Chapter 4 – Developments in the 20th Century

This entry is part 4 of 8 in the series The History of commercial & Technical Examinations

Board of Education Examinations

Following the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Secondary Education (1895) a series of reforms were introduced over the next few years that had implications for technical education and commercial education and their associated examinations. The 1904 Secondary School Regulations defined secondary education more clearly as a general, academic provision, essentially liberal in its nature. Technical education was a separate activity and received grants for student attendance to encourage a greater uptake by students but with exceptions for higher awards. As a result an increased number of applied/vocational subjects received grants. The old Science and Art Department was split into two with one part responsible for schools especially grammar schools and the other part assuming responsibility for the growth of technical colleges, and day and evening classes. In 1902 the Department of Science and Art was merged with the Education Department and the Board of Education was created which assumed responsibility for the examinations previously offered by the Department of Science and Art. Following the 1902 Education Act greater responsibility was given to local education authorities and this heralded the changes to the examination system after 1911. As a result of a number of reforms by the Board the examination system was greatly improved with the abuses of the grant system by schools removed. There was evidence that a number of schools and teachers made false claims. Teachers were given greater guidance on syllabuses that particularly helped part-time lecturers involved in evening classes. In 1903 there were 1,488 examination centres in science (with 75,956 papers marked) and 1,166 for art (with 89,992 papers marked). However the numbers of candidates declined because of competition from other examination boards and critics of the examination system argued for major reforms. Following the merger the Board of Education ceased offering lower level examinations (stage 1) in 1911 and made a number of reforms to the other stages namely stage 2 and the higher levels represented by stage 3 and honours. The higher examinations were continued even after the lower general examinations had been were abolished but were finally abandoned in 1918. The numbers taking the higher examinations were extremely low in 1911/12 only 2,558 candidates sat the examinations and only 985 passed a pass rate of just 38.5%. Also examinations in science were discontinued in 1918 as the numbers remained small and continued to show a decline. The payment by results was finally discontinued. So why did the Board’s examinations fail? Firstly a number of technical institutions introduced their own internal examinations operating either on their own or in association with other institutes. This development was particularly popular for the lower level examinations. However as one would expect these awards had only limited validity and local value. Following the demise of the Board examinations a major gap was identified and after 1918 the Board involved a number of professional associations to develop the National Certificate scheme that would award certificates to students pursuing part-time courses.

National Certificate Scheme

This development represents one of the most fascinating and important developments in the examination system of technical subjects involving as it did an innovative collaborative scheme between the Board of Education and a Professional Institution namely the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and became known as the ‘National Certificate Scheme’. This co-operation began in 1921 and certification was available to successful students in technical schools and colleges. The qualification provided an examination system that allowed teachers a fair degree of freedom and flexibility in their teaching methods. The National Certificate awards proved a success and subsequently other Professional Institutions joined the scheme including the Institution of Electrical Engineers, Institute of Building, Institute of Chemistry, Institution of Gas Engineers, Institution of Naval Architects, Worshipful Company of Shipwrights and the Textile Institute. Analogous arrangements were developed for Commerce but much later. The main reason commercial examinations took longer to be involved in the National Certificate Scheme stemmed from the fact that no large established professional body existed to represent commercial subjects. Also the number of candidates for commercial subjects was very low. Eventually the Board itself elected to become the representative body in 1935/36 and the scheme began. Finally the British Chamber of Commerce was recognised as being a mature representative body and assumed responsibility for commercial subjects in 1939. In 1951 fifteen interested professional organisations and other relevant educational groups assumed responsibility for a revised scheme for commerce.

The Board of Education and the Professional Institutions would determine the standard and range of the subject content which would attract the award of the certificate. The Board and the Professional bodies would nominate three persons each to form a Joint Committee or Examination Board to oversee a particular scheme. However they would attempt to allow the greatest degree of freedom to the school/college in terms of the organisation of the work and its assessment. Participating institutions were inspected by the Board to assess their suitability to offer the awards. The quality of resources e.g. staffing and facilities needed to be approved by the appropriate Joint Committee. The success of the scheme soon brought the development of national certificates and diplomas across a wide range of technical subjects. Each provider would draft its own syllabus, very often focused on the needs of local employers and reflecting local industries. Subject teachers would often draft syllabuses involving local employers. The syllabus would then be submitted to the Board of Education and the relevant Professional Institution for their approval. Once the course was approved and offered successful candidates would receive a certificate or diploma after passing the examinations reflecting the level of the course and/or the mode of attendance i.e. part or full –time. Students had to be at least 16 years of age and present acceptable entry qualifications. If the students had achieved reasonable school qualifications .g. GCE ‘O’ levels they could gain partial exemption for the ordinary programme but the final year was compulsory. Attendance criteria were rigorously enforced so that students had to demonstrate at least 60%. Intermediate examinations were held at the end of each year to assess the progress of the students and these became known as S1/S2/S3 for the ONC and A1/A2 for the HNC reflecting the years of attendance. External examiners were appointed to assess the draft papers and after the examinations, samples of the marked papers. Some of the questions were compulsory, in some cases up to 40%, and the assessors could redraft questions prior to the examinations being offered. Minimum pass mark was set at 40% and all records of on-course practical work were retained for possible assessment by the assessors. Distinctions were awarded to candidates achieving 85% and more. The range of programmes for certificates and diplomas is shown in table 2 below.

The first ONC in 1922 in Mechanical Engineering attracted 1,017 candidates from 46 colleges and schools of whom 521 passed (51.2% pass rate). Certificate programmes were mainly based on three key and relevant subjects and also an endorsement arrangement allowed for additional subjects to be studied in order for the student to gain professional recognition and qualifications. Ordinary Certificates (ONCs) were awarded after a three- year part –time course at a technical college whilst Higher Certificates HNCs) were awarded after a further two years. Ordinary and Higher Diplomas (O/HNDs) required two and three years of full-time study respectively. The total number of O/HNCs awarded in 1931 was 2,792 rising to 5,330 in 1939. In 1939 the number of candidates for mechanical / electrical engineering and building was 1,833, 1,133 and 533 respectively.

The scheme was later extended to cover full-time Diploma programmes but these sadly like the ordinary diplomas never really gained wide spread popularity having to compete with the so-called gold standard of ‘A’ levels and reflected the ongoing debates about parity of esteem between vocational and academic qualifications. The numbers of candidates taking the full time programmes i.e. OND and HND were always relatively small. The majority of candidates gaining certificates were from the engineering disciplines.

Table 1 shows the take up of and participation in the national diploma awards between 1923 and 1944.

Table 1. Number of OND and HND Candidates in 1923, 1931 and 1944.

Dates: 1923 1931 1944
Ordinary Awards (OND) 663 2,043 4,070
Higher Awards (HND) 168 749 1,405

The number of awards of the National Certificates increased significantly in the immediate period after 1945. To convey the development of the scheme in terms of numbers of candidates and subjects table 2 shows the entry detail for the years 1952 and 53.

Table 2. Entries for ONC for 1952 and 1953.

Subject Date
Entries 1952 Entries
Civil Eng. 1943
Mech. Eng. 1921 11,803 11,777 5,872 (49.8%) 5,457 (46.3%)
Elect. Eng. 1923 5,698 5,429 3,087 (54.2%) 2,791 (51.4%)
Prod. Eng. 1 941
Building 1929 1,661 1,726 1,087 (63.0%) 1,137(65.9%)
Chemistry 1921 1,285 1,494 729 (56.8%) 917 (61.4%)
Applied Chemistry 1947 51 30 34 (66.7%) 19 (63.3%)
Metallurgy 1945 334 390 186 (55.7%) 184 (47.2%)
Applied Physics 1945 131 151 64 (48.9%) 64 (42.4%)
Commerce 1939 321 412 183 (57.0%) 255 (61.9%)
Naval Architecture 1926 89 89 53 (59.6%) 49 (55.1%)
Textiles 1934 252 235 189 (75.0%) 188 (80.0%)
Mining 1952 352 510 190 (54.0%) 280 (54.9%)

Source: Venables. Technical Education.

The total number of candidates for the ONC in 1952 was 21,977 with an average pass rate of 53.1%. For 1953 the total number of candidates was 22,243 with an average pass rate of 53.0%.

Table 3 shows similar data for the HNCs.

Table 3. Entries for the HNC for 1952 and 1953.

Subject Entries 1952 Entries 1953 Passes 1952 Passes 1953
Civil Eng. 119 188 96 (80.7%) 162 (86.2%)
Mech. Eng. 4,018 4,119 2,712 (67.5%) 2,773 (67.3%)
Elect. Eng. 2,529  2,679 1,810 (71.6%) 1,848 (69.0%)
Prod. Eng. 413 402 354 (85.7%) 321 (79.9%)
Building 795 848 667 (83.9%) 689 (81.3%)
Chemistry 593 687 364 (61.4%) 448 (65.2%)
Applied Chemistry 37 40 31 (83.8%) 26 (65.0%)
Metallurgy 132 140 120 (90.9%) 116 (82.9%)
30 55 20 (67.7%) 27 49.0%)
Commerce 11 6 8 (72.7%) 5 (88.3%)
Naval Architecture 49 45 44 (89.8%) 42 (93.3%)
Textiles 105 121 85 (81.0%) 107 (88.4%)

The total number of candidates for HNC in 1952 was 8,831with an average pass rate of 71.3%.For 1953the total number of candidates was 6,659 with an average pass rate of 71.4%.

Table 4 shows entries for the OND for 1952 and 1953.

Table 4. OND entries for 1952 and 1953.

Subject Entries 1952 Entries 1953 Passes 1952 Passes 1953
Mech. Eng. 159 144 88 (55.3%) 72 (50.0%)
Building 193 140 125 (64.8%) 108 (77.1%)
Elect. Eng. 58 73 40 (69.0%) 34 (46.6%)

The total number of candidates for OND in 1952 was 410 with an average pass rate of 61.7%. For 1953 the total number of candidates was 357 with an average pass rate of 60.0%.

Table 5 shows similar detail for HNDs.

Table 5. Entries for HND in 1952 and 1953.

Subject Entries 1952 Entries 1953  Passes 1952 Passes 1953
Mech. Eng. 124 147 83 (66.9%) 114 (77.6%)
Building 113 120 94 (83.2%) 100 (83.3%)
Elect. Eng. 82 118 73 (89.0%) 98 (83.0%)

The total number of candidates for HND in 1952 was 319 with an average pass rate of 78.3%. For 1953 the total number of candidates was 385 with an average pass rate of 81.0%.

These tables provide a fascinating insight into the profiles of subjects being studied and the modes of attendance. Part –time students were in the majority and that inevitably produced relatively high failure rates but still not atypical for part-time study e.g. a failure rate of 60% existed for the Board of Education’s Higher Examinations in Science in 1912.A report in 1959 highlighted the failure rate and recommended a policy to move to full-time or sandwich provision. The report identified a much lower failure rates for ONDs (typically 44%) and HNDs (typically 19%). There were a number of reasons for the low pass rates many of which are still valid today and include; poor teaching and teacher support, ineffective course/careers advice, guidance and information, weak literacy and numeracy skills. In addition many part-time students often work long hours during the day and are then expected to attend evening classes as well as having family commitments or indifferent support from the employer.

The National Scheme continued to thrive until major reforms were carried out in the 1980s. Having taught students on all but the HND programmes I was always impressed with the basic structure of the scheme. It gave teachers a greater degree of freedom to plan and operate the programmes working closely with employers to produce a relevant course of study for both the employer and student. The membership of the various subject advisory committees/teams were representative of the subject and it role in the workplace. The students were overall motivated and relatively enthusiastic bearing in mind many were working and required to attend in the evenings or on day release programmes. The standards were high and were recognised by many professional bodies for recognition and subsequent progression to their membership grades and entry to universities. More enlightened universities granted exemptions for their degree programmes. I worked closely in the Greater Manchester area with universities where either one or in some special subject areas, two years exemptions were gained for HND graduates. These arrangements were often referred too as 2+1 or 2+2 schemes. This arrangement was an excellent example of college/university partnership, sadly somewhat of a rarity during most of the period covered by this history. This partnership was most certainly helped by strong support from employers. HNC students were particularly impressive with their high degree of motivation but this was to be expected as they were invariably mature and well experienced in their occupations. A number of outstanding HNC students even gained direct entry into post graduate awards when strongly supported by their employers.

Professional Bodies

As already mentioned during the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Professional Institutions introduced their own examinations e.g. Institution of Civil Engineering in 1897 and the Institution of Mechanical Engineering in 1913 respectively. In addition the universities and university colleges awarded qualifications in technical subjects although the latter could not award degrees. In spite of the increasing numbers of students pursuing technical subjects there was already a mismatch between supply and demand. Industry wanted qualified people but even during this period complained that the universities and other providers of HE were biased against vocational and technical subjects. Surprisingly there was also evidence in the 1920s/30s that there was also an imbalance in graduate science numbers e.g. a surplus of chemists and deficit of biologists – a problem that continues to this day in e.g. engineering, physics and mathematics. Finally interesting to note that of the 4,439 students in full-time technology courses in 1934 the vast majority of them went into technical i.e. research, testing and design as opposed to the production side of industry – another example of academic drift?

Gradually fewer science examinations were held in schools and the emphasis shifted to the emerging network of technical colleges. Student numbers declined for science in schools as greater choice in the curriculum developed and students preferred to opt for non-scientific subjects. Higher technical education was still an exception in the education system in spite of the perception of Britain as the workshop of the world (as the short history of technical education testifies.) Science and technology courses were slow to develop in universities at the time. Until the reforms in the 1980s the National Awards at Ordinary and Higher levels for students studying part and full-time in colleges/polytechnics provided a greatly valued set of awards for employers across a number of occupational areas. The system of technical and commercial examinations grew throughout the 20th century as the further and higher education sectors became more established.

Very little reform to the examination system occurred after 1920 until the major reforms following the Haslegrave and De Ville Reports (see later). During this period the major awarding bodies consolidated their positions and responded to the changing nature and growth of the technical education sector. As the number of institutions grew during this period and the participation rates increased the awarding bodies extended their programmes across different areas.

City and Guilds of London Institute

The Institute continued to grow throughout the 20th century and introduced changes in its awards and the subject range as the profile of employment in the economy underwent major transformations. The Institute worked closely with employers through a wide range of advisory committees. They also established strong links with the emerging Regional Examining Boards.

The range, levels and titles have undergone many changes over the decades, as indeed have many of the examining bodies considered in this history. For example it might be illuminating to show how in the 1950s CGLI offered examinations at three levels and how these related to the apprenticeship:

  • Intermediate. Represented an adequate level of achievement in a craft or trade that was deemed appropriate e.g. a level expected of the higher grade of industrial workers but who had not been required to undertake an apprenticeship.
  • Final. Represented complete competence for all normal purposes in the selected craft or trade i.e. the level required of skilled craftspeople, mechanics and artisans who had served a fully recognised apprenticeship.
  • Full Technological Certificate. Represented a wide field of achievement and competence that indicated that the holder had a comprehensive knowledge of the subject.

It is interesting that one still sees these certificates particularly the full technological certificates proudly displayed in some workplaces e.g. garages, hairdressing salons and other workshops.

Table 6 shows how the total entries grow for CGLI during the 20th century.

Table 6. Entries for CGLI 1900 to 1992.

Year Number of Candidates
1900 14,551
1910 24,508
1920 9,825
1930 14,721
1940 15,163
1950 66,679
1960 143,661
1970 376,443
1980 473,214
1990 1,429,056
1992 2,335,005

Source: CGLI – A short history 1878 – 1992.

N.B. Some of these figures do not include overseas entries, those for teacher’s certificates and special examinations candidates.
CGLI is currently active in 100 countries through 8,500 centres and registering 1.8 million candidates annually. Throughout the years the Institute has undergone numerous changes many driven by changes instigated by successive governments e.g. The Haslegrave and DeVille Reports, the Ferryside agreements.
A persistent misperception exists that CGLI is only involved in lower level awards. This is most certainly not true. Through its royal charter awarded in 1900 it can confer Senior Awards at four levels namely Licentiateship, Graduateship, Membership and Fellowship. Universities, professional bodies, other organisations and companies both in the UK and abroad can gain delegated authority status following a rigorous accreditation process and the requirement to satisfy the CGLIs quality assurance systems. These Senior Awards recognise experience, competence and skill in the work place and are becoming increasingly popular. More recently the CGLI has developed a suite of Higher Level Qualifications that are very vocationally focused in a range of traditional and emerging subjects. CGLI are currently working with the one of the unitary awarding bodies AQA to develop vocational diplomas.

Regional Examination Unions/Bodies (REU/Bs)

It might help at this stage to describe the progress of the Regional Examining Unions and their collaboration with the City and Guilds of London Institute that most certainly made a significant contribution to the development of technical education and the examination system. One real advantage was the effective partnerships that existed between the various advisory and subject committees and equally importantly the representative membership of these and other relevant groups e.g. employers, college staff, Her Majesty’s Inspectors. The unions had two aims, namely:

  • Providing standard examinations for the benefit of students studying technical and other subjects approved by the Union within the Institutions of its area
  • Promoting the objects of such Institutions and FE colleges.

Following the Industrial Training Act in 1967 the REBs in conjunction with CGLI created the Council of Technical Examining Bodies which prepared new and revised schemes for the training requirements issued by the Industrial Training Boards.

Six Regional Examination Bodies existed namely:

  • East Midland Educational Union (EMEU)
  • Northern Counties Technical Examinations Council (NCTEC)
  • Union of Educational Institutions (UEI)
  • Union of Lancashire and Cheshire Institutes (ULCI)
  • Welsh Joint Education Committee (WJEC)
  • Yorkshire and Humberside Council for Further Education (YHCFE)

With the exception of the WJEC the other bodies focussed on the post-school sector.
The REBs offered examinations for operatives, craftspeople and technicians following an agreement with CGLI in 1966. The REBs also offered examinations in commercial and other subjects as well as some ordinary and higher national certificates. They worked closely with CGLI through advisory committees and the Institute’s Committee for Technical Education.

Throughout the history of the Regional Advisory Councils (RACs) – [see later in chapter 5] and REBs there were debates about their effectiveness and ability to influence local and national examinations. I served on a number of RACs and two REBs and must admit found them useful forums to network with other colleges’ staff, HMI and employers. The advice and guidance was often helpful in planning provision in colleges. This benefit was largely lost as the FE system became more centrally driven and subject to constant interference by governments from the 1980s.

It would be useful to compare the parallel situation that occurred with the examinations staged by the REBs and the CGLI between the years 1952 and 1955 and this is shown in table 7.

Table 7. Entries for Examinations Staged by CGLI and the REBs between 1952 and 1955.

Examining Body 1952 1953 1954 1955
Union of Lancashire and Cheshire Institutes 46,300 entered 50,674 52,852 56,926
Northern Counties Technical Examinations Council 21,059 entered 23,052 24,459 24,403
East Midland Educational Union 20,525 entered 23,502 26,121 30,122
Union of Educational Institutions 24,165
28,002 34,811 38,944
City and Guilds of London Institute 70,856
Ordinary National Certificates 21,977
Higher National Certificates 8,831
Totals of entries 213,713 232,169 254,677 276,223
Total of passes for REBS and CGLI 62,375 65,418 69,306 76,402

(Source: Argles. M. ‘South Kensington to Robbins’.

Clearly the pass rates were not particularly good but again it is important to remember that most of the provision was by evening study and often the students did not receive support from their employers. The students were very much self motivated and often had to support themselves financially and to attend classes after a full day’s work.

Programmes offered at ONC and HND level included such subjects as: applied chemistry, applied physics, building, chemistry, civil engineering, commerce, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, metallurgy, mining, naval architecture, production engineering and textiles.

Commercial Education

During the early 20th century commercial education became more established with about fifty junior commercial schools created but these were eventually closed following the 1944 Education Act and the work absorbed into the tripartite system of secondary schools. Commercial education was greatly assisted by the development of the National Certificate Scheme. Degree programmes in commerce were developed from the early 20th century in a number of universities and polytechnics. As demand grew for commercial subjects and the national awards scheme got more involved in these subjects new syllabuses and subject areas were introduced after 1961 for part-time ONC/HNCs in Business Studies along with HNC/HNDs for full-time and sandwich students. Increasingly these were offered in colleges of FE as opposed to colleges of commerce as the FE sector and its constituent colleges expanded and offered an extended range of subjects. Another factor was that in general monotechnic colleges, (i.e. separate discipline specialist institutions), were more expensive when compared with mixed economy FE colleges because of economies of scale factors.

Management education was practically non-existent until after 1945. This arose from the Urwick Report (1947) which recommended that the relevant professional institutions should develop common management themes and that management studies should lead to Intermediate and Final examinations and overseen by a Central Council of Management. The British Institute of Management (B.I.M.) was established in 1947 and eventually merged with the Institute of Industrial Studies (I.I.S.) which had been struggling to develop management studies since 1919. The I.I.A. assumed responsibility for the examinations element from the B.I.M. The qualifications offered were the Intermediate Certificate and Diploma in Management Studies. After 1960 a new Diploma of Management was established and awarded after three years of part-time-study. Management studies have greatly expanded and a whole series of awards currently exist across a number of levels including the Certificate and Diploma in Management Studies i.e. the CMS and DMS respectively as well as MBAs at post-graduate level.
In addition many examinations for commercial and related specialism’s were set by a number of professional bodies that regulated the various occupational categories including accountancy, banking and financial services.

Personal observation

The current development and introduction of Foundation Degrees is now threatening the future of the highly respected higher certificates and diplomas – such is academic drift! This government seems obsessed with qualifications and most certainly with degrees and give little attention or credibility to other equally valuable qualifications. This obsession in some ways reflects a perception of ‘A’ levels as the gold standard for level 3 qualifications and they have distorted the examination and qualification landscape since the early 1950s. This government has set another target regarding higher education namely that 40% of the workforce should have graduate or higher skills by 2020 and 50% of young people should go to university. This obsession with arbitrary and questionable targets deflects and masks any meaningful discussion about the purpose of higher vocational qualifications and in fact the rationale of Higher Education. The real aspiration should be to create programmes at all levels that ‘satisfy the needs of employers’ and ‘are fit for purpose’ and allow all types of students to benefit from the appropriate experience of education. All too often today university education seems to be a rite of passage for a number of students almost like some sort of accessory. It will be interesting to see how the current recession/depression impacts on the large number of graduates now seeking employment in the rapidly changing and contracting labour market. The increasing number of graduates will create all sorts of problems in terms of supply and demand and highlight mismatches in the labour market.

Chapter 5 will continue to describe the developments in the 20th century including the impact of the 1944 Education Act of and other important legislative initiatives by governments, the role of the Regional Advisory Bodies, reforms to technical and vocational qualifications and developments in higher technical education.

Cot grove. S. F. ‘Technical Education and Social Change’. George Allen and Unwin. 1958.
Richardson.W. A. ‘Technical Education’. OUP. 1939.
Venables. P. F. R. ‘Technical Education Its Aims, Organisation and Future Development’. Bell. 1955.

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


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