EXAMS ANALYSED-why we have them, what they measure and how to succeed in them

Part 1

In 1963 my life was radically changed because I passed an examination, called the 11 Plus, which meant that I would go to a school, very different from my local one, five miles away. My parents knew nothing about these ‘posh schools’, as we called them, and we had no idea how I had achieved this apparent success.

Five years later, a similar mystery occurred as I somehow passed, with high grades, national exams, called ‘O’ levels, we still had no understanding of how this had happened. Throughout the next six years, I continued to take and ‘pass’ many more exams at 18 (‘A’ Level), 21 (Honours Degree) and 22 (Post Graduate). When I began teaching in the seventies I was keen to discover what exams assess and understand what we need to learn to achieve exam success.

In 1978, I began teaching Chemistry to 17/18 year old students at A level (Advanced) that was to prepare them for University Entrance. I had taught most of these students for about five years, initially Science, and then Chemistry. These students were extremely ‘bright’ (good cognitive skills) who had achieved outstanding ‘O’ Level grades, and I was surprised that all of them were struggling in the practice ‘A’ level questions, so with their help, I intensified my research (we were scientists after all) into the factors for exam success.
This research involved studying:-
• When and why exams were introduced (history of exams)
• How exams in different subjects at various levels were written and structured (style of exams)
• How exams in different subjects and levels were marked and assessed (success criteria)

When and why exams were introduced (history of exams)

1967 History of Education in Great Britain S.J. Curtis
1966 Short History of Educational Ideas S.J. Curtis, M.E.A. Boultwood
2002 Middle Classes: Their Rise and Sprawl Simon Gunn, Rachel Bell
Education in England: a brief history http://www.educationengland.org.uk/history Derek Gillard

My research into ‘when and why exams were introduced (history of exams)’ began in the early eighties when I had access to books in the college (university) library for my post graduate study (part-time) into Personal and Social Education. Discovering the history of education and examinations (in England mainly) and was invaluable in helping to understand how exams had become the dominant measurement in education throughout the 21st century.

I had been teaching for over 10 years and had (finally!) become enthused with reading, studying and researching from books but I was surprised at how few colleagues seem to be aware of the history of exams or why it had become so central to education in England and the developed world.

When I began providing sessions to staff and parents from the late nineties I tried to include a section on  ‘What do exams actually measure and why have they become so important?’  Consequently I’ve now had the opportunity to discover that remarkably few people seem to be able to answer these questions, despite it having a huge influence on most. The blog on ‘Good Schools’ will also attempt to explain how exams have become extremely central to schools in England and the influence of the traditional Independent schools (Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Winchester, Westminster etc.).

In 1858, The first regular examinations under examination boards took place for schools to assess boys (girls began in 1867) approaching entrance to Oxford and Cambridge universities. The Junior exam for pupils under 16 years old and the Senior exam for under 18 years old, establishing the academic subjects of Arithmetic, Chemistry, Drawing, English Language, English Literature, French, Geography, Geology, German, Greek, History, Latin, Law, Mathematics, Music, Physical Sciences, Political Economy, Religious Knowledge and Zoology.

They immediately established very strict procedures, them being monitored by presiding examiners travelling from Cambridge carrying the exam papers in a locked box, with exam timetables of about seven consecutive days in blocks throughout the day and evenings. They mainly stressed recalling information but gradually introduced more analysis and understanding as well as simple knowledge. The number of exam boards increased and these boards also became a system of school inspection.

In 1906 the French psychologist, Alfred Binet, invented the first practical intelligence test to identify by the French government which students were mostly likely to experience difficulty in schools. Although Binet himself did not believe that his test measured a permanent or inborn degree of intelligence, these tests rapidly became very popular internationally (especially the USA), helping to support the belief that intelligence could be assessed by written tests and exams.

In 1933, in England, the educational psychologist Cyril Burt, stated in his book How the mind works, his definition of ‘human intelligence’ as

“inborn, all-round intellectual ability. It is inherited, or at least innate, not due to teaching or training; it is intellectual, not emotional or moral, and remains uninfluenced by industry or zeal; it is general, not specific, ie it is not limited to any particular kind of work, but enters into all we do or say or think. Of all our mental qualities, it is the most far-reaching. Fortunately, it can be measured with accuracy and ease.”             (Burt 1933:28-9, quoted in Chitty 2004:26).

Although after Burt died (1971), his studies of inheritance and intelligence came into disrepute after evidence emerged indicating he had falsified research data, it had a huge influence on the establishment of the 11-plus or Eleven plus examination, introduced in 1944, used throughout England and Wales to test a student’s ability (the intention was that it should be a general test for intelligence), to determine which type of school the student should attend after primary education: a grammar school, a secondary modern school, or a technical school.

The term ‘passing or failing the 11-plus’ helped to establish the perceived superiority of the academic studies at Grammar schools and in 1951, the General Certificate of Education (GCE) began, divided into Ordinary Level for 16 year olds and Advanced Level for 18 year olds.

The GCE at O and A levels, meant the universities could retained their influence and the predominance of the academic elite, despite the introduction of comprehensive education and General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) replacing O level in 1986.

The 1992 Education (Schools) Act introduced Ofsted, to inspect schools and with the introduction of School Performance Tables for Secondary (1994) and Primary (1996) school exam results became central to the assessment of schools and a focus for the media.

Since the start of the 21st century the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has claimed to be comparing the education standards across the developed world using the results of 15 year old students in particular exams often called the “Pisa tests”. So why have exams gained a central place in education and societies throughout the developed world in over 150 years and what do they actually measure?
The answer to the first part can be obtained from “Education in England: a brief history – Derek Gillard –

Chapter 3 : 1860-1900 Class divisions” with this title and the subtitle that follows ‘Three classes – three commissions’ providing the key clue, in that England in the 19th century was hugely determined by the class structure and with the British Empire so influential, it’s values had a huge effect throughout the world.
This chapter begins –“Unlike the United States, which by the 1830s was establishing a public school system based on a common education for all its citizens, England, as we have seen, had allowed a divided school system to develop in line with its class structure.”

Chapter 6 of the book Middle Classes: Their Rise and Sprawl – Simon Gunn and Rachel Bell is entitled ‘Lesson In Class’ and provides a very clear understanding of how exams became central to education in England and much of the world.

“Education is absolutely central to the English middle classes: they are the people who pass exams.” (Page 147).
There was a rapid expansion of the number of ‘public schools’ of England on the seven established ones- Eton, Westminster, Winchester, Rugby, Harrow, Charterhouse and Shrewsbury and several education reforms, clearly reflect on Page 154 – “The result of the educational reforms of the 1860s and early 1870s was the creation of a system of education more rigidly defined by class and status than ever before.”

The desire to emulate the aristocracy in Victorian England has had extremely long term consequences.

“The public schools model was so strong that when state-funded secondary schools were finally established in 1902 they too furnished themselves with a simulacrum of its traditions.” (Page 157). “The 1902 Education Act firmly enshrined social division in education through the exam process.”(Page 160)

The importance of examinations cannot be understated in the 19th century, since it created and established academia, literacy and numeracy as being central to education and virtually all schools, which has remained unchanged into the 21st century.
“Making examinations the test of ability reflected the nature of the majority of middle-class occupations, based as they were on literacy and numeracy.”
(Page 161).

The UK government in 1992,(Education Schools Act) decided to introduce a national scheme of inspections of schools, which became known as the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) to supervise the inspection (HMI) of each state-funded school in the country, and would publish its reports. Following this came the School Performance Tables for secondary (1994) and primary (1996) schools based on results in the national examinations. Consequently examination results were thoroughly established as the key criteria for the grading of schools, with the huge rise in media coverage.

The dominance of examination results in schools was further established internationally with the introduction of the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development at the start of the 21st century.

(How Pisa became the world’s most important exam – BBC 27 November 2013)

‘the state of today’s education standards across the developed world will be revealed with the publication of the results of the OECD’s PISA tests’ reflects this belief.

Clearly the establishment of exams in Victorian England over 150 years ago has had a massive effect on education but basically it only assesses 3 of the 8 skills the extensive evidence shows are needed to be have good health, well-being, success, and life chances in the 21st century.


Part 2 focuses on

  • How exams in different subjects at various levels were written, structured (style of exams), marked and assessed (success criteria)
  • How S.U.P.E.R.learning can provide exam success and help develop the 8 skills