History of Overseas Examinations Commission

Jamaican students first sat Cambridge Examinations in Jamaica on December 17, 1882, under the auspices of the Governors of the Institute of Jamaica. Boys wrote their examinations at the Collegiate School and girls did the same at the Institute of Jamaica (IOJ). ​​

Five years later, a pivotal development took place in 1887. On November 10, the Overseas Examinations Commission (OEC) was formed as a voluntary organisation whose mission was to administer Cambridge Examinations to 47 candidates. This was regarded as a large number back in 1887 and marked a significant step towards the beginning of the OEC’s crucial role in administering international exams.

The burgeoning Commission pivoted from the guidance of the Cambridge Local Examinations Committee (CLEC), which was founded in that same year as the Jamaican based agent of the British-based University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (UCLES). As an agent of Cambridge, CLEC undertook the responsibility of guaranteeing that schools participating in the Cambridge examinations met the established standards set by Cambridge.

The Hon. Dr James Phillippo was the first Chairman of the IOJ, and he initiated the effort to introduce Cambridge Examinations to Jamaica. He was also the first Chairman of the CLEC since its inception in 1887. The Secretary/Librarian of the IOJ, Mr H. Priest was soon appointed and served as Secretary to the new Committee until 1889.

Frank Cundall, courtesy of The Gleaner Company Limited

By 1891, Frank Cundall replaced Priest as IOJ’s Secretary/Librarian and later became the CLEC’s Secretary in 1904, serving in that capacity until 1918.

In 1901, a significant policy shift occurred when the Jamaican Government decided to withdraw its financial support for both Cambridge and London examinations, including its £15 contribution towards the latter. This decision stemmed from the Government’s resolve to ensure that the costs associated with overseas examinations were no longer borne by the Jamaican taxpayer. Consequently, this prompted the CLEC to adopt a self-sustaining financial model.

The CLEC first administered the Higher Level (Local) Certificate in Jamaica in 1901 (first introduced to England in 1892). In order to qualify to sit these exams, students had to be approximately 18 years of age and must have completed the two-year Senior Cambridge course of study. The Higher Level (Local) Examinations ended in December 1922 and by July 1923, it morphed into the Higher School Certificate.

While the Jamaican Government expressed satisfaction with the autonomy and proficiency of the CLEC, it took the initiative to develop and introduce other examination alternatives within Jamaica such as the Jamaica Local Examinations and the Jamaica School Certificate. Between 1919 and 1939, Cambridge’s response to the initiative saw a commitment to adapting examinations to meet the different conditions of a diversified empire through a comprehensive reassessment of its overseas examinations.

Reverend E. Armon-Jones, Chairman, 1947-1950

In 1947 the Cambridge Local Examinations Committee (CLEC) dissolved itself and was immediately reconstituted under the leadership of Chairman Rev. E. Armon-Jones.

The brief Armon-Jones Chairmanship witnessed an effort to put the finances of the CLEC on a more secure footing. The Administration also confronted the challenge of Independent Schools and Private Candidates while supporting the efforts of Cambridge to “localise” syllabuses. The Government of Jamaica, without becoming deeply involved in administering the overseas examinations, facilitated the CLEC in various ways — including granting exemption from Customs Duties for the importation of examination materials in 1946.

J.J. Mills, Chairman, 1951-1966

Mr J.J. Mills succeeded Rev. Armon-Jones who died in office in 1950. Mills served as Chairman of the CLEC from 1951 until his death in 1966. The Mills chairmanship coincided with important political changes across Jamaica and the Caribbean, including the federal experiment which spanned from 1958 to 1961.

In 1951 the General Certificate of Education (GCE) ‘Ordinary’ and ‘Advanced’ level examinations were introduced in Jamaica replacing the Cambridge School Certificate and Higher School Certificate. The merger of the administration of Cambridge and London Examinations under a revised CLEC between 1957 and 1969 was therefore a significant institutional development. A discussion of the merger of Cambridge and London Examinations under the aegis of the CLEC between those years culminated in the restructuring of the CLEC into what is now the Overseas Examinations Committee (OEC). The inaugural meeting of the OEC took place at 10A Caledonia Avenue on November 29, 1969. The OEC took over the responsibilities and the assets of the CLEC and the University of London Examinations Committee. The OEC would administer the following examinations:

  • Cambridge Local
  • London University
  • Associated Examining Board
  • City and Guilds
  • Union of Lancashire and Cheshire Institutes
  • Royal Society of Arts
  • Pitman

The process of establishing the OEC had taken 12 years. The OEC officially became the institution primarily responsible for all overseas examinations conducted in Jamaica.

On January 24, 1973 the Gleaner newspaper in Jamaica announced that the Caribbean Examinations Council was intended to replace school examination bodies in Britain, indeed, the CXC succeeded Cambridge as the main examining body in the Caribbean.

Following the death of J.J. Mills in 1966, E.A. Barrett who had been principal of Cornwall College and a member of the Cambridge Local Examinations Committee was unanimously voted in as the new Chairman.

The OEC’s first headquarters at Piccadilly Road

Three important changes took place during Barrett’s tenure: The establishment of the OEC in 1969; the inauguration of the CXC examinations in 1979; and the purchase of a permanent headquarters for the OEC. In 1977, the OEC purchased its own property at 2A Piccadilly Road, for a payment of $220,000, and signed a contract to remodel and repair the clubhouse of the St Andrew Lawn Tennis Association, who was the previous owner of the property. Piccadilly Road has since remained the headquarters of the OEC to date.

Mr Barrett served as Chairman from 1966 until his retirement in 1983. Two issues emerged towards the end of his term as Chairman: the legal status of the OEC and the question of financing. Following his retirement, Mr. Barrett continued to serve as one of three Trustees for the organisation. This appointment was aimed at giving legal status and permanence to the Committee which previously comprised volunteers. The OEC’s assets were at this time vested in the three Trustees in 1983: E.A. Barrett, N.S. Jackson and E.H. Cousins.

In 1983, Ellorine Walker became the first woman Chair at the OEC (1983–1995). The former principal of Merl Grove High School succeeded Mr. Barrett and during her chairmanship she was credited for the expansion of the OEC. Unfortunately, each of the three Trustees passed away before “legal action had been undertaken in respect of the Trust Deed”.

By 2005, the legal status of the Overseas Examination Committee and the Board of Trustees was resolved definitively. The Overseas Examinations Commission Act of 2005 incorporated the old Overseas Examinations Committee and renamed it the Overseas Examinations Commission. The OEC continues to administer examinations for London and Cambridge which have largely been replaced by the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) and Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination (CAPE). The then Minister of Education and Youth, Hon. Maxine Henry Wilson, proclaimed April 1, 2006, as the effective date of the Commission, which was published in the Jamaica Gazette. The Commissioners were named in February of 2007, and their names gazetted on Thursday, February 15, 2007 – a momentous event that almost coincided with the inauguration of a new office building that same year.

In 1998, there were changes to the administrative structure of the OEC following the retirement of Executive Secretary, Phyllis Cargill, who was succeeded by her deputy Beryl Urquhart, becoming appointed as the first Director of the Overseas Examinations Office. Dr Neville Ying succeeded Ms Walker, who resigned after 12 years of service as Chairman, in 1996. A Deputy Director, Hector Stephenson (former Principal of St George’s College), was appointed in June 1998. Following the retirement of Mrs. Urquhart in 2010, Mr. Stephenson succeeded her and has since led the Commission as its Executive Director.

The Overseas Examinations Commission’s 135-year history is a testament to resilience and adaptability. Its sustained success for more than a century is largely attributed to its capacity to navigate through the ebbs and flows of changing times, while simultaneously maintaining its financial viability, firmly securing its role in Jamaica’s educational landscape.