Downton Abbey’s storyline highlights the power of exams in improving the life-chances of people from all backgrounds.
We often take calls here from drama producers who are keen to make sure they get storylines about exams factually correct. It’s always a pleasure to help give audiences an insight into what is a fascinating world with a rich history. But, unless I missed it, Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes hasn’t been on the line – a shame really as I could have told him what I thought about some of his more improbable storylines.
Despite this, a storyline in the latest series of Downton is remarkably realistic. (Spoiler alert for those set to watch on catch-up). The assistant cook Daisy Mason (played by Sophie McShera) wants to put the drudgery of kitchen toil behind her and get educated. Her exams are looming, but she is so troubled by stress that she has an outburst against the new landowner who is threatening her father-in-law with eviction. Sympathetic to her cause, colleague Joseph Molesley persuades the school master to part with some past papers. At that time, access to past papers was available through little published books (an example from our archives is attached as a PDF at the bottom of this blog) for sixpence each.
It’s not clear who sets Daisy’s exam, but more than likely this would be a School Certificate or Higher School Certificate, introduced in 1918 by the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate, now of course Cambridge Assessment. It would also be interesting to know how Daisy would have managed to pay her entry fees; candidates had to pay at least £1.10S (shown in the attached General Regulations document from 1920).
As the world’s oldest exam board, our archives are an unparalleled source of information on the history of Public Examinations in England, which goes back to the 1850s. Arguably, these exams brought with them a meritocracy that has been with us ever since. Education – and the proof of it – enabled opportunity for all.
So what to expect in the next episodes? Will Daisy be so upset by the showdown with the new landowner that she will flunk her exams? And will she need special dispensation because of the stress she’s under? Well there’s a whole new blog in that…
Media Relations Manager, Cambridge Assessment