Heads at the country's top private schools are being consulted over radical changes to the Common Entrance exam that they have used for the past century to select pupils.
The exam - devised in 1903 by a group of preparatory and senior school headteachers - is still the key form of assessment to win a place at Britain's elite independent boys' schools.
Over four days, children as young as 11 can struggle through 14 hours of examinations in up to 10 subjects.
The changes are being made because three-fifths of prep schools now use national curriculum tests. The format of the Common Entrance has increasingly been viewed as out-of-step with these tests.
The new exam is to be pared down to a compulsory core of English, maths and science, a format which mirrors the national curriculum tests.
Although individual schools are still expected to add exams in other subjects, the move means that for the first time pupils from the state sector could, in principle, also sit Common Entrance.
"The Common Entrance was not sitting comfortably with the national curriculum in some subjects and that had to be reviewed," said David Hanson, director of education at the Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools.
Prep and senior schools are being consulted on the revised syllabuses, which aim to test the ability to use information rather than just regurgitate facts.
The new-style examinations are due to be introduced into schools from next September and children will face the papers for real for the first time in 2003.
English and maths exams will each be two-and-a-half hours long, science two hours and the rest one hour each.
For the first time, marking schemes for the exams are being produced. However, staff at the senior school to which a puil applies will still mark the exam papers.
A centralised system of marking has been resisted as it could lead to a league table of prep-school results.
Marking at each school has also been retained because under the current system, results are returned to pupils within a week. Senior schools also like to judge prospective pupils themselves to see if they will fit in.
The popularity or academic standing of the school dictates the pass mark for admission. At Eton College, for instance, it is 64 per cent while at other schools it can be as low as 40 per cent.
New look Common Entrance EXAM
* Calculate 8267+744, 4000-365, 34x7 and 259 divided by 7.
* Dinoworld charges pound;9.50 for an adult and pound;8.25 for a child. Find the total cost for a family of four adults and three children to go to Dinoworld.
* Write in figures the number ten thousand and thirty-eight. Write in words the number 57210.
* What is the value of the 7 in each of the following numbers? A. 4718 b. 347520 * Curtain track cost pound;3.75 per metre. How much will itcost to buy 10 metres? Mr Brown buys a length costingpound;15. How many metres does he buy?
* Millennium Fever. There was a lot of excitement about the beginning of the new millennium. Some people didn't celebrate until January 1, 2001. Some people celebrated twice. How did it feel to move into the 21st century? Has it lived up to your expectations? Was the excitement a lot of fuss about nothing? Write about your experience of the coming of the new millennium.
* Choose an episode from a novel which you have read which you felt was particularly exciting. Write a brief description (half a page) of what happened in this episode and then explain how the writer made it exciting, why it was an important point in the story, how the characters involved in the episode were affected and why you liked it so much.