The Common Entrance Automatons

23 March 2010
The Guardian
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 Wellington College’s head knocks state ‘factory schools’, yet his entrance exams see children being drilled as early as year four


Anthony Seldon is one of the most powerful figures in education today, so when he provides 20 recommendations for improving schools we should all take note. Given his ideological closeness with the Conservatives, he might be in government shortly, with his guidelines becoming the law.

In his latest pamphlet, An End to Factory Schools, he characterises our state schools as “factory schools”, turning out students who are “incapable of living full and autonomous lives”. He is particularly condemning of the sorts of pupils the current exam system produces, saying: “The new world does not need container-loads of young men and women whose knowledge is narrowly academic and subject-specific which they can regurgitate in splendid isolation in exams.”

I find this point particularly ironic since he is the headteacher of Wellington College, a highly selective, fee-paying school that requires its prospective pupils to take a battery of tests before even entering. These exams include the Common Entrance, a succession of highly specious tests that have scarcely changed in decades. To gain good marks in the Common Entrance, most pupils are drilled within inches of their lives by their “prep” schools.

I withdrew my eight-year-old son from his prep school and put him in the local state primary precisely because I didn’t want him turned into a Common Entrance automaton: the school he was at was already drilling the poor children in year four to take a test they would sit at 13 years of age! Since he’s been at the local, inner-city primary, he’s really flourished precisely because the teachers don’t treat the children like robots. And yet, Seldon pretends to be someone who nurtures the happiness of his pupils. If he did, he would end Wellington’s entrance exams immediately.

But he won’t – because he believes in schools being allowed to select their pupils. Any teacher knows that school selection leads to a chronic “exam factory” mentality. I’ve taught for 20 years in the state sector and never seen pupils treated as poorly in this regard as they are in the private sector. The reason why the private sector gets great results is not because of the quality of teaching – which is often dismally poor – but because they ruthlessly cream off the best kids and teach relentlessly to the test. It is true that this attitude has seeped into the state sector in recent years, but it’s not nearly as bad in state schools as in fee-paying ones.

One of Seldon’s big themes is that professionals should all be “freer” to pursue their passions in public life, and yet in many of his pronouncements he exhibits high levels of control-freakery, calling for compulsory community service for all 18-year-olds, 10 hours of sport for children every week and, most bizarrely, for all leaders – political, financial, military, etc – to spend five minutes each day in absolute silence.

Seldon wants a “free-school” system such as the one promoted by the Tories, where parents are given a voucher that is equivalent to the value of their child’s education and would be able to spend it where they want. Private companies would be able to set up schools in the same way as shops – a free market for schools. These schools would be funded by the taxpayer but not accountable to the taxpayer because private companies, not locally elected people, would dominate the governing bodies.

Such a system would mean well-connected self-publicists such as Seldon will profit hugely, contracting their dubious services to the state – Wellington College has already “sponsored” an academy. Contrary to what Seldon says, the evidence from the US suggests that these privately run schools provide a significantly worse education than their state-run counterparts. Above all, the evidence suggests that all schools should be accountable to the taxpayer, otherwise unaccountable private companies, organisations and individuals profit while children’s education suffers.

Seldon’s big idea is that “trust” should enter our society again: that we should trust our public workers more. It’s hard to disagree with this obvious sentiment, but the central problem is that it’s very hard to trust much of what Seldon says. I certainly don’t.

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