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Oxford and Cambridge Schools Examination Board (OCSEB) (1873-1997)



  • Existence: 1873 - 1997


Oxford and Cambridge Schools Examination Board (OCSEB) was established in 1873, following pressure from ‘first grade’ schools for inspection and assessment by a board with close links to examiners and to Oxford and Cambridge Universities. The board comprised Syndics from Cambridge University and Delegates from Oxford University who appointed a Secretary for each side. These Secretaries, who were responsible for the conduct of examinations and nomination of examiners, were in the early years mostly academics who divided their time between OCSEB and university work.

Schools were examined on the internal work of students and at the invitation of headteachers. Certificate examinations were also available, initially in the form of a Higher Certificate for candidates of around 18, accepted for university matriculation. It was joined in 1887 by the Lower Certificate, designed to meet the preliminary requirements of professional bodies, and in 1905 by the School Certificate for candidates of around 16. Examinations were offered three times a year and required candidates to pass a range of subjects to gain a certificate. School inspections could be carried out at any time and covered all aspects of school organisation. Following the creation of the Board of Education in 1917, national School Certificate and Higher School Certificate examinations were introduced in the UK. School inspections continued, in some cases jointly with Board of Education, but these fell into terminal decline in the 1950s. In the 1940s the administrative side of the board was re-organised and full time Secretaries and staff were appointed. With the introduction of single subject General Certificate of Education (GCE) exams in 1951, Science and Maths subjects began to be administered from the Cambridge side and Humanities subjects from Oxford.

From the outset the Board sought to maintain close links not just with Oxford and Cambridge universities, but with teachers, through association with Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ conferences. Schools could commission examination papers on specific subjects and specific combinations of subjects, such as ‘History with Foreign Texts’ were tailored towards particular undergraduate requirements. Some experimental subjects, such as Use of English, proved particularly popular with prospective undergraduates. The provision of bespoke examinations strengthened the board’s links, established from the outset, with prestigious independent schools.

In the 1960s the board set up research groups with educationalists, universities and industry, which led to developments of pioneering curricula such as Nuffield Physics, Salters Chemistry, Avery Geography, the School Mathematics Project and Mathematics for Education and Industry.

A small number of international centres have taken OCSEB examinations, with the first international candidates in Newfoundland, Canada, in 1903. OCSEB developed contacts with schools in the West Indies and the Middle East during the 1920s and 1930s, but by 1968 international examining had virtually ended.

As UK governments increased the regulation of school examinations, OCSEB formed partnerships with other exam boards. In 1979 OCSEB became a member of the Cambridge, Oxford and Southern School Examinations Council (COSSEC) to co-operate on exams taken at 16+. In the 1980s it dropped O Levels altogether, joining the Midland Examining Group (MEG) to administer the new General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE).

In 1994 OCSEB joined with UCLES and UODLE to form the Oxford and Cambridge Examinations and Assessment Council (OCEAC) for the joint administration of its A and AS level qualifications. OCSEB formally merged with UCLES on 01 April 1995, but its suite of qualifications continued to be offered under the OCSEB name. In 1997 OCSEB was recognised in the formation of OCR (Oxford, Cambridge and RSA examinations), a separate business unit of the UCLES Group to administer school examinations in the UK (see the OCR agent record for more information).

OCSEB was housed in several different buildings on both the Cambridge and the Oxford sides. The Cambridge operation moved between the colleges of its Secretaries until it settled at 61a St Andrew’s Street in 1914. It moved to 62 Sidney Street in 1932, before relocating to the newly purchased Brook House, Trumpington Street in 1937. In the 1980s or 1990s it relocated again to Purbeck House, Purbeck Road. The Oxford side was originally based in the Examination Schools, but moved to 74 High Street after the First World War. After temporary moves to 33 Beaumont Street, 40 Broad Street, and a return to 74 High Street, the Oxford administration finally settled in Elsfield Way in 1964. The Oxford office was initially retained after the merger with UCLES, but was closed in 1998.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

 Management Group

Oxford and Cambridge Schools Examination Board (OCSEB)

 Management Group
Reference Code: GBR/2086/OCSEB
Scope and Contents

Records of Oxford and Cambridge Schools Examination Board (OCSEB). Includes administrative and committee papers, personal papers, and publications produced by the organisation. Also includes some exam material, such as syllabuses, question papers and reports.

The records held by Archives & Heritage chiefly represent those of the Cambridge side of the Board, principally from the 1940s onwards.

Dates: 1913 - 1997