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Sunday, 22 March 2020

Two or Three Things You Should Know About Old Oxford University Finals Examinations

Four of the United Kingdom’s five most recent Prime Ministers graduated from the University of Oxford. And quite a few British voters could tell you with what class of degree they did so. It would be unthinkable to write a Wikipedia page or a biography without including such a basic fact, up there with school attended.  For public figures, past and present, politicians or intellectuals, knowing what they got if they went to Oxford (which you can read as generic and include Cambridge if you wish) is an important part of knowing who they are or were. 

But the box easily labelled “What they got at Oxford” is rarely opened for the simple reason that there is nothing inside which we might inspect.

Imagine what happened in, say, June 1968 - sufficiently distant not to trouble anyone’s PR or legal team. That year, three hundred sweating PPE finalists trooped into the Oxford Examination Schools, dressed in sub fusc. On eight occasions spread over a week or so they sat down for three hours and on each occasion they tried to answer, in longhand, four questions which they picked from the dozen or so offered on printed examination papers not previously seen. Over the next few weeks, members of the board of examiners comprised of some among their teachers read the resultant efforts (300 students each writing 32 essays =  9600 essays)collated their marks, met to decide who to call for viva voce, and shortly after published a printed list of the results, posted up in the Examination Schools. Despite the dangers - only thirty students were going to get Firsts - many students returned on the day to read the printed results. 

And that was that. It was all over, except for the One Percent, the three candidates who a week or so later would receive a handwritten letter from the Chairman of the Examiners congratulating them on their performance. Shortly afterwards, all nine thousand six hundred essays would be destroyed. None would be published as “Model Answers”.

To my knowledge, no examination scripts from distant Oxford Finals examinations have survived. I don’t think any student ever secretly kept a carbon copy of what they wrote and hid it in their gown as they walked out; old fashioned pen and ink would not produce a carbon anyway. When it comes to looking at what it took to get a First in 1928, 1938, 1948, 1958, 1968 …a historian of Oxford has nothing to study, nothing which might indicate how essay styles changed, how standards changed. Only the printed examination papers allow access to what was considered examinable. Even those are rarely looked at; I have a feeling that it might be embarrassing.

The deliberate destruction of evidence is understandable; it prevented any challenge to the verdict ever being lodged. Once marked and destroyed, nothing could be appealed. You could not point to course work assessments because there were none. Your tutor could not plead on your behalf because once printed, the results were as Final as Finals themselves. Maybe there were occasional typographical errors; who knows.

There were things which students would grumble about beforehand. It was considered an advantage if one of your own teachers was on the Board of Examiners that year. They would be involved in setting the questions and would be unlikely to set ones on topics which they had not taught you. It would be wildly implausible to suppose that no tutor’s recommendations as to What to Revise were ever influenced by what they knew was coming up on the printed paper. Maybe a whole paper was occasionally leaked.  Students who didn’t have tutors on the Board pumped those who did for any titbits of advice. And, of course, even though the scripts were numbered to provide anonymity they were handwritten and a tutor would probably recognise the work of his or her own students - though in 1968 male students outnumbered female by about six to one and the faculty gap was even larger. 

If you got called to viva that had both advantages and perils: in 1968 Michael Rosen, the children’s author, then taking his Finals in English had an unsuccessful run-in with Dame Helen Gardner, determined to stop him getting a First.   He had alphas in all his papers except that which she marked. She had given him a delta to hole below the waterline his chance of a First and she was not going to retreat; she had a grudge against him which went deeper than any disatisfaction with his examination script. The story is now told in Rosen’s 2017 autobiography They Call You Pisher (pages 289-91).

I still have the breakdown of the marks in each of my eight 1968 Finals papers which combined to give me my degree classification: ααβ  ααβ  ααβ/3  αβ  αβ  βα  βα  βα. That is as open as the box ever can be, but in the absence of the scripts it’s all Greek (the  /3 punctiliously records the fact that in one paper I answered only three questions rather than the required four).


We do things differently now. It is all much more objective. We have course work and percentages and External Examiners - and Model Essays all over the Internet.

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