In July 1938, at the age of 16, my late father-in-law Jim Dunning took the School Certificate Examination at Pocklington School. After he died in January 2009 I came across a set of eight papers that he had kept for over 70 years. Some of his answers were scribbled in the margins. All the papers were set by a joint board of the Universities of Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield and Birmingham. There were three Mathematics papers, on Geometry, Arithmetic and Algebra; the others were English Language, English Literature, French, Physics and Scripture Knowledge.

The papers are too lengthy to reproduce in the Bishop Burton News so I intend to publish them on the village web-site, but I am reproducing some of them here to give a flavour of what a school leaver was expected to know before the advent of GCE ‘O' Level and, more recently, GCSE. I suggest that most of the questions would be extremely challenging to today's teenagers, if only because of the use of weights in lb. and oz. (pounds and ounces) and lengths in inches, feet, yards and miles. Confusingly, there were also questions in metres and kilograms. Money calculations were, of course, in pounds, shillings and pence (£.s.d).

It is evident that the papers required a great deal of swotting on the part of candidates. Pupils in those days really had to learn their subjects; there was no spoon-feeding and no box ticking of multi-choice questions.

There was also no notion of today's irritating and often absurd political correctness, as manifested by the following instructions to candidates.

In Section A a candidate need not write down more of his working than he finds it convenient to do, but in answers to questions in Section B full explanation and all necessary details of working are required.

Can it be that girls did not take the School Certificate?

It is interesting to notice how some of the questions were set in the social context of the time, as with this Algebra question.

A housekeeper makes 20 lb. of marmalade using 15 lb. of sugar and 21 oranges. Sugar costs 21/2d. per lb., and the oranges were 14 a shilling. The boiling costs 6d. How much does she save by making the marmalade instead of buying it at 8d. per lb.?

Here is an Arithmetic question, which shows how values have changed.

The rates in my borough are charged at 8s. 10d. in the £ on the rateable value. If each penny in the £ brings in £2,008, find the total rates collected and the rateable value of the borough. If £300 is spent on the fire brigade, how much (in pence to 3 decimal places) of the 8s. 10d. does this represent?

The Physics paper included some nightmarish mixed units, such as in this question on Mechanics.

Define specific gravity. Calculate (a) the specific gravity of air, (b) the mass of a cub. yd. of air, assuming that under the same conditions 1 litre of water weighs 0.990 kgm., 1 cub. ft. of water weighs 62.5 lb., and 1 litre of air weighs 1.287 gm.

Describe in detail, and with an illustrative diagram, how you would determine the specific gravity of paraffin oil, no form of balance and no hydrometer being available. Show clearly how your definition of specific gravity is used in the calculation of the result from the observations made.

The Scripture Knowledge paper was in two parts. Only one part had to be attempted (in three hours), comprising a 9-part compulsory question and six out of eleven short questions. Here is a short question from the first part, The Life of Christ with Special Reference to the Gospel of St. Matthew.

Explain as fully as you can why Jesus so often taught by using parables. Illustrate your answer by referring to one parable of which Jesus gave the explanation.

In the second part, The Life and Times of St. Paul with a Special Study of Acts xiii-xxviii; II Corinthians i-ix, one of the six short questions was as follows.

What part did the church of Antioch in Syria play in the Apostolic Age?

The English Literature paper looks formidable because candidates had to study two Shakespeare plays (Richard II and As You Like It), Bunyan (The Pilgrim's Progress), Dickens (David Copperfield), and selected poems by Keats and Browning. In the English Language paper, candidates were tested on comprehension, essay writing, word usage, punctuation and grammar, practically all of which seem to be a mystery to today's school children (universally called ‘students').

The French paper required candidates to translate two passages from French to English and answer questions in English about a complex piece of French poetry with some seemingly bizarre words and expressions.

Now that I have given an idea of secondary education standards before the Second World War, I leave it to you to decide whether 50% of today's teenagers (remember that was the last government's ‘target'?) could have got a university place after having to pass examinations like this one. I think Jim would have had no problem getting a university place nowadays, a thought that would have amused him considerably!

[This article was first published in the Bishop Burton Newsletter September 2011]

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