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Common Entrance exams? Pah!

Progressive Knighton House School in Durweston leads the way in consigning CE to the annals of history and introducing an exciting new two-year programme to Years 7 & 8. Muddy checks it out!

Sitting pretty on the outskirts of Durweston on the Wiltshire/Dorset border, Knighton House School is an idyllic girls’ day and boarding prep, surrounded as far as the eye can see by glorious countryside and only a stone’s throw from the mighty beast that is Bryanston. But this is no sleepy country school – Knighton House, with the mighty forward-thinking Robin Gainher as head, is leading the way in setting aside Year 8 Common Entrance exams and introducing a progressive, and extremely impressive, new curriculum.

We were already taken by Knighton’s Personal Enrichment Programme (PEP) – working across the areas of arts and crafts, academic/cerebral and sport and horse riding, and encompassing all areas of school life to help extend the knowledge and confidence of pupils, with sessions including everything from current affairs to chess, Ancient Greek, shooting practise, even Tea Bag Club! Supporting the PEP programme, Knighton’s own KED Talks (get it?) tackle topics such as Getting It Wrong, Resilience, Curiosity, Inventing and Asking Questions.

Now, Knighton are taking one (huge) leap forward, moving away from the traditional prep school Common Entrance syllabus and introducing a new and bespoke KED (Knowledge Enlightenment Discovery) Curriculum for Y7/8 as well as being rolled out throughout the school. So, obviously we had to pin down the man at the helm himself to find out how, when, and most importantly, why.

Muddy Stilettos: Well, that’s the first question. Why?

Robin Gainher: Knighton has been thinking about this for several years. As more and more senior schools move to pre-test pupils at the start of Year 7, or even earlier, the Common Entrance seemed to become more and more redundant. We started to ask ourselves what its purpose was – it is no longer an exit exam, and while it used to be an entrance exam to get into senior school now early pre-testing has taken that away. Our girls have already got their place at their next school, they’ve got their letter saying “Subject to Common Entrance” so we thought, what if we can take out that phrase? Then we have the opportunity to do something really different.

Once a pupil already has a guaranteed place the CE becomes incredibly hard to justify – there is so little incentive to work! Our new curriculum parks all that and embraces learning and knowledge for learning and knowledge’s sake. Taking away the straight jacket of the exam process creates an opportunity for us to reimagine our curriculum across the final two years.

It has actually become the exception for a pupil at Knighton to sit Common Entrance and many teachers at the best senior schools find CE unduly restrictive: teaching facts, not skills and too often failing to inspire children in this critical moment in their education. At Knighton the staff works incredibly hard to bring the CE syllabus to life: it isn’t always easy. Moving away from the somewhat rigid CE curriculum and testing regime will help us create a better balance between factual knowledge and the development of real, transferable skills. We believe this will lay still stronger foundations for successful future study, examination performance and later life.

OK, so how did you go about it?

What was really important for us was the start-up process. We spent a lot of time visiting other schools who have taken a similar curriculum journey, to exchange ideas and see how it has worked out for them, before checking with senior schools of course! Once we realised this move was completely acceptable to them, it was easy to get the parents on board (after tackling a few direct questions). We took our findings to staff meetings, before involving the whole school in feedback and brainstorming. We actually found that senior schools were fascinated by our ideas, and I have to say that our neighbour Bryanston has been incredibly supportive. We will continue to meet with all of our main feeder schools to refine our assessments to suit the needs of Year 9 pupils as well as collaborate and plan workshops with them.

On the london circuit, it is actually very common for CE to be the exception rather than the rule. While there are still only a trickle of country preps following this path, it looks to become much more of a movement in the near future.

What actually is KED? How is the KED Curriculum ‘better’ than doing Common Entrance?

Believe it or not, the CE hasn’t changed all that much since it was introduced in 1905. It can be a little like a straight jacket for pupils and teachers alike – the privilege of an independent school like Knighton House is that we can be just that, independent!

Rather than opting for an off-the-shelf curriculum we are introducing a new bespoke programme, creating a balance of skills and knowledge, research ability, problem solving, field work and debate. This is what most work places and senior schools want – the more transferable the skills, the better our children will be set up for life. Don’t worry, we are not ditching it completely, we are just taking the CE syllabus and turning it on its head, hopefully bringing back that sense of learning for pleasure.

Pupils will follow an enhanced syllabus that is still aligned to Common Entrance in English, Maths and Science. Meanwhile standardised tests will continue to be used to track pupils’ academic progress. Our curriculum retains the best of Common Entrance and the National Curriculum; in addition, we are proposing ‘depth’ to girls’ learning; allowing them time to learn and to actively promote dialogue across academic departments so that they do not view their learning as fixed to a particular subject. Pupils’ broader learning skills and critical thinking will be developed by integrated projects in Geography, History and Religious Studies — and potentially in other subjects too.

Removing the pressure of exams (i.e. pass it or else!) is very important to us. Our assessment programme will include exam taking, but it will run alongside other assessment opportunities: a spoken presentation, an investigation and/or an essay, for example. Moving away from the somewhat rigid Common Entrance curriculum will help us create a better balance between factual knowledge and the development of real, transferable skills. We believe this will lay still stronger foundations for successful future study (GCSE/A Level etc.) so the girls will be fully prepared for what lies ahead including examination performance and later life.

Overall, this is a fantastic opportunity for our teachers to really look at what they are teaching, and how they are teaching it – to start again, and to refresh.

What makes it ‘modern’ or ‘new’?

It isn’t really! We are not actually being revolutionary, we are just not doing the stuff the senior schools don’t need. The KED curriculum was already there – we’ve used our existing KED name – we are just bringing back the love of learning and the ability of teachers to take greater ownership of what they are teaching.

When will Common Entrance be replaced by the KED Curriculum?

The most tedious aspect will be the fading out of CE. This June all our girls took it but in 2019 it will just be English, Maths, Science, French and either Spanish or Latin but no humanities. By 2020 there will be no more CE! However, this time scale does allow us time to put the finishing touches on our programme. It is very much an organic process, a moveable feast. As we are creating our own programme we are in the position to tweak it at any time – we want to get it right, and we still need to cover all of the curriculum and for our girls to have the knowledge and evidence of rigorous assessments that the senior schools require.

Where do sport, riding and music fit into this new curriculum? These are important areas of the Knighton House programme.

There will be little change in these areas. There will be more opportunities for departments to make links through their teaching but the opportunities willl still be there for all the extras we do at Knighton. The challenge skills allows this area of the curriculum to be strengthened with different disciplines contributing to the new ‘awards’.

So, most importantly, what do the girls think?

Well, you won’t be surprised to learn that they are delighted they don’t have to do Common Entrance! To be honest, at the moment they are the ones least affected by the changes but they do understand the direction of travel and know that they will reap the benefit in due course. They are thrilled that they have been involved in the consultation and creation process. All in all, they are very much looking forward to it!

Find out more for yourselves at their Open Day on Sat 6 Oct, plus read our Muddy review

Knighton House School, Durweston, Blandford, Dorset DT110PY, tel: 01258 452065,

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1 comment on “Common Entrance exams? Pah!”

  • Claire Audritt September 14, 2018

    Great article on Knighton – thay had a fab uniform when I was at Bryanston too – red dungarees and guernsey jumpers!


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