Examinations in England after 1945: History repeats itself

Taken from the second in a series of seminars which looks at the different stages in Cambridge Assessment's history, Helen Patrick, former research group manager at UCLES and now an independent consultant, focuses on developments following 1945, using the Cambridge Syndicate's experience to illustrate recurring themes in the history of assessment in England. 


The chapter which my husband John Patrick and I wrote for Examining the World covers the main developments in examinations in England after 1945.

I don't intend to go over that ground, but to tease out some of the strands which struck us as we wrote and to use some of the material which we were unable to include in the chapter due to lack of space. My overwhelming impression is that there is almost nothing new in the field of assessment, and I will identify some of the recurring themes, focusing on the Syndicate's role in examinations in England after 1945.


The obvious starting point for looking at examinations in England after the Second World War is the Norwood Report of 1943 (Board of Education, 1943). Sir Cyril Norwood was chairman of the Secondary School Examinations Council, the government body which had oversight of the School Certificate examinations, the main external examinations at the time. The Norwood Report set out the pros and cons of external examinations.

Summarising Norwood, the case for examinations was that they provided: 

  • motivation for pupils
  • training for pupils in perseverance and steadfastness
  • a specific purpose, goal and incentive for teachers and pupils
  • a sense of the standard required beyond the individual teacher or school
  • a syllabus for teachers to help in planning work
  • an objective measure, untainted by prejudice or favouritism
  • certification for employers, parents and professional bodies.
The case against examinations was that they: 
  • dictated the curriculum, limiting experimentation and freedom of choice
  • made learning utilitarian, reducing education to success in examinations
  • encouraged short term cramming with no longer term value
  • made teachers neglect non examinable qualities
  • encouraged uniformity and subservience to the examination
  • made judgments based on a one-off assessment rather than on the longer term knowledge teachers had of pupils
  • created an illusion of uniformity and equivalence.

Such arguments were not new in the 1940s. As Andrew Watts said in the previous seminar in this series, they had all been aired within a very short time of the introduction of the first local examinations nearly a century earlier, and they re-surfaced at regular intervals.

The Norwood report made a number of recommendations. Some were implemented and some not, but all are reminiscent of views expressed in the nineteenth century and of views which are still common today.

Here are some of Norwood's recommendations (pp139-142):

  1. Selection for different kinds of secondary education should be based on the judgment of primary school teachers, 'supplemented if desired by . . .tests'.
  2. In secondary school selection, 'due consideration should be given to the choice of the parent and the pupil'.
  3. Up to the age of 18+ all pupils should be in full-time education, or have opportunities for part-time education.
  4. Consideration should be given to 'the educational and social advantages of the performance of public service for a period of six months' between school and higher education.
  5. The 16+ School Certificate group examination should be replaced by an examination in which pupils could take whatever subjects they wished.
  6. University Examining Bodies should appoint sub-committees containing 'strong representation of teachers' to conduct the new examinations.
  7. Following a transitional period, 16+ examinations should become internal, conducted by teachers.
  8. In addition to examination results, school authorities should provide 'an account of the pupil's school record'.
  9. ‘ . . .a School Leaving Examination should be conducted twice a year for pupils of 18+'.
  10. ‘Pupils should take in this examination the subjects required for their particular purpose in view.'
  11. The purpose of the 18+ examination 'should not be to provide evidence of a "general" or "all-round" education'.
  12. A separate examination should be held for the award of university scholarships.
  13. The award of scholarships should take into account examination performance 'and the school records of the candidates'.
  14. ‘The keeping of school records from the primary stage to the end of the school course should be made the subject of immediate investigation and research.'

I have set these recommendations out at some length because even those which were not implemented represent ideas which have continued to permeate educational debate.

The case against examinations

Now I want to follow up one recommendation in particular. The seventh recommendation on this list specifically proposes getting rid of 16+ examinations. In addition, several others contain strong hints that tests and examinations can either be dispensed with, or their results moderated by other considerations such as the pupil's school record, the judgment of the teachers or the wishes of parents.

It is not difficult to make a case against examinations, and many commentators have argued that we should get rid of them. Norwood was no exception. His report recognised the virtues of examinations in supporting teaching programmes and setting standards, providing the scaffolding for the development of secondary education which had only been relatively widespread since the beginning of the twentieth century. But Norwood thought examinations had gathered more authority and more significance than was ever intended and were cramping both teachers and pupils. And they were not providing employers with the information they needed about 'the boy or girl as a human being rather than as an examinee' (p33).

These were hardly new ideas. For example, according to Richard Bradbury, it was thought in the 1880s that the Syndicate might not need all the accommodation in the new buildings in Mill Lane because schools would soon outgrow examinations (Bradbury, 1983). Norwood was saying the same kind of thing sixty years later. Although Norwood's specific recommendation about getting rid of 16+ examinations was not implemented, there was a strong feeling that examinations should be curtailed wherever possible, if not actually abandoned altogether. When the new GCE examinations arrived in 1951, for example, official government policy was that pupils who stayed on to take advanced level should bypass ordinary level. Similarly, in the selective system which existed at the time, official policy was that pupils in secondary modern schools who had not passed the 11+ should not have their education constrained and blighted by examinations. The Ministry of Education published a circular in 1952 which suggested that a school report would provide much better evidence of a general education than any examination:

'It may be idle to suppose that the examination certificates will not continue to be used in this way. Even so, it appears to be quite unnecessary for nationally attested certificates to be made available on the same scale as in the past.' (Ministry of Education Circular 256, 4 Sept. 1952, see Gosden, 1983, pp64-65)

More recently, in a provocative speech in 1993, Desmond Nuttall, who had previously been head of an examination board, called for the 'anachronism' of GCSE to be replaced by moderated internal assessment. Later still, in this century there have been furores over calculations that students could take over a hundred tests and examinations in their school careers (Hackett, 2001, ATL, 2003). And numerous commentators use the same arguments in condemning 'teaching to the test' and all its detrimental effects.

There has been no shortage of antagonism to external examinations and tests, nor of calls to get rid of them. So why is it that the powerful arguments articulated by Norwood and others have not only not led to the demise of examinations, but have made barely any impact on the relentless tide of expansion?

The case for examinations

I think the reason is that examinations are just too useful. They serve all kinds of purposes for all kinds of individuals and organisations. Paul Newton recently identified 22 purposes of assessment in the evidence which QCA presented to the parliamentary Select Committee Inquiry on Assessment and Testing (Newton, 2007).

I'm not sure that quite so many purposes were identified in Norwood's time, but there was certainly a strong body of opinion which disagreed with Norwood's conclusions. One of the members of Norwood's committee was Walter Nalder Williams, the Secretary of the Cambridge Syndicate. In 1942, in evidence to the committee, Nalder Williams set out his opposition to the proposal to get rid of examinations. He agreed that they could be abused, and castigated 'the bad competitive tradition of judging a school's progress by examination results'. He pointed out that, though the boards were often blamed for deficiencies in the examination, they were only administering a system drawn up by the Board of Education, 'and the Board has not always seen its way to adopt constructive proposals for the improvement of the examination'. Even so, he claimed that the School Certificate examination 'has improved, is improving and can be improved still further'. He thought that 'Examining Bodies might well rely less in future on written work . . . and conduct more oral and practical tests on the spot'. He said he would welcome 'a more elastic scheme of examination under which a reasonable freedom of experiment can be allowed both to examining bodies and to schools'.

Nalder Williams stressed the 'disinterested' approach of the university examining bodies, their 'increasingly fruitful partnership' with schools which was 'a factor of real value in the development of Secondary Education', the importance of the examination as 'a stimulus and a goal', and he declared that the examination was 'known to possess an objective and universally recognized validity'. He also had a number of practical objections, such as the effect of abolishing School Certificate on the educational policy of various colonial governments, whether examinations not approved by the Board of Education would be allowed to continue to offer certificates, and whether proposals for regional collaboration on internal examinations would ultimately lead to the reinstatement of examining bodies under another name.

The UCLES assistant secretary, J L Brereton, was more outspoken. He urged that external examinations were 'an essential part of the machinery of education' and claimed that their replacement by internal examinations would 'allow arbitrariness, favouritism and patronage to raise their ugly heads again, and cause a much greater disintegration of the secondary system than is yet fully realised' (McCulloch, 136).

It might be expected that representatives of an examination board would hardly vote for the abolition of a large part of its work, but Nalder Williams and Brereton were by no means alone.

Another member of Norwood's committee, Dr Terry Thomas, Headmaster of Leeds Grammar School, went further than Nalder Williams. He reserved his position on internal examinations when he signed the Norwood report. Thomas was joined by others, such as the Headmistress of Edgbaston High School who believed that 'an outside examining body is a yard-stick of achievement giving a certain standardisation which I think desirable'. Frank Smith, Professor of Education at Leeds, thought that the examinations had 'established themselves in the public mind' and spoke of teachers' 'unwillingness ... to shoulder the responsibility which would fall on them' if external examinations were abolished' (McCulloch, 137-8). Smith's view was supported by a poll conducted by the Oxford Delegacy which showed that 87 percent of a total of 200 head-teachers consulted opposed the abolition of external examination at sixteen (Gosden 1976, 386). The Modern Languages Association was scornful, urging that 'such catch-words as 'the tyranny of examinations' have been uttered chiefly to bring comfort to the souls of those who are unable to pass them'.

Such arguments, with the possible exception of the last, re-iterate some of the advantages of external examinations, as recognised by Norwood himself. And these advantages have long been seen as outweighing the disadvantages. Despite the opposition of the Board of Education in the 1940s and 1950s, examinations continued to grow and multiply. Today we have them in greater numbers with greater influence than ever before. Norwood would be absolutely horrified.

It was just over twenty years after Norwood, in 1965, that Montgomery said in his book on examinations that:

'By the 1960s the G.C.E. examining bodies were vast organizations. More than 2,000 assistant examiners were then involved in each summer examination of the London board alone . . .' (Montgomery, 1965, p178)

With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to find this amusing. Montgomery could have had no idea just how vast the examination industry was to become. At around the time he was writing, CSE examinations were being introduced. In theory O level catered for the top 20% of the ability range and CSE for the next 40%. Today over 90% of 16 year olds take one or more GCSEs, around 40% of 18 year olds take A levels, we have an increasing range of vocational examinations, most of the age group take tests at 7, 11 and 14. And there are optional tests, single level tests, local authority tests, the 11+ persists in some areas. And pupils take more examinations than before. In the 1960s I took seven O grades – the average number of GCSEs nowadays is around ten.

Developments in examinations

But the rise and rise of examinations has not blinded those involved to the concerns about examinations and their effects described in the Norwood report. The post war history of the Syndicate and other awarding bodies can be characterised as ongoing attempts to improve examinations and assessments and to alleviate their more undesirable effects.

One major change has been the much increased involvement of teachers in the examination process, sitting on examination board committees, designing syllabuses, and setting and marking question papers. Even in OCR, the remaining awarding body with university connections, there is no question of the university dominating examining in the way that it did in the nineteenth century. Nor is there any question of ignoring teachers' views, which seems to have been the main reaction of Syndics in the nineteenth century, as described in Gillian Cooke's chapter in Examining the World.

Since the 1950s there has been a gradual increase in the direct involvement of teachers in assessments which form part of examinations. Teacher assessment was promoted by CSE where mode 3 examinations, set and marked by teachers, were much more common than they were in GCE. When GCSE arrived, teacher assessment in the form of coursework was built into the system, and even 100% teacher assessed syllabuses were allowed, albeit only at first. Teacher assessment is officially rather less popular at present, but its time may come again.

There have also been moves towards more authentic assessment, with the development of practical and oral assessment, the introduction of new subjects, and regular updating of the content of syllabuses. During the 1960s, for example, the Syndicate collaborated with the Nuffield Foundation in developing project examinations which aimed to promote more authentic, investigative science teaching, learning and assessment. In the 1980s the Syndicate was involved in the graded assessment movement, which aimed at making assessment more flexible and suited to the needs of pupils, a precursor of the idea of assessment when ready and of modular assessment.

There have been attempts to moderate the influence of examinations by giving more attention to pupils' achievements in other aspects of school life. When records of achievement were government policy in the 1980s, the Syndicate set up the Cambridge Project on Records of Achievement in conjunction with the local authority.

Once the group examinations of the School Certificate had gone, fears were raised about over specialisation at A level, and the Syndicate was involved in various attempts to balance the demands of depth and breadth in the curriculum and its assessment, including Alternative Ordinary, Qualifying and Further levels, and Normal and Further levels, the Certificate of Extended Education and the Advanced Supplementary examinations. Such attempts, however, raised the issue of over assessment, as we saw with the introduction of Curriculum 2000.

The impact of research has waxed and waned in the Syndicate's history, but I'm glad to say that today it is definitely waxing. As a researcher myself, I believe that it is only by understanding assessment and how it works that we can improve its quality and moderate its less desirable effects.


We are in the middle of yet another upheaval in the world of examinations, with the introduction of diplomas. Whatever form examinations take, however, it is probably safe to predict that they will be with us for a long time to come. I have this on good authority.

In a pamphlet produced in 1976, the Syndicate said:

'One indisputable fact has to be recognized . . . The British like public examinations. In a country which has reacted strongly against the idea of state control of the curriculum, and which has traditionally regarded the Inspectorate with a good deal of reserve, the impulse to measure oneself, one's child or one's pupil against an established standard, and to obtain a certificate recording the result, has proved irresistible.' (UCLES, 1976, School Examinations and their Function)


ATL (2003) Testing, testing, testing…, Report on annual conference proceedings for April 16, at http://www.askatl.org.uk/atl_en/news/conferences/archive_2003/info/april_16_03/april16.asp
BOARD OF EDUCATION (1943) Curriculum and Examinations in Secondary Schools, (London, HMSO) (Norwood Report)
BRADBURY, RJ (1983) University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate, Magazine of the Cambridge Society, 13, 31-38
GOSDEN, PHJH (1976) Education in the Second World War, London, Methuen
GOSDEN, PHJH (1983) The Education System since 1944, (Oxford, Martin Robertson)
HACKETT, G (2001) The most over-tested nation in the world', TES, 27 April
McCULLOCH, G (1993) Judgement of the Teacher: the Norwood Report and internal examinations, International Studies in Sociology of Education, 3, 1, 129-143
MONTGOMERY, RJ (1965) Examinations, London, Longmans
NALDER WILLIAMS, W (1942) University Boards and the School Certificate Examination, evidence to the Norwood Committee (CA archive, WNW 2/7)
NEWTON, PE (2007) Evaluating assessment systems, report for Education and Skills Select Committee, London, Qualifications and Curriculum Authority
NUTTALL, DL (1993) Presentation at Centre for Policy Studies Conference, 21 September, in MURPHY, R and BROADFOOT, P (eds) A Tribute to Desmond Nuttall, London, Falmer, 237-241
UCLES (1976) School Examinations and their Function, Cambridge, University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate

Research Matters

Research Matters is our free biannual publication which allows us to share our assessment research, in a range of fields, with the wider assessment community.

Research Matters 32 promo image

Media contacts

Contact our press and Public Affairs office

Tel:  +44 (0)1223 556018 
Email: press@cambridge.org