"Most candidates had little scruple about writing down sheer nonsense"

11 February 2008

Bribery letters, 150-year-old examiner reports, eye-witness accounts of hardship during the First and Second World Wars and past exam questions feature in an online exhibition – from the archive of Cambridge Assessment.

The opening of the exhibition coincides with the launch of a special book 'Examining the World' providing a fascinating insight into education over the past century and a half. The exhibition and book - both being unveiled on Monday 11 February - have been created to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Cambridge Assessment. The organisation was established as the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (UCLES) on 11 February 1858, to raise standards in education through public examinations for schools.

Group Chief Executive of Cambridge Assessment, Simon Lebus, said: "Of the major three surviving UK exam boards, Cambridge Assessment has the longest history of providing examinations for schools. Our archive provides an historical resource that continues to grow for researchers now and in the future.

"Assessment should, at its best, support teaching, focus students' efforts, motivate them and reward what they achieve. These ambitions have not changed in the 150 years of our history to date, but the way we deliver them undoubtedly has. For example, in the future, supporting and delivering assessment by digital means will play an increasingly significant role in examining."

By contrast, in the 19th Century, examiners travelled across the country by train, wearing academic dress and carrying a locked box containing the question papers, to centres (church, village or school halls) local to where the boys lived; girls were not permitted to sit exams until 1865.

An extract taken from a request for special consideration by the Headmaster of Wintringham Secondary School, Grimsby, in July 1943, tells of exam candidates' distress caused by an air raid during the Second World War: "All candidates suffered considerably from fatigue and nervous strain, some were very badly shaken and distressed. The fatigue and nervous strain were increased by an 'alert' and local gunfire the following night July 13/14."

Jane Bowman, the current Principal of the school - now Oasis Academy - said: "This is a fascinating piece of history that has been unearthed. Whilst there have been significant changes in the role of Headteachers since this particular period, some things never change! We still write such letters but not for the same reasons thank goodness."

More than 40 archived documents and photographs are featured in the Cambridge Assessment exhibition. A full version will be available on our website from Monday 11 February. The book 'Examining the World' describes how Cambridge Assessment has evolved into a leading world authority on assessment, delivering examinations to millions of learners worldwide. Examining the World is published by Cambridge University Press and available from www.cambridge.org/raban.


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