Skip to main content

University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (1857-2021)



  • Existence: 1857 - 2021


The University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (UCLES) is a not-for-profit, non-teaching department of the University of Cambridge. It provides educational assessments for learners around the world under the brand name Cambridge Assessment. UCLES operates three major awarding bodies: Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations (OCR), Cambridge Assessment International Education (Cambridge International), and Cambridge Assessment English (Cambridge English), as well as Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing (CAAT) and the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM).

UCLES was set up as a University Syndicate (governing council) in February 1858, to run public examinations for students who were not members of the University. The exams would be held ‘locally’ at regional centres presided over by Local Secretaries. The first UCLES examinations were held in December 1858, following the decision by the University of Oxford, a year earlier, to set its local examinations in July. The Senate (the University’s governing body) appointed twelve ‘Syndics’ and a Secretary - who was a University academic and the sole employee - to run the examinations under the Chairmanship of the Vice Chancellor. They wrote the examination questions, administered the examinations as Presiding Examiners, and marked the scripts. As the organisation expanded, administrative staff and examiners were appointed, and Local Secretaries established in centres. Within the University, UCLES was called the Local Examinations Syndicate (LES). Between 1878 and 1925, it combined with the Local Lectures Syndicate (now the Institute of Continuing Education) to form the Local Examinations and Lectures Syndicate, headed by a Secretary, with an Assistant Secretary responsible for each. Initially, the Secretary was appointed annually, and business was conducted from the Secretary’s College rooms. George Forest Browne was the first long term Secretary from 1870 to 1892 and, in 1886, operations moved from his rooms in St Catharine’s College to purpose-built premises, known as the ‘Syndicate Buildings’ on Mill Lane, Cambridge.

The examinations were aimed at providing a benchmark of standards in schools and were popular with middle class school leavers intending to enter professions. Until 1951 all the examinations were certificate qualifications, requiring candidates to pass in a range of subjects in order to gain a certificate. The Junior Exams were for candidates under seventeen and the Senior exams for candidates under nineteen. Passes in Arithmetic, English Grammar and Religious Knowledge were compulsory, but the latter could be dropped if parents objected. In 1865 girls were accepted, initially on a three-year trial. From 1869 to 1922, women over eighteen (and later men) could take the Higher Exams as a pre teaching qualification or matriculation to Girton and Newnham Colleges. The Preliminary Exams were available to candidates under fourteen from 1895 to 1939. In 1917 the Board of Education introduced a national system of qualifications and the School Certificate and Higher School Certificate replaced the ‘Cambridge Locals’ for candidates in the UK.

UK education was standardised further by the 1944 Butler Act which introduced the single subject qualification, the General Certificate of Education (GCE) in 1951. Ordinary (O) Level and Advanced (A) Level qualifications were supplemented by Alternative Ordinary (AO), Scholarship, and Special papers. UCLES managed its GCE examinations through its School Examinations Committee. This comprised representatives from schools, the local education authority, and the Syndicate and were supported by Subject Committees who prepared and approved syllabuses, reviewed papers and instructed examiners and moderators. As UCLES continued to expand, it moved to ‘New Syndicate Buildings’ at 1 Hills Road in 1965 and two extensions, the Sir Ivor Jennings Building and the Frank Wild Building, were completed in 1970 and 1985.

As successive governments extended the school leaving age, demand grew for a broader school leaving qualification. Regional Examining Bodies were established to run the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) from 1965 and comprehensive schooling began to replace the tripartite system of education. The government launched a new single subject qualification at sixteen, the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), requiring GCE and CSE Boards to collaborate for its introduction in 1988. UCLES, along with fellow GCE boards, the University of Oxford Delegacy of Local Examinations (UODLE), the Oxford and Cambridge School Examination Board (OCSEB) and the Southern Universities Joint Board (SUJB), joined the CSE Boards of the East Midlands Regional Examining Board (EMREB) and The West Midlands Regional Examining Board (TWMREB) to form the Midland Examining Group (MEG). The headquarters were at Syndicate Buildings in Cambridge and in 1997 all these boards merged with the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) Examining Board to form OCR (Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations). These mergers brought new regional offices into the organisation, in Coventry, Nottingham, Birmingham, Oxford and Cambridge and the UCLES Group was formed in 1998.

The earliest overseas examinations were aimed at the children of local colonial administrators and began in Trinidad in 1864. Specific overseas exams emerged in the form of foreign language exams and, more formally, when the Preliminary examinations were dropped for UK candidates in 1920. These were later administered through an Advisory Committee for Overseas Examinations. Specific regional question papers were developed after the Second World War and precipitated moves towards ‘localisation’ where UCLES adopted a new role, training overseas ministries to establish examination councils run along ‘Cambridge’ lines. The West African Examinations Council became the first overseas council to complete localisation in 1964. The School Certificate and Higher School Certificate remained popular overseas qualifications, latterly becoming incorporated with the GCE to enable candidates who did not pass the full qualification to gain a single subject award. UCLES also assisted local education authorities to develop tailored qualifications, such as the Normal (N) Level in Singapore. The GCSE spawned an international version, the IGCSE in 1988 and at the formation of the UCLES Group, Cambridge International Examinations (now Cambridge Assessment International Education) became a separate business stream for the development and administration of international qualifications.

The Certificate of Proficiency in English (CPE), was the first of the English foreign language qualifications, introduced as part of the Highers as the Certificate of Proficiency for Modern Languages and Religious Knowledge in 1913. It was joined in 1939 by a Lower Certificate (LCE later renamed the First Certificate, FCE) and, in 1945, by the higher qualification, the Diploma in English Studies (DES). In 1941 UCLES signed a collaborative agreement with the British Council to promote English Language exams. In 1957 the Executive Committee for Examinations in English for Foreign Students (later English as a Foreign Language) assumed responsibility for the portfolio of English Language qualifications. The foundation of the University Centre of English as an International Language by UCLES in 1988 led to a rapid expansion of qualifications offered, of which the English Language Testing Service (ELTS), later the International English Language Testing Service (IELTS) became the most prolific. In 1988, UCLES took over the administration of the RSA’s English language qualifications and, as part of the formation of the UCLES Group, English as a Foreign Language (EFL) became a discreet business stream. It was later renamed Cambridge English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) before a rebrand to Cambridge Assessment English.

In 2005 the UCLES Group rebranded as Cambridge Assessment, retaining the name UCLES for legal purposes only.

Found in 6 Collections and/or Records:


Examination Reports and Mark Lists, 1919 - 1928

Reference Code: GBR/3243/HOM/ACT/SER/ERL
Scope and Contents

This sub-series contains reports and lists relating to English;Mathematics; History; Geography; Education (general and special courses); principals of teaching; theory of physical training; French; theory of music; drawing; needlework; hygiene; gardening and botany. Includes correspondence between Homerton and examiners teaching at other Universities and printed material from The University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate.

Dates: 1919 - 1928
Conditions Governing Access: From the Fonds: Access to some of these records are restricted under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) 2018, as they contain personal and / or medical data about living individuals. Some of the records in this collection are CLOSED.
Please see individual descriptions for further details or contact the College archivist at
 Management Group

Joint Committees

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

Records of joint committees and bodies formed between University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (UCLES) and other organisations.

Includes records of the Test Development and Research Unit (TDRU), a joint research unit funded by UCLES, the Oxford Delegacy of Local Examinations (UODLE) and the Oxford and Cambridge Schools Examination Board (OCSEB).

Dates: 1918 - 1996

Malaysia Examinations Syndicate, 1955 - 1980

Reference Code: GBR/2086/UCLES/O/MES
Scope and Contents Records relating to examinations in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. The records document UCLES’ operations in Malaysia [formerly Malaya] from shortly before the Malaysia Examination Syndicate was established until shortly after the exams were localised. See the Malaysia Examinations Syndicate agent record for more information.The collection includes meeting papers from UCLES Advisory Committees for the region, files of papers and correspondence between UCLES, the Malaysia...
Dates: 1955 - 1980
Conditions Governing Access: Item UCLES/O/MES/5/4 contains personal data of candidates and is closed. There are no other access restrictions in this collection.

Minutes of meetings of the Local Examinations Syndicate and its predecessor, the Non-Gremial Syndicate, 1862 - 1938

Reference Code: GBR/0265/UA/LES 1
Scope and Contents From the Management Group:

The category - External relations records - comprises records relating to relations with the Crown, central government, the Colleges and the city of Cambridge; also University-initiated outreach, such as adult education, teacher-training, school examining, and alumni relations.

Dates: 1862 - 1938
Conditions Governing Access: From the Management Group: The University Archives are generally freely available to the holder of a reader's ticket for the Manuscripts Reading Room at Cambridge University Library, West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DR. Restrictions on access are imposed on certain categories of sensitive record: financial, governmental and personal, by order of the originating body or under data protection legislation. Access information, including opening hours and how to obtain a reader's ticket, appears as part of the Library's web site (
 Record Group

Newsletters, 1958-10 - 2021-07

 Record Group
Reference Code: GBR/2086/COMMS/N
Scope and Contents

This collection consists of newsletters produced for staff and external audiences.

Dates: 1958-10 - 2021-07
Conditions Governing Access: Includes some collections closed for staff access only
 Management Group

University of Cambridge Local Examination Syndicate (UCLES)

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

Records created and collected by University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (UCLES), later known as Cambridge Assessment.

Includes administrative records, documents relating to exams operated outside the UK, personal papers of those who worked in the organisation, and records of the research team.

Dates: 1858 - 2021