In my experience, a typical admissions day at many selective independent schools involves over-tutored, nervous children, who will have been in one-to-one coaching sessions for months, even years, in preparation for the day. They go through a short interview and a series of tests in English, maths and perhaps VR and NVR. And their fate is sealed.
Whether they show it or not, the level of stress is almost unbearable for many, with so much seeming to depend upon an interview, often no longer than 10 or 15 minutes, and on performance in method and recall in the tests. Very often, children present themselves as robots having been (over)schooled in what to say and how to say it. The relative brevity and narrowness of this experience, even when the results are considered alongside their current school reference, means that we choose the child we see so briefly on the day, and not necessarily the real child beneath the tutoring and the nerves.
At Wellington, we are trying to break the mould. As well as identifying intellectually curious children with academic potential, we also want our version of ‘well-rounded’. So we have completely transformed the experience that children and their families have when they come to Wellington for selection day and as one candidate said: “That was so much fun, I forgot I was being assessed”.
How do we do admissions now at Wellington? First, we didn’t throw out the old approach. We still rely a lot on the current school reference; we still do an interview; and we still do online testing in maths, English and reasoning. But it’s what we have added on that is, I believe, unique.
Overall, we select on two dimensions: intellectual curiosity which underpins scholarship; and inclusivity.
For the former, we choose pupils either from their overall performance in all areas, or – and this often particularly interests us – we choose children who show a ‘spike’, an obvious strength which would make them an outstanding candidate, such as in maths. Whatever the case, we do need successful candidates to demonstrate an ability to work well with others. To explore the latter, we get them to take part in five collaborative activities which bring out their strengths, whatever they might be, and uncover their ability to stick at a task, as we understand the contribution that perseverance and effort play.
In devising the collaborative activities, we are able to get a really rounded picture of their character and their intellect, and we are equally interested in observing the dynamics between children and how they behave in a group setting. You’ll understand that I’m not providing too much detail on these here, as that would defeat our object of seeing the real child.
The collaborative activities are:
- Logical: tackling hands on logical problems together. This helps us identify STEM candidates.
- Creative: create something as a team. This is also helpful for STEM.
- Moral: they discuss something with a moral aspect to it.
- Values: a philosophical discussion based on stories.
- Vision: we ask them to come up with an ideal version of something.
We also have the pleasurable experience of being able to say the following to prospective parents who ask how should they prepare their children for the Wellington selection process: have supper together and talk as a family; go to plays and good films and discuss them; have them reflect on their relationships within the family and with friends; compare notes on books you are both reading; listen together to news and analysis; develop intellectual curiosity by experiencing and talking about many different types of situations and people; discuss things like trust, respect, kindness and morality; help them to think critically about the world around them; enjoy interesting conversations with them; go out for walks and see the world. Spend what would have been tutoring time living a rich and happy family life. That is the best preparation for admissions day at Wellington and knowing that it will help them develop as a person, wherever they go, must be a good thing too.
Julian Thomas is Headmaster of Wellington College, host of the Telegraph Festival of Education.