School Examinations Collection: Was 1980s UK education a man’s world?

This post was written by Dr. Sandra Leaton Gray following her visit to view the Newsam Library’s School Exam Papers Collection.  The post was first published on Dr. Leaton Gray’s blog on 05/06/14.

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The moment I saw my old A Level papers

The moment I saw my old A Level papers

My job is exciting at the best of times, but one particularly interesting thing happened this week. On Tuesday I found myself in the Institute Library’s closed stacks looking at our collection of 250,000 past examination papers with our Special Collections Librarian, Nazlin Bhimani. We have been discussing what to do in research terms with this rather splendid collection recently, and I decided to go down to see it with a view to developing a blog post or two promoting its wares. Naturally I looked up the Oxford Local examination papers I had actually sat myself many years ago, as any sensible person faced with a wall of folders would. After some initial palpitations, Nazlin and I scrutinized some of the past papers for content and style.

It would be fair to say that we were shocked. Even by the standard of the times, the content of the examination syllabi was likely to present barriers to many female learners in the 1980s. My German A Level paper was depressingly plodding and replete with references of a recent (to senior examiners, but not to school pupils of the time) war, a war in which the role of women had more or less been erased in the translation texts chosen. It was as though Germany had only existed between about 1933 and 1950. The music paper emphasised a set of skills and a form of knowledge firmly rooted in the 19th century Western classical tradition with an occasional nod in the direction of earnest blokes playing the organ in church. The ability to memorise vast chunks of musical score and write them out at will was paramount, even though this was – and is – a skill nobody in a university music department, or a professional musician, would ever bother using, when it is simpler to pull the full score down from the (probably now digital) shelf, or more usually, just hum bits as required. In the French paper we had a few women appearing, but generally only as bit parts (Marcel Pagnol’s mum being an exception to this), or as unhinged literary oddities that their (male) authors dissected and examined for a salacious readership (in the case of Thérèse Desqueyroux, splayed across the pages for our curiosity and delectation).

Overall, I was struck by the sense of a intellectual world that was dry, static, and rooted firmly in a model of society two generations back, where women were allowed to look in from the sidelines but could never be central to public life. That was the world potential university students were being prepared for in the 1980s, and given how difficult it was for girls to navigate this, I am amazed any of us made it into higher education. Luckily, when we were there, things clearly started to open up for us. I recall reading lots of French novels with strong women at the centre, and doing an undergraduate dissertation on women in music, just to find out what on earth half the population was up to while men were writing the history books. Things were starting to change, which in examination terms manifested itself via the introduction of GCSEs and modular A Levels in 1988, and the revision of content to make it more inclusive, to name two examples.

Currently we are reforming examinations once again, and there are vociferous arguments about what children and young people need to be taught, and what constitutes rigour. One thing I know, and that is if rigour is going back to the type of syllabi forced on girls in the 1980s, it’s not something I see as a step forward.

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More information about the Special Collections held at the Newsam Library can be found here.

About Nazlin Bhimani

Research Support and Special Collections Librarian, UCL Institute of Education, London
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