Nine out of ten business executives fail a 1898 entrance exam for eleven-year-olds

The Spectator recently published a copy of a Victorian entrance exam in English history, geography, Latin and arithmetic for King Edward’s School in Birmingham. The 1898 paper was discovered by reader Humphrey Stanbury, whose father sat the exam and passed.

Pupils had to complete Latin translations and know the locations of British towns, names and dates of historical battles, kings and queens, and the origins of selected global produce. Arithmetic tasks included advanced fractions and sums in pounds, shilling and pence. An exam in English grammar involved a handwriting test and required significant analytical ability.

In a snap test at the London Business School only one on ten executives of the class of 2004 could pass the 1898 exam.

Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of schools, said politicians needed to accept the “sad truth” of falling standards. “We’re spending more and more to keep our children at school longer and longer, and yet they know less than their peers did 20, 50, 100 years ago,” he said.

But Paul Woodruff, the director of studies at St Paul’s School in London, said the questions “look mind-numbingly dull and not very difficult”. “It is not evidence of dumbing down, just that the goalposts have moved. What would 1898 candidates have made of: ‘Use a spreadsheet to answer the arithmetic questions. Use the internet to find answers to the geography and history questions.'”

(Try your hand at the 1898 exam and see how you shape – without resorting to Google – for subscribers only)

ANALYSIS >> SYNTHESIS: How this scenario came to be

This is a selection of just a few of the questions eleven-year-olds had to answer to get admission to high school. This is the sub-set that stumped the executive class of 2004.
(For the full text of the exam see the link to the Spectator article below.)

No reference aids or calculators allowed. And certainly not Google.



1. Multiply 642035 by 24506

2. Subtract 3.25741 from 3.3; multiply 28.436 by 8.245; and divide .86655 by 26.5

3. Find the square root of 5.185,440,100


1. Where are silver, platinum, tin, wool, wheat, palm oil, furs and cacao from?

2. Name the conditions upon which the climate of a country depends, and explain the reason for any one of them

3. Where are Omdurman, Wai-Hei-Wai, Crete, Santiago, and West Key, and what are they noted for?

English history

1. What kings of England began to reign in the years 871, 1135, 1216, 1377, 1422, 1509, 1625, 1685, 1727 and 1830?

2. What important results followed the raising of the siege of Orleans, the Gunpowder Plot, the Scottish rebellion of 1639, the surrender at Yorktown and the battles of Bannockburn, Bosworth, Ethandune, La Hogue, Plassey and Vittoria?

3. How are the following people connected with English history: Harold Hardrada, Saladin, James IV of Scotland, Philip II of Spain, Frederick, Elector of Palatine?



1. 15,733,709,710 [2 marks]

2. 0.04259; 234.45482; 0.0327. [2 for each, total 6]

3. 2.2771561 [3]


1. South Africa; South Africa; Australia; Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina; Britain and France; Malaya and the Middle East; France and Eastern Europe; West Indies. [Half mark for each product, total 4]

2. Climate depends on hemisphere, latitude, elevation, distance inland, sea surface temperature upwind, upwind topography, local topography. [1 for each factor, plus 2 for a detailed explanation of one factor, up to a total of 7]

3. Omdurman, the Sudan, was the site of a battle in 1898 between the Dervishes and troops led by General Horatio Kitchener. Wai-Hei-Wai, on the eastern shore of China, was the site of a conflict between the Chinese and the Japanese navies in 1879. Crete, in the Mediterranean, gained independence from Turkish occupancy in 1898. The Battle of Santiago, Cuba, in 1898 was the largest engagement of the Spanish-American War and resulted in Spain’s failure to prevent a blockade of the island. West Key, Florida, was a war port in the Spanish-American War. [Half mark for each place plus half mark for each reason, total 5]

English history

1. Alfred the Great, Stephen, Henry III, Richard II, Henry VI, Henry VIII, Charles I, James II, George II, William IV. [Half mark for each king, total 5]

2. The French Dauphin Charles was crowned king of France at Rheims; Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake for heresy. Guido Fawkes and seven others were hanged; a huge persecution of Catholics in England followed. Charles I tried to raise taxes to fight the rebellion, and he declared war on Parliament when it refused, leading to the Civil War. The surrender of such a large section of the British Army at Yorktown, America, secured the independence of the United States. The Scottish victory at Bannockburn established Robert Bruce upon the Scottish throne; independence followed 14 years later. The death of Richard III at Bosworth ended the Wars of the Roses and Henry VII started the Tudor dynasty. In 878, King Alfred the Great, king of Wessex, led his men to victory over the Danes at the Battle of Ethandune; a treaty was signed restricting the Danes to the north of the island. Plassey in 1757 marked the start of British conquest of India. Napoleon lost his grip on Spain at Vittoria 1813 (the defining moment of the Peninsula War), which became independent of France. [Half-mark for each, total 5]

3. None were born in England but all made a claim to its throne. [1 for the connection, up to 2 for details, total 3]


0-5 Back to business school

5-15 No promotion for you

15-25 You’re possibly living in the past

25-35 Suspiciously competent

35+ Start again, this time without the “educational aids”

Warning: Hazardous thinking at work

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