The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Competitive Examinations.

By Major B. R. Ward, R.E.
Volume 13, June, 1902, pg. 401-408

"I believe that the main protests against the mischievous tendency of this system [of public competitive examinations] have proceeded from other sources than the schools . . . I cannot believe that many schoolmasters are ignorant of or disbelieve in the existence of the mischief. It is perhaps that they despair of seeing it removed . . . If this is our attitude, I think it is one very unworthy of the successors of Arnold, the bold, courageous, and successful reformer. We lack that penetrative and solvent force which will remove whole mountains of ignorance and officialism and red tape--we lack the force of faith, of faith in our principles. I cannot believe that a system which forces us to break the laws of nature, which robs a boy of his health and the dew of his youth, is part of the ordained constitution of things."

These words occur at the head of a chapter of Mr. Coulton's Public Schools and the Public Needs, published in 1901. The aim of this book is--as Mr. Coulton informs us in the opening words of the preface--"to bring home to English parents some ideas which have long been familiar to hundreds of thinking schoolmasters." One of these ideas is the inherent defect of competitive examinations.

The quotation selected by Mr. Coulton for insertion at the head of his chapter discussing Army examinations is taken from a book of Mr. C. C. Cotterill entitled, Suggested Reforms in Public Schools, published in 1885.

Mr. Cotterill himself has been a contributor to the Parents' Review, and his strong expression of belief deserves the most serious attention of all English parents. The question has indeed become a national one.

In education, as in all other departments of the national life, it behoves us to "wake up" and to make "efficiency" out test and our watchword. The Army is the particular section of the nation which has been lately thoroughly tested--in the only way in which an army, or indeed a nation, can be thoroughly tested--namely, by war.

The result of this test is that military methods and military organisation are now undergoing a further test of public criticism, and in this test are included the methods hitherto in vogue for the training of candidates for Army commissions.

Now, for thirty years or more, since the abolition of purchase in the Army, commissions have been obtained by open public competition. Hence this system has come in for a good deal of searching criticism.

When the Prince Consort in the "fifties" remarked that Parliamentary Government was on its trial, a general outburst of indignation was the only response.

When Mr. Cotterill in 1885 suggested that public competitive examinations had "a mischievous tendency," that "they forced us to break the laws of nature, to rob a boy of his health and of the dew of his youth," he must have been no more listened to than Ruskin was in his declamations on the same subject in the "seventies." But now the case is different. Parliamentary Government is hardly looked at--even by its finest supporters--as a divine institution, and competitive examinations are certainly not regarded as forming "part of the ordained constitution of things."

Let us not, however, be misunderstood. There is probably no one in England who wishes to abolish Parliamentary Government, and there is certainly only a small minority which would advocate the immediate abolition of competitive examinations; but as regards both questions, a change has come over the spirit of the English people.

The mere fact that a long and interesting correspondence has lately been going on in the columns of the United Service Gazette, as to the relative value of selecting candidates for army commissions, sufficiently indicates this change of spirit. A quotation from one of the letters in this discussion gives the opinion on the subject entertained by a writer who signs himself "Two Firsts, Cambridge," and who has evidently had considerable experience of the effects of the competitive system:--

    "Forty years ago, De Morgan warned the nation of the consequences of competitive examination worship run mad.

    "Twenty-five years ago, Dr. Latham, in 'Examinations considered as a means of selection,' treated the subject scientifically and exhaustively.

    "Twenty years ago, Sir Frederick Pollock gibbeted some of the peculiar methods of the Civil Service Commissioners.

    "To-day, H.R.H. the Prince of Wales brings from across the seas a message to wake up.

    "To-day, some of the leading British mathematicians are endeavouring, under the auspices of the British Association, to find a remedy for the serious condition of mathematical teaching, a condition admitted to be due to the examination system, though that system is less injurious in mathematics than in any other subject . . .

    "I agree fully with Colonel Baker, that examinations, properly controlled and properly conducted, furnish a stimulus to pupils and a help and a standard to teachers. I protest against a fatuous reliance on the results of one examination to the exclusion of all other sources of information. Personal knowledge of upwards of five hundred young gentlemen, shortly after their success at a competitive examination, entitles me to say that in many cases subjects in which high marks had been scored are completely forgotten in two months, and in almost all cases within a year. The only exceptions are in the case of boys who succeed without special effort or preparation--those, in fact, who have been educated and not worked up for an examination. Remember the distinction between knives which are made to cut and knives which are made to sell."

Enough has been said to show not only that the inherent defects of the competitive system are considerable, but also that people in England are beginning to realize the fact.

Before discussing possible remedies, it may be useful to describe the general working of the system in England.

As the competitive and examination systems are carried out more completely in military education than at the Universities, or as a preparation for any other profession, the system will be best understood by following the career of a public school boy, from the day on which he elects to follow a military career, to the day on which, as a cadet at one of our military colleges, he receives a commission in His Majesty's land forces.

At the age of 14, our hero decides, let us suppose, to become a Royal Engineer officer. This means that he will have to compete at a public examination for a cadetship at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich.

His first step is to join the Army Class of his Public School. Here he will work for the next two years to prepare himself for the ordeal of the competitive examination, for which he will be permitted to present himself at the age of 16.

These competitive examinations are held twice every year. Let us suppose that he fails, or--to put it into expressive schoolboy language--is "plucked," "ploughed," or "spun" at his first trial; but at his second attempt, at the age of 17, succeeds in coming out amongst the first 75 candidates, for whom vacancies exist at Woolwich.

This closes the first chapter of his career. He has passed the first great crisis of his life, and his name will very likely be written up for the emulation of future generations of schoolboys on the walls of the Army class-room of his school. But two years of equally severe--sometimes even more severe--competition await him. The Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, not only prepares cadets for commissions in the Royal Engineers, but also in the Royal Artillery. Now the majority of the parents of the cadets--even if this is not the case with the cadets themselves--desire their sons to obtain commissions in the former Corps. A system of competition is therefore followed at Woolwich, in order to settle this question. The cadet must brace himself up for another two years of competition. For this second race all start fair, the marks obtained at the entrance examination being dropped. Once every six months our hero has to spend a week or ten days answering examination papers, the marks at each examination added to those previously obtained. His final place in the class is settled by the aggregate of marks obtained during the two years at Woolwich. Every six months a class of cadets is commissioned, a certain number of these commissions--according to the engineers of the Service--being allotted to the Royal Engineers, the average number being 15. Our hero must therefore be one of the first 15 out of a class of 75, if his original schoolboy ambition to become an officer of the Royal Engineers is to be fulfilled.

Let us suppose that he succeeds in this up-hill task. He is now 19; he can sign his name with the letters R.E. after it; but at what cost! He has spent five years cramming for examinations, every one of those examinations being conducted by outside examiners, who have had nothing whatever to do with his instruction and training.

So much for the existing state of things. What might be substituted for this? Looking first to other countries for hints or guidance, we find in France a very similar system to our own. M. Gustave Lagneau, at the Académie de Médecine, has recently drawn attention to the intellectual over-pressure to which boys are subjeted at the Lycées. MM. Ernest Martin, Béard, Charcot, and Heurot have found that a "considerable number" of students of the French Woolwich--the Ecole Polytechnique--and other schools suffer serious effects of mental strain, short sight, dyspepsia, phthisis, and nervous exhaustion, followed "in many cases" by impairment of the intellectual powers. In condemning the curriculum, particularly of the French Sandhurst--St. Cyr--M. Lagneau said that a large number of students leave school with worn out brains, and find themselves at the age of thirty-five or forty incapable of intellectual effort.

A different system holds the field in Germany. Appointments in their cadet schools are entirely by nomination, preference being given to the sons of the officers. At the end of the course an examination is held to see whether or not the cadets have attained a certain standard. Should they attain that standard they are eligible for commissions. About 30 per cent of the commissions annually distributed are given to cadets. About 65 per cent of German officers obtain commissions direct from school, the requisite standard being the same as for cadets. About 5 per cent have to show by public examination that they have attained the same standard. Commissions are in all cases the gift of colonels of regiments, subject to the unanimous approval of the officers of the regiment.

From France therefore we get a striking confirmation of the view here put forward as to the strain and overpressure resulting from the competitive system. From Germany we get a hint as to the substitution of the attainment of a standard for the severe test of a competitive examination.

Two difficulties, however, at once confront us in attempting to apply this German remedy. In the first place, the large number of officers required annually for the German Army renders a competitive test comparatively unnecessary, the supply of commissions being presumably in excess of the demand for them.

In the second place the highly centralized and organized system of education in Germany renders a comparison between the attainments of scholars in different schools perfectly simple. In England, on the other hand, where there is no central organization for our public schools--each one of which, to a large extent, works on its own system; the Upper Fifth, for instance, in one school working to a higher standard than the Lower Sixth in another--such comparison is at present perfectly impossible.

What then is our best course under the present circumstances? First and foremost undoubtedly to educate public opinion on the question.

It is the duty of all parents to interest themselves in the education of their boys, and so to form a sound public opinion which will help schoolmasters and educationalists generally to reform our present system of education in England. In the second place, although it will be impossible for a long time to graft such a system as the German one upon our English public schools, it is quite within the scope of practical politics to materially improve our present system.

Our want of public school organization and system binds us to the competitive system for entrance to the cadet colleges, but if anyone doubts the possibility of removing some of the present grievous strain, let him read Chapter X. of Mr. Coulton's Public Schools and the Public Needs. This chapter is headed: "How our Army Examinations might be made more reasonable." It refers to the fact that a Committee has been appointed to reconsider our Army examination system, and shows how much it lies in the power of this Committee to save us from our present "over-loaded curriculum," the "ruinous folly" of which Mr. Coulton forcibly points out.

Should this Committee--whose report has not yet been made public--take the line recommended by Mr. Coulton, much of the present strain on the Public School boy will be removed.

Lastly, the strain on the cadet might also be materially reduced by submitting less to the tyranny of marks, and conducting the examinations on the lines suggested by Mr. C. S. Jackson, in his letter on the "Reform of Mathematical Teaching," that appeared in the issue of Nature, dated 17th April, 1902. Mr. Jackson puts forward the following axioms, "in the hope that they may be condemned as truisms":--

(1) "Examinations are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.
(2) "No examination is entitled to any confidence in which teachers or persons in close touch with the teachers have no part.
(3) "Vivâ voce examinations are essential if weight is to be attached to the results of a single examination.

The system of outside examiners has been carried to absurd lengths in England. The School Boards have discovered this, and their inspectors now test teachers and not the taught. If the teacher is inefficient he must go. The inspector can judge of this at his annual inspection to some extent at least, but it is impossible that he should--as an outsider coming in for one day in the year--judge of the attainments of the scholars, however many papers he may look over, and however conscientiously he may mark them.

As to the importance of educating English public opinion on this question, the following sentences from Professor Perry's reply to his critics in his "Discussion on the Teaching of Mathematics," Macmillan & Co., 1901, may be quoted with advantage:--

"Principal Rücker says that the English people will have examinations. This is so, but what kind of examinations? The English people bore for centuries with a great abuse, the entrance of men to professions and the civil and military services by the rules of trades unions and by patronage; and when at length the abuse was too awful to be borne with longer, they declared that there ought to be tests of fitness applied. So the wise men of the country have applied the best tests they could think of. It is surely our duty to educate the wise men so that these tests of fitness shall be real, shall induce real education of every kind in candidates. The word 'examination' has become a technical term for a written examination by an outside examiner, who fixes the curriculum irrespective of the inclinations of pupils and teacher, who sets questions without the assistance of the teacher, who makes a report of fitness of pupils and teacher without inspecting the school, without seeing the pupils at work, without even having any personal acquaintance with the teacher. I do not think that this is what the English people asked for or want (except high school mistresses who would wail if we took away from them their golden calf, their external standard). Several speakers ask for a reform of examinations, but I assert that we want reform of a whole system of dunce manufacture of which examination is only one part.

"Is the reform to come from above or below? In Germany, reforms* always come from above. In England, they come from below, and from above, and from the middle. We must educate everybody. The whole system of teaching and the testing of teaching is absurd, and we must educate parents and teachers and examiners and the wise men who appoint examiners . . . Principal Rücker suggests in the words 'my people will have it so,' that, however bad an examination system may be in the eyes of all the wise men of the country, in the eyes of every writer of every newspaper in the country--for the scorn of the system fills the land--that the English people will cling to it, that 'my people will believe a lie.'"

No! the English people will not, indefinitely at all events, "believe a lie." It is this faith which underlies the very constitution of the Parents' National Educational Union. It is this faith which make it worth while to reiterate certain educational axioms, to continue hammering away and "writing to the Times," until these axioms--to quote Mr. Jackson's phrase--have been "condemned as truisms."

*"Yes, and the reverse of reform! The 'State' in Germany can do what it pleases. The 'Prussia Regulations' of 1854 almost destroyed elementary education; the 'General Provisions' of 1872 rehabilitated it."

Typed by Blossom Barden, Mar 2020; Proofread by LNL, Apr 2020