‘Turn over your exam papers now’ - 1858 style

16 January 2008

Pupils at Bristol Grammar School experienced exams 1858 style on Tuesday 15 January. They took part in a special lesson to celebrate the anniversary of being one of the first schools in the country to sit exams from the 150-year-old University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate, known as UCLES. 

The Year 7 pupils learnt first hand how lessons and exams would have been 150 years ago. An '1858 teacher' took them through a typical lesson which was held in the school's original Victorian teaching room, the Great Hall. Questions were answered in 1858 style and pupils were expected to behave in the same strict manner as their Victorian counterparts. An examiner from Cambridge Assessment (the new name for The Syndicate) joined them with an 'examination briefcase', the contents of which were shown to the class before pupils were asked to attempt questions from some of the original papers. Prizes were awarded for the best answers. The lesson was rounded up with a discussion on the merits of 1858 exams versus 2008 exams and some very interesting ideas emerged on what exams might look like in another 150 years' time.

Dr Robert Massey, Head of History at Bristol Grammar School, said: "The event really brought the classroom experience of 150 years ago to life and allowed the students to compare it with their experience today. It was a real eye opener and a lot of students came up and thanked the teachers at the end for such an enjoyable and educational experience.”

Bristol was one of just eight UK centres which took the first UCLES exams in 1858.

The others are Birmingham, Brighton, Cambridge, Grantham, Liverpool, London and Norwich. The Syndicate was established to raise standards in education by inspecting schools and administering exams for people who were not members of the University. The precise location of the early exams has not yet been traced but they are thought to have taken place in a local school, village or church hall. Unlike today, very few pupils were put forward to sit the exams.

An examiner delivered the papers in person and a set of recommendations was sent to local committees organising the exams, including instructions to take care that there 'is sufficient means for warming them and lighting them at night'. Subjects sat included English Language and Literature, History, Geography, Geology, Greek, Latin, French, German, Physical Sciences, Zoology, Chemistry, Arithmetic, Mathematics, Drawing, Music and Religious Knowledge (unless parents objected).

Today's successor to the exams of 1858 are those run by OCR, which is part of Cambridge Assessment.

The visit to Bristol Grammar School attracted widespread media coverage including ITV West and BBC One West, the Daily Mail, BBC Radio Bristol, GWR Bristol, Original 106.5 FM, the Bristol Evening Post and Western Daily Press and the Somerset Gazette. The story was also featured as a full-page article in The Times.

Further visits are scheduled to take place, including at Warwick School on 17 January and Friends' School (Saffron Walden) on 23 January.