What was education like when the Queen ascended to the throne in 1952?
Published: Wednesday 1 Jun 2022
For Her Majesty The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, AQA looks back on what education and exams were like in 1952.
Adam Steedman Thake, AQA’s Policy and Evidence Manager, explains what he uncovered when he worked with Alice Hendry, AQA’s Copyright Compliance and Archive Manager.
Queen Elizabeth II is celebrating 70 years on the throne in the middle of an exam season so AQi took a trip down memory lane and had a rummage in the archives to look back on what exams were like in 1952.
The early 1950s were an eventful period for education in Britain. Following the post-war baby boom and the school leaving age rising to 15, the biggest pressure on the education system was simply creating more school places. As such, expenditure rose dramatically; more than doubling from £400m to £900m by 1962.
At the same time, there was a global shift away from selective education towards comprehensive schools. A parental survey in Hertfordshire in 1952 showed that more than half of all parents wanted their children to attend grammar schools, but grammar schools were only available for about 20% of students. The Labour Party – in opposition at the time – confirmed its commitment to free comprehensive education for all at its annual conference in 1952.
1952 was also a historic year for examinations and assessment. It was the first time results for the General Certificate of Education (GCE) exams were published, after being first introduced in 1951. The Joint Matriculation Board (the precursor to the AQA exam board) report noted this year was “in some degree experimental”.
GCEs were taken at 16 (Ordinary Level, or ‘O-level’) and 18 (Advanced Level, or ‘A-level’), and offered in a range of subjects. Most of the GCE subjects offered were in subjects that wouldn’t look out of place in today’s schools, such as Geography and the major Sciences. The examiners’ report on English Literature was “glad to report a slight improvement in the level of work submitted… and some [exam scripts] were a pleasure to read”.
Mathematics, interestingly, was split into three papers: Arithmetic, Algebra and Geometry.
Some of the questions would not be particularly out of place in a modern exam. For example, this one from the 1952 Ordinary Level GCE Mathematics paper:
3. (c) In a cinema the price of 185 seats is raised from 2s. 10d. to 3s. 1d. each. How many seats must be sold at 3s. 1d. for the total takings to amount to the same as they did when all 185 seats were occupied at 2s. 10d.?
However, some were a little more of their time. Students (almost certainly overwhelmingly girls) in 1952 could have sat a GCE Ordinary Level in ‘Domestic Subjects’ which consisted of three separate exams in ‘Housecraft’, ‘Cookery’ and ‘Needlework’. The examiners’ report notes that the most popular question in the Housecraft exam was on “dustbins and the disposal of rubbish”. One question in particular caught our eye as something that tests knowledge which could still be useful as we try to reduce, reuse and recycle today:
2. How would you remove the following: (a) mildew stains from a teatowel, (b) a greasespot from a woollen dress, (c) teastains from a white tablecloth, (d) inkstains from a white cotton blouse?
In summary, 1952 was a momentous occasion for the Queen, the country and the education system. Looking back allows us to reflect on how far we’ve come during the Queen’s reign, and how the ideas of learning and assessment have both changed and remained the same.