A reflection on the Midland Examining Group and the early GCSE

by Gillian Cooke, 08 March 2017

Our Group Archivist Gillian explains how the modern-day GCSE examinations came to fruition.

In 1976 Cambridge Assessment (as UCLES, the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate) was invited by the School Council (an independent body funded equally by the Department for Education and Science and the Local Education Authorities), to comment on a Report of the Joint Examinations Sub-Committee on a common system of examining at 16+. These discussions centred on the two types of examinations then available to school leavers; the General Certificate of Education (GCE) O Level examination which was offered by various examination boards, (including UCLES), and the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) which was run by regional examination boards through local authority control.

These deliberations resulted in the formation of five new regional examining groups in 1985 which were made up of individual GCE and CSE examination boards. The Midland Examining Group (MEG), which covered this region, was the first to be constituted and was based on an equal partnership between the GCE boards and universities on the one hand and the CSE boards and local education authorities on the other. The headquarters of MEG were set up at the UCLES offices in Cambridge, the same offices from which Cambridge Assessment operates today.

The new combined examination papers for 1987 have the rather clumsy heading of the 'Joint GCE O level/CSE Examination' but from 1988 carry the GCSE title and MEG logo and over the next decade the Midland Examining Group’s GCSE examinations attracted over 6 million candidates. MEG was clearly proud that four years of syllabus development and in-service training were well received by schools and with the teaching profession, with high take-up of MEG examinations from the outset. MEG responsibilities for the GCSE were taken over by OCR in 1997/8 but not before it had created a rich legacy of questions which are revisited today for their pragmatic approach and high quality. In a true reflection of the combined aspects of the GCE and CSE examinations, the syllabuses on offer included more than the mainstream subjects we expect to see today. Collaborations between exam board staff, teachers and employers resulted in pioneering syllabus development such as Nuffield, Salters, SMP (School Mathematics Project), Bristol, Avery Hill, Schools History Project, Technical and Vocational Education Initiative and the Joint Association of Classical Teachers. For the first time, also, many subjects offered a separate syllabus for mature candidates. When so much is being made of the influence from past examinations in the new GCSE, it's worth remembering that there is no fixed model from the past and that complex and important developments over time can continually provide us with valuable resources for the future.

List of GCSE examinations available as of summer 1988

Above is a list of GCSE examinations available as of summer 1988.

Gillian Cooke
Group Archivist, Cambridge Assessment

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