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Review ~ Cambridge English Exams The First Hundred Years

A very detailed history of Cambridge ESOL exams like CELTA, IELTS and FCE.
Reviewed for by Alex Case
Cambridge English Exams The First Hundred Years

Cambridge English Exams The First Hundred Years

This book is an official Cambridge publication marking 100 years of ESOL qualifications like FCE, IELTS and CELTA from the very first CPE (Cambridge Proficiency in English) test in 1913.

I have to state straightaway that it is difficult to imagine any school or teacher actually paying money to buy this book, and I’m saying that as someone who is rather obsessed with industry trivia. However, the book does have some fascinating information, some of which I’ve shared below. I also imagine there’ll be lots of copies given away by Cambridge to celebrate their centenary, in which case it is certainly worth a look.

The book traces the development of Cambridge ESOL qualifications from CPE in 1913, what was to become FCE in 1939, PET and what was to become IELTS in 1980, CAE in 1991, BEC (Business English Certificates) and KET (Key English Test) in the mid-1990s, the YLE (Young Learners English) and BULATS in 1997, and TKT in 2005 – with many updates, lesser known tests, tests that later disappeared, and name changes along the way.

That history also takes them from three candidates in 1913 to nearly 4 million in 30,000 centres worldwide in 2012, along the way swallowing RSA, Oxford-ARELS exams, and the OET (Occupational English Test). Other interesting numbers along the way include 8 (the number of staff in what was to become Cambridge ESOL in 1988), 12 hours (the length of the first CPE exam), more than 10,000 (the number of approved Cambridge Oral Examiners in the early 90s), over a third (the proportion of FCE exam takers who were Greek in 1986) and 60% (the percentage of Cambridge EFL exam candidates entering through British Council offices in 1991).

I was quite surprised by the number of links to the British Council, including staff working in each other’s buildings, teaching centres set up together, and the last two CEOs of Cambridge ESOL spending much of their previous careers with the British Council.

I also wasn’t aware that some exams were set up specifically at the request of foreign organisations, including KET for the Japanese and the YLE exams for the Chinese.

I’d always wondered why the RSA/ Cambridge CTEFLA and DTEFLA became the Cambridge CELTA and DELTA, and the answers are that they wanted to eliminate the word “foreign” and the merger with RSA mentioned above.

More amusing were accounts of how shambolic and amateurish things were, sometimes until comparatively recently, such as times with no scripts or training for oral examiners, and “One examiner sat at least ten metres away from the candidate; when I explained this was unacceptable, the necessity to avoid picking up germs from the candidate was pointed out. Another examiner munched cereal bars and knitted throughout the test to calm nerves, and another refused to use a clock to time the length of the test as an ‘internal clock’ was sufficient.”

With these interesting tidbits of information, you’re probably wondering why I started by saying there is very little chance you’d want to buy it. One reason is that the story gets very much less interesting after those early days. It also seems to be the case that the nearer the present the book gets, the less it is able to show anything negative about the organisation. That can’t be helped by the fact that one of its two authors was the present CEO of the organisation. Sometimes it becomes like an extended induction session for new employees, with much space taken up with photos of company buildings, biographies and group and individual photos of staff, and long lists of goings on at exam centres new and old. This makes the book quite a slog after the first few pages, despite the nice clean design and light written style.

All of the above makes this a book that only those specifically interested in the history of ELT or people working in Cambridge English would actually sit down and read. However, if there is a copy around it is well worth dipping into to provide some background details for essays, workshops or articles you are writing on exams or the industry more generally (though even this can be time consuming given the less than comprehensive index and lack of reference materials such as timelines and tables summarising statistics).

Reviewed by Alex Case for August 2013
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

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