Testing Times: As Thousands of Pupils Prepare for Their Exam Results, Richard Willis Describes the Origins of School Examinations in England

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COMPLAINTS ABOUT GRADE INFLATION and the government's refusal to alter radically the school examinations' system abound, but these will not detract from the joy or disappointment of thousands of school students as they learn their GCSE, AS and A-level results this summer. Whatever their grades, they are unlikely to give much thought to the origins of school examinations in England, which were a Victorian innovation masterminded by the obscure College of Preceptors, a teachers' society founded in Bloomsbury, London, in 1846.

Seventy years earlier, the economist Adam Smith had proposed public examinations in The Wealth of Nations (1776). Although suspicious of any system that might lead to government interference on a large scale, he recognized the importance of an educated workforce and suggested a competition that awarded prizes to the successful participants. Smith's competitive examinations in trade and commerce were taken up by Jeremy Bentham, who extended the principle to education and the public service. His proposal for a scheme of examinations was outlined in 1827, and the government's eventual decision in 1846 to adopt qualifying examinations for teachers in elementary schools owed much to his influence.

The College of Preceptors was founded the same year, and aimed to ascertain the qualifications of teachers and their fitness to instruct the young. After an initial rush of recruits, by 1850 it was beginning to lose members and income. Its financial problems were aggravated by the cost of acquiring a Royal Charter of Incorporation, so there was a pressing need to find new sources of revenue. Three years earlier, one of the college members, J.P. Hall, had proposed that the college should establish a system of examinations for school pupils. Public accountability and national efficiency may have been his major objectives but the college decided in its favour on June 22nd, 1850, with the aim of generating funds foremost in mind.

On December 1st that year the Educational Times (the Preceptors' journal) invited schools to enter their pupils for examination. A week later William Goodacre, co-principal of Standard Hill Academy for boys near Nottingham, announced that pupils from his school would participate in the pilot scheme. He declared that the examinations--in subjects such as scripture history, English grammar, Latin, Greek and French--would enable the honest schoolmaster to show what he had achieved and the assistant master to command a higher salary where the results were successful. On the two days immediately before Christmas Day, Dr R. Wilson, examiner and dean of the College, and John Parker examined the pupils of Goodacre's School. Reporting on January 3rd, 1851, the Nottingham Journal recorded that Wilson delivered 'an interesting and affectionate' address to the school after the examination.

Wilson's visit to Standard Hill in December 1850 marked the beginnings of England's first external examinations for private schools and so can be considered the forerunner of the modern GCSE and A-level. Within a year, the College had also introduced examinations for girls in secondary schools and in December 1851 thirty-five girls were examined, two gaining higher and five lower certificates. The College drew up procedures to prepare examiners to test pupils: in its early days the examining board was expected to tailor every examination to the curriculum of each school. The participating schools were required to inform the College secretary of the teaching methods, manuals and textbooks used. These arrangements went some way to maintain the schools' independence but posed major administrative constraints, and were later modified. Another quickly abandoned practice was that of using teachers to assist the external examiners, the usual procedure until 1853. It was felt that if teachers assessed their own pupils, the public would not place full trust in the results.

It was claimed that features of the early examinations were shaped in the tradition of the Abiturientenprufung, the leaving examination introduced in Prussia in 1788 to improve the qualifications of students beginning university study. …