General Certificate of Education | england and wales

England and Wales

The General Certificate of Education (GCE) was established in England and Wales after the Second World War, along with the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE). Both these examinations set out to provide a national standard of public examinations, within the wider reform of secondary education under the Education Act of 1943 (The Baker Act). Prior to the war, the standards of education offered by different local education authorities varied widely, and whilst some urban education authorities supported Technical Schools, others, particularly in rural areas, offered only "Higher Elementary" education to the majority of pupils. The Education Act of 1943 established a strategy to deliver a universal secondary education system fit for the post-war social and economic reconstruction of the country. It envisaged three distinct types of schools: Grammar Schools, Technical Schools and Secondary Modern Schools, all to be provided at public expense, and each of which where intended to provide education appropriate to the abilities and aspirations of their pupils. The syllabi and examination standards of both GCE and CSE should be seen in this context.

The General Certificate of Education set out to provide a national standard for matriculation to university undergraduate courses. It had two levels, Ordinary and Advanced, which rapidly became known throughout the education system as "O levels" and "A Levels." Ordinary levels were usually taken at the age of 16 - the statutory minimum school leaving age - and Advanced levels at the age of 18 after a further two year course. Both the O level and A level courses were examined by subject and matriculation (the minimum standard for university entrance) was set at five passes in different subjects, of which two had to be at A level.

For matriculation purposes the highest grade pass of a subject taken at CSE level was considered a pass at O level.

In the English education system both the GCE and CSE examinations were replaced in the 1980s with the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), which set out to provide a multi-level examination system catering for all abilities of secondary school pupils. This supported the ongoing development of a comprehensive education system, which recognised education as a fundamental human right, and sought to avoid the risk of writing children off at the age of eleven which had become apparent as an undesirable by-product of the 11+ selection system

Examination Boards (England)

Though the GCE was considered a national standard there was no national syllabus, and it was run by a number of different Examination Boards, each of which set their own syllabi and papers. These included the "Northern Universities Joint Matriculation Board"—generally known as the JMB, The University of London ("The London Board") and the "Oxford and Cambridge Board."

Examination sessions were held bi-annually in May and November and successful candidates received a certificate listing the subjects they had passed in the session, together with the marks achieved in each. In the earliest years of the system subject marks were given as percentages at both Ordinary and Advanced Level. In later years ordinary level pass marks were graded 1-6, with 1 being the highest. The grading system was further simplified in 1975 when the six pass marks were reduced to three, graded A, B, C. In normalised terms at O level the lower bound for A was then 70% and the lower bound for C 45%. For matriculation purposes C was the lowest pass grade. D, E and F grades were also shown for the first time—indicating that a paper had been sat but the student had not achieved a pass mark.

In the late 1970s, A level certificates showed grades from A to F. At A level E was considered a pass for matriculation, and corresponded to 30%. All these examinations were closed book and Art was the only subject for which any assignment outside the examination hall contributed to the final mark.

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