As students digest their GCSE and A-Level results, they might be surprised to learn that the origins of the examination system date back 150 years to the 'Locals' set for the first time by Oxford University in June 1858, and by Cambridge University in December of the same year. Cambridge Assessment, as the University of Cambridge examinations syndicate is now called, still sets secondary examinations for students in the UK as well as more than 150 countries around the world.
The introduction of the Locals was widely welcomed: the English Journal of Education described the organizers of the system as having 'struck the key to a thousand hearts'--those of school leavers who wanted recognition of their attainments at the end of their school career. The exams were the product of the railway age, held in several local centres (hence their name) so that students did not have to travel far to take them. In 1858, students took the Cambridge exams in eight centres--Birmingham, Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge, Grantham, Liverpool, London and Norwich. There were 370 candidates in all, most sitting the Junior exams for sixteen-year-olds, with a smaller number of under-eighteens taking the Seniors.
The examiners themselves carried the papers, in wooden boxes, by train to the centres. We can imagine the examiner from Cambridge arriving at the station to be met by the secretary and members of the local organizing committee, volunteers who had made themselves responsible for organizing the examination week and whose input would be an essential part of the Locals' administration for many years to come. Sometimes the arrival of an examiner caused a stir, though the story that some were led through the streets by the Mayor and Corporation (with the hint of a brass band?) may have been an exaggeration.
The exams encompassed a wide range of subjects--English language and literature, history, geography, geology, French, German, Latin, Greek, chemistry, physical sciences, zoology and comparative anatomy, mathematics, drawing, music and religious knowledge. The Locals supported what was referred to as a 'modern' curriculum--French and German could be offered in place of Latin and Greek, and science subjects were thoroughly examined. There was a chemistry practical for which a 'separate room should, if possible, be provided'. Papers lasted between one and three hours, with candidates opting to do three main subjects as well as the compulsory preliminary subjects. The aim was to deliver the whole exercise within one week. As the system began to embed itself, and it was exported overseas, 'Cambridge week' became a key period in the annual education calendar.
The experience of taking an exam had the same highs and lows for candidates in the nineteenth century as it has now. In 1873 a girl called Amy, who was staying with family friends in Rugby to take the Locals, wrote to her parents:
A fellow of the university, cap-a-pie, very
severe looking, sat at the head of the room, or
walked up and down, and frightened me out
of my little wits ... The mathematical paper,
Arith and algebra, was from nine to eleven,
only 2 hours for 20 long sums. Too bad! 1 did
15, and went home, settled myself in an armchair
and had a fit of hysterics ... There was
another paper (History) at four ... I went to
the examination room feeling certain I should
be obliged to give up at once, but the paper
was a most lucky one. I knew every question,
they were on the very parts 1 had freshest in
The question papers for the first examinations provide a fascinating insight into what people thought it was important for students to know. In the preliminary English composition paper, the juniors could choose to 'Discuss the change produced in the habits of people by railways' or write a letter telling a friend of their decision to emigrate to Australia. …