Why didn't we abolish exams for 16-year-olds? The history of GCSEs

Why didn't we abolish exams for 16-year-olds? - The history of GCSEs

Video transcript

Andrew Watts presentation December 2019

On the 20th of November this year, The Times newspaper had a leading article which was headed tested to destruction and in the leading article, The Times recommended that GCSEs and the system of examination for 16-year-olds here in this country should be abolished. In another part of the paper, it reported that head mistresses from a meeting of the Girls Schools Association had also made that recommendation and that article was under the headline, GCSEs were a throwback to the Victorian period. I'm not sure whether the journalists who wrote those articles or indeed the head mistresses were aware of an important part of the history of the examination system in this country. And that's what I want to talk about today.

Because if we go back to 1946, there was a time when the UK government's policy on examination was that exams for 16-year olds should be abolished. So why was that? Why was it recommended? Why was it accepted? And of course, why was it that it wasn't implemented? We're really going back to the time of the 1944 Education Act. The key thing about that act was that it set up a system of secondary education for all children up to the act. It was not necessarily the case that large numbers of pupils went to secondary school. Many of them just stayed in what were called elementary schools.

[00:02:01] At the same time, the school leaving age was raised by the 1944 Education Act from 14 to 15, and it was the intention to raise it even further to 16 when the economy recovered. But examinations were not mentioned in the 1944 act. Where they were mentioned was in the Norwood report, which in 1943 came out as part of the preparation for the Education Act.;

The Norwood report is particularly well known because of its support for the so-called tripartite system for secondary education: grammar schools, secondary modern schools and secondary technical schools. But it was the Norwood report that also recommended the abolition of external examinations for students below the age of 17. Now that recommendation, if it had been carried through, would have meant that we would never have had an O level system or a GCSE system and only examinations for those coming towards the end of the sixth form. This was a recommendation of the Norwood report, but the decision was confirmed by the Ministry of Education and therefore became ministry policy in May 1946. In a circular entitled Circular Number 103. Well, what was the exam system at that time, at that time? The exams were called the school certificate examinations and they had been running since 1918. In fact, they ran on till 1950. This was the first national examination system in England and Wales.

[00:03:56] There were school certificate exams for 16-year-olds or those about 16 and a higher school certificate exam for 18-year-olds. Now, if we remember that in 1944, the school leaving age was raised from 14 to 15. It means that most children, the great majority, would not even have stayed at school long enough to take a school certificate exam. School certificate exams came in in 1918, and at that time the school leaving age was raised from 12 to 14, so it was assumed that the great majority of children would not take public examinations, they would leave school well before the age of 16 and enter the employment market.

The other thing to mention here about the way the school certificate examinations were set up was the system was to be run by an organization called the Secondary School Examinations Council that was appointed by the Minister of Education, but semi-independent from the ministry itself. This particular slide just reminds us of some of the steps that led to a national examination system. As far as the universities, Cambridge University and others was concerned, it was 1858, which saw the beginning of what we call the university local examinations. And it's back to then that we really can date the system of school examinations that we still have.

[00:05:41] In this slide, I particularly want to underline the two government commissions, the Taunton Commission 1868 and the Bryce Commission 1895. Both of those commissions were considering how to set up a scheme of secondary education in the country, and both recommended that there should be a national system of examinations. So, you can see from 1868 when it was first recommended to 1918, when it was implemented, it took 50 years for the country to decide what kind of examination system we should have in this country.

I want to particularly refer to this letter, which I shall read out for those of you that can't read the scrawly handwriting. The important thing about this letter is the person who wrote it. It's a man called Arthur Ackland. He had been the equivalent of the minister of education in William Gladstone's last government in nineteen in 1892 to 1895. Ackland was a very active leader of the education system and highly respected by his colleagues. And though he left parliament soon after that particular period in office, he was still very active in the world of education as an independent citizen. And when he found out about the scheme that was being proposed for the school certificate examinations, he wrote to the permanent secretary in the board of Education.

[00:07:33] “Speaking purely as a private person, I have great doubts if I wish the board to give any kind of imprimatur to the exams until really fundamental changes can be introduced from the start. But there I feel far more strongly about the evils of the existing paper examinations than many people do. I regard them and have done so increasingly for 20 years or more as I have observed secondary education in this country as a tremendous evil, and all that I have seen since the war began has increased this conviction tenfold. So, you see, I am rather a fanatic.”

So here is Arthur Ackland, a well-respected educationalist who had proved his abilities in the national field of education, virulently against the kind of examination system that was going to be introduced. And although he called himself a fanatic, he'd actually been chairman of a committee appointed by the Board of Education, which had also come up with a recommendation that we should not have a system of external examinations of the kind that the Board of Education was introducing. I'm interested too in that quotation of the use of the word evil, exams as a tremendous evil is typical of the kind of rhetoric that you find. And the point that I want to make is that this idea that examinations were highly problematic was commonly to be heard and read in the Victorian times, particularly the late Victorian period.

[00:09:22] So what was the problem? Well, the problem has all to do with whether the exams should be external or internally run. The university local examinations were external exams, the examination boards based in the universities did all the work and the schools merely got their students to do their examinations and send the scripts back to the examination board for marking. It's the same system that we have now.

But what Arthur Ackland was proposing, and others, was an internal system in which the schools were much more in control of the system. They were able to point to the system in Germany, where the school leaving exam was called Abitur, and they were able to describe the way that that was conducted. Indeed, for the Taunton Commission, very well-known educationalist Matthew Arnold had written very positively about the German Abitur. And then for the Bryce Commission, another very influential educationalist Michael Sadler had done the same. And both were recommending a system of internal examinations rather than the external examinations that it appeared the Board of Education was about to choose.

The internal system would have depended on the schools working very closely with local inspectors who would help them to construct the examinations in their own schools. This slide gives a description of how the Abiter system was described to Matthew Arnold and Michael Sadler. Those of you who are watching this can pause for a moment if you want to read a little bit more about how the Abiter system might work.

[00:11:23] So the point was that an external examination system was chosen for introduction in 1918 and that decision was taken by civil servants, but they were confident that they had public and professional support.

[00:11:40] Why did they do that? Why didn't they go for the internal system that seemed to be well recommended by people within the education system? Well, one reason was that the local external examination system was already working, and they knew that it could work. And they also knew that they could set it up fairly easily without creating extra infrastructure, which, of course, they would have to do if they needed to set up a whole system of local inspectors.

Another point here was that at that time, the autonomy of teachers and the independence of schools was very strongly supported. Indeed throughout the education system people were suspicious of any government attempt to control what was going on in school. Government interference was sometimes seen as interference and negative.

The little slide there that we're looking at the moment shows the kind of report book, the log book that schools, elementary schools had to fill up so that they could show government inspectors what was going on in the schools and schools dreaded the thought that the government might try to take over.

[00:12:57] So the link with the universities and indeed the link with the university and an external examination system was seen as protection of the teacher's independence against the government. And it was a strong argument for setting up this university exam board based system so that teachers’ autonomy could be protected. And it was also envisaged that over the period of the earlier the exam school certificate exams became embedded, that the teachers would more and more take over the work of the exam boards. And it would be a very close relationship between teachers and exam boards.

This list here merely shows which exam boards there were in England and Wales. There were eight of them and all the universities in the country at the beginning of the 20th century were invited to take part and they all did. They were all involved in running examination systems. The ones that particularly relate to Cambridge are the University of Cambridge syndicate, the University of Oxford Delegacy and the Oxford and Cambridge Joint Board. Those three eventually became parts of what is now called OCR. You can see the London University as well, and the Northern Universities Joint Matriculation Board also became the basis of our present AQA.

[00:14:37] Once the school certificate exam system was set up, the criticism of exams continued. We must remember that the sorts of criticisms we hear of exams are by no means new. Any exam criticism that you hear nowadays will have a history going back perhaps 100 years or even longer than that. And this is the sort of criticism that you'd have seen from teachers in the school certificate period. I've highlighted the ideas of the New Education Fellowship.

[00:15:15] This was a group of people who regarded themselves as progressive teachers and other people who write round schools founded in 1921. And you can see from the list of criticisms they had of the exam system that it's a very familiar kind of thinking about the difficulties that an exam system creates for the school.

[00:15:42] The New Education Fellowships Journal was called a New Era. And here you can see the cover of a special edition of their journal which focused on exams. And you can see one of the bylines there on the cover. The question is, should the exam system be abolished?

[00:16:04] This was a very active group and an influential group, and it influenced not just other teachers, but it actually influenced people who were at the top of the education system in positions to make decisions about the future. The points about the slide that we're now looking at is the title and it's the title of a book 'What is and what might be?' And this was a book that reflected on the dire state of affairs in schools in the UK at the time and had a vision of a much more open progressive and a child-centred way of teaching. It's written quite a long time ago, 1911, but it was such a powerful call for more progressive attitudes to education that it became a kind of bible of the progressive movement. You can still find it on the Internet. It's still respected as a statement of what progressive education might be.

[00:17:15] It was written because the writer had come across a school in the village of Sompting in Sussex, and particularly the head teacher, Harriet Finley Johnson, a very creative woman who was running the school in a completely different way to the way most schools were run. The picture there really gives us some hint about the sort of activities that she thought were good for children to be involved with. But the main points about this slide is that the writer of this book, Edmund Holmes, had just retired as the chief inspector for elementary schools from the Board of Education.

So, a top inspector in schools was somebody who openly identified himself with the progressive movement. And what it indicates is that there is a huge sympathy for progressive ideas on education within the national inspectorate. The board's inspectors believed that teachers would teach better if they were freed from exam restrictions. And so, there was within the Board of Education, a group of people who were very keen to restrict the amount of examining that went on. And they did it by setting an age limit below which they would not allow schools to enter children for public examination, but they wouldn't allow it by not being willing to pay for it. And so, in the 1920s and 30s, they refused permission for schools to enter pupils under the age of 16 for all external examination, including vocational examinations.

[00:19:04] In the early 1940s, therefore, this group, the inspectorate did agree with the proposal then to abolish the school certificate examination and that support within the Board of Education is an important part of this story.

[00:19:21] At the beginning of the 1940s, a committee was put together to consider the future of the examination system and the curriculum alongside the consideration that was going on with the moves to create a secondary system after the war and then which resulted in the 1944 Education Act. Here, we can see the remit of the committee. But the picture there is of the chairman of the committees Sir Cyril Norwood and the report, which came out from the committee, therefore was called the Norwood Report.

Norwood had been a public school headmaster, had been headmaster of a grammar school. By this time, he was president of St. John's College, Oxford. But here you can see one of the recommendations of the Norwood report, notwithstanding the evidence. He's talking here about the evidence of the teacher's support for external exams, "we affirm our belief that the time has come when the teaching profession should have the chance to shoulder its own responsibilities and thereby gain its freedom and enhance its prestige." This was a key argument which Norwood himself put forward very strongly, that putting the exams in the hands of teachers was going to be good for teachers professionally. After all, university teachers were able to organise their own exams and award their own degrees so why couldn't teachers do the same? We affirm our belief we have in that quotation. There is a suggestion that the Norwood Committee was very much behind this, as we shall see in a minute.

So, we need now to think about this statement. The other thing that came out of that is that word freedom. There is an argument that this was going to create freedom for teachers. They were going to be free of the bondage of this exam system, which we remember sometimes was called an evil system.

This slide shows us who was on the Norwood Committee. It was a small committee. There were only 12 members of it. There were three members of the exam boards. You can see Nalder Williams was the one as a representative from Cambridge, Shurrock from London. And Myers from the northern board based in Manchester. Three representatives at LEAs and then three representative teachers, there were two secondary associations, the Mistresses and the Masters. And Miss Hastings and Mr. Hutchins or their representatives. And then also a representative of the end of NUT, which, of course, had members in elementary schools as well as in some secondary schools. And then there were two head teachers, Headmaster Thomas and the headmistress, Miss Clark.

[00:22:28] This was the committee, therefore, that Norwood was claiming he'd got to approve the recommendations of their deliberations. I just now want to look more closely at one of the committee members, Walter Nalder Williams, who is the secretary of the Cambridge University examination system.

[00:22:52] The reason for looking at him partly is that we have in Cambridge a very interesting archive and in fact, we have some documents that have not been very widely seen. We have his notes written during the examination, the meetings of the Norwood Committee. And so, we've got a little insight into the sorts of things that were going on as the committee were discussing. Now on the official results of the of these meetings, here are three references to Nalder Williams from different meetings.

Then the third meeting, this is the official minutes of the Norwood Committee. The minutes of what took place in early January 1942. We find Nalder Williams being quoted as saying that history and English literature had proved unsuitable subjects for external examination. That's quite a surprising statement for somebody who is running an examination board and it might have caused some alarms from some of his colleagues. But it also indicates that there was an openness to consider whether the examination system had become too overbearing and Nalder Williams opinion was that actually history and the English literature shouldn't be subject for external examination. Perhaps as a result of some reactions to that and meeting number six Nalder Williams tabled the paper defending generally the external system of exams. That was in July 1942, and we can find that documents in Cambridge Assessment’s archive.

[00:24:35] But then again, in the meeting number eight, the minutes of that meeting say that each member of the committee spoke provisionally on the proposal to replace the external exams by internal exams with external assessment and all expressed opinions in favour of such a change. In other words, those minutes claim that all 12 members of the Norwood Committee were approving of the proposal to abolish external examinations and replace them with internal examinations.

[00:25:15] These next few slides are going to question that statement from the minutes.

[00:25:22] What we have here, and this quite detailed slide is, first of all, on the right-hand side, the record in the official minutes of the meeting of the Norwood Committee, their 11th meeting, and on the left-hand side we have some notes that were written by Nalder Williams during the meeting. They're written in pencil, just freehand and they're on scraps of paper. But what we can see is interesting to compare the two. First of all, it looks initially as though the official minutes are giving a pretty accurate representation of what was being said in the meeting. What was being said was that the chief inspector of schools was reporting to the committee what the opinions of the school inspectorate were at the time about this proposal for internal examinations. Nalder Williams records more or less the same thing, and it's only when we start to look in detail that we begin to see slight differences.

[00:26:30] For example, if we look at B and number two, we see that the inspectors were concerned about some things and one of their concerns was what is referred to in the official minutes as the assessment of syllabuses. Nalder Williams writes this with a slightly different emphasis how to vet thousands of syllabuses. He is an exam board representative, is beginning to see the practical issues of actually how the system would work if all schools were allowed to write their own syllabuses, which is what was being proposed, how would this control be maintained over thousands of them? Or secondly, if we look at number three in the official minutes, the task of syllabus making would be an imposition on teachers. So even the school inspectors were concerned about that.

Nalder Williams sees it slightly differently. He sees the varying experience of the teachers and of teachers in assessment. In other words, it's not just we shouldn't be asking the teachers to be doing this. It's actually are the teachers going to be able to do this? And he will have been doing that because of his wide experience of meeting teachers who are examiners and I would think it would be pretty obvious that there may be people who are very good teachers, but they may not be very good examiners. This is the way in all the Williams mind was working. He wasn't opposing the system. He wasn't saying that the internal system was completely wrong headed. He was asking questions about how it was going to work.

[00:28:21] So I'm beginning to suggest that actually it was wrong to say that the whole committee was fully behind the internal system and indeed there was opposition within the committee and in Cambridge certainly there is more evidence of this in a brown envelope. We can find a draft letter that was being put together by Nalder Williams, by Shurrock from London, by Myres, from the northern board, along with Hutchins, who was the representative of the Assistant Masters Association. And they were planning to send a letter to the committee. "And the letter began: we regret to have to inform our colleagues on the committee that we cannot see our way to allow our names to be associated with the proposal. To substitute for this, see us at the school certificate exams, an internal examination that was dated twenty seventh of April 1943".

This was about two months before the Norwood report came out. So by this stage, Norwood and his Board of Education helpers will have thought that they were getting to the final stages of writing that report. And yet here we have four members of the committee who are now ready to go publicly to their colleagues on the committee saying they do not agree with the proposal for exams and that they continue. It's quite an inflammatory statement. This next one, "there is no basis for any assumption that the rank and file of the teaching profession would welcome the supposedly enhanced prestige, which are chairman expects to result from the shouldering of the examination burden," the point where they point out where they believe that Norwood was wrong was very bold. And I think if Norwood had read this, he would certainly have reacted strongly against it.

[00:30:28] Hutchins in this discussion said that he would sound out the other members of the representatives from the assistant masters and assistant mistresses, and also the head masters and had mistresses and would speak to Miss Hastings and Mr. Clark. Miss Clark and Dr. Thomas.

[00:30:48] That letter was never sent. It merely remained as a draft. And why it was, I can't find out. I think they just ran out of time. They were aiming to get it to a meeting that was to be on May the 8th and given that they were not using emails and so on, they were just using the post, they ran out of time. But it might also have been that they then discovered that one member of the committee, Dr. Thomas, who they weren't discussing with, had actually already agreed that he was going to oppose the external exam on behalf of the Headmasters Association. And Norwood was furious about this. Norwood wrote to the minister of Education, who was R.A Butler at the time, in a very scathing way, suggesting that somehow Dr. Thomas was not very clear in his own mind of what he was actually saying. And, it's interesting to see that phrase, "we need not be troubled by his defection" as though this was personal disloyalty to him and to his committee, which again, was unfair and, Thomas’s association had actually given evidence that they were against the internal examination system. So now we might we can add up five members of the committee who have actually said that they do not agree with the idea to replace external exams with internal exams.

[00:32:21] Well, a general election took place in 1945, as you know, and Labour came to power. The new minister of education Ellen Wilkinson is represented there. And you've got one of her election posters. And the Ministry of Education went ahead and published what I mentioned before was Circular 103 and announced the policy that the abolition of exams at 16 would take place, but perhaps not immediately, but it would in a few years’ time. The letter that you can see there, and you notice that what she says is that though she was a member of the committee, the Norwood Committee, she did not think that the committee had put out a recommendation which could be regarded as final or decisive. So a sixth member of the committee had now come out and said within the board of Education, and it would have been known among the exam boards that the committee basically was beginning to his decision was beginning to fall apart. Norwood's claim that it was a unanimous decision was certainly not something that could be maintained.

[00:33:47] And, of course, because Dr. Thomas had opposed the proposal for internal exams, it had to be actually printed in the Norwood report that he was opposed to it, Norwood was not happy with that. This would have sent a message to the politicians that this is actually a problematic issue. Ellen Wilkinson and then also Tomlinson, who took over from her as minister of education, both stuck to the Ministry of Education's policy that the exams, the exams for 16-year-olds should be abolished. But actually support for that position was beginning to crumble as it was revealed what people really thought about it.

[00:34:36] It was ministry of education officers and civil servants who were determined to press on with abolishing exams at 16. So when the school certificate exam system was replaced, it was replaced in 1951 by O levels and A levels, and it was intended after some years that O would be dropped and they will be replaced by all schools setting their own internal exams system.

[00:35:06] And the Ministry of Education continued its policy of trying very strictly to limit the age at which students took public exams to 16. And again, if you remember, the school leaving exam age had been raised only to 15, even by the 1944 Education Act. So still it was assumed that the majority of children would not take exams because they wouldn't even stay at school to be old enough to take them. The other thing that the Ministry of Education did, tried to do was to stop children from secondary modern schools from taking the O-levels. You can imagine that there were many head teachers of secondary modern schools who wanted to persuade their students to stay on school for an extra year, and they would then want to encourage them to aim for something and take O levels and this is what began to happen. And secondary modern pupils began to pass in O levels as well, not in such large numbers as those from grammar schools.

But it did begin to look as though there was something very negative about discouraging children from secondary modern schools from taking O level. It was a problem, it was particularly a problem for the Labour Party because many of the children at secondary modern schools were working class children and they would argue that by refusing to let them to have the opportunity of taking the exams this was to limit the sort of opportunities that will be open to them.

[00:36:49] Well, this debate continued, it focused around the age limit to which children would be able to take the O level exams. And in fact, quietly, in about 1952, the scheme to have internal exams was just dropped as the focus then changed to the need for an exam for the so-called "less academic" pupils and that resulted in 1963 of the introduction of what was called the certificate of Secondary Education.

[00:37:21] So really the proposal to go for an internal set of exams ran into the sand and was sort of quietly put aside and it was never implemented. So why didn't it happen with all that support with the Ministry of Education, particularly senior civil servants, pushing the idea of abolition? Why didn't it happen?

[00:37:52] One reason is probably that the alternative did not seem convincing. Here we might remember Nalder Williams and the universities were also casting doubt on whether the alternative of having school exams internally would actually be able to work. There was also a lack of political support. And actually there had been a lack of political support throughout the 20th century for a major change in the exam system.

[00:38:23] It was a Liberal government that went for external exams rather than internal in the late 1910s. With the Conservative government, I don’t think Butler was that interested in this idea of a revolutionary change to the exam system, though of course it was very, very keen to see his bill get through and the secondary system be set up. And I suggested that it was the exam proposals were the problem for Labour, since there was a suggestion that if we, if the system simply depended on the student's school, then it would be the children at the more prestigious schools who would be an advantage and those at ordinary town and country secondary schools would be less advantageous. And in fact, the Journal of the National Association of Labour Teachers, when they saw the recommendations in Circular 103, they published in their journal, which was called Modern Education in December 1946, an article which was headed the shadow over the secondary schools. And the shadow that they were identifying was the withdrawal of the external exam system. So there was support, strong support within the teachers who were actually teaching in secondary schools that the exam system should remain as an external one.

[00:40:05] There is a difference then within the education establishment, and particularly it was civil servants who were pushing for the abolition of the exam system and the civil servants were to a man and it is probably right to say to a man that they were from a public school and indeed from Oxbridge background. Their view of what might be going on in education and what people might be wanting to get from the system was very much coloured by their own privileged experience. I think it was that they hadn't really got their head round what the new secondary system was going to require, a secondary system which was an involving secondary education for all students. The promise of freedom to teachers was not believed either. It was teachers’ organisations that began to speak out against the abolition of the exam system, and the way the board was behaving perhaps was giving grist to their mill. The board was trying to push this through Norwood and his committee. Norwood was trying to push his committee into proposing something for which it was questionable how much public support and professional support there was. And finally, the secondary teachers’ associations particularly were content by this stage with their close links with the exam boards because their members were now on more and more of the exam board committees and led syllabus committees and so on. And so another reason why they turned out in the night late 1940s and early 1950s to be content with the external examination system as they saw it.

[00:42:03] Here are six, key concerns of examination boards. It's not just a practical issue about how to get the papers printed and how to get them on the desks in front of the candidates. There are deeper issues about the validity of the exams, about the standards that are being set and about the consistency of marking, for example, these deep issues which exam boards have to tackle and also, of course, underlining it how trustworthy the public see the whole system. These were concerns that the exam boards had to work with. And the question that they were raising in the light of what Norwood was suggesting is who will actually look after these areas of concern? If these schools, if it is all handed over to the schools, there is a document in the Cambridge Assessment Archive from Dr. Myers of the joint northern board who made an interesting point. He said, if we're going to have a national system, then really you can't just hand it all over to each individual school. You can either have one or the other, but you can't have both. The two aims are incompatible because as soon as you start comparing what schools do or giving people jobs or places in further education or university on the basis of exams that are set in schools, you're bound to be getting to raise the bigger issues about the validity of the schools, exams and their standards and so on, the trustworthiness of their results. So I think one of the conclusions from this is that we might learn is the importance of the role of exam boards in a national system of assessment.

[00:44:07] And the final slide. I've used the same concerns here. The same six basic concerns and suggests that these operationalised in relationship with other groups in the education system. So here is the examination board in the centre of the system. But working with other groups in the system in order to achieve validity, reliability and the trustworthiness of the exam system, the exam board is there to hold the system in some kind of balance and to take account of the different views that people are bringing to the system from their different perspectives. The story of the school certificate examination and the attempt to replace those by an internal system is much more complicated than certainly Norwood and certainly the Board of Education officers who were advocating it believed it to be.

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When questioning whether or not we should ‘scrap GCSEs’ it is important to consider the history of our external exams system here in England.

Andrew Watts

Andrew Watts worked at Cambridge Assessment from 1992-2009 as head of the English National Curriculum team and Director of Cambridge Assessment Network. Andrew has recently completed a PhD on School Examinations in England, 1918-1950 which drew heavily on resources from Cambridge Assessment’s Archives & Heritage.

In this presentation, Andrew Watts talks us through the history of external exams in England. He highlights how and why a policy to abolish secondary exams was once agreed by the British government, but never happened. The presentation also considers the role of exam boards, and how they should be considered in any future debates about the national exam system.

The policy to abolish school certificate examinations

It will come as a surprise to many people that a policy to abolish external exams for students under the age of 17 was once agreed by the British government. 

The proposals were to replace the current external exam system with an internal system run by teachers.

In this seminar, Andrew discusses the reasons behind that policy in 1946, suggesting that national exam systems emerge from broad education and assessment cultures and it is these which have influenced decisions taken in the past.

Understanding our assessment culture is also important when we ask why that abolition policy was never implemented. Indeed, the national external exam system for 16-year-olds has survived in Britain for over 100 years. At a time when it is sometimes claimed that GCSEs for 16-year-olds have outlived their usefulness, it is important to consider what that survival might tell us about the attitudes towards school exams in the country.

What were the criticisms of external exams?

In 1921, The New Education Fellowship listed the following criticisms of the School Certificate Examinations (SCE) - the precursor of today's GCSE:

  • SCE demands too much from ‘average’ pupils
  • Syllabuses too academic: negative impact on curriculum
  • Failure to examine a broader range of subjects
  • University examiners out of touch with school students
  • Teachers ‘teaching to the exam’
  • Teacher-assessed coursework: fairer than one-off exams

Andrew points out that many of the above criticisms are still echoed in today’s media when questions are brought up about whether the GCSE system in England is ‘fit for purpose’. As this evidence from our Archives suggests, many of the criticisms of our current exam system have been voiced before.

Why didn't we abolish exams for students under 17?

The presentation covers the main reasons why the decision to abolish external exams for under 17s in 1946 was scrapped. These included:

  • Unconvincing alternative 
  • Lack of political support: Liberal, Conservative, Labour
  • Board of Education/ Ministry of Education public school views – civil servants out of touch
  • Place of exams in the new secondary system
  • Promise of “freedom” for teachers with new internal exams was not believed
  • Secondary teachers’ associations content with their close links with the exam boards

What does this mean for GCSEs?

When considering the future of GCSEs, it is important to understand and take into account the history of our external exam system here in England. The Cambridge Assessment Archives & Heritage can give us some unexpected detailed historical perspectives on the national debate.

We'd love to hear your thoughts on Andrew's presentation and the debate in the comments section below.

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