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The assessment of lower secondary school students in Western Australia: From Junior Certificate to Achievement Certificate 1946-1972

Kaye Tully
Curtin University of Technology
Between 1970 and 1972 the Board of Secondary Education introduced a new credential into Western Australian schools. The Achievement Certificate was a cumulative record of the student's lower secondary schooling. It replaced the Public Examination Board's Junior Certificate examination and the Education Department's accredited High School Certificate. The change was an outcome of recommendations made by the Committee on Secondary Education in 1969. This committee, chaired by H.W. Dettman, identified antecedent policy-making activity beginning in 1952. The change, however, has earlier roots. The introduction of universal secondary education and chronological promotion in government schools in 1946 produced an unfamiliar, intellectually heterogeneous high school population. The apparent mismatch between the new population and existing assessment practices made reform an administrative priority.

The Western Australian Board of Secondary Education (BSE) made its first general award of Achievement Certificates to Year 10 students in 1972.[1] The new testamur quickly displaced the Junior Certificate awarded by the Public Examinations Board (PEB) of the University of Western Australia (UWA). The Achievement Certificate curriculum was utilitarian. It replaced the subject syllabuses of the Junior Certificate with cross-disciplinary cores of knowledge presented as activities and experiences suited to the needs of young adolescents in contemporary Western Australian society. Students participating in the new scheme were assessed continuously by their teachers throughout the three-year course and their results accredited by the BSE.

Although the move to continuous assessment in the high school formalised an accepted evaluation technique practiced less formally in the primary school, it challenged a significant rite-of-passage in the state's educational heritage. The PEB's examination calendar had structured teaching methods and assessment in Western Australian secondary schools since 1913.[2]. Successful Junior Certificate candidates gained a credential that certified their capacity to withstand the pressures of the examination room. Employers recognised the certificate and respected the organisation making the award. Furthermore, with passes in specified subjects the same credential granted the holder access to Year 11. The Achievement Certificate, in contrast, offered the holder no guarantees. It was accredited by an unproven organisation and awarded to almost every student who completed Year 10. Inevitably, in a society that valued formal public examinations such a ubiquitous certificate was devalued.

This paper offers a brief preliminary discussion of three factors that drove the change from public examinations to accreditation in the lower secondary school. They are the decision by the Education Department of Western Australia to introduce universal secondary education and chronological promotion, rising enrolments and retention rates in Year 10 during the 1950s, and the formation of curriculum and assessment policy between 1952 and 1964. It suggests that the Achievement Certificate was an administrative response to the high school population created by the implementation of universal secondary education.

Chronological promotion and universal secondary education

The Western Australian Education Department adopted chronological promotion as policy in 1946.[3] In practice each intake of Year 1 students would pass through the primary grades as a cohort. Children would no longer be required to master the syllabus of one grade before moving to the next. Thus, all government school students would reach Year 8 before their fourteenth birthday, which marked the end of the period of compulsory education required by the Education Act of 1928. Coupled with the implementation of universal secondary education, chronological promotion transformed the government school system.

High school classification for central schools

Before July 1946, when metropolitan central schools were classified as high schools, candidates for entrance to the only government secondary school in Perth sat for a competitive entry examination. Candidates for entrance to country high schools had to demonstrate their mastery of the Year 7 syllabus. The generally uniform standard of attainment of students reaching government high schools that resulted from these practices produced an homogeneous population receptive to the syllabuses developed by the PEB. [4]

By classifying the central schools as high schools on 1 July 1946, the Director of Education Murray Little created in one day an heterogeneous high school population. The transfer of post-primary prevocational courses to the high schools produced an instant multilateral curriculum. It also introduced into the government school system the state's first prevocational high schools. Although they closed within a decade, the Perth and Mount Lawley Junior Technical Schools and Perth Central Girls School, which became Girdlestone High School, were unique institutions.[5]

The extension of multilateral secondary education beyond this initial stage was slow. In 1943, before the decision to adopt universal secondary education as government policy, the School Sites Committee concerned with post-war reconstruction recommended that inner-city central schools in Perth and Fremantle should be closed and new schools built in the suburbs.[6] The same policy was applied to the newly classified high schools but the scarcity of building materials in post-war Western Australia limited its application. Most of the available resources were used to accommodate a burgeoning primary school population and extend the availability of secondary education in rural districts. By 1953 when the pressure of enrolments made the construction of new high schools in the metropolitan area imperative, the possibility of maintaining prevocational schools had disappeared. Large multilateral suburban schools were economically defensible, educationally justifiable and essential to accommodate rapidly rising enrolments.[7]

PEB and change

The amalgamated post-primary and secondary school syllabus made little provision for the bulk of students who would previously have left the primary schools before completing Year 8. The presence in the high schools made curriculum and assessment reform a pressing problem. The purpose of secondary schooling could no longer be defined in terms of preparation for external examinations alone.

In July 1946, the PEB contended that the Junior Certificate syllabus no longer related to the educational needs of the mass of candidates presenting for the examination. Abolition of the examination would free high schools to determine their own standar ds and certification procedures for students in the lower secondary grades. The Board could then be free to focus on upper-secondary education requirements and the problem of matriculation standards. After discussion, however, the matter was referred to a sub-committee for further investigation.[8]

In 1951, the Board decided reluctantly that the Junior Certificate should remain. Without a school-leaving age of 15 years, as legislated in 1943, a sufficient number of trained teachers and satisfactory classroom accommodation abolition of the examination was difficult to justify. When these inadequacies in the delivery of secondary education were rectified, high schools might then be expected to develop their own programs. Retreat from the lower secondary school before this moment would limit the control exercised by the University over the content of secondary education.[9]

In May 1956, the PEB sub-committee on accrediting set out a case for and against the Junior Certificate examination. On the affirmative side, it suggested that the examination set appropriate teaching standards, provided an unbiased assessment of the candidate's ability, offered a credential acceptable to employers, acted as a guide for parents and was a goal for students. On the negative side, the sub-committee argued that schools should teach to the environment in which they found the child rather than to a culturally biased syllabus. This being so, it found that examination assessments were unreliable and a poor guide for employers, parents and students alike.[10]

Following further discussions, in July 1956 the PEB transmitted its report 'Examinations in Secondary Schools' to the UWA Senate. The report called for the establishment of a new independent board that would 'devote its energies to the broad problems of secondary education as well as to the organisation of school examinations'. Students would sit for a General Certificate of Education during their fourth year of secondary education. They would sit for a Higher Certificate of Education during their sixth year in the high school.[11]

The Director General of Education, Thomas Robertson, opposed involvement of the proposed board in anything other than assessment. He wanted a board that would 'be responsible for the conduct of examinations for secondary school, including the examinations and syllabuses to be set, the certificates to be awarded and the examiners to be appointed.' He suggested that the Minister for Education should be approached to provide 'free of cost, the administrative staff for the new Board's activities.'[12] Robertson's objection to a board with such a wide ranging brief is understandable. He was in the process of developing his own reform agenda for secondary education in the Education Department's schools. His agenda drew from observations that he made during his tour of educational institutions in North America and New Zealand as a Carnegie Travelling Fellow in 1956.[13]

Lower secondary school population 1950 -1959

Rising enrolments and retention rates in the post-compulsory years in government schools and the Education Department's desire to raise the school leaving age made the task of reform in the lower secondary school an administrative priority. At the time of the annual census on the last Friday in July 1950 10,689 Years 8, 9 and 10 students were enrolled in government schools. By 1959 that number had grown to 22,330.[14] The proportion of students remaining beyond Year 8 also grew dramatically during the decade. Sixty three percent of the 1950 intake entered Year 9 while 30 percent remained in Year 10. By 1959, 85 percent of Year 8 students remained to enter Year 9 and 61 percent to enter Year 10.[15]

Figure 1: Retention rates for Year 8 students in government and
non-government secondary schools 1950-1962[16]

Non-government school enrolments and retention rates followed a similar pattern to that in the government system. In 1950 there were 4,637 students enrolled Years 8, 9 and 10 in private schools. By 1959 the number had grown to 8,014. The proportion of students retained beyond Year 8 rose steadily. Seventy two percent of the 1950 cohort entered Year 9 and 59 percent Year 10. In 1959, 88 percent of Year 8 students entered Year 9 and 78 percent remained in Year 10.[17]

Convergence of government and non-government retention rates

Historically, non-government school students in Western Australia have tended to stay at school for longer periods than their peers in government schools.[18] The clients of the private schools were parents who valued the rewards that an extended education would bestow on their children and paid the sometimes substantial fees demanded. While students from similar backgrounds enrolled in government schools, their presence did not compensate in the statistics for the students who dropped out of school at an early age to seek employment to contribute to their own maintenance.[19] By 1959, more of these children were remaining in school and the gap in the retention rates between government and non-government schools in Years 9 and 10 was closing.[20]

The rise in participation in secondary education beyond the compulsory age in government schools was an outcome of improved accessibility. The spread of junior high schools in the 1950s gave children in small country towns access to secondary education for the first time. In the metropolitan area, the classification of the central schools as high schools supplied a long felt need. For almost half a century the Scholarship and Entrance examination that identified approximately one percent of the Year 7 population for entry to Perth Modern School had stood as an almost unassailable wall between primary and secondary education. Each year it relegated hundreds of able students to the central schools. Some completed Year 10 but only the most persistent and ambitious individuals transferred to Perth Modern School in Year 11. With the stigma of failure lessened by access to the new high schools and with the lure of post-Junior teaching and nursing bursaries introduced in 1950s, the proportion of metropolitan students completing Years 9 and 10 grew substantially.[21]

Legislation passed in 1962 and 1964 to augment the Education Act Amendment Act of 1943 raised the school leaving-age to 15 years in two stages.[22] In 1963, the children whose fourteenth birthday fell during the school year were compelled to attend until the end of the school year. In 1966, an additional year was added to the period of compulsory schooling. These changes finally drew the retention rates for government and non-government school together and produced a lower secondary school population that was as stable and diverse in its composition as that of the primary school.

Curriculum and assessment reform

What to assess and how to assess it were enduring problem in the government school system. In the 1920s, Cecil Andrews recognised the need for an acceptable credential for students in the post-primary schools. He persuaded the PEB to include commercial subjects, technical drawing and the practical subjects, woodwork, metalwork and domestic science in their calendar of examinations. Accommodation in the central schools was limited, however, so that many pupils in the commercial and junior technical streams of the inner city central schools completed Year 10 as technical school students. Further, many female Junior Certificate candidates in the central schools were excluded from domestic science and studied French as a substitute. Only at Perth Modern School were the facilities sufficient to assure students access to the practical subjects.

High School Certificate

Murray Little recognised the curriculum problem posed by a heterogeneous lower secondary school population. In 1948, he discussed the possibility of introducing an accredited Education Department award for non-academic students who wanted to complete a three-year high school course. He proposed an experimental Education Department accredited program with asses sments in four core subjects - English, social studies, practical mathematics and general science - and a variety of socially and vocationally oriented optional courses. Employers and employer organisations accepted the award in principle as an entry qualification for semi-skilled positions and apprenticeships but rejected it as a qualification for junior white-collar positions.[23]

Called the High School Third Year Certificate and later, the Third Year High School Certificate or, more often the High School Certificate, the new course was introduced in 1951. The scheme was extended to non-government schools in 1961. Despite regular increases in enrolments in High School Certificate courses, the community never fully accepted the certificate as an alternative qualification for practically minded students. The allure of the Junior Certificate prevailed.[24]

Five inquiries

Successive directors of education built secondary education policy around the findings of five inquiries. The first was an internal departmental inquiry chaired by the Superintendent of Secondary Education, Victor Box, which reported in 1954. Two ministerial committees of inquiry chaired by T.L. Robertson followed. The fourth was a review conducted by the Superintendent of Special Education, W.D.Neal. H.W Dettman chaired the final investigation, which justified the introduction of the Achievement Certificate. The inquiries built a body of knowledge that disengaged the secondary school system from its separate academic and practical curricula, its dependence on external examinations and its ties to UWA through the PEB.

Box 1952-1954

The Box report argued a case for chronological promotion based on the needs of the adolescent child. It affirmed that all children should transfer from primary to secondary school no later than the year of their thirteenth birthday. It also recommended a reorganisation of secondary education based on four-year high schools and two-year junior colleges. The proposal, which added a thirteenth year to the state's education system, reiterated a suggestion made by Little in the 1930s. However, its contemporary inspiration came from the example of progressive Local Education Authorities in post-war England.[25]

Box also advocated the abolition of the Junior Certificate arguing that it tied the secondary school too closely to UWA. In its place he recommended the introduction of an accredited award to be made at the end of Year 11. The accrediting authority that he envisaged was a representative 'Board of Secondary Studies' with legislative authority to approve syllabuses and use students' school records to make its awards.[26]

Committee on Secondary Education 1962-63

Unlike the Box committee, the Committee on Secondary Education included representatives from government and non-government education organisations. The committee's recommendations included a call for the formation of a controlling body for secondary education, tentatively called 'the Council for Secondary Studies'. The council would take responsibility for curricula, examinations and the accreditation of government and non-government schools. The committee also called for an alternative qualification to replace the Junior and High School Certificates. To this end, it advocated the establishment of a research project involving government and non-government schools to assess the practical implications of any decision to introduce an accredited cumulative award.[27]

Secondary Schools' Curriculum Committee 1957-1958

The trial for a cumulative certificate proposed by the Secondary Schools Committee had its origins in the Interim Report of the Secondary Schools' Curriculum Committee in 1957.[28] This committee proposed four criteria for a new lower secondary school curriculum. It would build upon primary school skills and attitudes, use material with 'application to the real life situations' in the life of students, develop the common knowledge necessary for citizenship and include experiences to foster pupils' 'special and vocational' interests. The committee identified five areas that it believed the curriculum should encompass. Health and physical education was of primary importance. Under the heading 'Intellectual development and the basic skills' it included English language, mathematics, working skills with application in the school environment, aesthetic appreciation and practical knowledge gained from work in a variety of media. Personal and group relations, responsibility for moral choices and environmental factors and forces made up the three remaining areas.[29] The utilitarian nature of the curriculum outline represented a dramatic shift away from the academic disciplines that governed the organisation of the contemporary high school timetable

Neal Review 1964

The Acting Director of Special Services, W. D. Neal, reviewed the development of the new curriculum in 1964. Curriculum subcommittees established following completion of the Interim Report had outlined a course of study organised in annual units. Units in English, mathematics, science and social studies were trialed in several pilot schools. Neal noted that 'the major problem from the point of view of implementing the principles of the Interim Report has been to introduce new ideas and new courses into the existing pattern of secondary education.'[30] The best that could be accomplished was to persuade the PEB to accept Science A, Science B, Social Studies A and Social Studies B as Junior Certificate examination subjects. Unfortunately, this tied the curriculum experiment to the existing conservative assessment practices and institutions.

Neal's solution was to develop a cumulative award for academic students that recorded the holder's achievements during the first three years of secondary schooling. A trial was initiated in 1964. It involved a small group of academically talented Year 8 students in government schools. The experiment was restricted to the Junior Certificate syllabuses for English, French, Social Studies A and B, Arithmetic and Algebra, Geometry and Trigonometry, Science A and B, Art, Home Science, Technical Drawing, Woodwork and Metalwork. The Education Department awarded Achievement Certificates to students participating in the experiment in 1966. In keeping with the recommendations of the second Robertson report, the scheme was then extended to include non-government schools and a wider range of government schools and the introduction of comparability testing.[31]

A parallel experiment based on an extended High School Certificate ran in selected metropolitan and country high schools. In 1964 L.W. Louden, who was Chair of the Achievement Certificate General Committee, had proposed that the general education of 'low ability students' in Year 9 and 10 should be restricted to 14 periods in a 40 period week. Social and physical education would take up 12 periods while prevocational and leisure education would take up 14 periods. Included in this section of the work would be courses in retail trade, horticulture, agriculture, building, transport, home management, deportment, home management and work experience.[32] Louden's uncompromising emphasis on prevocational work was at odds with Neal's contention that prevocational subjects should be kept to a minimum in the lower secondary school. Despite the difference and shortages of accommodation, equipment and administrative support, the trial went ahead.[33]

Committee on Secondary Education 1967-1969

The Achievement and High School Certificate trials paralleled the work of the inquiry conducted by the Committee on Secondary Education chaired by H.W. Dettman. The committee's report, Secondary Education in Western Australia, rejected the streaming of students on the grounds of general academic ability or presumed post-school occupation. It preferred instead a common general curriculum, with the cross-setting of students in English, mathematics and science to create intellectually homogeneous classes.[34] Such an arrangement presupposed that all students would devote an equivalent amount of time in the school week to general education in their first two years in the high school. Only in Year 10 would students working at the basic level in one or more core subjects devote additional time to prevocational electives.[35]

More importantly, the Dettman committee recommended that external examinations should be discontinued. It suggested the establishment of a representative Board of Secondary Education to oversee the curricula of all secondary schools in Western Australia. This body would also be responsible for the certification of Year 10 and Year 12 students. Unlike the PEB, which was tied to the UWA, the board would be 'an autonomous body empowered to receive moneys and incur expenditure to acquire premises, engage staff and perform such other duties as fall within its ambit.'[36]

Although the recommendations of the Dettman report were not favourably received in the community, the Minister for Education, Edgar Lewis introduced a bill to establish the Board of Secondary Education in the Legislative Assembly in November 1969. The new organisation was 'divorced from the Education Department and completely autonomous, as is the Public Examination Board, which, in time, it is expected to supplant.' He argued that autonomy was essential if the community and non-government schools were to accept the transition from public examinations to school-based assessment. The board would concentrate initially on the development of the lower secondary school curriculum and certification procedures. As well, it would 'explore with ...[tertiary institutions] ways of enabling them to select suitable students without imposing on them the unsatisfactory external examination system.'[37]


The implementation of the Achievement Certificate program was an expedient change to accommodate the diverse range of interests and abilities of the students brought into the secondary school by chronological promotion. It is clear that the transition from public examinations to accredited school-based assessment was driven by administrators within the Education Department of Western Australia. A second factor in the change was the desire by the PEB to divest itself of the Junior Certificate examination. The Achievement Certificate was not a necessary reform. Either the PEB or the Board of Secondary Education could have maintained the Junior Certificate examination. Likewise either the Education Department or the Board of Secondary Education could have maintained and developed the High School Certificate program. By February 1969 when the Dettman report was submitted to the Minister for Education, however, the Education Department was committed to the introduction of the Achievement Certificate. The non-government sector had little choice but to follow.


[1] The Board of Secondary Education was established by parliamentary statute in 1969. See Education Act Amendment Act, No 91 of 1969.

[2] The Public Examinations Committee met first from 12 December 1913. The initial meeting of the fully constituted PEB under UWA statutes took place 4 October 1915.

[3] The policy is outlined in a report prepared for the Director of Education Murray Little in 1945 by Thomas Robertson. See Education Department File (EDF) 962-37.

[4] Perth Modern School in West Perth was the metropolitan high school. Other schools were located at Albany, Bunbury, Geraldton, Northam and Kalgoorlie.

[5] In 1946 the population of Years 8, 9 and 10 students in Western Australian government schools numbered 9 364, 7 316 of whom were in post-primary classes in the primary schools. Of the latter group, 5 564 attended the ten metropolitan central schools: Fremantle Boys' School, Princess May School, Claremont Central School, Perth Boys' School, Perth Girls' School, Perth Girls' Central School, Perth Junior Technical School, Mount Lawley Junior Technical School, Kent Street Central School and Midland Junction Central School.. There were 2 001 lower secondary students in the State high schools. Figures calculated from Annual Report of the Education Department of Western Australia for 1947 (AR 1947).

[6] EDF 299-63, M.G. Little, School Sites Committee, 4/8/1943.

[7] See K.L.Tully, An Historical Study of the Emergence of the 1958 Comprehensive Secondary Education Policy within the Education Department of Western Australia, MA Thesis, Curtin University of Technology, 1993, pp. 170-181.

[8] PEB Minutes, Meetings held 9/7/1946 and 26/7/1946.

[9] PEB Minutes, Meeting held 5/10/1951. See also Education Act Amendment Act, No. 30 of 1943.

[10] PEB Minutes, Meeting held 4/5/1956.

[11] PEB Minutes, Meeting held 27/7/1956 and EDF 704-58, Colsell Sanders (Chair PEB) to Vice Chancellor, 22/11/1957.

[12] Robertson's undated note in EDF 704-58.

[13] See T.L. Robertson, Report (prepared for the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Hon. Minister for Education, Western Australia) on his visit to observe Education in the United States of America, Canada, New Zealand, etc., Typescript, 1957.

[14] Retention of Year 8 students in government school in the 1950s. Figures from ARs 1950-1966

Year 8Year 9Year 10

19505 868
19516 0693 707
19526 2974 1411 742
19536 5304 3822 186
19547 1894 5892 283
19557 5155 2502 560
19567 9725 7663 172
19578 8126 4293 619
19588 7717 3744 242
19599 9467 3725 012
196011 4318 4565 147
196111 7249 9956 076
196211 97810 3847 484
196310 9117 826
19648 389

[15] See Figure 1. The retention rates expressed make no allowance for students transferring between the government to non-government systems or for students from outside Western Australia entering either system.

[16] Retention of Year 8 students in non-government school in the 1950s. Figures from ARs 1950-1966.

< td>2 533
Year 8Year 9Year 10

19502 073
19512 2031 494
19522 2371 6541 219
19532 1831 8181 376
19542 4891 8001 463
19552 6502 0771 441
19562 6702 1851 697
19572 9842 2641 835
19582 9582 5441 916
19593 2532 5492 212
19603 5602 8812 192
19613 5943 151
19623 5273 2082 727
19633 2282 821
19642 852

[17] See Figure 1.

[18] David Mossenson, State Education in Western Australia 1929-1960, University of Western Australia Press, 1972, Appendix I, p. 161.

[19] The goal of the pre-1946 post-primary school was to cater for working-class children. See Cecil Andrews, Report on Education Organisation, Government Printer, 1912.

[20] See Figure 1.

[21] Recognition of community dissatisfaction with the division between post-primary and secondary education was a motivating factor in the decision to introduce universal secondary education. See T.L. Robertson, A General Outline of Proposals for the Amalgamation of Post Primary and Secondary Education, 1945, in EDF 962-37.

[22] See Education Act Amendment Act, No. 37 of 1962 and No. 26 of 1964.

[23] EDF 261-49, Director of Education to Minister, 23/8/1949.

[24] AR 1970, p 3.

[25] Contributed [M.G. Little], 'Post primary Education', Education Circular, Vol. 37, No. 6, 1935, pp. 205-207 See also West Australian,4/2/1935.

[26] EDF 1342-52, V. Box, Secondary Education, 13/5/1954.

[27] Committee on Secondary Education (T.R. Robertson, Chair), Report on Secondary Education 1963, Government Printer, 1963, pp. 52-54.

[28] Secondary Schools' Curriculum Committee (T.L. Robertson, Chair), Interim Report of the Secondary Schools' Curriculum Committee, Government Printer, 1958, p 7.

[29] Ibid., pp. 12-18.

[30] W.D. Neal, The Secondary School Curriculum: A review of developments in Western Australia 1958-64 with proposals for the future, Government Printer, 1964, pp. 17-19

[31] EDF 1519-58, Neal to Robertson 4/2/1964. See also EDF 1673-64.

[32] EDF 2004-57, L.W. Louden, Curriculum development for lower ability students in secondary schools, 29/12/1964 and W. Pirrett, The High School Certificate Curriculum and the Raising of the School Leaving Age, 21/1/1965. See also EDF 1238-65.

[33] Neal, op. cit., p. 21.

[34] Report of the Committee on Secondary Education, (H.W. Dettman, Chair), Secondary Education in Western Australia, Education Department of Western Australia, 1969, p. 88.

[35] Ibid., Appendix 8.

[36] Ibid., p. 107. The Petch report prepared for the UWA Senate supported the notion of accreditation and external examination. See J.A. Petch, Report on the Public Examination System in Western Australia, Government Printer, 1964.

[37] Western Australian Parliamentary Debates 1969, pp 1085-1087.

Please cite as: Tully, K. (1999). The assessment of lower secondary school students in Western Australia: From Junior Certificate to Achievement Certificate 1946-1972. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 1999. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/1999/tully.html

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