From Secretary to Chief Executive - 160 years at the helm of Cambridge Assessment

From Secretary to Chief Executive - 160 years at the helm of Cambridge Assessment

As we welcome a new Chief Executive, our archivist Gillian looks back at those who came before him and built Cambridge Assessment, which now provides education programmes and exams in over 170 countries, offering global recognition for our learners.

When the Syndics were first appointed by the University to set up the Local Examinations in 1857, they were represented at their head by the Vice Chancellor. The Syndics were university men whose local examination work was additional to their regular university duties and, as well as running the examinations, they acted as examiners; setting the questions, marking scripts in their specialist subjects and travelling to centres to administer examinations (in a role known as presiding examiner). In 1859 they elected an Honorary Secretary as the named representative of their body and the role rotated among them until 1866 when the Secretary position was made permanent. Sadly, the role did prove permanent for the first incumbent, Thomas Markby who died in office after just three years. From Secretary to Chief Executive George Forest BrownHis successor, George Forrest Browne (pictured right), fared better, and served as Secretary for twenty-two years before becoming Bishop of Bristol for a further seventeen years.

A fellow of St Catharine’s College, Browne initially ran the examinations from his college rooms where he was assigned a second room and a clerk. He oversaw the merger between the Local Exams and the Local Lectures Syndicates in 1878 and the move, in 1886, to purpose-built premises on Mill Lane (pictured below). Syndicate Buildings was a two-story building with the ground floor allocated to preparing and packing question papers and three rooms upstairs for the Secretaries and meetings.

By then there were two Secretaries and the Assistant Secretary was John Neville Keynes. Browne gained a reputation for autonomous direction of the Syndicate but Secretaries were appointed by a panel of university academics chaired by the Vice Chancellor, and Keynes’ appointment in 1892 set a tradition of succession to the role by the Assistant Secretary. Keynes hosted innovative school education conferences and championed the organisation’s dual role of school inspection as well as candidate examination, arguing that the Local Exams system offered expertise and flexibility to schools.

When Keynes transferred to the University Registrary in 1910, his assistant assumed the role of Secretary. James Flather set up the new English exams in 1913 following consultation with the Association of Modern Languages. As a member of the Secondary Schools Examination Council, he also helped to develop the first national examinations of the School and Higher School Certificates in 1918, along similar lines to the Cambridge Senior and Higher exams, which they eventually replaced.

From Secretary to Chief Executive - Syndicate buildings image
His successor was Walter Nalder Williams, who was promoted from his role as Assistant Secretary in 1921. In 1925 the Local Exams separated from the Local Lectures which enabled the Secretary to focus on the provision of school examinations, as government interest in the area grew. Williams sat on the Norwood Committee for examination reform, but his association with views which essentially sought to abolish exam boards, caused controversy.

The Second World War set unprecedented challenges for the Local Exams Syndicate which continued to administer examinations to candidates at home and overseas, despite staffing shortages. Now with two Assistant Secretaries, it was assumed that Jack Roach, the senior Assistant Secretary, would succeed Williams when he was finally able to retire in 1945. A new era, however, and the ambitions of his colleague, caused a clash which ultimately placed Joseph Brereton at the helm. Brereton was passionate about school teacher representation on the Syndicate and oversaw the introduction of the new single subject examinations of GCE O and A Level exams. He also negotiated the acquisition of New Syndicate Buildings, the former Perse School on Hills Rd, to bring together a growing and scattered community of colleagues.

From Secretary to Chief Executive Frank Wild imageIn 1961 Brereton handed over to Tom Wyatt, Deputy Secretary (who had first joined the Syndicate in 1934) in a structure that then included two Deputy Secretaries, two Assistant Secretaries and six Assistants to the Secretaries. During the 1960s the Syndicate moved to its new building and began using airmail for its overseas exams but did not address escalating administrative costs, and in 1972 Dr Frank Wild (pictured left) was drafted in from his post as Deputy Registrary to rescue its finances. A series of radical reforms and modernisation restored confidence and placed the Syndicate in a strong position to meet the post-war needs of its overseas candidates and demands of the government for examination board collaborations.

Frank Wild handed over to John Reddaway, engineer and fellow of Emmanuel College in 1983 but didn’t live to see the introduction of the new single level General Certificate of Secondary Education in 1987. The scope and complexities of this new exam and its international counterpart, along with English exam development, led to dramatic expansion of the organisation and a Queen’s Award for Export Achievement, so that when John Reddaway retired in 1993, candidature had doubled in a decade to over a million each year.

Dr Michael Halstead was appointed in 1993 having previously served as Syndic and Treasurer of the University and he took the title of Chief Executive and General Secretary of UCLES. Under Michael Halstead’s stewardship the organisation merged with several examination boards and divided into business streams which separated UK, Overseas and English examination work, to create a Group structure with four chief executive officers and shared corporate services, administering to over 3.5 million candidates. Triangle artists rendering 800 x 400

In 2002 the Syndics appointed Simon Lebus as Group Chief Executive, from outside the University, who consolidated the corporate structure with a brand change to Cambridge Assessment and a remit broadened to encompass all forms of education and assessment. Since then, candidate numbers have soared to 8 million p.a. and the international share of the business has switched from 20% to 80%. Continued expansion again presented accommodation challenges and, with overall staffing levels at over 2,500, in Cambridge, Coventry and 40 overseas offices, Simon Lebus handed over a third purpose-built headquarters (pictured above), of 36,000 square metres, to his successor, Saul Nassé, this year.

Gillian Cooke
Group Archivist, Cambridge Assessment

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