The Pass School

One of the most frequent enquiries received by the University Archives is along the lines of “My ancestor studied at Oxford, what subject did they study?” This is a deceptively simple question, as it assumes that the route to an Oxford BA has always had its current “shape” – a student is interested in a subject, they apply to specifically study that subject, they receive (if successful) a BA in that subject, usually with an honours class.

However, this was not the case for hundreds of years in the University. Instead, the system we know now is the result of the culmination of an astonishing number of changes to the examination statutes during the 19th century. The full history of these and the motivations behind them would comfortably fill a volume, so in this year, the 150th since its introduction in 1872, we’re going to look at the lead up to and implementation of one such (little known) change – the introduction of the Pass School.

From the early days of the University, then codified in the Laudian Statutes of 1636, students followed a common curriculum. In their first year, students studied grammar and rhetoric via the medium of Latin. From their second year, they studied logic and ethics. From their third year onward, they also studied Greek and Geometry. All of these subjects were studied via the works of Classical authors (Romans and Greeks) and can roundly be described as ‘Literae Humaniores’. The means of examination was oral – students were required to participate in debates and answer questions from a panel of examiners in order to demonstrate their knowledge of specific topics.

However, in the decades leading up to 1800, both Oxford’s curriculum and the means of examination were criticised. The narrow focus on the Classics seemed out-of-step with the range of subjects being methodically studied at other, newer universities, and the need to pass the BA before preceding to study any subject other than the Classics (with very few exceptions) was seen as a barrier to scientific studies. In addition to this, the examination system had become a farce. The questioning sessions had become a set series of questions, with students learning the answers by rote. There was no “ranking” of those examined – all successful candidates were awarded a BA.

It’s unsurprising therefore that many students never bothered to be examined or graduate, and the University, in the face of public contempt, sought to improve the system. Two resulting “themes” in the ensuing changes to the examination statutes throughout the 1800s can be identified – the separation of “pass” and “honours” candidates and the erosion of the common curriculum (through the introduction of new subjects and the ability to specialise).

Page of the original copy of the Laudian statute showing requirements for the BA degree

The first page of statutes relating to the exercises required for the BA degree in the first edition of the Laudian Statutes, 1636 (OUA/WPgamma/25c/1)

The Examination Statutes of 1800 retained the common and familiar curriculum, but made the method of examination more vigorous. A board of six examiners were appointed, with the requirement that at least three examiners were present at every examination. Furthermore, a separate “extraordinary” examination was instituted, which candidates could attend instead of the “normal” examination, which aimed to stretch the most able students. The highest performing twelve students were deemed to have passed, and their names were published, in order of merit.

The attempt was a disaster, with few entrants to the extraordinary exam, and a total of 10 individuals receiving honours between 1802 and 1807. In 1807 the Examination Statutes were again rewritten, but this time the changes were far more successful. Students were examined in much the same way, but all took the “same” examination. Honours were awarded to those who were deemed to have done exceptionally well – both through demonstrating a better understanding of the texts and ideas discussed, but also through displaying having read more widely. Successful students were placed in three groups, with their names arranged alphabetically within the groups – first class, second class, and the remainder who had “satisfied” the examiners. Furthermore, the same statute decreed that there should be two groups of classes – one for Literae Humaniores and one for the Mathematics and Physical Sciences elements of the exam. Thus, it was possible to get a “double first” – for exceptional performance in both elements.

These statutes set the tone for the changes over the next six decades. Class divisions remained, although the number varied, peaking at five (Classes 1-4, and the remainder). The examination of those seeking honours, and those aiming for a pass was gradually, increasingly separated. From 1830 candidates were required to submit in advance to the proctors not only their names, but also the lists of books which they intended to cover and discuss during the examination. Based on the lists of books submitted, examiners would divide candidates into two groups in advance – those to be examined for honours and those seeking a pass – and examine the two groups separately.

The subjects in which candidates were examined were also increasingly separated. In 1825, an additional examination for those seeking honours in Mathematics and Physical sciences was instituted. Once a candidate had passed the Literae Humaniores examination, they could say that they wished to be examined for honours in Maths and Science, and their name would be submitted for a later examination, by a separate group of examiners.

The most significant change came in 1850 when four final examination schools were introduced – Literae Humaniores; Mathematics and Physical Sciences; Natural Sciences; and Law and Modern History. However, the defenders of the common curriculum ensured that this did not mean the end of the dominance of the Classics at Oxford. In order to receive a BA, a student had to pass the examination in two subjects, and one of them had to be Literae Humaniores. All students were first examined in the Classics and only if they passed in that school could their names be passed to the examiners in one of the other three schools. Curiously, this would appear to mean that a student could not “only” study Literae Humaniores!

A depiction of a student's nightmare of examinations

The “horrors” of the common curriculum and oral examination clearly continued to weigh on the undergraduate mind during the 1800s (G.A. Oxon 4° 412 (v.1), folio 12)

However, the writing was on the wall for the defenders of the mandatory study of the Classics. In 1864 the statutes were changed to allow those who were placed in classes 1 to 3 in a single subject to obtain a BA. By 1870, this was extended to those obtaining fourth class honours. As such, those defending the common curriculum were forced to rely on the curriculums for examinations taken earlier in the students’ time at Oxford in order to retain at least some focus on Literae Humaniores – Responsions (introduced in 1808, and by the 1870s generally taken in the first year, with the stronger colleges often insisting on them being taken during the first term of residence) and Moderations (introduced in 1850 and taken roughly halfway through the student’s time at the University).

A student trying to translate from English to Greek during an examination

A caricature of an undergraduate taking “smalls” (the name given to Moderations) depicting the continuing importance of the Classics in examinations (G.A. Oxon 4° 412 (v.1), folio 48)

The recognition of new subjects and the separation of pass and honours candidates culminated in the new examination statutes of 1872 – the first year in which the examination statutes merited a separate printing to the other statutes of the University. The honour schools of Literae Humaniores, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, and Natural Sciences were retained; Law and Modern History had been split into two schools in 1871, and Theology had been introduced as a separate subject in 1869. There were four classes in each subject.

The greatest change in these statutes was the introduction of a specific school for those seeking a pass degree. A pass degree was no longer simply failing to be placed in a class in one of the honour schools. Instead, it was an entirely different course, with a surprisingly modern and revolutionary structure, content and method of examination. The curriculum was separated into groups (subject themes) and had “units” within those groups including some previously side-lined subjects within the University, specifically modern languages. The groups and units in 1872 were as follows:

Group A – essentially Literae Humaniores
A1 – Two books. Either both Greek or one Greek and one Latin. One to be a book of philosophy, one of history.
A2 – The outlines of Greek and Roman history
Group B – essentially Languages, Politics and Law
B1 = English history and literature; OR modern European History with Geography
B2 = French or German language and literature
B3 = The elements of political economy
B4 = A branch of Legal Study
Group C – essentially Mathematics and the Sciences
C1 = The elements of Geometry
C2 = The elements of Mechanics, Solid and Fluid, treated mathematically
C3 = The Elements of Chemistry
C4 = The Elements of Physics

Within this modular and varied course, it was mandated that students had to take and pass at least three units, giving candidates a wide selection of subjects to select from and explore. The examinations for each unit were separate from each other and could be spread over the candidates’ final two years in Oxford.

A marked up copy of the pass school regulations

A copy of the 1883 edition of the Student’s Handbook, owned by a student at the time. One motivation for the publication was to help students navigate the increasingly complex curriculum. The pages relating to the Pass School are clearly marked, indicating options of interest.

The passage of this course into statute was not straightforward. First suggested as a concept to Hebdomadal Council in February 1870, the statute was not passed by Convocation until March of 1872. In the interim, the statutes were the subject of much debate in Congregation, with amendments (often multiple and competing amendments to the same clause) being suggested and sent back to Hebdomadal Council in the intervening years. This prevarication was clearly a source of frustration to the University authorities. When the statutes came to face yet another contested vote in Congregation in February 1872, Dr Pusey, evidently frustrated, was recorded as saying “The last vote [relating to the Honour School of Literae Humaniores] was on principle, the present was a question of expediency. Let the statute pass.” (Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 10 February 1872). The statute passed, by 67 votes to 43.

It is notable that the main suggested alterations and objections were not to the idea of a pass school per se, but related to details as to its implementation. One of the amendments that was included in the final version of the statute was the rule that candidates had to take and pass either unit A1 (essentially Literae Humaniores) or B2 (French or German). This is a curious compromise between attempts to preserve an aspect of the common curriculum (the Classics) with the attempts to introduce a brand-new subject (modern languages) as part of a route to the BA. In a move that seemed to ensure the diversity of the curriculum for those taking the Pass School in an age of increased subject-specialisation, students were not permitted to take more than two units from any one group.

Pages of text containing suggestions for new examination statutes 1869

A copy of the recommendations of the Examination Committee, first proposing the reconstituted Pass School (OUA/HC 1/6/2, folio 45v)

The course came in for criticism, especially in its early days, notably in terms of academic perception. PA Wright-Henderson, a tutor at Wadham College, thought the new pass school widened the ever-expanding gulf between “passmen” and “classmen” which was “founded on the questionable assumption that the passman was an entirely different creature from his counterpart reading for honours.” Pass School coaches were depicted as “cramming” the students by rote in advance of examination (harkening back to the preparation for the questioning sessions of the examinations before 1800), in contrast to the idea of encouraging honours school candidates to read widely and explore their subjects. Passmen were commonly depicted as idle (which is a questionable assumption given that their examinations were spread over a longer period of time) with Edwin Palmer (Corpus Professor of Latin) in 1877 described the teaching of passmen as “a sort of police supervision”.

A caricature of a common perception of a "passman"

A depiction of one of the critical perceptions of “passmen”, spending his time with “ease”, “bliss”, “indulgence”, and rowing, before a period of cramming, and afterwards receiving a BA. A “testamur” was a certificate signed by the examiners, certifying you had passed an exam, and “ploughing” was slang for failing. One of the criticisms of the modular curriculum was that it meant that a candidate only had to repeat a smaller amount of work if they failed one of the three units (G.A. Oxon 4° 413 (v.2), folio 309)

However, the pass school provided a useful route by which the University could introduce new subjects as a part of the BA without (or before) developing a new honour school, and a means by which students interested in those subjects could incorporate them into their degrees. This is most clearly demonstrated with the incorporation of diplomas and certificates within the Pass School. First appearing in the Examination Statutes of 1905, diplomas (and later, certificates) offered a University-issued qualification (although not the equivalent to a degree), which could be obtained in a shorter timeframe, in new “practical” subjects such as Geography, Education, Economics, Engineering, Anthropology and Forestry. As early as 1908, candidates for the pass degree were able to use certificates and diplomas in lieu of completing units – a diploma counted for two units, whilst a certificate could be used in lieu of completing one unit.

Perhaps it is due to this public perception of the school or the emphasis of “otherness” but the pass school did begin to wane in popularity relatively quickly. According to figures compiled for the sixth volume of The History of the University of Oxford, in the 1870s, 30% of undergraduates took the pass school. By 1910, the number had decreased to 16%. Nevertheless, the pass school continued to add further subjects to its growing options over the years. In 1886 Group D was created – Elements of Religious Knowledge. This was followed three years later by a rather different addition when the preliminary examinations of many of the science-related honour schools became units. In 1904, Group E “military studies” was introduced. By 1930, Hebrew, Spanish and Italian formed part of the roster, alongside separate units for English Literature and History.

Although its popularity waned over the years, the pass school did not leave the statutes in this modular form until 1992. However, the existence and structure of the pass school reflects many of the pressures and social opinions that came to bear upon the University examinations in the 1800s. Its introduction marks the beginning of the dominance of the Honours School and the recognition of classes, alongside a desire to simultaneously widen the curriculum whilst permitting specialisation. Its innovative structure can be seen as providing a means for the University to pave the way to a more dynamic and diverse curriculum.

eds. Curthoys, M. C; Brock, M. G. The History of the University of Oxford: Volume VI: Nineteenth-Century Oxford, Part 1. Oxford: OUP, 1997, especially Chapter II, “The Examination System” by M.C. Curthoys.

Brockliss, Laurence W. B. The University of Oxford: A History. Oxford: OUP, 2016, especially Part II.7 – “Students and Teachers” and Part III.9 “A century of Reform”.

Cox, G. V. Recollections of Oxford. London: Macmillan, 1870.

Mallet, Charles Edward. A History of the University of Oxford, Volume III: Modern Oxford. London: Methuen, 1924.



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