The nightmare of private school “entrance” tests

I was talking recently to a parent who has children at private schools. Apparently, there’s huge consternation in many London prep schools (private schools which educate children until 13) because Highgate School has changed the way it admits children at 13 years old. This school used to make children sit entrance tests a year before they were admitted but have now changed their policy, asking for the entrance test to be sat two years before admittance. According to the parent, this is because most prep school children also sit the City of London tests at the same time and usually favour City above Highgate if their child is accepted at both schools. It appears that Highgate have decided to get around this problem by making children sit the tests in Year 7 (11-years-old) for admittance at 13 years of age (Year 9). This way if these pupils get in, they’ll basically have to accept a place before getting an offer from City and allegedly have to put down a hefty deposit years before actually going to the school. If you look on the relevant place on their website, you’ll see that the arrangements of the tests have changed. Apparently though, City are now changing things and are aiming to have their entrance tests early.

Speaking to other parents and pupils from various private schools over the years, I’ve become aware that these entrance tests are pretty traumatic for the children concerned — especially if they fail. Many of these children are bitterly disappointed if they don’t get into their preferred school and feel intellectually inferior to people that have gone there for many years afterwards. A lot of parents feel that if their child doesn’t get into a top private school that they’ll be disadvantaged for life because they won’t gain the contacts that going to schools like these supposedly grant. The fact that our Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister come from two supposedly top private schools has only exacerbated the hysteria. I think the thing is that once you’re in the private system, you can easily become infected with this kind of hysteria because many conversations with other parents are all about where your child is going next: whether they’re going to pass the entrance test to the next top school, or when they’re in the Sixth Form, whether they’ll get into Oxbridge. Many of these children are tutored to death outside school in order that they can jump through the various hoops that these institutions put before them. There’s also quite a bit of covert bullying with children being labelled as failures by their classmates if they fail the relevant tests.

It makes me feel sad for these children; I think they’d do just as well if they were at state schools and probably be much happier.

If these schools are so great, why don’t they admit children by lottery and junk these appalling tests and terrifying interviews? That would be the fair and honest thing to do.


Published by: @wonderfrancis

Francis Gilbert is a Lecturer in Education at Goldsmiths, University of London, teaching on the PGCE Secondary English programme. He also teaches the Creative Writing module on the MA in Children’s Literature, which is run by Maggie Pitfield and Professor Michael Rosen. Previously, he worked for a quarter of a century in various English state schools teaching English and Media Studies to 11-18 year olds. He has, at times, moonlighted as a journalist, novelist and social commentator. He is the author of ‘Teacher On The Run’, ‘Yob Nation’, ‘Parent Power’, ‘Working The System -- How To Get The Very Best State Education for Your Child’, and a novel about school, ‘The Last Day Of Term’. His first book, ‘I'm A Teacher, Get Me Out Of Here’ was a big hit, becoming a bestseller and being serialised on Radio 4. In his role as an English teacher, he has taught many classic texts over the years and has developed a great many resources to assist readers with understanding, appreciating and responding to them both analytically and creatively. This led him to set up his own small publishing company FGI Publishing ( which has published his study guides as well as a number of books by other authors, including Roger Titcombe’s ‘Learning Matters’ and anthology of creative writing 'The Gold Room'. He is the co-founder, with Melissa Benn and Fiona Millar, of The Local Schools Network,, a blog that celebrates non-selective state schools, and has his own website, He has appeared numerous times on radio and TV, including Newsnight, the Today Programme, Woman’s Hour and the Russell Brand Show. In June 2015, he was awarded a PhD in Creative Writing and Education by Goldsmiths.

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