Exams – ‘Thank you’ Letter, 2011

At the end of June every year schools across the country sink back exhausted from the onslaught of public exams. Annually pupils bemoan the waste of sunny days spent crouched over revision notes or shut in echoing halls over exam papers:

‘Summer is with us again – the season of long dreamy afternoons and windows wide open … the sun shines, the sky is blue, and life, except for the unfortunates who are worrying about examinations, is worth living.’ The Radleian, 1950

Examiners brace themselves for the piles of semi-legible scripts which they must assess according to the mark-scheme, with impartiality and clear judgement. Parents anxiously await those dates in August when GCSE and A Level results are announced – hoping that their offspring will inform them of success, or dreading failure. And then there is the rugby scrum which is UCAS as places at universities and colleges are achieved or re-negotiated when those results are known. For many it is the stuff of nightmares. It has been the butt of jokes, of satire, even of assassination:

‘During a final graduation examination at a high school in Vilna, a boy named Lavrynovitch, when told that he had failed, fired two revolver shots at the headmaster and wounded him …’ The Times, 8 May 1925

‘When the Bolshevik cult has invaded Radley, the following is suggested as a school song…

Joy! At last the day is breaking,
Masters in their shoes are quaking,
Dons reproachful heads are shaking
At Lavrynovitch.

If you’re treated badly, do not bear it sadly;
Shortly not a man will dare to be a master here at Radley.
Down with all examination, we will take a grand vacation:
Obrapalski for the nation
And Lavrynovitch!’
The Radleian, May 1925

In his review of the academic year 2011, Andrew Reekes, Director of Studies and Sub-Warden of Radley, stated:

‘This was the year of the perfect storm, long forecast by government, UCAS and examination boards: the tuition fee hike scheduled for 2012, coinciding with HE funding cuts first put in place by the outgoing Labour government, created an unprecedented pressure on A Level candidates as boys and girls scrambled to get into Higher Education in October 2011. Conditional offers were uniformly high – I cannot recall seeing a C grade mentioned in hundreds of offers made this year to Radleian – and the room for manoeuvre should a grade be missed was inevitably constrained or non-existent.’ The Radleian 2011

This pressure on examination grades to determine university places, and inevitably future careers dependent on higher education, has been relentlessly increasing over the last twenty years. The results achieved by the Maths Department at Radley in 2011, encapsulated in the thank you postcard, were outstanding, but it must be remembered that this is one subject amongst thirty all working with equal dedication:

‘Garry Wiseman’s Maths continues to be a beacon of excellence. Sixty-two boys took Single Maths, approaching half the year cohort, and over a third got A*; 78% A*/A, a truly stunning performance. The Further Mathematicians (22 of them) also achieved A*/A% approaching 80%; Radley was recently named the outstanding school for Further Maths by The Good Schools Guide.’ Andrew Reekes, The Radleian, 2011

These A-Level results can be compared with those for Maths for the boys fathers generation in 1968:

Exam Results 1968

The 1968 Maths A-Level Results

The Good Schools Guide itself could be said to be adding to the pressure on exam success, as concerned parents consult increasingly widely to select the best independent school for their child. School League Tables published in the newspapers, selecting from diverse criteria to rank schools based on published results of public exams, add to the pressure on schools and parents. These unofficial School League Tables have adopted the terminology of soccer with Premier, First and Second Divisions – forgetting that positions in the Football League are achieved through direct competition on level playing fields, and the team’s final position in the League is the purpose of every fixture. When Andrew Reekes took up his post as Radley’s first Director of Studies in 1994, he addressed the vexed question of this new phenomenon:

‘The onset of A Level league tables has been of great importance to the independent schools – however blunt as instruments, however unkind their necessary exclusion of other valuable educational areas like excellence in sport, music, drama and technology, they give a rough and ready guide to parents and potential parents of a school’s relative standing. Experienced schoolmasters know that we have good, and indifferent, year groups, and for these unaccountable mutations the tables naturally make no allowance.’ Andrew Reekes, The Radleian 1995.

The publicity surrounding public exams, the kudos attached to the school or the individual pupil when results are good, or the shame, humiliation, perhaps even economic crisis which poor results can bring to an independent school, possibly distorts the function of schooling itself. Just as the league tables take no account of sport or music, so the debate has raged over the role of teaching for exam success versus the fostering of independent learning in preparation for university. From 2009 Radley, in common with many similar schools, has been striving to redress the balance between self-motivated independent study and the highly restrictive demands of the public exam mark schemes. This is not new. In 1995, two Sixth Formers at Radley voiced their frustration about it:

‘There is a difficult conflict between teaching to maximise A Level results, and fostering independent learning as preparation for university … So much specific work is set for everyone according to their relative capabilities, and the structure of the day is so intense, that when the first moment of free time does finally arrive, all you want to do is to sit down and relax… At the moment it seems that we are working under a particularly rigorously structured timetable. It is interesting to note however that the ‘Sixth Form Study’ booklet writes “remember that the purpose of A Level work is to make you into an independent learner.’ We believe that we no longer have the opportunity to prove our self-motivation… This unfortunately also reduces the space we have for individuality.’ Max Livingstone-Learmouth and Alex Hay, The Radleian, 1995

This sense of frustration with the demands of public exams was not confined to the pupils. At the most senior position in the school, the tension between education and examination caused grief. John Vaughn Wilkes, Warden of Radley from 1937 until 1954, oversaw the school throughout the Second World War, including sharing all facilities with Eastbourne College, and through rationing, but his leaving speech to Common Room revealed that the pressure of the newly introduced A Level was a significant factor in his resignation from teaching:

‘Another factor perhaps worth mentioning because it was not without weight in my mind when I made it up to leave Radley is the feeling of frustration induced by the present examination system, and the demands of the Universities. Schools are to-day, or so it seems to me, in chains; and the struggle to produce the kind of ‘set-up’ which I should like to see is hopeless: at least I’ve given up hope… I don’t want boys of 16 ½ – 18 ½ to work desperately hard; I think those who do too often become the squeezed orange that is the despair of so many University dons. He should I believe work in a leisurely way – instead of being in a constant rush all the time… But what he must do is to be fastidious in what he undertakes… I’ve felt that the sort of training that counts and is being given in the Workshops at Radley is potentially and often actually perhaps a better training than they are getting in the classroom, not because the teachers in the classroom are less conscious of the desirability of accuracy, fastidiousness and thoroughness, but because all the time they have this examination incubus to compete with. ‘A’ Level is the enemy of scholarship; and for those who are not of scholarship calibre it presents fake standards – while the multiplication of exams – ‘O’ Level, ‘A’ Level, ‘S’ Level, College entrance, University Scholarships makes life burdensome and insecure, and turns learning into a mere mercenary end – And as I’ve said from my point of view it makes the struggle hopeless – the struggle to produce the proper atmosphere in the academic life of the place.’ JV Wilkes, paper in Radley College Archives, 1954, published in The Radleian 1986 as part of Wilkes’ obituary.

So why did schools introduce exams in the first place, and what is achieved by systematic examination? The league tables, flawed as they are, do make explicit one of the implicit reasons why uniform public exams were introduced into education: a way of quantifying the educational standard of different schools, and of comparing their ‘product,’ by establishing comparable systems of testing. The criticism levelled at the league tables is possibly more to do with their intended audience rather than their existence. Universities have always had access to the results of all schools and have made their selection based on informed knowledge about the individual schools and the factors which affect their results. Within a school, internal exams achieve a different result, in that they quantify the progress of the individual pupil. One could also ask whether self-motivation, as propounded by Livingstone-Learmouth and Hay, really can lead to a rounded education – if a pupil does not have the stick of exams to motivate him in a subject he dislikes, would he attempt it? This was addressed in an article written in 1868, comparing School v Private Tuition:

‘One distinction between Public and Private Tuition is obvious. At School many minds, variously gifted, are brought to bear on the individual, while under Private Tuition he is dependent on the intellectual attainments and teaching powers of a single person, presumably competent in his own special line, but not likely to be well-informed in all branches of knowledge … But when the time comes for testing the work the result is what might have been foreseen. Certain branches of study, for which the teacher or the taught entertains a predilection, have had an unnatural development, while the distasteful parts of education have been proportionately neglected. In fact, what has happened is much the same as if a young boy were left free to develop his muscles in a gymnasium. The exercises he most likes, and therefore practises, are precisely those in which he most excels, and the physical powers, by being unequally brought out, approach in time the appearance of a malformation.’ The Radleian, October 1868

The article continues with a discussion of the sort of subjects which must be included to achieve the ‘many-sidedness of school education’, concluding that the ‘ordinary Classical and Mathematical course is not likely to be superseded.’ However, it does suggest that there should be ‘a certain accommodation to particular wants.’ The inclusion of examinations in the syllabus was explicitly described as training for selection exams by external bodies, such as the Universities, the Civil Service or the Army at Woolwich:

‘the final training requisite for competition … should of course be considered. Otherwise boys are driven to risk the disadvantages of what is called ‘cramming’ because it seems likely to pay. But in most schools (among which Radley may certainly be included) this plan is adopted and meets with success. We have ourselves during the past twelve months seen Radleians go in for these Examinations straight from the school, and attain at least as good a position as those [who have ‘crammed’ in a special subject].’ The Radleian, October 1868

Competitive examination for limited places at institutions such as officer training for the army, for law or medicine, required that schoolboys were trained in exam technique throughout the nineteenth century. Then as now, sample exams papers were eagerly sought for practice. Two years earlier, the Radleian magazine of 1866 carried advertisements for publications by J Vincent of Oxford which included most of the Oxford exam papers from 1851 – Responsions costing 6d, whilst for one shilling each you could buy the First and Second Public Exam and the Modern History Papers from 1852 to 1865. Vincent’s also published Questions of Aldrich’s Logic, at 2s 6d, Answers to Questions on Aldrich’s Logic, also 2s 6d, Hints to Students Reading for Classical Honours, by AS Farrar, and The Art of Pluck, …to which is added Fragments from the Examination Papers, also 2s 6d.

Internal exams designed both to train boys in technique and to assess their progress were introduced at Radley from the foundation of the school. The only known letter by William Bredon Heathcote, second Warden of Radley, written in 1852, mentions ‘we gave the boys a week’s stiff examination,’ and the earliest published exam class list dates from William Sewell’s wardenship in 1854.

The list shows seven forms in the Classical List, four forms in the Mathematical List, and a few boys who also took exams in Music, French and Drawing. The Talbot brothers, Charles and Gerald, appear respectively last in III form and Lower II form Classics, and last in Class I and fourth from last in Class II Lower School Maths.

The examiners, who were all external, were highly distinguished academics, three of them Public Examiners for Oxford University, including Bartholomew Price, Fellow of the Royal Society and Sedleian Professor of Natural Philosophy at Oxford, and GA MacFarren, Professor of Harmony at the Royal Academy of Music. The examiners were feted by the school, invited to Gaudy, with a toast being proposed annually in their honour at Prize Giving, and delivered an oral report which was read out to the entire school. These ‘public examiners’ invited to conduct internal exams at Radley pre-date the University of Oxford Delegacy of Local Examinations which was established in 1857. In 1858, Cambridge University founded the first inter-school public examination service, as a result of schools approaching the universities for a comparable means of assessment. The keenest advocate of this move was John Acland, a close friend of Radley’s founders, Singleton and Sewell, and a frequent visitor to the school in its earliest days.

The first public exam for schools was held on 14 December 1858, simultaneously taking place in Birmingham, Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge, Grantham, Liverpool, London and Norwich. The junior exam was for pupils under 16, the senior for pupils under 18. Exams were held locally in schools, and church and village halls. The examiners travelled by train, wearing academic dress with the papers sealed inside a locked box. The examiners also acted as school inspectors, in much the same way that Radley’s examiners gave their oral reports at Gaudy.
Click here for an example of the first public school exam by Cambridge University

In 1873 the Oxford and Cambridge Schools Examination Board began and was adopted by Radley from 1874:

‘the Oxford and Cambridge Schools’ Examination Board have arranged to examine periodically either the whole or part of such schools as may wish it, with special reference to those members of it who have previously sent in their names as candidates for certificates … Now this is perhaps the most beneficial part of the whole scheme, viz, that instead of the examiners being appointed by the Governors or Trustees of the school, there should be a well organised board conducting the examination of most of the schools in the kingdom, and empowered to confer certificates showing different degrees of merit in the several competitors; and that this examination should take the place of – not clash with – the old examinations.

The result of this is obvious: the requirement of a certain standard of proficiency, and the fact of all the examinations being conducted under the management of one board, enables us, to a certain extent, to make a sort of rough comparison between the schools who entered the lists. We say ‘to a certain extent’ advisedly, because it by no means follows that Winchester with 34, or Manchester with 27 certificates are, therefore, far superior to all the other schools. Others (Harrow for instance) may not have sent in any competitors at all …’ The Radleian, 1874

Bernard Robert Wilson

Radley entered eight candidates for the Oxford and Cambridge certificate: five were successful, although ‘a great many readers of the daily papers, at the time of the publication of the list, will probably have given us credit only for 4, the remaining 1 being assigned by a misprint to an imaginary collegiate establishment, yclept Wadlow.’ Radley’s first successful candidates were E Cooper, A Moore, J Robertson, A Wigan and B Wilson. Achieving the certificate exempted students from matriculation exams at some colleges, but did not have any wider validity.

It was not until 1918 that national standards for examinations arrived in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. This was the School Certificate for 16 year olds, and the Higher School Certificate for 18 year olds. As a qualification it was ‘primarily aimed at middle class pupils who stayed at school much later. Most pupils (around 80%) continued to leave school without taking exams.’ (Adrian Worsfold. A history of school examinations. 2006). However even middle class pupils did not automatically take the exam. In March 1922, the Radleian reported that ‘we understand that nobody will enter for the Higher Certificate next term’, although some candidates did enter for the school’s own internal scholarship exams, since these were worth quite large sums of money. Already by 1923, the pressures of external exams were causing tensions with extra-curricular activities, most notably preparations for and participation in Henley Regatta – still a problem in 2012:

‘In the last two years more people than ever before have had July spoilt for them by the School Certificate. Two years ago about a third of the school had to spend most of the last fortnight in the gym, conveying their knowledge to paper to the tune of the pumping engine and the domestic notes of swallows; and this year we have again had the Higher and School Certificates to wear us to mental skeletons … and finally, the Editors have had to produce this in the time left to them by the Higher Certificate.’ The Radleian, July 1923

Some who suffered by taking those exams in July 1923 were rewarded later in the year when, for the first time prizes and scholarships, including the school’s top academic prize the Richards Gold Medal, were awarded on the results of the Higher Certificate Examination. The School Certificates were replaced in 1951 by the General Certificate of Education (GCE), divided into Ordinary Level for 16 year olds and Advanced Level for 18 year olds. They were offered nationally by a series of Examination Boards, primarily run by consortia of universities. The new qualifications were embraced by Radley when they were first introduced, although JV Wilkes’ leaving speech indicates that this was not a universally popular move. The demise of the School Certificate was celebrated by a Radleian satirist in 1952:

‘Only an English public school can produce a Perfect English Gentleman… Many even now turn momentarily pale, and with a shudder order another drink at the sound of the name of Harry ffoulkes-Stynkes, who was, for his age, one of the most odious and accomplished blackguards that have ever lived… towards the end of his third year he sat for his School Certificate, and during papers used his spectacles as a heliograph, flashing questions in Morse from the examination hall to a friend surrounded by text-books in a cubicle, from which the required information was flashed back by means of a mirror. Unfortunately during the Latin Unseen Translation his system broke down, for it rained…’ The Radleian, 1952

AS Levels were introduced in 1997, most schools sitting the exam in the Lower Sixth year. This resulted in three years of continuous public examination for most pupils. Radley, under the guidance of Andrew Reekes, refused to administer the AS Level exam in the Lower Sixth, instead completing the AS and A Levels simultaneously at the end of the Upper Sixth. This created (or retained) the space for independent study, music, drama and sport in the Lower Sixth year – a pattern which has been increasingly adopted by other schools over the past decade. O Levels, and the less-academic CSEs, continued until they were combined into a single qualification with the introduction of the GCSE in 1986. The introduction of the new qualification again raised the debate about the purpose of education – this time from an anonymous member of the teaching staff:

‘There is a fundamental difference between being qualified and being educated… A ‘fact-mongering’ atmosphere kills subjects for the student and leaves them, at best, with grades alone. An educational atmosphere, however, fosters a love and genuine interest in the subject which should last forever. A pupil who is merely qualified may have the grades to be admitted into University, but a truly educated person will enjoy an asset infinitely more valuable – well-rounded common sense and a balanced view of the world which is the tool for real survival. Can anything be of greater importance to a genuinely educational establishment?’ The Radleian, 1986

This article prompted a response from a long-retired schoolmaster. So we end as we began, with a letter:

‘A chord was touched by your Editorial. I found it encouraging that someone is still prepared to speak up for real education, or at any rate for fitting some real education into the education for (and payment by) results ethos. I campaigned for this through more than 40 years teaching. … What is real education? One answer is ‘to learn how to learn. I would add: ‘to learn to distinguish, everywhere, the real from the sham.’ There are skills which one really needs in life, which is not to deny that one has got to learn a lot of facts on the way.’ Harry Ferrar, letter to The Radleian 1987.

Clare Sargent, 3.7.2012

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