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School Certificate Examinations in England, 1918-1950 A historical investigation of the formation and maintenance of a national examination system: Examination Boards, teachers and the state



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Watts, Andrew John 


This dissertation calls for a reevaluation of the place of the School Certificate Examinations (SCE) in the history of the examination system in England. The SCE scheme has been portrayed as the inevitable successor to the independently run “Local Examinations” of the nineteenth century and as a recommendation of the Acland Report in 1911. Such a portrayal leaves out of account, firstly, the deep antipathy towards external examinations that was highly influential in the 19th and 20th centuries and, secondly, the proposed alternatives that were advocated by leading educationalists. The dissertation proposes that the early role of Arthur Acland in this history and his passionate opposition to external examinations have been overlooked in the academic literature. Substitutes for external examinations, such as that promoted by Matthew Arnold and Michael Sadler based on the German Abitur, are also shown as persuasively supported by those who wanted the examination system to be more teacher-controlled. The Bryce Report’s (1895) advocacy of decentralised administration is presented as a key factor in the shaping of early examination policy and the study highlights the influence on decision-makers of a strong resistance to central government control. This context requires a nuanced explanation of the Board of Education’s choice of university-based examination boards to deliver the SC examinations, which was opposed by LEAs and teachers’ organisations. By the end of the 1920s the Board’s officers were becoming disenchanted with these examination boards and they acted to diminish their influence on the Secondary School Examinations Council (SSEC). More generally, those who opposed the external examination system believed it to be a mechanical and bureaucratic assault on education itself. The Norwood Committee’s report (1943), with the support of the Board’s officers, thus proposed the abolition of general school-leaving examinations, limiting their use only to decision making about university entrance and scholarships. The study suggests reasons for the depth of the antipathy to external examinations, which is seen as deriving from the Board’s negative experiences with the Revised Code (1862-1890) and from a private-school ideal of teachers as fully independent professionals. The latter view was notably promoted by Cyril Norwood. The study indicates, however, that the antipathy particularly of the Board’s inspectors became an obsession which influenced both their determination to establish more central control of the system and their failure to recognise a legitimate role for school-leaving and vocationally oriented examinations in the newly emerging secondary schools. Such considerations are presented as possible explanations for the survival of the external examination system as it was problematically transformed from the SCE to the GCE in 1951.






Gardner, Philip


education, history, examinations, administration, policy, centralisation, nineteenth century, Arthur Acland, Cyril Norwood, Taunton Commission, Bryce Commission, Education Act 1902, Education Act 1944, Norwood Report, Michael Sadler, Philip Hartog, General Certificate of Education, 'O' levels, School Certificate, Board of Education, Secondary School Examinations Council, Examination Boards, Examining bodies


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge