So farewell, then, to the Common Entrance Exam, bane of a million schoolchildren’s lives since it was introduced in 1904. Three of the biggest public schools — St Paul’s, Wellington College and Westminster — are giving up the exam. From 2021, they will do the pre-test: verbal and non-verbal reasoning, maths and English, taken at the age of ten and 11. Common Entrance was a more gruelling thing, involving up to 14 exams over three days. It’s under-standable that schools want to ease the strain on over-examined children. But all the same, it’s the latest blow to the Great British Eccentric Exam Question. I still cherish the eccentric questions from my own Westminster entrance exam in 1984:
1. Using Newton’s First and Second Laws, explain why drivers should wear seat belts.
2. Why is it less painful, on jumping from a high wall, if you bend your knees on making contact with the ground than if you keep your legs straight?
3. Translate into French, ‘You don’t love me any more, do you? Well, tomorrow I’ll pack my bags and go back to Mummy’s.’
4. Translate into Greek, ‘Who will say that it is easy to learn the Greek language?’ and ‘Let us send away all the children to an island.’
That stilted prose style used for Greek and Latin exams is brilliantly caught by Nigel Molesworth, the sublime creation of Ronald Searle and Geoffrey Willans. In How to be Topp (1954), Molesworth grills his teacher about the Latin he has to translate in exams, saying, ‘The Gauls have attacked the camp with shouts they hav frightened the citizens they hav killed the enemy with darts and arows and blamed the belgians. They have also continued to march into Italy. Would it not be more interesting if they did something new?’
In 1986, I was in the last year to sit the old O-levels. Before I get too smug about how much more difficult O-levels were than the GCSEs that replaced them, it’s worth remembering that my O-levels were much easier than they were in the 1960s. These questions come from the Latin O-levels of 1964 and 1965:
1. Choose any five of the following [names of Roman British towns, not that you were told that] and give the modern names for them: Aquae Sulis, Camulodunum, Deva, Eboracum, Isca Dumnoniorum, Pons Aelii, Verulamium.
2. Explain in not more than five lines each, the reference in history or mythology and the meaning today of three of the following: a) a Pyrrhic victory; b) an Augean stable; c) Fabian tactics; d) between Scylla and Charybdis; e) a Parthian shot; f) crossing the Rubicon; g) Punic Faith.
The style of exam questions had barely changed since the 1930 publication of W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman’s masterpiece 1066 and All That. In their spoof exam questions, they asked:
1. Do not attempt to remember what Mr Gladstone said in 1864 but account for the paramountcy of (1) Milk Puddings, (2) Bags, in his political career.
2. Comment quietly on (a) Tariff Reform; (b) Mafeking Night; (c) The Western Front.
The Sellars and Yeatman approach to exam questions was still thriving when I took the three-day All Souls Fellowship Exam in 1993. All Souls is the 15th-century graduate college at Oxford that’s home to the cleverest clogs in the university. Like Hilaire Belloc, John Buchan and Lords Dacre and David Cecil, I failed the exam. But along the way, I answered some gloriously bonkers questions:
1. How Anglo-Saxon was Anglo-Saxon England?
2. ‘The price of bread tells you everything you need to know about the course of the French Revolution.’ Do you agree?
3. Do historians need to be able to count?
Just last week, All Souls released some pretty good questions from this autumn’s exam:
1. Would you rather be a vampire or a zombie?
2. ‘Music came to a full stop with Brahms’ (Wittgenstein). Discuss.
3. Did the Enlightenment happen?
But the All Souls exam no longer includes its former highlight — a paper simply called ‘Essay’. The question consisted of just one word. In my case, it was ‘miracles’. Other years had ‘chaos’, ‘mercy’ and ‘possessions’.
Tragically, in 2010, the Essay was dropped. The Warden of All Souls, Sir John Vickers, a former member of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee, said the Essay was no longer useful for testing the qualities for admission.
I mourn the death of the Essay and of the Great British Eccentric Exam Question.