Examinations in England and Germany in 1939

by Gillian Cooke, 07 October 2020
Jack Roach, Assistant Secretary at the University of Cambridge Local Exams Syndicate

The current edition of Research Matters includes an intriguing article that shines a new light on life in Germany in the months leading up to the Second World War.

Serendipity is often at the heart of new and exciting discoveries for archivists, writes Gillian Cooke from Cambridge Assessment Archives and Heritage, and, on this occasion, we can thank the eagle eyes of a former colleague, who rescued a remarkable collection of papers from a skip, which were presented to Cambridge Assessment in 2018.

The documents were all written in 1938 and introduce us to Jack Roach, Assistant Secretary at the University of Cambridge Local Exams Syndicate (UCLES, known as Cambridge Assessment today) and responsible for the Cambridge English examinations. The collection relates to the promotion of English exams in Europe and the papers range from correspondence with Jewish centres in Germany to proposals to MPs for government support to foreign students in England. Given the involvement of Jewish candidates in Germany just a year before the outbreak of war, the ambitions of Roach, seen through this correspondence and his own words, is particularly poignant.

The circumstances are at present extraordinary and more powerful than our real educational considerations

It is clear from the collection that Roach was passionate about language learning and the promotion of the Cambridge English qualifications, and that in 1938 the unescapable political pressures added a new dimension to his work. At the time there was just one Cambridge English qualification, the Certificate of Proficiency in English (CPE), but to pass it could mean more than simple career development; it was taken by students to enable them to migrate from Nazi controlled countries and obtain permits to work in English speaking countries. "The circumstances are at present extraordinary and more powerful than our real educational considerations", writes one head teacher of a Jewish school in Berlin.

Astonishingly, the collection links to papers already held in Cambridge Assessment archives which record a visit Roach made to these schools in 1937. The trip opened Roach’s eyes to the difficulties faced by the students, including problems with being able to pay examination fees and accessibility to books. At one point, he notes: ‘the whole question of text-books is very difficult for these people’ and this backstory serves to shed further light on the achievements made in 1938.

A consistent theme throughout the collection is Roach's determination to maintain high examination standards and ensure their integrity, even while he lobbied the US authorities for qualification recognition. This potential conflict of interests could have been the reason why the documents were initially discarded, but with this hindsight, it certainly makes the study of them more interesting.

How fascinating too, to discover the rationale behind the development of a Lower Certificate of Proficiency in English (later the First Certificate) as Roach, and his colleagues, scramble to launch the new qualification in 1939. Written in the moment, the papers are full of emotion and brimming with political thought, in one Roach raises the idea that English language candidates should be state sponsored and encouraged to "make a serious study of our parliamentary democracy".

Roach’s sense of duty to prospective candidates, and the Local Examinations Syndicate, is evident throughout this collection; learning English must be accessible and available to those wanting to better their lives and achieve different things.

You can read Gillian’s full article in the next edition of Research Matters which will be published on 14 October.

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