantly higher or lower than that of another ten miles up the road.

The skill is for teachers to correctly advise parent and child to aim at a school that best suits their academic and extra-curricular needs. Brave educators aren't afraid of the 'difficult conversation' and act with the best interests of the pupil at heart, a tricky skill when parents want what they think is best for their child. Ambition is encouraged except when it's unfair. Not everyone can or should go to Eton.

Teachers apprehensive by the upheaval in the curriculum should take heart from the Common Entrance experience. Take the time to determine the needs of each individual pupil and watch their ability to absorb information improve. Instill a thirst for knowledge. Create a balance between the academic and extra-curricular. Get this right- and the responsibility lies with everyone from government and educators to parents and pupils- and Britain might just get top marks once again.