Class of 1858

8th February 2008 at 00:00
Could your pupils pass the Victorian equivalent of a GCSE? Madeleine Brettingham looks back to an era of stress, bribery and compulsory Greek and Latin to reveal the contrasts between exams then and now.

Think preparing for today's exams is a pain in the proverbial? Then you should check out the testing regime of 1858. Back then pupils had to translate Moliere in less than an hour and a half, know the gospel of St Matthew and demonstrate a mastery of Euclidean geometry. Fifteen-year-olds also had to memorise the date of the Battle of Worcester, translate Virgil's Aeneid and analyse the etymology of the word "tribulation".

The extraordinary changes that have been wrought on the exam system since that first row of pupils bent over their test papers in chilly village halls 150 years ago is revealed in Examining the World, a new book by the awarding body Cambridge Assessment, to celebrate the anniversary of the first public exam.

Whether it's a matter for celebration or grief-stricken wailing is open to question. But what is undeniable is the huge contrast between exams then and modern GCSEs and A-levels.

The 1858 question paper is a pedantic, cramped affair, which demands exact recall and reams of literal knowledge. Can't remember the six wives of Henry VIII? Then you're wasting your ink. To the modern pupil - schooled in the art of comparing, contrasting and discussing - it's an anathema.

Sure enough, when the exam board staged a re-enactment last month at Warwick School, a bustling boy's independent and one of the few remaining schools to have sat the original test, a mere six boys out of 20 succeeded in getting more than 75 per cent.

"I prefer the modern exam," says Iain Lewis, a 14-year-old Year 9 pupil. "It calls for more imagination than regurgitating what you've been told."

Back in 1858, a third of boys passed the exam and, far from rampant grade inflation, pass rates wobbled up and down for the first few decades, although among older girls, allowed to enter the exam from 1865, they increased sharply.

But before criticisms of the regime are dismissed as special pleading, it's worth noting that the examiners themselves were aware of the dangers of rote learning.

"English history contains much that boys' may learn ... beyond the dates and names of the principle events and persons," huffed officials in the first examiners' report of that year.

Jugjit Chima, the head of history at Perryfields High School in Birmingham, agrees. "The old exams were about acquiring knowledge but not applying it. Nowadays we teach them skills they can take into the workplace."

But Gervald Frykman, who has been teaching chemistry at Warwick School for 30 years, is less sure. "Universities tell us the candidates we send them can argue until they're blue in the face but they don't actually know anything," he says.

Incredibly, although today's staff look about as kindly on the exam season as they do on the norovirus, the first test papers were issued after pressure from schools, which were desperate to assess pupils and rank themselves against each other.

For pound;1, boys aged 15 and 18 could sit senior and junior exams, giving them a certificate to take to prospective employers, whether they chose to attend university or not.

It was all part of the "reforming Gladstone era", according to Andrew Watts, a director at Cambridge Assessment, which owns the exam board OCR. The same period saw the introduction of mandatory tests for civil servants. "It was symptomatic of the rise of meritocracy; the idea you should be given credit for your achievements rather than your place in society," he says.

By the 20th century, exams were being praised as a "mobilising force in education" by chief examiners, and credited with raising standards at universities. But even at their inception some all-too-familiar criticisms were already being levelled.

"A competitive examination for boys and girls of 13 is absolutely indefensible on physiological grounds ... it also encourages masters and mistresses to teach not the subjects that are the best gymnastic for their pupils but those which will obtain, at least cost, the greatest number of distinctions for their school," complained the Journal of Education in 1895, after the exam boards introduced a preliminary test for the under-14s.

Before long, examiners were also deriding the "desperate cunning" with which teachers crammed pupils for the tests, and critics were deploring the fact the curriculum was skewed to service the needs of the handful of boys taking them.

But like a juggernaut, exams kept on going and only increased in impact. In 1951, they became the GCE, O-level and A-level, and in 1988, the GCSE was introduced, an all-purpose exam designed for the modern comprehensive system.

Meanwhile in Scotland, which had introduced public exams in 1888 after a government investigation, the Leaving Certificate became the Higher in 1962 and has been continually revised since then. English literature and design technology made their way on to the syllabus and in the 1930s, girls were allowed to take housecraft, an unusual exam that demanded candidates cooked a joint of beef and washed, "a silk blouse, a table napkin and a pair of baby's socks".

But not all developments were so outmoded. Urdu, Arabic and Chinese were added to the exams system in the early 20th century, spurred on by the expansion of the colonies, a prospect that would have politically-correct ministers slavering today.

And while 21st-century pupils might complain about forgotten pencils and stomach bugs, the obstacles that children overcame during wartime to get their name on a certificate are breathtaking.

Candidates were urged not to discuss the answers if they had to dive into the school air raid shelter mid-test, and after one night of relentless bombing, a headteacher described the mitigating circumstances to the examiners thus: "All candidates very tired ... Home badly damaged ... home demolished ... assisted in fire fighting and salvage work ... grandparents killed ..."

Meanwhile, scripts were smuggled into occupied territories or lost on torpedoed ships. And in one astonishing story, a prisoner of war in a camp in Malaya organised for dozens of fellow inmates to take the tests: "the regulations ... were strictly followed", he assured officials in the aftermath.

For some, this will be a sorry tale of the way a system introduced to push up educational standards has wormed its way into every aspect of school life. But it also reveals a perverse public appetite for exams as a means of validating individual effort, which has remained alive even under incredibly difficult circumstances.

With thousands of pupils sitting GCSEs, A-levels and key stage tests every year, the public exam is still riding high. Only one question remains to be asked: "Is this a cause for celebration or for hand-wringing? Discuss."




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- Give the dates of the deaths of the sovereigns of England from Henry VII to Charles II.

- Write a short life and character of Cranmer; and of Oliver Cromwell.


- Study the quote at Source F. How useful is it as evidence of better public health for the poorer classes?

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- A magazine is publishing a series of articles called "It means so much to me", and have asked you to contribute. Write your article, giving a detailed description of something you value very much, and explain why. It could be anything: a personal possession, a hobby or an activity you enjoy.


The examiners of 1858 were a different breed from today - lecturers at the great universities who took time out from their duties to raise educational standards among the great unwashed.

Oxford, Cambridge, London and a consortium of northern universities were the first to set exams. The examiner, clad in mortarboards and cloaks, was an imposing figure who would travel to local schools and village halls with a locked box containing the scripts to preside over tests among the brightest pupils.

At the time, this was a forward-thinking move - even primary schooling wasn't compulsory until 1880 and education up to 15 until 1947.

Examiners were paid by the weight of scripts, leading one cheeky candidate from the 1890s to include a letter apologising for his bad paper, with the sign-off: "I'm sending you a few blank sheets since I gather you are paid by weight."

These days, examiners are mainly moonlighting teachers and are paid by the paper. They are also, like their pupils, much more closely monitored, and senior examiners assess their marking for thoroughness and consistency, giving sloppy markers the heave-ho.

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