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Training Matters: How to set an entrance test in 10 questions

John CaryHere’s a question for you. Well, 10 questions in fact, asking how to go about the tricky business of setting a test which will identify the journalism stars of the future when they apply for a place on an NCTJ-accredited course.

Your quizmaster is the NCTJ’s head of accreditation, John Cary, pictured left.

1. You are looking to recruit students for an NCTJ accredited course. You’ll have their CV and exam results to hand, but how do you go about testing whether candidates have got what it takes to make it as a journalist?

A – Interviewing the candidates of course, but also by setting them a test.

2. How can the NCTJ help with that?

A – The NCTJ offers all accredited centres a written test which they are free to use to assess the potential of their applicants.

3. What kind of skills are being tested?

A – It comes in three parts, a proof-reading test, a story writing exercise and a general knowledge quiz.

4. Ah, we all like a quiz (at least to judge by the endless “Can you name these 70s TV sitcoms?” affairs which infest my social media). What sort of questions does it ask?

A – It has always concentrated on weighty matters, naming the holders of ministerial office at home and presidents abroad and recalled details of major news stories.

5. Sounds good. But does that work for today’s non-newspaper reading generation who, to quote one university head of journalism, “don’t seem to know a lot”?

A – This is where things get complicated. Especially when you consider that the NCTJ, and the industry generally, is keen to encourage people from all classes and backgrounds to think about pursuing a career in journalism.

6. Can you explain that a bit more?

A – Setting a traditional general knowledge quiz can lead to a lot of questions about the jobs occupied by white middle-aged men in suits. So let me ask you a question – is it essential to know a lot about such matters if you want to be a reporter?

7. Fair point, though this will get very confused if we both ask questions. So are you saying that such quizzes are not going to help find that exceptional candidate who just has a nose for news, for finding out stuff and then telling other people about it?

A – Up to a point, Lord Copper (a literary reference which in itself will be missed by anyone not familiar with one of of the 20th century’s greatest novels about journalism). Perhaps we can agree that all journalists should be curious about the world around them, and that the quiz should give them a variety of opportunities to show what they do know.

8. So, questions that range beyond politics and foreign affairs?

A – It might be worth a try. Past experience suggests that potential students are more likely to know who is a judge on the X Factor than they are to know who is a judge on the Supreme Court.

9. Wouldn’t that just be dumbing down the test?

A – The NCTJ accreditation standard asks centres to show that they operate “a robust selection process … to identify applicants who possess the personal qualities required to operate effectively as journalists”. We will still aim to produce a balanced test with questions of different levels of difficulty. But perhaps not so many that will reward those candidates who can recite the names of the Cabinet.

10. Can we have a sneak preview of next year’s quiz (we promise not to give the answers away)?

A – No.