It has been a staple of private education for more than 100 years, with young children competing in a series of gruelling tests for places at some of the UK's most prestigious schools.
But the Common Entrance exam - used by 250 senior independent schools to determine who gets in - is set to be overhauled, or even dropped, amid concerns that it produces children who are spoon-fed with facts but do not know how to learn.
From September, a small group of preparatory schools, with the support of leading public schools including Harrow School, Marlborough College and Uppingham School, will begin trialling a Prep School Baccalaureate. This will enable schools to assess pupils in all their activities, from core academic study to sport, drama and music.
Pupils will even receive grades for their "skills and attitudes", such as how well they learn and whether they display leadership qualities, and will leave school with a portfolio of grades and an average overall mark to present to secondaries.
The approach is in stark contrast to the Common Entrance exam, which tests pupils only on their core academic ability.
The idea for the baccalaureate came from The Beacon School, a prep in Amersham, which began to develop its own leaving certificate in 2007. A similar project at Moorlands School in Leeds followed in 2009. Since then, Taunton School in Somerset and Yateley Manor in Hampshire have joined them to create the baccalaureate. Eight schools will be running the two-year baccalaureate from this September, with five or six more doing so from 2014.
The project has won support from some of the country's most famous independent senior schools, which use Common Entrance alongside interviews and, in some cases, their own in-house tests to judge prospective pupils.
Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College, said: "Wellington is very supportive of it because its approach is much more in tune with modern thinking about how children learn and is less concerned with solitary rote learning."
James Barnes, a former prep school head who is charged with recruiting schools to the project, told TES that the current system risks "producing children who are good at regurgitating things".
"Common Entrance doesn't actually assess the real qualities that senior schools are looking for," he said. "You can prepare for it by doing practice papers for two years straight. Senior school colleagues say they do get pupils who score very highly at Common Entrance but they don't know how to learn.
"There's a hunger, it's an opportunity to have formally assessed all the good things that preps are doing, such as music, drama and independent learning."
He said the philosophy of the baccalaureate, which puts equal weight on all subjects and skills, should catch the attention of state primary schools. It could be used in conjunction with Common Entrance exam papers if a school wished, he added.
But Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council and former head of Harrow, said Common Entrance is not that stuck in the past. "It's about evolution not revolution," he said, pointing out that new syllabuses in English and history have recently been produced. Many public schools still prefer to have a single set of standardised exams, he added.
David Hanson, chief executive of the Independent Association of Prep Schools, said he welcomed the innovation. "We do not believe one size fits all, and it is for schools to decide what best suits their pupils and cherry-pick from the resources available."
- First introduced in 1904.
- Applicants to girls' schools usually take it at the end of Year 6.
- Applicants to boys' and co-educational schools usually take it at the end of Year 8.
- Many top schools now use "pretests" two years prior to Common Entrance, to find the best candidates.
- The Common Entrance exam is sat by pupils at their prep schools but it is marked by the schools to which they are applying. Schools use the results in conjunction with their own tests and interviews.
- Papers are sat in core subjects such as maths, English, science and verbal reasoning. There are optional papers in a range of other subjects.