Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

What can exams tell us that is more than a pass or a fail?

The Scottish National Library has begun the process of scanning Scottish exams papers from the 1880s and are now in the first years of the 1960s. This period covers the change from the Scottish Leavers Certificate to the Scottish Certificate of Education. I was curious to look at the exams my mother sat in 1946, the first group of fifth year secondary school students to do so since 1939 and the outbreak of the Second World War. To do well in these exams was to have the opportunity of going on to study at university. I was drawn to the English Literature paper and felt my respect for my mother grow as I read the questions she had to face. “The metre employed is more appropriate to the spirit of the L’Allegro than that of Il Penseroso but the latter poem better expresses the character of the poet and is, on the whole, a better poem” would have left me a broken seventeen year old, sobbing quietly into my exam paper. 


Source: National Library of Scotland

As I looked at the online archive of exam papers, testing myself on what seventeen-year olds were expected to know about the Synod of Whitby in the history paper, I also found myself asking what was it they were expected to know about literature? What texts were they to have read to be expected to be educated sufficiently to go to university? In other words, what was the literary canon that had been selected for Scottish youngsters on the cusp of adulthood? Between the years 1946 and 1963, years which took Britain from reconstruction to what could be called its modern age, this canon could be summed up as Shakespeare, Chaucer and the English Essayists. The first I expected. The others came as a surprise, long absent from the curriculum as they were when I sat my Higher English Literature paper in 1979. Could you write briefly but effectively about the tale of the Knight, the Nun’s Priest, the Clerk or Pardoner? Could you have given in outline the matter of one essay by either Lamb, Stevenson, Chesterton or Addison which you regarded as a good example of the writer’s style? Nor could I. But that’s what pupils had to do in the 1949 and 1956 exams.

Poetry was also very much to the fore. Reading the titles took me back to my mother and father quoting poetry, often apposite to what was on television, to each other and looking askance on our ignorance of the classics. For classics they were: Isabella, Sohrab and Rustum, The Ancient Mariner, The Lady of Shalott, Marmion, Tam o’ Shanter, Peter Grimes, Michael, The Rape of the Lock, The Pied Piper of Hamelin. My parents were of the generation that learned poetry by heart (you would not have been able to quote from it otherwise) and then in an exam choose two and bring out strongly the differences between them. Strongly, mind you. With classic poetry comes naturally classic literature. Dickens, Kipling, Austen, Thackeray, Conan Doyle, Emily Bronte and George Eliot all had to be read and analysed.  The obligatory question on Shakespeare was worth twenty points and the remaining two fifteen points each. In the one and half hours given to students on the 10th of March 1948, breadth and brevity were required, the twin hallmarks of Scottish education.

You would look in vain for foreign authors for there were none. No Kafka, no Dostoyevsky, no George Sand. A poem or two by Robert Burns would be sufficient to get you through the Scottish component of the course as he, for much of the period I looked at, was the only Scottish writer on which students were examined. The 1955 exam paper would have given you the opportunity to discuss his attitude to birds or flowers (note the emphasis, the Lord help you if you chose to discuss both.) There was no middlebrow and little popular fiction although the 1954 exam bucked that trend by asking for an account of, among others, a novel by either Arnold Bennett or Graham Greene (you could have also written on Bulwer Lytton, now known only for the opening line, “it was a dark and stormy night.)

How would I have done? Possibly not as bad as I first thought. The texts, apart from Shakespeare, come from another educational age. I have read Burke’s Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies but what I would have made of it at the age of seventeen and then have to discuss the extent to which it threw light on its author is anyone’s guess. On the other hand, I was struck by the familiarity of the types of questions asked in these exams. Again and again, examinees had to compare and contrast Richard the Second and Henry Bolingbroke or Burns and Wordsworth (always the same, wee beasties and flowers); write character sketches on Magwitch and Elizabeth Bennett; describe umpteen themes of any number of essayists and wonder what on earth to do with quotes such as “Hamlet is suspicious of nearly everybody.” Technique is, of course, nine-tenths of the game. So, had I read the texts, listened to the teacher, questioned little and memorised pertinent chunks, I might have come out ahead. This was, in fact, what I did for my own exams.

For all that it was a conservative canon I did not feel confronted with an unchanging monolith, however. Change came, if slowly and piecemeal. By the 1950s pupils were required to answer questions on Hemingway, Woolf, Laurie Lee and even Jimmy Porter from Look Back in Anger. In 1959, five years after its publication, the first question appeared on Lord of Flies and in 1963 pupils could choose a poem by Wilfred Owen and discuss its suitability as an introduction to his work as a whole. That, I feel, marks a notable change in literary taste and what young people were expected to read. The questions too changed slightly, becoming more open-ended as if discussion and opinions were being sought. How I would have loved to have eavesdropped on the meetings where questions were devised and selected and old guard crossed swords with the young.

This is a wonderful resource and richly deserves serious study by those more academic than myself. Anything I have written as to the formation or preservation of a literary canon in post-war and early modern Scotland must be shot through with caveats.  What were the new social forces at play in the country? What was the influence of London literary life? Did television have an impact? What fraction of youngsters went on to study at university? Did the Scottish folk revival play a role too? As part of a broader study, these exams can throw light on what we valued as a people and wished to pass on to the young. Or, simply download a paper, unscrew the top of your fountain pen and describe, sketch and compare for an hour and a half. Do not attempt to write on both sides of the paper at the same time.

One comment on “What can exams tell us that is more than a pass or a fail?

  1. Kate
    October 20, 2017

    Brilliant. And what a resource!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on October 19, 2017 by in Entries by Colin, Scotland.



Editorial Policy

The views expressed in the articles and reviews on Vulpes Libris are those of the authors, and not of Vulpes Libris itself.

Quoting from Vulpes Libris

You are very welcome to quote up to 100 words from any article posted on Vulpes Libris - as long as you quote accurately, give us due credit and link back to the original post. If you would like to quote MORE than 100 words, please ask us first via the email address in the Contact details.


  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
  • %d bloggers like this: