A Little Bit of History

“In history, a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind.” Edmund Burke

I’ve created a bit of a mini research project for myself, more on which will follow in a future blog post. Suffice to say, however, that it begins with looking back at the origins of A level Mathematics. Having spent time on and off throughout today scouring the internet for reliable sources of information, it turns out there is a tantalising balance between the number of sources available instantly in digital form and those that need pre-booking so they can be hauled out of the archives of whichever university. Needless to say, this blog post has been constructed on the contents of the free online stuff.

Main source: The Norwood Report, “Curriculum and Examinations in Secondary Schools”, HMSO 1943. (Available online) This is a fascinating report which also includes a short subject-specific section on the Mathematics curriculum. I have tweeted here and here a couple of extracts that particularly appealed to me.

External Examinations

It turns out that it wasn’t until 1918 that England had a framework in place for coordinated public examinations. These comprised the School Certificate aimed at sixteen year olds, and the Higher School Certificate for 18 year olds. These exams were conducted by seven University Examining Bodies. Interestingly, one feature of the School Certificate was that it was intended to assess the class not the individual pupil. The HSC was founded on a couple of preconceptions that it would be tackled by only a small number of candidates and that it would have close links with the corresponding universities.

A 1937 investigation into the Higher School Certificate found that the number of students sitting the examination had increased significantly and, moreover, that universities were looking to repurpose the exam as a selective test.

Sixth Term Examination Papers

I’ve always been curious why STEP papers [see RAS syndrome] had that “Sixth term” component to their acronym. The answer may lie, once again, in the Norwood report. The report was published in wartime but postulated that national service would likely still be a requirement in post-war times. Therefore it would be sensible to allow for five terms of sixth form study and examinations. The committee proposed a ‘school leaving examination’ for students aged 18 to be taken in March (though with a supplementary opportunity in July).

General Certificate of Education

In 1951, the earlier school certificates were replaced with General Certificates of Education. These were offered at the Ordinary level (for 16 year olds) and the Advanced level (for 18 year olds). They were designed for the top 25% of pupils, mostly in the grammar schools or independent schools. This article from the Daily Mirror records much of the initial controversy about the perceived difficulty of these exams.

Main source: Education in England, a brief history. Derek Gillard, 2011.

Other Changes

The Beloe committee’s work led to the introduction in 1965 of the (less academic) Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE). In 1988, both O levels and the CSE were replaced by GCSEs. ‘Curriculum 2000’ saw the introduction of the modular AS/A2 structure of A levels that is now coming to the end of its lifespan.

Past Papers, Syllabuses and Books

Cambridge Assessment have made available digital copies of some Mathematics papers and syllabuses from 1957, 1974, 1984 and 2000.

The website knowledge-dojo.com has scans of various Oxford & Cambridge papers both pre- and post-1951. There are also references to various textbooks used in the earlier days.

Mark McCourt’s (@EMathsUK) website has a section for very old exam papers.

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One thought on “A Little Bit of History

  1. Pingback: Maths Textbooks – A Sign of the Times | sxpmaths – the PROcrastinator

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