A History of School Examinations

Adrian Worsfold

The first regular examinations under examination boards took place for boys only in 1858 as a result of schools approaching Oxford and Cambridge universities for local means of assessment. Girls did not take school exams until 1867 monitored by Cambridge, and Oxford started from 1870.
The University of Oxford Delegacy of Local Examinations was established in 1857.
The University of Cambridge response was its Local Examinations Syndicate (UCLES) on 11 February 1858 with the first exam held on 14 December 1858 in Birmingham, Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge, Grantham, Liverpool, London and Norwich. The Junior exam was for pupils under 16 years old and the Senior exam was for students under 18 years old. Examinations were held locally in schools, church halls and village halls.
These first examinations established the predominance of academic subjects. These included Arithmetic, Chemistry, Drawing, English Language, English Literature, French, Geography, Geology, German, Greek, History, Latin, Law, Mathematics, Music, Physical Sciences, Political Economy, Religious Knowledge and Zoology. The nineteenth century was the age of the developing academic discipline and its rules, following on from the Enlightenment.
In the 1860s examinations were monitored by presiding examiners who travelled from Cambridge to exam centres. They carried the examinations in a locked box. They wore academic dress and must have been a serious sight for pupils.
Examinations were timetabled into blocks of six or seven consecutive days and held throughout the day, including in the evenings.
The first examinations stressed recall of information. Pupils had to remember the names of monarchs and their families, list historical events and draw maps. Science meant details of findings and Scripture examinations involved knowing biblical verses. Collecting and possessing basic facts was seen as the foundation of knowledge. Arithmetic was simple and straightforward.
Instantly it was clear in examination reports that students who had crammed knowledge successfully did not necessarily understand what they had remembered. Answers were uniform, reflecting the source of the learning. There was a lack of enthusiasm in the learning for the subjects.
Nevertheless it was thought that the unfamiliar system would work, and that regulated examinations and open competition would be a system of reward for individuals and schools.
As a result examinations introduced more analysis as well as factual recall. Understanding has been examined as well as simple knowledge.
The examination system was also a school inspection system, so that Cambridge Assessment inspected some schools.
The Oxford and Cambridge Schools Examination Board began in 1873 in addition to their own examination boards.
The Central Welsh Board was founded in 1896; this was to become the Welsh Joint Education Committee (WJEC) in 1948, also founded by the Welsh local authorities.
The Victoria University (in Manchester), the University of Sheffield and the University of Birmingham all co-operated in 1903 to set up the Northern Universities Joint Matriculation Board (NUJMB); this was to become the Joint Matriculation Board of the Universities of Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield and Birmingham (JMB).
These were the forerunners to today's examination boards that are not necessarily university connected, as indeed the Welsh board was not.
National standards for examinations arrived in 1918 for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. This was the beginning of the School Certificate, for 16 year olds, and the Higher School Certificate for 18 year olds. The emphasis remained on middle class pupils staying at school: thus most pupils (around 80%) continued to leave school without taking exams.
The Eleven plus exam is a different issue from national examinations at 16 and 18. Nevertheless, despite an intention for equality between academic Grammar and technical schools and Secondary Modern schools being more suited to practical education, passing or failing the 11+ exam asserted the superiority of academic education. Technical schools never established themselves against the bipolar system, and comprehensive education was introduced with local authorities able to opt out.
The next major change was in 1951, when the the General Certificate of Education (GCE) began, divided into Ordinary Level for 16 year olds and Advanced Level for 18 year olds. They replaced the School Certificate and the Higher School Certificate respectively. These were offered nationally by the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (UCLES), the Joint Matriculation Board (JMB), the University of London School Examinations Board, the Northern Ireland Schools Examination Council (not university based), the University of Oxford Delegacy of Local Examinations, the Oxford and Cambridge Schools Examination Board, the Southern Universities' Joint Board for School Examinations and the Welsh Joint Education Committee (WJEC). In 1953 City & Guilds founded the Associated Examining Board (AEB) also offering these examinations.
The first equalitarian measure of examinations was introducing the CSE in 1965, the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) was introduced. These were introduced in England and Wales by brand new examination boards, and in Northern Ireland and Wales by the existing boards. The new boards were the Associated Lancashire Schools Board, the East Anglian Examinations Board, the East Midlands Regional Examination Board, the Metropolitan Regional Examination Board, the Middlesex Regional Examination Board, the Northern Regional Examinations Board, the North West Regional Examinations Board, the South East Regional Examinations Board, the South West (Regional) Examinations Board, the Southern Regional Exams Board, the West Midlands Regional Examination Board, the West Yorkshire and Lindsey Regional Examinations Board, and the Yorkshire and Humberside Regional Examinations Board. Later on the neighbouring Metropolitan Regional Examination Board and Middlesex Regional Examination Board became the London Regional Examinations Board and the West Yorkshire and Lindsey Regional Examinations Board and Yorkshire and Humberside Regional Examinations Board became the Yorkshire Regional Examinations Board.
So the universities retained their attachment to the GCE at O and A levels, and thus the predominance of the academic elite and this despite the introduction of comprehensive education. This separation was to change by an egalitarian measure in 1986: the beginning of the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) consistent with comprehensive education, allowing secondary modern schools to compete with grammar schools where still existing.
New examining groups were created, except in Wales and Northern Ireland. In England, the four examining groups were consortia of regional GCE and CSE exam boards:
London and East Anglian Examining Group (from the University of London School Examinations Board, the London Regional Examination Board and the East Anglian Examinations Board), the Midland Examining Group (MEG, from the Southern Universities' Joint Board, the Oxford and Cambridge Schools Examination Board, East Midlands Regional Examinations Board and the West Midlands Examinations Board), the Northern Examining Association (NEA, from the Associated Lancashire Schools Examining Board, the Northern Regional Examinations Board, the North West Regional Examinations Board and the Yorkshire Regional Examinations Board, and the Southern Examining Group (SEG, from the Associated Examining Board, the University of Oxford Delegacy of Local Examinations, the South East Regional Examinations Board, South West (Regional) Examinations Board and Southern Regional Exams Board).
Nevertheless, the old GCE boards still retained some autonomy as they continued alone to offer A Levels. Also, schools were able to pick and choose their examination board, despite the regional structure.
The lesser Certificate of Achievement, later the Entry Level Certificate, was given to the GCSE examining groups.
Soon a process of merging of these boards took place, and this included vocational examination boards. Some well recognised names disappeared and new groups appeared. In one case, the University of London School Examinations Board, having become London Examinations, merged with the vocational BTEC in 1996 to form Edexcel as an educational charity, was taken over by Pearson in 2003 and became profit making.
New boards to emerge were AEB/SEG (taking GCSE functions from the abolished University of Oxford Delegacy of Local Examinations in 1995 - A Levels went to UCLES), the Northern Examinations and Assessment Board (NEAB), the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA) (from City and Guilds) and Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations (OCR). OCR has a complex history: the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (UCLES) took over the Southern Universities' Joint Board and the Midland Examining Group and then became the Oxford and Cambridge Examinations and Assessment Council (OCEAC) retaining the separate names of UCLES (Cambridge), UODLE (Oxford) and OCSEB (Oxford & Cambridge) for A levels and MEG for GCSEs; once it acquired the Royal Society of Arts Examinations Board in 1998 it put everything for schools under the OCR name and then in addition the Cambridge Assessment Group has University of Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) and University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations (Cambridge ESOL).
WJEC remained the same and the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) inherited the Northern Ireland board after name changes.
Scotland has just one centralised authority of the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA).
Often these boards co-operate together for standards. However, competing for custom can give the impression to statistics-seeking schools that some examination boards are 'easier' than others and thus lead to questions about the integrity of exams. League Tables for schools also lead to exams being used for apparent statistical success: Sixth Forms advertising 100% A Level pass rates, especially after the Advanced Suipplementary Level was introduced in 1987 that gives a leg up to A Levels but also filters out those sixth formers who might begin to take A levels and end up after two years not passing, or achieving low grades.
University education has been seen as a value in itself: we learn subjects as a means of learning to think, to then go on and train in a particular profession. However, increasingly education is seen as directly economic in purpose, and this has driven subject areas towards the productive and work-related, and towards the vocational.
The beginning of the National Curriculum in 1988 and a centralisation of standards laid an emphasis on Core subjects of Maths, English and Science and seven Foundation subjects. This was subject to review in 1993, leading to reductions in content and testing and then limited flexibility was added from 1997. Religious Education remained compulsory but not part of the national curriculum and locally determined. However, GCSE and of course A Level examinations are offered regardless of whether subjects are in the National Curriculum or not, and there is a difference between testing for schools and pupils going through the school life of a pupil and the qualifications examinations provided by GCSE and A Levels to be recorded on a Curriculum Vitae. The range of examinations and the increased vocational content of the 14+ Curriculum and involvement of Further Education colleges alongside schools produced an emphasis on the basics of literacy, numeracy and Information Communications Technology alongside vocational skills. This does affect the pupil profile for 16+ examinations and serves to isolate and specialise the academic route for some school pupils. The General National Vocational Qualification (GNVQ) was inevitably compared with GCSEs for robust standards and some were used for schools for rapid statistical improvement, as have been the replacement of Vocational GCSEs. There are also BTECs and OCR Nationals.
The danger with too many types of examination for easy understanding or doubt about the veracity and integrity of an examination undermines the purpose of examinations as a reliable national test of a student's achievement.
Questions also arise about the standard of examinations as GCSE and A Level results improve year on year. Whether pupils are actually learning better than they did, the unfortunate fact is that examination inflation is the same in effect. In response some schools have chosen to use the International Baccalaureate Diploma either alongside or instead of A Levels, providing a single collective qualification for 16 to 19 year olds in schools available through the medium of English, French or Spanish and involves thee core elements of theory of knowledge (analysis and argument), creativity, action and service (arts and sports - doing) and an extended essay (in depth topic) as well as optional subjects. It thus demands abstract learning abilities and tackles the objection in A Levels about processing through. The fact is that examinations exist to make differences clear: if too many get top grades they fail to measure usefully towards anything. Postive marking, and giving the benefit of doubt, pushes marks up, and all can achieve high grades; however, it is possible to take the range of marks in any one year and divide the grades accordingly, and then adjust the difficulty of a following year's examination to maintain the division of grades more easily. This is not done at present.
Movements back towards more unseen on-the-day examinations are to favour competitive boys, whereas girls have benefited from more assessment by co-operative methods in coursework built into final grades. Girls have overtaken boys in many subjects. This is not unconnected with changing social roles, the decline in manufacturing and the fragmentation of career structures which no longer encourage boys to 'get a good education' ahead of a mortgage paying career.
The issue of academic rigour forms with a lack of university control over the examinations, compared with the past. A focus on independent thinking needing the learning and development of study skills becomes replaced by tasks along the way. Teachers mindful of statistical results in league tables then spoonfeed pupils through exams, task by task. The arguably ersatz version of academic study leads to impressive results and yet students on entering Higher Education (where institutions have changed their names and status to become universities) find that they cannot study without training in study skills and introduction to the rules of academic study. Processed through GCSE, AS and A Levels on an almost checklist basis, they are not as capable in the round as those who were left more to their own learning in the past, difficult and failure-making as that might have been. A target once announced since 1997 of getting fifty per cent of school pupils into university seems to be over-optimistic of the numbers of pupils who can gain the abstract learning skills that facilitates academic study at university level, unless, of course, universities change and become places with considerable emphasis on vocational training and 'outcomes'.

Some Web Links:

Bhushan, R. (2006), 'History of Examinations'; March 6 2006; [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: http://rachna-bhushan.sulekha.com/blog/post/2006/05/history-of-examinations.htm. [Accessed: Sunday January 10 2010 15:53]

Gipps, C. (1999), 'Socio-Cultural Aspects of Assessment', Review of Research in Education, 1999; Volume 24; 355-392, American Educational Research Association, [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1167274. [Accessed: Sunday January 10 2010 15:57]

Cambridge Assessment Group (2010), Cambridge Assessment; University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate, [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: http://www.cambridgeassessment.org.uk/ca. [Accessed: Sunday January 10 2010 16:04]

Contractor, A. (2009), 'UK's School Exam System Fails to Pass Test', The Australian; June 24 2009; News Limited, [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,25679573-12332,00.html. [Accessed: Sunday January 10 2010 16:12]

DirectGov (2010), 'Qualifications Explained', DirectGov - Education and Learning; January 2010; Website of UK Government, [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/EducationAndLearning/QualificationsExplained/index.htm7. [Accessed: Sunday January 10 2010 16:19]


Adrian Worsfold for the Wilderspin National School