Fears of dumbing down stretch back 100 years

20th August 2010 at 01:00

Standards are dropping, testing is not what it used to be, and it is far easier to pass exams now than it was just one or two years ago.

This was the outraged response to the publication of school exam results, dominating public discussion and filling newspaper letters pages - in 1900.

Critics have been attacking the declining standards of public exams for more than 100 years, according to Jacob Middleton, a historian at Birkbeck College, University of London.

Public exams were first introduced in the 1850s, when the Indian civil service chose to recruit its staff on the basis of merit. By the 1870s, the idea had caught on in schools as an efficient way to measure ability. Not long afterwards, the complaints began.

"The temporary strengthening of the rote facilities ,.. the cultivation of a quick superficiality and the power of cleverly skimming a subject" was all that was being examined, politician Auberon Herbert wrote in 1888.

By 1900, a series of education reforms meant education was widely accessible to the less privileged. When exam results rose significantly between 1898 and 1900, the middle classes were outraged.

"Either ... the scholars ... in the year 1899 had twice the natural ability of their immediate predecessors, or a wave of skill and enthusiasm had passed over the teaching profession, or the standard of the examination had fluctuated," a correspondent to the Glasgow Herald wrote in December 1900.

"We leave the man in the street to suggest which is the most likely explanation."

Exam results, after all, did not reflect the established norms of society. By the mid-19th century, it had already been noted that girls were outperforming boys. And there was genuine fear that poorer pupils would outperform their rich counterparts.

Middle-class parents realised that their offspring would have to compete for jobs on the basis of talent: they could no longer rely upon connections and status alone. And so their sense of outrage increased.

"The notion of how the world worked was being challenged," said Mr Middleton. "Talent was competing against talent, rather than against wealth. The middle classes were suddenly forced to compete.

"There's a subtext to a lot of snide comments, which is about class and our image of the urban poor. Nobody actually comes out and says, 'Look at all these poor people getting high marks - there must be something wrong.' But no one complains when grammar schools get high marks."

This, he says, is as true today as it was 110 years ago. The introduction of comprehensive schools in the 1960s broke down many barriers to education. And a series of social changes, such as the advent of the internet and of discounted books on supermarket shelves, mean literacy and numeracy are more useful than ever before.

"People are suddenly incentivised to study," he said. "Human potential for learning is absolutely enormous. The more people use skills in everyday life, the more adept they are at examinations."

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