In order to be promoted to Sergeant, the British soldier needed to have completed a Second Class Army Certificate of Education. This was a qualification that showed he had mastered certain subjects sufficiently to be considered for promotion and helped weed out those soldiers of insufficient intellectual ability to succeed as an NCO. These exams were held regularly, both in the UK and at overseas garrisons. The certificate had been set up in the mid Victorian era and AR Skelley describes its foundation in his book ‘The Victorian Army at Home’:
In 1861 a new inducement towards learning was the army certificate of education. On the recommendation of the Council of Military Education three levels or standards were set out and were linked with promotion in the ranks. The third-class certificate specified the standard for promotion to the rank of corporal: the candidate was to read aloud and to write from dictation passages from an easy narrative, and to work examples in the four compound rules of arithmetic and the reduction of money. A second-class certificate, necessary for promotion to sergeant, entailed writing and dictation from a more difficult work, familiarity with all forms of regimental accounting, and facility with proportions and interest, fractions and averages. First-class certificates were a great deal more difficult and were required for commissions from the ranks. Successful candidates had to read and take dictation from any standard author; make a fair copy of a manuscript; demonstrate their familiarity with more complicated mathematics, except cube and square root and stocks and discount; and as well prepare for examination in at least one of a number of additional subjects. After 1887 candidates were examined in British history and geography in place of a special subject. First-class certificates were awarded on the results of periodic examinations held by the Council (later Director-General) of Military Education. Second and third-class certificates were presented on the recommendations of the Army schoolmaster. The third-class certificate of education was considered to be too high given the level of literacy of many army recruits, and the Commission urged the introduction of a fourth (minimum) standard.
These certificates were still very much in use in the interwar period and tonight we have a lovely example of a Second Class Certificate issued in 1932 to a private serving in India:My thanks go to Andy Dixon who kindly passed me this certificate, knowing my love of all things Indian. The certificate was awarded to Pte E Dixon of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry:He took his exam in Agra in December of 1932:He studied four subjects:And the award was made in Delhi on 3rd January 1933:Note how the dates have had the ‘2’ crossed out and the year typed next to them! It seems a bit mean of the Indian Authorities to do this when this was probably the only educational certificate Pt Dixon would ever receive!
It is often forgotten how important the army was in educating working class men in the early twentieth century. Many young men joining the military had very limited education, few were truly illiterate thanks to nineteenth century reforms of the education system, but many had left school at a very young age and had only limited reading, writing and arithmetic. The army education certificates encouraged them to learn and prepared them for potential promotion whilst giving an ever more technical military a pool of better educated and more useful men.