Policy Papers

Should we abandon external exams for sixteen-year-olds? Strategic considerations from the 1940s

Andrew Watts |

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Executive Summary

  • In 1946 the Ministry of Education formally announced that external examinations for sixteen-year-olds should be abolished. But this never happened.
  • An internal examination model, based on the German Abitur school-leaving examination, had been recommended by leading educationalists and Royal Commissions since the late nineteenth century, but it was external examinations delivered by university-based examination boards that were chosen for the School Certificate system in 1918.
  • Cyril Norwood, chairman of the Secondary School Examinations Council from 1921, was determined that a committee set up in 1941 would finally produce a radical solution to the problem of examinations, but he failed to gain widespread support and so his proposal to abandon external examinations for sixteen-year-olds was never implemented.
  • This history suggests that if major changes to the examination and qualification system are desired, confidence has first to be built in any reformed system that would see an end to external examinations.
  • The examination system evaluates all students in a diverse society. Any new system will need to be regularly checked for biases to ensure it treats all students in a fair way.
  • An examination system should be flexible enough to resolve the contradictions between allowing teaching institutions freedom to act and assuring the users of the system that it reflects an accredited set of validated national standards. This is a key role for examining bodies.


This summer secondary school students in the UK did not sit public examinations for the first time in over 100 years. Even between 1939 and 1945 public examinations continued to be taken: it has taken Covid-19 finally to overwhelm the system. One reason for this development being surprising is that in every year since 1918, when the first school examination system was introduced in England and Wales, there have been prominent educationalists who have argued for the eradication of external examinations (i.e. public examinations managed by external examination boards) for sixteen-year-olds. The most prominent attempt to bring this about was in the 1940s, just after the passing of the major, ‘Butler’ Education Act of 1944.

The Butler Act legislated for a system of secondary schooling, funded by the taxpayer, and thus fulfilled the vision of ‘secondary education for all’ which had long been the aim of progressive campaigns. The examination system was not explicitly mentioned in the Act, but in the report of a committee set up to prepare the way for the Act, chaired by Sir Cyril Norwood, it formed a prominent part. Norwood, an ex-headmaster and President of St John’s College, Oxford, had been chairman of the Secondary School Examinations Council (SSEC) since 1921. This gave him considerable public credibility on the topic of examinations and he decided that here was his chance to propose what had long been in his mind, the abolition of external public examinations for the majority of secondary students. Such examinations, he believed, were only necessary for those aged seventeen and older who aimed to move on to higher education.

From their introduction in 1918, the School Certificate Examinations were set at two levels, for students at about sixteen- and eighteen-years-old. (This age division continued when the General Certificate of Education (GCE) replaced the School Certificate in 1951.) At the same time as the School Certificate was introduced the school leaving age was raised to 14. There was still at that time an assumption that the great majority of pupils would not progress beyond Elementary School, and certainly that they would leave school well before taking a public examination. This paper explores the reasons for the attempt in 1943, championed by Norwood, to abandon the first examination, relating that attempt to earlier debates about the nature of the examination system. It goes on to suggest why it was that what was announced as Ministry policy, in 1946, was never implemented. Had it been implemented as Norwood planned there would have been no ‘O’ levels and no GCSEs for sixteen-year-olds.

External or internal examinations?

The basis of the controversy that surrounded the examination system concerned the question of who should be in control of it. Should it be the teachers and their schools, or some outside body? A model for each of these alternatives was available by the late 1850s.

The first external examinations that school students had taken, since the early 1830s, were the matriculation examinations of the University of London. Even students who did not intend to progress to a degree course took these as an indication of the standard they had achieved at the end of their schooling. Then in 1850 a teacher-led initiative, the College of Preceptors, began to offer more accessible external examinations directly to secondary schools. In 1858 these were followed by the other universities, beginning with Oxford and Cambridge, setting up a system of what were called “Local Examinations”.  This system of external examinations was therefore known to the commissioners of the Taunton Commission which considered the whole issue of secondary schooling, including the possibility of there being a national examination system. The Taunton Report (1868) noted that the Locals provided a possible model for such a system, though some of their examinations were judged to be too hard for the majority of secondary students.

As a model of an internal examination the Abitur school-leaving examination in Germany was proposed. Matthew Arnold advocated it to the Taunton Commission and described it in detail in his later book Higher schools and universities in Germany (1882). The Abitur was run as a close collaboration between locally appointed inspectors and teachers, with the latter able to influence what was examined in their schools and to take part in making the decisions about their students’ eventual results. Until the Board of Education announced its decision in 1914 that the School Certificate would be externally administered, the Abitur system remained a possible alternative to the external examinations being offered by the university boards. The Bryce Commission, which was set up by a Liberal government to plan the expansion of secondary education, reported in 1895. It had received another detailed description of the working of the Abitur, this time from Michael Sadler, who throughout a long career in education continued to advocate it as a model.

The Bryce Report led to the passing of the Board of Education Act 1899, one of whose requirements was that a ‘Consultative Committee’ should be created within the Board. The committee was to be made up of a range of leading educationalists who would advise the President of the Board (in effect the Minister) on topics that the Board selected. It was twice asked to report on a possible examination system, in 1904 and 1911. The model it proposed was very like the one supported by the advocates of the Abitur. This was not surprising since six members of the Bryce Commission joined the Consultative Committee when it was set up in 1900 and Michael Sadler, who had drafted much of the Bryce Report, joined it later. In addition Arthur Acland, the minister in charge of education in the Liberal government of 1892-1895 who had been responsible for setting up the Bryce Commission, joined the committee. Thus, the committee was influenced by the commission’s liberal agenda, particularly that the committee itself should have a strong influence on education policy.

The Consultative Committee’s second report on examinations, which has come to be known as The Acland Report (1911), reflected the strongly held opinions of many educationalists that the effect of an external examination system on the schools would be negative. The report subjected the system of university-provided Local Examinations to a severe critique and strongly proposed that the basis of reform should be that ‘external examinations must be brought into intimate connection with inspection’. By this time, however, the committee’s relationship with the Board’s officers had deteriorated, in the face of the determination of the Permanent Secretary, Robert Morant (appointed in 1903), and his officers to maintain their control of policy matters.

In a personal letter written later, in 1915, to Lewis Selby-Bigge, the Permanent Secretary who followed Morant, Acland wrote that he had long regarded the influence of external examinations as ‘evil’ and he acknowledged that some people may think him ‘a fanatic’ on the subject. In fact, though the Board’s officers claimed he was difficult to work with, others regarded him as a champion of reform. In 1907 Acland was elected chairman by the committee and he worked with Morant to increase its membership to reflect ‘a broader spectrum of experience’ from the national education system. Acland’s influence was enhanced by his links to ministers in the Liberal government, elected in the previous year.

Despite the committee’s recommendation, however, the Board decided that the School Certificate should be a system of external examinations, to be delivered by the universities’ examination boards. This decision was initiated by Morant, Selby-Bigge and William Bruce, the Head of the secondary schools branch of the Board.  Their reaction to the first examination report of the Consultative Committee (1904) had been muted, and well before the committee even met to discuss its second report, they and their colleagues had agreed that an external system was to be preferred. Bruce noted in January 1912, after Acland’s committee had reported,

We look to the universities for the examination of secondary schools … because the work is practically in their hands now and will probably be better and more acceptably done by them than by any body or bodies that could be set up in their place.

Significantly, the civil servants persuaded Jack Pease, a Liberal MP, and President of the Board at the time of the Acland Report’s publication, that the committee’s scheme was ‘impossible’. Together, they agreed the explanation that was to be given both to Acland and the public: that the committee’s scheme was an ideal toward which they were working but it was too complex to be introduced immediately. This was disingenuous since the committee had made the linking of inspection and examination the key to any reformed system. Under the Board’s scheme the two activities were firmly kept apart.  

It is necessary to note that at this time university places were offered to students at the age of sixteen, so the main intention of the Board was that the School Certificate should replace the various university entrance and professional examinations that had been proliferating since the middle of the previous century. The Board was addressing what Selby-Bigge called the ‘serious mischief’ of students having to take multiple end-of-school examinations, and Morant wrote that their scheme must not ‘alienate the universities’. In fact the Board considered its scheme a success, for it managed to persuade not only all the universities but also various prestigious bodies, such as the Civil Service Commission and the Royal Institute of British Architects, that the School Certificate should be the one instrument used for all their various purposes.

Opposition to the School Certificate

From the start of the School Certificate system there was a continuing demand for a wider range of school subjects to be included in the scheme. Girls’ schools pressed for more recognition of the kinds of curriculum they were running, particularly advocating that more recognition should be given to practical subjects. Norwood and others interpreted this as likely to create a different standard for the examinations from that originally envisaged.

The more radical opinion also continued to be advanced that what was needed was a system more in the hands of teachers. The New Education Fellowship (NEF), set up in 1921, attracted members who considered themselves to be progressive in their educational views and it rapidly became an international group with world-wide influence. In January 1925 the NEF’s journal, The New Era, produced a special edition on examinations which carried on its cover the question, ‘Should the present Examination system be abolished?’. The Fellowship based its demands on the assertion that students should be assessed ‘by the persons who know them best’. There was considerable sympathy within the educational establishment for some of their proposals. Michael Sadler became the President of the English section of the NEF in 1929 and Cyril Norwood was invited to speak at events in 1937 that the NEF organised in the US, Australia and New Zealand.

The group at the Board which was most sympathetic to calls for progressive approaches in schools was the school inspectorate and their influence increased as they ran courses to assist teachers in developing their own methods. The book What Is and What Might Be (1911), which became a highly influential statement of progressive ideals in education, had been written by a former Chief Inspector of Elementary Schools, Edmond Holmes. He presented the ‘What might be’ element of his theme as inspired by a personal, post-retirement revelation, but by the 1920s and 30s there would have been many educationalists who would have sympathised with statements in his later autobiography such as, ‘An examination is at best an upas tree, whose shadow poisons whatever it falls upon’. Holmes’s passionate rhetoric set the tone for other similarly strong statements about external examinations in schools.

The significance of this for this paper is that when the planning began for the education system immediately after World War II there was sympathy within the Board, and particularly within the inspectorate, for the proposal that the external examination at sixteen should be replaced by an internal one.

The Norwood Committee, 1941 to 1943

This committee, a sub-committee of the Secondary Schools Examination Council, was a deliberately  small one. It comprised three representatives of the university examination boards, three from teachers’ and two from head teachers’ associations, plus three LEA representatives. Prominent were those representing the views of secondary school teachers (Head Mistresses and Masters, and Assistant Mistresses and Masters), whose associations had collaborated since 1919 as ‘The Joint-Four’.

The Norwood Committee’s main political task, which Norwood was keen to undertake, was to assist R.A. Butler’s Education Act of 1944 onto the statute book and it did this with a vigorous endorsement of a tripartite organisation for secondary schools (Grammar, Technical and ‘Modern’ Schools). Norwood also personally determined that his committee was going to propose a radical solution to the issue of examinations. He told Butler of this intention, who reported his enigmatic response as, ‘I said I must leave the matter to him’.  Norwood was particularly supported within the Board by G.G. Williams, Head of the Secondary Branch, and R.A. Barrow, a Classics inspector who became secretary to the committee. F. R. G. Duckworth, the Senior Chief Inspector, also went along with the proposal, though he proved less loyal to it than the others. It was clear that the Norwood Committee was set up to agree with a policy agenda that was already decided upon.

Early in their discussions Norwood described his plan for the abandonment of the first external examinations. The minutes of the 8th  meeting of the committee record that, in response,

Each member of the committee spoke provisionally on the proposal to replace external examinations by an internal examination with external assessment; all expressed opinions in favour of such a change provided safeguards were devised and operated.

This proposal had a key place in the final version of the Norwood Report (1943), but by that time it had to be recorded that the representative of the Headmasters’ Association, Dr Terry Thomas, Headmaster of Leeds Grammar School, ‘reserves his position on the internal examination’. It is in fact clear that despite Norwood’s determined promotion of the proposal, members of the committee were not convinced by it and after the report’s publication this lack of support began to have its effect.

Materials in the Cambridge Assessment archive reveal that, as the committee’s report reached its final form, the three examination board representatives, from Cambridge, London and Manchester (the Northern Joint-Board), were working together on a letter to the committee, in discussion with A.W.S. Hutchings, the representative of the Assistant Masters. The letter stated, ‘We cannot see our way to allow our names to be associated with the proposal to substitute for the SCE an internal examination’. The writers saw ‘no basis for any assumption that the rank and file of the teaching profession would welcome the supposedly enhanced prestige’ which Norwood claimed would result from the policy.

Why the four never sent the letter is not clear, though shortly after their discussion they will have heard of Dr Thomas’s decision. They were told that it was too late to make changes to the report as the Minister had already read it. They also expected the report to be considered by the full Secondary School Examinations Council, a procedure which Norwood was determined to prevent. When, over two years later, the announcement was made in the Education Ministry’s Circular 103 (1946) that ‘there is no longer a place for an external First Examination and that it should be discontinued as soon as circumstances permit’, Olive Hastings, who had been the representative of the Assistant Mistresses, wrote to the Minister that the Norwood Committee ‘did not in fact put out recommendations that could be regarded as final or decisive’. By this time half of the committee had stated their opposition to the abolition of external examinations.  

It was civil servants in the Board who pushed the abolition proposal through. The hand of Norwood, Williams and Barrow was strengthened by the retirement of Duckworth and the appointment of M. P. Roseveare as the Senior Chief Inspector. He was determined that the Ministry should take a strong line on the examination issue and he was influential in briefing the new Labour Minister, Ellen Wilkinson, encouraging her to overlook disagreements within the Labour party about the policy. The issue was not a straightforward one for her. When Circular 103 was published it was welcomed by Tribune, but Modern Education, the journal of the National Association of Labour Teachers (NALT), strongly opposed the abolition of external examinations, saying that it would discriminate against students in ‘ordinary’ schools. It was ‘the social philosophy’ which lay behind the proposal, that the examination system should be reserved for only the academically brightest pupils,  that the NALT objected to.

During the protracted discussions that followed the Ministry’s announcement, its officers, led by Roseveare, adhered to the Norwood doctrine of examinations being taken as late as possible in a school career, preferably at the end of the sixth form. During the discussion of what should replace the Higher School Certificate, the suggestion of examinations set at three levels, Ordinary, Advanced and Scholarship emerged. It was proposed that students might take these examinations at the same time, offering, for example, up to four subjects at ordinary level and two at advanced. The earliest age that the Ministry was prepared to concede for the taking of these examinations was seventeen. But Grammar School headteachers began to argue for some pupils being capable of taking their O-level papers earlier, some even before they reached sixteen.

From a different group of schools in the system came more resistance to the abolition of the earlier examinations. Headteachers of Secondary Modern Schools were keen to encourage pupils to stay on in their schools for a voluntary year after fifteen, the new school-leaving age, and thus to reach the age at which they could take O levels. The Ministry wanted to prevent them from staying on in secondary moderns, its suggestion being that such students should transfer to Grammar Schools for that extra year. But how could they reasonably maintain a policy that seemed deliberately to disadvantage such pupils and to undermine the attempts of their schools to win the approval of the public? This was the context in which the proposal to abolish external examinations for sixteen-year-old pupils in England and Wales was quietly dropped.


What might be learned from the above account of the failure to change radically the examination system in England and Wales? It can firstly be said that a lack of strong political support was significant. Despite Acland’s prominence, the Liberal government in the early 1910s was easily persuaded by the Board of Education’s officers that the proposals of Acland’s committee were too problematic to attempt. When it came to Norwood’s proposals in the 1940s it is clear that Butler did not envisage expending political capital on getting Norwood’s scheme approved, readily postponing the decision for up to seven years. For the succeeding Labour administration, which was tackling major issues of post-war recovery, there were divisions among their own supporters about examination policy.

Secondly, the role of Norwood and the Board of Education can be claimed to have had a negative effect. Though teachers were told that an internal scheme would bring them greater ‘freedom’, the way that the abolition of external examinations was being brought about suggested more rather than less control from the centre. The independence of schools from central government control had always been a prominent issue in the debate about examinations. A recognition of that national attitude was also behind the Bryce Commission’s handing of responsibility for secondary education to local education authorities.

Thirdly, during the period of the School Certificate, the university examination boards had formed close relationships with the ‘Joint-Four’ teachers’ associations, which by the 1940s were prominent in the boards’ central policy and syllabus committees. To those who were involved in such work it seemed that it was teachers who were running the examinations.

Fourthly, though Norwood and the Board’s officers were espousing a major item in the progressive agenda, their motivation was in fact conservative; which was to preserve, as well as extend, the elite status of the traditional sixth form. Their perspective was of Public School and Oxbridge men and they failed to judge correctly what might be the role of examinations in the post-war society. The attempt to prevent pupils at Secondary Modern Schools from taking examinations, by setting the age limit at one year higher than the school leaving age, was easily characterised as denying opportunities to less advantaged pupils. Examinations are an enigma in this respect. From one perspective they are an evil blight on the work of schools. From another they are an opportunity for individuals to improve their life chances.

Finally there is an essentially practical element to the business of examining. It must be made to work. Norwood and the Board failed to devise a convincing practical solution to the problems of organising an internal system of assessment. A private memo written for Butler in June 1943 by Chief Inspector Duckworth claimed that ‘The machinery proposed for the assessment proved so complicated and cumbrous that the committee felt that they could not recommend it.’ A Minister receiving such a judgement from a senior officer closely involved in the committee’s planning would understandably conclude that at least delaying a decision on the policy would be wise.

In their responses to the proposal, universities asked who in the new, internal system would play the role which the examination boards had been playing. Fundamental issues were raised by this question. Examination syllabuses must be well founded, and examination papers must produce results which enable valid decisions about pupils’ progress to be made. That would rely on assessment systems that produced reliable results. Responses to these challenges required relationships to have been developed, between examination boards and the wider society in the development of syllabuses, and with communities of practice in devising and marking valid and reliable examinations year after year. It was the role of examination boards to bring together different constituencies in a collaborative exercise which achieved desired national goals. Dr Myers of Manchester University, the JMB representative on the Norwood Committee, argued that the two aims of giving each school its freedom and having a nationally accepted system were incompatible. The question remained, would a system in which the schools individually awarded grades to their own students be a positive alternative to the external system?

Reflections on the summer of 2020

The sudden decision in 2020 to close schools because of the Covid-19 pandemic meant that external public  examinations for school children in the United Kingdom had to be cancelled. The historical example above suggests that grades derived from public examinations cannot be easily replaced by grades delivered by teachers in schools and colleges.

The argument was made by the UK government and the examination regulator, OfQual, that teachers, when they give ‘predicted’ grades, are more generous than the examination system. An algorithm was created so that the results of 2020 could be seen to be comparable to earlier and later years.

The 1946 proposal envisaged the cancellation of examinations for 16-year-olds while those for university entrants should be continued. For 2020 it has been noted that in Germany the equivalent of A levels (the Abitur) was able to go ahead under social distancing requirements. The allocation of students to universities, as a result of the equivalent of A levels, could have been chosen as a priority that kept some schools open.

For the equivalent of GCSEs it became clear in 2020 that no agreed samples of students’ work had been kept. Some schools had saved evidence of their students’ work, a practice formally abandoned by OfQual in 2017. Some schools set ‘mock examinations’, though there was no agreement about what these examinations should comprise and when they should be taken.

In comparison to examination boards in the 1940s, modern boards now have little power. The government influences the Regulator, which gets the examination boards to fall into line. It is regrettable that in the summer of 2020 those who recognised an impossibility did not have the confidence to refuse to carry out what they were asked to do.

Further Reading

Baird, J., Isaacs, T., Opposs, D., & Gray, L. (2018). Examination standards : How measures and meanings differ around the world. London: UCL IOE Press.

Brooks, V. (2008). 'The role of external examinations in the making of secondary modern schools in England 1945–65.' History of Education, 37(3), 447–467.

McCulloch, G. (1994). Educational reconstruction : the 1944 Education Act and the twenty-first century. Ilford: Woburn Press.

McCulloch, G. (2007). Cyril Norwood and the ideal of secondary education. New York, N.Y: Palgrave Macmillan.

OfQual (September 2nd, 2020): Awarding GCSE, AS, A level, advanced extension awards and extended project qualifications in summer 2020: interim report

Petch, J. (1953). Fifty years of examining: The Joint Matriculation Board, 1903-1953 (1994 by Dr Michael Robinson). Harrap & Co.. Ltd.

White, J. (2014). Who needs examinations? A story of climbing ladders and dodging snakes. London: Institute of Education Press.

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