How have school exams changed over the past 150 years?

In England, attendance at school was not compulsory until the late 19th century. The first public examinations for schools were introduced in 1858 in response to a demand from schools themselves as a way of marking their pupils’ attainment. Schools approached universities – such as Cambridge and Oxford – and asked them to produce exams that boys could take ‘local’ to where they lived. Girls were not officially permitted to enter public examinations until 1867.

The University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate – now known as Cambridge Assessment – was officially established on 11 February 1858. Its first exam took place on 14 December 1858. There were two examinations: the Junior (for students under 16 years of age) and the Senior (for students under the age of 18), and they took place in local ‘centres’ - schools or any suitable venues like church or village halls.

Subjects were not very different from those taken by students today. In 1858, students sat exams in: English Language and Literature, History, Geography, Geology, Greek, Latin, French, German, Physical Sciences, Political Economy and English Law, Zoology, Mathematics, Chemistry, Arithmetic, Drawing, Music and Religious Knowledge (unless their parents objected).

Today, subjects examined at GCSE are largely governed by the statutory requirements of the National curricula in England, Northern Ireland and Wales. The great majority of students will take a GCSE examination in three of the core subjects – English, Mathematics and Science (and Welsh in Wales). Other popular subjects include: Design & Technology, History and French.

In the 1860s, the presiding examiners travelled from Cambridge to exam centres, usually by train, wearing academic dress and carrying a locked box containing the question papers.

Today, exam papers are sent to schools before the exam. Exams are now supervised by invigilators appointed by schools. The completed exam papers are sent to the relevant examiner for marking. Many exam scripts are distributed electronically.

With the advent of ‘e-testing’, papers could, one day, be a thing of the past. OCR – part of the Cambridge Assessment Group – launched the first ever completely e-assessed GCSE, in Environmental & Land Based Science, in 2006.

The exam timetable:
The first school exams took place over a period of six or seven consecutive days and were set in the morning, afternoon and evening.

Today, A Level and GCSE examinations in the UK take place over two months in the early summer to accommodate tens of thousands of subject combinations.

The question papers for our first examinations, which are still held in the Cambridge University library, provide a fascinating insight into what people in the 1850s thought it was important for students to know.

In the 1850s, students were expected to learn large amounts of information by heart. They were expected to draw from memory maps of a specified country’s rivers, coastline and mountain ranges, or list the names of kings and queens and recount the significant events from periods of English history.

Andrew Watts, Director of the Cambridge Assessment Network, and former teacher, said: “In the Syndicate’s early History, Geography, Science and Scripture papers, question after question asks for the recall of facts, often from set books or periods of history, or sections of the Bible.

“This reflects a view of the educated person as being a collector of knowledge. Which was not surprising at a time when new worlds of knowledge were opening up, Think of Charles Darwin spending five years on ‘The Beagle’ collecting facts about animals and plants. His ‘Origin of Species’ was published just the year after the Cambridge local exams began.

The examiners looked for detailed and accurate knowledge, and they would not have apologised for ‘training the memories’ of students. But they also were quick to encourage the students not simply to cram facts to pass. However, in the examination system the pressure to perform created its own dynamic. Examiners’ reports began to express disappointment that students did not demonstrate that they actually understood what they had learnt.

Over the years we have learned to set a greater variety of more flexible examination questions and tasks, which enable students today to demonstrate their ability to analyse information and to apply their knowledge and understanding.”

Examples of 1858 exam questions:

  • Obtain the sum of forty-six times seven thousand and twenty, seventeen times one million and one, and thirty-three times thirty-three.
  • Name in order the Queens and the children of Henry VIII. On what grounds was he divorced from his first wife?
  • In what three ways was our Lord tempted in the wilderness?

Comments on the 1858 exams

Examiners commented:
“Their answers, even when accurate, showed a general uniformity of expression which seemed to imply that meagre handbooks had been placed before the Students to be ‘got up’ and that little attempt had been made by their instructors to excite the interest of their pupils by questionings or remarks of their own.”

“There was little indication of an acquaintance with the best elementary mathematics works.”

The Syndicate’s first annual report, published in 1859 said:

“The general tone of the Examiners’ Report may perhaps to some seem somewhat unfavourable to the performances of the Candidates. But it must be remembered that the greater number of the Candidates were under sixteen years of age, unused probably to written examinations.”

“There is much to encourage both teachers and pupils in the experience of even this first examination by the University under a new system, and we believe that with the stimulus of open competition, and the standard of regularly recognised examinations, carefulness and ability will receive clearer direction and more open reward.”

Assessment today and in the future:

Today, more than 900,000 students take GCSE and A Level qualifications provided by several exam boards throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland every year.

Assessment should, at its best, support teaching, focus students’ efforts, motivate them and reward what they achieve. These ambitions have not changed in the 150 years of Cambridge Assessment’s history to date, but the way exams are delivered undoubtedly has. For example, in the future, supporting and delivering assessment by digital means will play an increasingly significant role in examining.

Millions of candidates throughout the world take qualifications provided by Cambridge Assessment through its three exam boards: OCR, Cambridge International Examinations and Cambridge English.

150th anniversary celebrations:

  • 1858 style lessons: You may have seen the recent media coverage about pupils across the country experiencing exams ‘1858 style’ when they were visited by our ‘Victorian teacher’. Pupils from Bristol Grammar School, Warwick School and Friends’ School, Saffron Walden, were given a special lesson – using our original 1858 exam questions.
  • Archive exhibition: Bribery letters, 150-year-old examiner reports, eye-witness accounts of hardship during the First and Second World Wars and past exam questions feature in an online exhibition – from the archive of Cambridge Assessment – now available to view on this site.
  • Commemmorative book: Cambridge Assessment has also launched a special book ‘Examining the World’ providing a fascinating insight into education over the past century and a half. The book describes how we have evolved into a leading world authority on assessment, delivering examinations to millions of learners worldwide. Examining the World is published by Cambridge University Press and available from

Find out more about our 150th anniversary celebrations

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