The test of time

10th December 2010 at 00:00
You could be forgiven for thinking that the obsession with exam performance is a modern phenomenon but, as Michael Shaw explains, The TES of 100 years ago gave voice to precisely the same preoccupations

Concerns about teaching to the test and the way exams can warp the work of schools dominate many discussions about education today. Only last month, the president of the Girls' Schools Association, Gillian Low, complained that there had been "a national shift over recent years to a perceived emphasis on examinations rather than education".

But these concerns are far from new. Not only were teachers worried about the same issues 100 years ago, they felt it was daft that they had not been resolved in the 19th century.

In 1911, the year after the first issue of The TES was published, the Board of Education - which oversaw schools in England - set up the Consultative Committee on Examinations in Secondary Schools.

"It has now become clear that in the latter part of the 19th century, public opinion in England was disposed to put quite an excessive reliance upon the system of competitive examinations as a panacea for educational delinquencies or defects," it noted. "Examinations as ends in themselves have occupied too much of the thoughts of parents and teachers. Their very convenience and success led to their undue multiplication and to their occupying too large a place in the system of national education."

There had, indeed, been a boom in exams in the second half of the 19th century as different professions and universities set up their own exams and boards. Ahead of the game were Oxford and Cambridge universities, which established the ancestor bodies to today's OCR exam board in 1858.

The first issue of The TES in September 1910 praised Oxford and Cambridge's work in this field, but complained about the "anomalies" in the expected standards between different universities and schools. While sixth-formers at some schools were prepared for Oxford, the standards set by the board covering four northern universities were so low that a school in Liverpool sent its fifth-formers (aged around 16) to them, and the newspaper thought even younger pupils from the successful Manchester Grammar school could probably get in.

More consistency was brought to the system in 1917, when the School Certificate exams were introduced. However, by this time, concerns about teaching to the test were already well established. Two years before the certificate began, a correspondent involved in marking art exams noted in The TES that "this year, as always, we find that the students have acquired a great deal of skill but that they seem to have acquired it for examination purposes and so that they may be able to pass certain tests rather than be artists."

The way exams could narrow education became an even hotter topic in the newspaper during the decade that followed. In 1926, it reported the concerns of a Mr TR Evans, president of the National Union of Teachers, who "declared that the compulsory system of examination would drive joy out of the schools and would sacrifice the spiritual basis of education".

The following year, The TES ran a front-page article headlined: "Education by slide rule", examining the way schools in the US were using detailed test data to track pupils' performance. The description of how the data could reveal coasting schools and the value added by individual teachers appears remarkably prescient, eight decades before computer systems such as RAISE Online made this a standard part of schools' work.

"School may be compared with school, pupil with pupil, teacher with teacher," it noted. "The tests show whether the teachers are keeping the boys and girls up to the same standard of work, whether they are devoting too much attention to the gifted, the average or the backward."

Such data, the newspaper noted, could also provide help for the "difficult problem of transferring pupils from the elementary to the secondary school", as teachers in the secondary school would know how well pupils had done.

But The TES was not a whole-hearted cheerleader for this approach, warning - again presciently - of the dangers of the "measurement movement". "This makes the bold assumption that achievement in information, in skill, in habits of study is the real criterion of a school's success, and that an increase in achievement justifies any alteration of teaching method, nay, even justifies a new definition of the aim of education. The non- measurable criteria of education are ignored: the emotional and spiritual values cannot find a place, and the history of education ought to remind us that when any values are ignored in any assessment they tend to be neglected."

The same year, the newspaper reported on a "racy speech" at a conference held in Leeds by the British Association for the Advancement of Science. There a teacher confessed "that examinations had come to dominate his work and made him a `mark-getter'".

The conference also heard from Dr BC Wallis, a senior examiner who explained how "examiners were trying to get at the child beneath the polish that the teacher had put on it".

"Special preparation, other than an occasional exercise with an old examination paper, should not be necessary," he explained. "The examination should be taken in the child's stride and if special preparation was necessary there was something wrong with the school or the child."

Mr JH Arnold, a secondary teacher, felt that schools were partly to blame for the primacy of exams. "In the last half century they had allowed, and sometimes encouraged, employers to believe that the possession of a certificate was proof of the possession of qualities which made for success in commercial life. It was disgraceful that some schools should still allow their public to believe that examination success proved the ability of their pupils, for 90 per cent of the actual knowledge required was of no direct value in careers."

When the conference was held the following year in Glasgow, a key speaker was Dr Norwood, chairman of the Secondary Schools Examination Council. His views, which provoked a storm of letters to The TES, included that "the system (of exams) was so thorough and so universal that the victim, if that was the right word, might never be out of the shadow of examination from 11 years old to 23, or even later."

He described his horror at learning of a hardback book, which many private schools were then using, that provided key information from previous Common Entrance exams so pupils could cram for them.

"It was no surprise to learn that there were schools where the boys read no authors, but only did examination papers; read no history but memorized answers about names, and treated literature and geography in the same way."

Dr Norwood also made a plea to end the isolation of the vocational from the academic, noting how technical education was cut off from much of the work done in schools and universities. "There was need of much fuller contact, or more mutual knowledge and sympathy, not only between technical education and industry, but also between all forms of industry and commerce and all forms of education." Needless to say, eight decades later, that problem is still far from fixed.

As is, for that matter, the exam system itself. In 1930, The TES noted that the "examination system fails to serve the needs of 50 per cent of pupils in existing secondary schools", a figure similar to the proportion of pupils in England who still do not meet the modern benchmark for GCSE passes.

A more mainstream concern over exams has been whether or not they have "dumbed down". Changes to the system over the last century were usually accompanied by debates over the maintenance of standards, whether that was with the introduction, then abolition, of the 11-plus or the replacement of O-levels and CSEs with GCSEs. A 1987 article, headlined "GCSEs `lowering standards'" described how the new exams had been criticised as a "profoundly destructive measure".

If anything, examiners were more open in The TES in the 1920s about how pointless it was to try making year-on-year comparisons. One thing that is clear from the archives of the newspaper, and of other organisations, is that examiners have never been satisfied.

Cambridge Assessment's archive shows that in 1858, when its ancestor body first set an exam, for a group of less than 100 school-leavers, the markers found they demonstrated "little indication of an acquaintance with the best elementary mathematics works".

Much later, in 1984, The TES reported that "poor spelling dogs O-level English", quoting Geoff Earnshaw, assistant secretary of the Associated Examining Board, who blamed "modern teaching methods" and the fact that pupils "watch television and listen to far more pop music".

Yet TV, along with women's magazines and cheap novelettes, was also blamed by examiners for the low standards in English O-level in 1955. Then they complained that "the meaning of paragraphs is unknown to many; the semi- colon has virtually disappeared and commas are scattered at random".

For his book State Schools Since the 1950s, former headteacher Adrian Elliott found dozens of similar examples from examiners' reports during that supposed golden era. Pupils kept using "of" instead of "have" in sentences such as "he should of done it" (O-level English, 1955); made spelling mistakes such as "deffinate", "Brittain", "polytitions" and "fivety" (O-level general paper, 1958); and, too often, "had no understanding of the subject matter of most questions" (A-level maths, 1960).

Amusing exam mistakes were often passed on by teachers to The TES. A collection of "exam howlers" printed in 1962 include, from biology O- level, "The dustbin is the place for refuge" and from English A-level, "The Friar preferred the company of baremaids".

Another perennial concern about exams was the relative popularity of particular subjects. The very first issue of The TES bemoaned the decline in the proportion of young people taking German. The paper's "Plea for the study of German" article would not look much out of place today - similar concerns have been raised about current interest in German as the proportion of teenagers taking it at GCSE has dropped over recent years.

One area where reporting on exams has changed - or simply switched poles - is over gender. Amid all the worries today about the under-performance of boys, and the complaints about how male pupils lose out in the "feminised" education system, it can be easy to forget how short a time it is, relatively, since the debate was focused on ways to stop girls lagging behind. The TES ran the headline "Girls begin to catch up in exam stakes" as recently as 1984.

The rise in TV and press coverage of education over the century has meant that exams have become more of a mainstream subject, and the annual publication of A-levels a major media event. But there are some debates about assessment that can still, usually, only be found in The TES. One is how much of a role teachers' judgment of their pupils should play.

The coalition Government has said that it would now like to see universities take a greater lead in deciding how school leavers should be assessed. But back in 1910, the first issue of The TES made a push in the opposite direction. Universities could set exams, and look at how a candidate had done in a particular moment, it said, "but the schoolmaster can interpret these data as it is his right and his duty to do, in the light of his own experience of the student's past development".

"As every examiner knows, the same examination mark - say, 45 per cent - may either indicate a late beginner of unusual ability who has risen in a few months nearly halfway to perfection, or it may mean the stagnation or decadence of one who is unlikely ever to exceed 55 per cent, `if he lives to be a hundred'," the paper argued. "Only the schoolmaster can say which type is represented by the given mark, and he can do so because it is part of his business to know his pupil's rate of progress - his intellectual `potential'."


Is "cramming" an ambiguous term? There seem to be two possible meanings: (a) feeding without assimilation, memorizing without intelligence or interest and so forth: or (b) the word can be understood quantatitively - ie, excessive instruction for an immediate utilitarian end without respect to the mental health of the pupil.

In the second sense, cramming is obviously an evil. But whether cramming in the first sense is an unnatural method of instruction for small boys is open to discussion. Since classical education is required by the great public schools and its rudiments cannot be intrinsically interesting to a child it seems to follow that the preparatory schoolmaster must necessarily cram.

J B Burrows, Sunningdale School, Berkshire


1911: Report of Consultative Committee on Examinations in Secondary Schools recommends that children take public exams at 16.

1917: Exam council set up for secondaries. School Certificate examinations begin.

1928: Board of Education reports 21 LEAs using IQ tests for secondary selection.

1947: Secondary Schools Examination Council recommends General Certificate of Education at O, A and S-level.

1951: O and A-levels are introduced.

1966: Schools Council calls for common 16-plus exam to replace CSE and GCE.

1975: Black paper proposes exams at seven, 11 and 14.

1971: Atlantic College in Llantwit Major near Cardiff becomes first school in the UK to offer the International Baccalaureate.

1983: The Schools Council is replaced by the Secondary Examinations Council and School Curriculum Development Committee.

1986: GCSE replaces O-levels and CSEs.

1988: Education Reform Act ushers in the national curriculum and national testing at seven, 11 and 14.

1992: GNVQs introduced.

2001: AS levels are introduced

2005: Tomlinson proposals for overarching diploma rejected by Ruth Kelly, then education secretary, who proposes a separate work-based diploma instead.

2008: Scrapping of key stage 3 tests announced after problems with the marking of KS2 and KS3 tests.

2010: First pupils complete the Cambridge Pre-U exam.

  • Original headline: Remembrance of things passed

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