Chapter 1 – Short History of Technical and Commercial Examinations. A Reflective Commentary

This entry is part 1 of 8 in the series The History of commercial & Technical Examinations

Introduction and Background.

This first chapter will provide a brief introduction and some general background to the topic. The following chapters will attempt to provide a relatively short history of the development of technical and commercial examinations primarily in England over the past two centuries. Hopefully it will complement the history of technical education that is also on this website. In common with the history of technical and commercial education it is a very fascinating and at times a complex topic and as a result I cannot hope to do full justice it.

The main focus will be on England but I will attempt to include contributions made in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Scotland and Ireland made a number of significant contributions to the examination system e.g. the Edinburgh School of Art and Trinity College, Dublin, both of which I will describe. Also I will try and include some brief descriptions of other disciplines such as agriculture, art, design. The account will attempt to describe the impact, influences and consequences that arose from the Industrial Revolution that progressively shaped technical education and the development of a national system of examinations. A whole series of social, cultural, economic and political factors interacted during this period that influenced and determined the pace and ultimate shape of technical education and the related examination system. Recurring themes in this account will be the various fragmented initiatives and the ideas of a number of visionaries which were presented over many decades and ultimately shaped the system of technical education and the associated examination system. In hindsight if many of these worthy, innovative and farsighted initiatives/ ideas had been adopted at the time and resourced properly the history of technical education would have been very different and would have mirrored the positive progress and achievements of our main competitors on the continent and America.
In addition I will add some personal observations and asides to a number of the issues described in the history.

As already mentioned the evolution of the system for technical and commercial examinations in England mirrors many of the characteristics that figured in the development with technical education. The development was slow and haphazard with little involvement by government, a reluctance by the State to intervene and a philosophy dominated by a laissez -faire and voluntarist approach that has so defined and determined much of British history. In addition to these elements a multitude of factors were also in play including the ongoing reluctance of industrialists and business people to give wholesale support to the development of technical education and assessment techniques arguing that it was the State’s responsibility to fund and organise instruction and assessment. Another major retarding factor contributing to the slow and ad hoc development of an examination system was the absence of a national education system before 1870. Obviously this was an essential prerequisite for subsequent scientific and technical studies in order to allow pupils/students to progress on to further study. Even when a national education system was introduced the instruction of science, technology and tradecrafts was practically non-existent in most schools. Also the cultural hostility to scientific, technical, practical activities and occupations contributed to the inertia and resistance in developing an effective system for technical and commercial education and a relevant programme of examinations.
The Beginnings of Examinations.

Historically it had been long recognised time that assessments/examinations played an important part in the organisation of education including in technical subjects. An examination system would provide evidence of a student’s achievement and the examinations provided the instructors/ teachers syllabuses and curricula frameworks to work to. It also provided comparative evidence of how technical schools and colleges were performing. Scotland as usual led the way with formal accreditation methods with the Edinburgh School of Arts awarding certificates from 1835 to successful candidates after three years of attendance, which included classes in chemistry, mathematics, and natural philosophy during the first year. In addition to these certificates which entitled students to life membership of the School ‘attestations of proficiency’ were awarded at the end of each annual course of lectures to successful candidates but only after a ‘strict examination’. By 1850 only 38 candidates had achieved a Diploma of Life Membership reflecting the high standards of the system. In many ways Edinburgh School of Art was strictly the pioneer of class examining. The techniques used by the School of Art greatly influenced individuals like James Booth, Henry Chester and James Hole who were very involved and influential in developing public/common examinations from the mid-1850s. Trinity College, Dublin, had introduced a system of examinations for its degrees long before Oxford and Cambridge and is now seen as pioneer of university assessment. Interesting to note that James Booth [see biography] was a graduate of Trinity |College, Dublin and was greatly influenced by their examination system. England only later developed a formal structure for examinations although the Society of Arts had recognised significant and meritorious discoveries and inventions by awarding medals and money since its foundation in 1754.

It was only during the second half of the 19th century that employers began to require evidence of educational attainment or paper qualification from their employees after passing an examination. However it must be noted that the numbers of qualified workers required with the scientific and technical knowledge to understand and operate the machinery was small at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. As the Industrial Revolution gained momentum the supply of qualified workers did not keep pace with the demand and this again confirms the negative attitudes to technical and vocational studies and employment. Simple comparisons with continental countries readily highlight this country’s backwardness. Technical education during most of the 19th century was offered in a heterogeneous set of institutions e.g. Mechanics’ Institutions, Working Men’s Colleges etc. [see history of technical education for fuller description]. Most of the classes were by part-time and evening study. Also the geographical spread of the provision was patchy until practically the end of the 20th century. Institutions catering for full-time students only really got established during the first few decades of the 20th century. Although it was the Industrial Revolution that acted as a catalyst for the development of technical education it took over a century before the government became convinced about the necessity of technical education in an industrialised country. One common positive feature in the development of technical subjects and their related examinations was the contribution of a small number of visionaries (see later) who argued strongly for the introduction of an effective system of examinations as the instruction of science and technical subjects emerged. Their ideas and recommendations had to wait many years and in some cases decades before they were implemented. Mention of these initiatives and individuals will be made later and many appear in the short biographies in appendix 4 of the website.


Apprenticeships were the main vehicle for technical education and training before the Industrial Revolution and were provided by the Craft Guilds. The ‘master’ craftsman had a duty under the indenture (basically a contract and agreement between the master and apprentice) to teach the art, craft and as was often said ‘the mystery of his trade’. At the time this approach worked well and created a flow and maintained a stock of skilled craftspeople for the majority of trades and crafts that existed during this period. Completion of the apprenticeship and the honouring of the indenture recognised the skills and ability of the apprentice who could then practice his craft or trade [see the history of technical education for a fuller account of apprentices]. Prior to the First Industrial Revolution crafts and trades practiced were mainly associated with agriculture and rural crafts. However as the Industrial Revolution gained momentum the apprenticeship system began to lose its significance and importance as the craftsman and the workshop were gradually replaced by the machine and factory. The Industrial Revolution brought with it narrower forms of specialism associated with the operation of machines coupled with larger numbers of less skilled workers, which undermined the traditional master-apprenticeship relationship. This period witnessed massive transformations with people moving to the cities from the villages and towns where craftspeople had worked alone or in small groups in workshops. Skills were transferred from the craftsperson to the engineer/designer of the machines. Skilled workers were replaced by machine operatives working in larger units carrying out highly repetitive tasks i.e. increased emphasis on sub-division of labour that meant the traditional methods of apprenticeship were increasingly irrelevant. Another reason for the collapse of apprenticeships was the increased competition that resulted in a different attitude and relationship between master and trainee. As competition increased both from domestic and overseas sources and the resultant need to maximise and maintain profit margins the masters increasingly did not want to teach the young apprentices because of cost in terms of time, money and the fear of plagiarism.
Personal observation.

Apprenticeships still have a major role to play today. If the programmes are configured, managed, delivered and monitored in conjunction with employers they can make a significant contribution to creating a more work ready, better-qualified and skilled workforce. The programmes must be valued by employers , parents, politicians, and society in general and possess parity of esteem with the so-called academic qualifications e.g. GCSEs, ‘A’ levels and degrees. In the past practical, technical and vocational courses have inevitably been seen as second class and ‘for the less able’. Previous reforms of the apprenticeship programmes, particularly throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries, have failed to recruit sufficient numbers. Another factor has been persistent political interference and prejudice (remember the Thatcher years?) that contributed to the negative image of apprenticeship programmes. During the mid-1970s I witnessed a 70% decline in apprenticeships and day release students at a college in East Anglia across the Construction, Engineering and Science Departments. Similar negative attitudes beset and impeded the pre-vocational/work preparation and work-based programmes developed by the Manpower Services Commission (MSC) as well as the innumerable reviews and reforms to technical/practical based programmes over many years e.g. Certificate of Pre-Vocational Education (CPVE), Technical Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI) and General Vocational National Qualifications (GNVQ) et al.

The current initiatives to reform and invigorate apprenticeship programmes will I fear also fail. The essential features of the way the content is taught and learnt and how the work is assessed/examined is still based on traditional academic methods. Sadly continued political dogma exercising a short-term philosophy/mentality and the lack of a sustained and effective employer involvement will yet again create a set of programmes that will be seen as second class. The whole current debate about the context of work based learning and assessment is superficial and flawed e.g. the developments of ‘functionality’ in key subjects such as mathematics, literacy and information technology. The functional subjects being introduced currently in literacy and numeracy are still too academic and divorced from the realities of the workplace e.g. the functional mathematics papers are pale imitations of the GCSE papers. The papers must be about applying the concepts in real workplaces. Also the ongoing debates about skills and how they can be defined and learnt are flawed [see articles on the website]. I will consider the current developments in later chapters. A true understanding of the challenges and requirements created by work-based learning and assessment is essential if meaningful and valued programmes are to be established that address the future needs of employers, employment and the economy.

The Impact of Science and Technology.

Technical and scientific instruction was meagre before the mid 1820s but as the Industrial Revolution gained momentum interest in science and its practical value began to increase both among the workers and in the minds of the general public. There was a growing awareness of the scientific ideas of Francis Bacon, Galileo, Newton and other scientists coupled with the inventions resulting in the design and use of machines in a wide range of industries associated with cotton mills, foundries, telegraphy, transport (road, trains and canals), the military and agriculture etc. New methods and approaches to disseminate information and raise awareness about scientific and technical methods were required as Britain’s industrial economy and wealth grew. A number of key developments and movements contributed and drove this change of approach including Mechanics Institutes. They played a major part in increasing the interest in technical and scientific knowledge along with the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge and other literary, scientific and technical societies and bodies.

The Mechanics’ Institutions developed over the period 1824 to 1850 and in 1850 there were 610 Institutes with 102,000 members. In 1851 there were only eight universities in the UK of which only two had departments of engineering (two in London and one in Glasgow). The period around the 1840/50s witnessed the creation of formal educational establishments throughout England including the creation of The Royal College of Chemistry (1845), the Government School of Mines (1851) along with other higher education institutions and professional bodies. Even though the Mechanics’ Institutions movement was in decline after the mid-1850 they had established the precedent for the future development and shape of technical education and the essential requirement for an appropriate examination system. A number of the original Institutes transmogrified into larger technical institutions and a number of these later became large technical colleges, polytechnics and universities. The development albeit slow of a national system of technical education and the resultant need for examinations was supported by other national developments. These included after 1850 an emerging national school education system at both elementary and secondary level, the growth of public examinations and the gradual development of a national network of technical institutions, universities, university colleges and professional bodies.

As a result of these and other influences by the early 1850s a number of important defining features of technical education and instruction had emerged including the crucial recognition that industrial success depended on an established and effective system of technical education. Increasingly it was the impact of the application of science and the resultant technological developments that required new skills and more focussed methods of instruction, training and assessment. The need to apply scientific and technological principles to industry and industrial processes required the instruction of these basic principles coupled with practical experience delivered in realistic working environments and this was gradually recognised. This realisation of the need to integrate theory and practice was to occupy much of the subsequent design and development of technical/vocational education and its systems of assessment.

Personal Observation.

Interesting to note even in the mid 19th century it was argued by a number of individuals that the basic fundamental principles of science and technology could not be taught in the workplace – an argument that still persists today in the design and provision of work based/vocational education and training. One of the continuing and central questions ever since has been how to achieve the balance between the theoretical and practical aspects and how to assess these elements whether in the work place, realistic working environments or by simulation. The assessment of the skills, knowledge and understanding gained in the work place is a complicated but critical issue. Initially with limited physical resources the Mechanics’ Institutions and the other educational institutions could not provide the appropriate workshops and equipment and were often unable to recruit experienced instructors/teachers. As a result the emerging technical education, instruction and examinations were prone to be theoretical and involved little practical activity or work based assessment. The issues associated with work based assessment and the application of the underpinning knowledge and understanding in the workplace has always been a challenge to the management of vocational and technical examination. These issues have figured in the endless debates associated with the so-called academic vocational divide that persist even today. However whatever the merits of these debates the belief that apprenticeships could provide the foundations of scientific and technical knowledge brought about the first faltering attempts to create and organise a national system of technical education and a system of related examinations.

The following chapters will attempt to describe the developments in technical and commercial examinations from the 18th century up to the current time.


  1. Montgomery. R. J. ‘Examinations.’ Longmans. 1965.
  2. Roach. J. ‘Public Examinations in England 1850-1900.’ CUP. 1971.

A comprehensive book list is provided on this website along with a comprehensive chronology and glossary of terms for technical and commercial examinations which I hope will be helpful to readers.

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