Harry Mount

Uncommon knowledge

It was the bane of children’s lives, but its eccentric questions will be missed

So farewell, then, to the Common Entrance Exam, bane of a million schoolchildren’s lives since it was introduced in 1904. Three of the biggest public schools — St Paul’s, Wellington College and Westminster — are giving up the exam. From 2021, they will do the pre-test: verbal and non-verbal reasoning, maths and English, taken at the age of ten and 11. Common Entrance was a more gruelling thing, involving up to 14 exams over three days. It’s under-standable that schools want to ease the strain on over-examined children. But all the same, it’s the latest blow to the Great British Eccentric Exam Question. I still cherish the eccentric questions from my own Westminster entrance exam in 1984:

1. Using Newton’s First and Second Laws, explain why drivers should wear seat belts.
2. Why is it less painful, on jumping from a high wall, if you bend your knees on making contact with the ground than if you keep your legs straight?
3. Translate into French, ‘You don’t love me any more, do you? Well, tomorrow I’ll pack my bags and go back to Mummy’s.’
4. Translate into Greek, ‘Who will say that it is easy to learn the Greek language?’ and ‘Let us send away all the children to an island.’

That stilted prose style used for Greek and Latin exams is brilliantly caught by Nigel Molesworth, the sublime creation of Ronald Searle and Geoffrey Willans. In How to be Topp (1954), Molesworth grills his teacher about the Latin he has to translate in exams, saying, ‘The Gauls have attacked the camp with shouts they hav frightened the citizens they hav killed the enemy with darts and arows and blamed the belgians. They have also continued to march into Italy. Would it not be more interesting if they did something new?’

In 1986, I was in the last year to sit the old O-levels.

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