By Terry Wrigley

Photograph copyright Keith Morris/Alamy, via the Guardian and used for illustrative purposes only. Image from:

Public examinations were introduced in the mid-nineteenth century following requests from independent and grammar schools for Oxford and Cambridge to set a junior examination for sixteen year olds and a senior examination for eighteen year olds. Gowned ‘presiding examiners’ arrived with sealed boxes at schools and church halls across the land. The exams which were sat by only a tiny minority of the population, largely tested candidates’ memories: names of monarchs, dates of battles, biblical verses, scientific facts (1). Arguments about the validity of grades go back a long way: in 1872 one headteacher wrote to The Times complaining that the Cambridge exams were easier than the Oxford ones (2).

From 1918 the Oxford and Cambridge examinations were replaced by a School Certificate to be taken at sixteen and a Higher School Certificate at eighteen. The School Certificate required pupils to pass a group of subjects to obtain a certificate. At this time, most pupils remained at elementary school after age eleven and left school at fourteen without any formal qualifications. Even when working-class children passed the ‘scholarship’ tests (a limited precursor to the 11+; the local authority paid the secondary school fees of those who passed), their parents often couldn’t afford the uniform.

The Norwood Committee on curriculum and examinations in secondary schools during the Second World War discussed the extension of secondary education, which would involve changes in the exam system. The advantages and disadvantages of public exams were well understood. The Norwood Report (1943) summarises arguments offered for and against: exams are said to motivate pupils, provide teachers with a syllabus and give an objective measure of achievement, but it was also argued that they dictate the curriculum, invite children to view education simply as passing exams, encourage cramming and uniformity, and neglect the knowledge teachers acquire of the pupils in their class over time. The committee recommended that the School Certificate be replaced by separate subject exams, and, that after a transitional period, the exams should be set internally in schools by the teachers. With the exception of the CSE Mode 3 (described below), this ‘transitional period’ never gave way to the practice of internally set examinations. In contrast, teachers across much of Germany set the pre-university Abitur until recently (3).

After the war, as a result of the 1944 Education Act, all pupils received secondary education, but in different types of schools according to their results in the 11+ tests. For many years the vast majority, attending secondary modern schools, left before the age of sixteen without any formal qualifications. The new General Certificate of Education O (‘ordinary’)-level was almost exclusively taken by pupils attending grammar schools. However, in the early stages of the long campaign for comprehensive schools, some pupils who had failed the 11+ and had gone to secondary moderns were entered for the O-level and passed (4).

Those who believe that standards of education were higher in some previous Golden Age should look at the examination statistics. In 1972, 43% left school with no qualifications at all (2). Now it is less than 1%. Some argue that this means that the exams have become easier to pass; but it is hard to deny that the education of the 42%, who under the old system achieved no qualifications and now get some, has improved. In 1960, in a divided system, only 20% went to grammar school. The rest were more or less written off. In fact only 16% of sixteen year olds achieved five O-level passes (5). In 2011 53% of pupils in the state sector achieved five or more GCSE A*-C grades including English and maths. Including ‘equivalents’ to GCSE (see below) it was 59%.

The lack of credentials for the vast majority of young people led to the introduction of the CSE (Certificate of Secondary Education) in the early 1960s. This had six grades, with grade one being the equivalent of O-level. One of the great innovations of the CSE was ‘Mode 3’, an arrangement whereby schools could design their own syllabus and assessments and have them approved by the regional board. The grading was carried out by the school but verified by external moderators responsible to the board. This proved very popular at a time when curriculum innovation flourished, partly in response to the raising of the school leaving age to sixteen in the early 1970s.

Once comprehensive schools had become the norm, the GCE Joint Matriculation Board, serving the North and Midlands, began to collaborate with CSE Boards to set joint exam papers called the 16+; according to their results, candidates were awarded two certificates, a CSE grade and an O-level grade.

The increasing overlap between GCE and CSE examinations increased the pressure from comprehensive school campaigners. In 1979 Labour education minister Shirley Williams proposed a merger of the two systems, and subsequently Conservative education minister Keith Joseph approved the GCSE to replace both O-levels and CSE.

Grades A-C of the new GCSE equated with the former GCE O-level (or grade one CSE), and D-G with CSE grades 2-6. When it was introduced, however, it was assumed that around 40% of pupils would continue to leave school without a certificate. Now hardly anyone does.

Achievement at GCSE has progressively risen. In 1988, its first year, 42% of entries were awarded A*-Cs, including 8% A-grades. By 2011, 69% were awarded A*-Cs, including 22% A or A*. This inevitably led to claims of ‘grade inflation’, or accusations that the exams were getting easier. One argument which seems valid is that competition between the commercially-run exam boards causes a downward pressure, as the boards fight each other to gain more schools as customers. (Scotland, with its single examination board, has seen little change in the past decade in the proportion awarded particular grades.)

Meanwhile, a declining position in the OECD’s comparison of achievement at age fifteen (PISA) from 2000 to 2009 presented incoming Conservative education minister Michael Gove with a problem – though probably one that regarded as an opportunity. The PISA international assessments of reading, mathematics and science, based on tests sat by a sample of schools in each country, use test items which require more holistic and to some extent critical understanding and the ability to relate school knowledge to the wider world. PISA requires a quality of thinking that cannot flourish in a school system based on top-down surveillance and endless cramming. Gove immediately declared his intention to abolish most vocational qualifications. The grade criteria for GCSE English were toughened up in 2012, causing an outcry and major legal challenge. Most critical however is the recent decision to abolish the GCSE altogether from 2015 (8). It is difficult to see how any of these measures will improve young people’s ability to think, though they could deny many young people credentials important for their future employment.

GCSEs will be replaced by an English Baccalaureate (a shadow one has been in operation since 2011). The content of this qualification is not yet fully clear, but it appears that, like the 1930s School Certificate, pupils will only be awarded the qualification if they pass the full set of subjects. They will sit papers in English language, English literature, pure maths, applied maths, physics, chemistry and biology, and also a foreign language and a choice of history or geography from the second year of this new qualification.

The pass mark will be higher than the current grade C, so it appears likely that only around 30 or 40% of the age group will achieve the Ebacc. For the rest: nothing, apart from a record of achievement from their own school.

Various conclusions might be drawn from this.

One is that the new Ebacc will be required for entry to university, and thus serve as a means to lower student numbers, adding to the damage caused by raising fees.

A second, in the context of 25% of under twenty-five year olds without employment (and nearly double that level in Greece and Spain), is that organisations representing UK employers perhaps no longer sees a need for large numbers of well-qualified school leavers. An end to the rhetoric about meeting the needs of a ‘knowledge economy’! (It was always suspect, since a large proportion of young people would end up sweeping the floor and serving table.) Why would you want millions of angry disappointed young people wandering the streets?

A third possible conclusion is that making examinations harder services the government policy of privatising all schools: schools have to be labelled failures in order to force them into closure and replacement by academies. Already more than half of secondary schools have been turned into academies (including some ‘free schools’). The government clearly aims to finish the job, and primary schools are next in line.

In this scenario, the replacement of GCSEs with a tough new Ebacc aligns with Gove’s proposed primary curriculum that places impossible demands on pupils. Life will be one long list of spellings, bearing no relationship to (most) children’s experience: the list for seven/eight year olds includes enclosure, nobly, frantically, inflation, reign, professor and piteous – not to mention chauffeur and champagne! (9) Gove is also captivated by Hirsch’s ‘core knowledge’ curriculum, an American academic’s attempt to list the general knowledge that he believes every educated adult ought to have. The English version, produced by right-wing think tank Civitas, expects five/six year olds to know that Charles I believed in the divine right of kings, the Glorious Revolution took place in 1688, and Robert Walpole became the first prime minister (10). Clearly he is setting up primary schools to fail.

Curriculum expert Michael Apple (11) has written about the fusion of neoliberalism and neoconservatism in US education policy. The English variant appears to be a unique blend of neoliberalism with a kind of retro-conservatism, the latter serving the former. These education reforms could be written off as the nightmares of a deluded traditionalist, but they might also match a Conservative dream of future dystopia.

Terry Wrigley, University of Edinburgh, is a visiting Professor at Leeds Metropolitan University and editor of the journal Improving Schools.

1) Adrian Worsfold, A history of school examinations, c.2010.
2) Kathleen Tattersall, A brief history of policies, practices and issues relating to comparability, c.2003.
3) Helen Patrick, ‘Examinations in England after 1945 – History Repeats Itself‘, Cambridge Assessment 2008.
4) Brian Simon, Intelligence Testing and the Comprehensive School, pp82-3. London, 1953.
5) Sally Tomlinson, Education in a Post-welfare Society, London, 2005.
6) Terry Wrigley, ‘Rapidly Improving Results’: penetrating the hype of policy-based evidence’, in H, Gunter (ed), The State and Education Policy: the Academies Programme, London, 2010.
7) Terry Wrigley and Afroditi Kalambouka, Academies and achievement: setting the record straight, 2012.
8) Nicholas Watt, ‘GCSE exams to be replaced by Ebacc’, 2012.
9) Responses from NUT, ATL, various curriculum associations, academies and children’s authors are collected at (Curriculum tab)
11) See, for example, Michael Apple, The State and the Politics of Knowledge. London, 2003.


  1. there was a precursor to CSE trialed in Bristol I think it was called UEI can you tell me a bit about that? thankyou

  2. can you tell me anything about a precursor to CSE trialed in Bristol in the late 50’s thankyou

    • UEI examinations were in the area then known as Wales and the West and covered all subjects but especially those in engineering which was then a big employer there.

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