The ancient Chinese exam that inspired modern job recruitment

Notes being taken during a meeting Image copyright PA

In Victorian England, getting a job was all about who you knew. But have things really changed that much, asks Lucy Kellaway.

Getting an office job can be a complicated process. There are the headhunters and references, psychometric testing and endless interviews.

Even these aren't the straightforward things they used to be. Interviewers have got tired of listening to dreary, predictable answers to "Why do you want to work here?".

They have started asking wacky questions. At Goldman Sachs, they supposedly sometimes ask: "If you were shrunk to the size of a pencil and put into a blender, how would you get out?"

Yet whatever the method, everyone agrees that the aim is to hire on merit. But it wasn't always that way.

The idea that the best man for the job was the one who was, well, the best, was once quite unheard of. In the beginning it was all about who you knew and who you were related to. Employers couldn't care less whether you had any skill.

Author Anthony Trollope described the hopelessly unprofessional way he was hired by the Post Office in 1834.

"I was asked to copy some lines from the Times newspaper with an old quill pen, and at once made a series of blots and false spellings… (The next day) I was seated at a desk without any further reference to my competency."

But for every Trollope, the haphazard system of patronage and pure luck could also produce a Lord Decimus Tite Barnacle, the hidebound bureaucrat created by Dickens in Little Dorrit.

Barnacle was head of the Circumlocution Office and believed in only hiring his relations. Dickens describes the bloated bureaucracy where the principle is never, on any account whatever, give a straightforward answer.

Explaining how the office dealt with an application, a younger member of the Barnacle clan said: "We shall have to refer it right and left, and when we refer it anywhere, then you'll have to look it up."

But things were changing. As the British Empire expanded, officials were beginning to get ideas from elsewhere on how they could do things better.

The Chinese had developed an examination system from hell that you had to pass to get into the imperial service. In place since the 7th Century, it consisted of a cascading series of dawn-to-dusk tests for which you had to memorise 400,000 characters of Confucian text and master the fiendishly rigid "eight-legged essay". The pass rate? A mere 1-2%.

But the Brits were impressed, and some thought that exams could help them make a better fist of running the Empire.

Charles Trevelyan, the permanent secretary to the Treasury 1840-59, was horrified by the Barnacle types in the civil service, once describing a colleague, as a "gentleman who really could neither read nor write, he was almost an idiot".

By nature Trevelyan was a total stickler, intolerant of all fripperies. He liked to correct his Treasury colleagues' punctuation and was always keen on saving money on candles and newspapers. And he had no small talk.

"His topics, even in courtship, are steam navigation, the education of the natives, the equalisation of the sugar duties, and the substitution of the Roman for the Arabic alphabet in Oriental languages," said his brother-in-law, Lord Macaulay.

In 1853, after years of badgering Whitehall about his pet scheme, Trevelyan got his chance. William Gladstone, who had just been appointed chancellor, asked him to write a proposal, which became known as the Northcote Trevelyan Report. Trevelyan gleefully tore into the mediocrity and inefficiency of the civil service.

Now stored in the parliamentary archives at the House of Commons, the report is incredibly short - a mere 20 pages - which may have meant people actually read it. It talks about a proper system of examination before appointment - "proficiency in history, jurisprudence, political economy, modern language, political and physical geography… besides the staples of classics and mathematics".

"It was quite a lengthy process before it actually got enacted but essentially it turned from a system of patronage to a system of meritocracy of young men that were selected for the civil service on basis of academic brilliance in maths or Greek," says Prof John Greenaway from the University of East Anglia.

But the issue was contentious.

Trevelyan and Gladstone thought that academic success would provide a guarantee of moral probity and diligence - the qualities of a good student.

"But many who opposed it said it was actually no test of character and any Tom, Dick or Harry who happened to be good at maths could be advising on secret treaties," adds Greenaway. "With the old system of patronage, the advantages were in theory that people could trust the nephews of friends of theirs."

On hearing the report, jaws dropped in the gentlemen's clubs of Piccadilly. Queen Victoria wrote to Gladstone worried that it would let the wrong sort of person in. The Prime Minister Lord John Russell was outraged too. "In future our board of examiners will be in place of the Queen, our institutions will become as harshly republican as possible. I cannot say how seriously I feel all this," he wrote.

From the press came their worst possible insult, then, as now - it was too European. Too German even.

"Surely John Bull would not be so insane as to set up an Austrianised bureaucracy in Downing Street," said one article.

"Patronage was a means of cementing political power," suggests Greenaway. "People would vote for you if you provided their nephews or sons places in the civil service."

Gladstone sought to calm the prime minister, assuring him that the reforms would not mean that any old oik could get a job and that the ruling class was safe. "One of the great recommendations of the change in my eyes… would be its tendency to strengthen and multiply the ties between the higher classes and the possession of administrative power," he said. "I have a strong impression that the aristocracy of this country are even superior in their natural gifts on the average to the mass."

So what happened? In classic Whitehall style, the report was kicked into the long grass. Then the Crimean War intervened. But in 1870, 17 years after it was written, its recommendations finally began to be put into practice, laying the foundations of the modern civil service. Trevelyan got his way.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Civil servants in 1919. Moustaches had been deemed optional

But was he really a great meritocrat?

"He wanted young people to be chosen who had merit - the very best," says Greenaway. "But he believed that the best were to be found in the gentry, in the professional classes. As the 19th Century went on, the education system mirrored the social system. The universities in Oxford and Cambridge and public schools became the preserve of the gentry and the professional classes - clergy and lawyers and so on."

Education locked in what used to be patronage, replacing it in a way that was acceptable to the conservatives who had been fearing that these exams would undermine the social fabric of the country.

From then on, upper class simpletons didn't get jobs in the civil service.

There were exams for all - slightly easier ones for the "inferior roles" and harder ones for the "superior" policy-making ones.

And that's how it remained. I know this to my cost, having failed to get one of those superior jobs at the Treasury some 30 years ago. I now know I have Trevelyan to thank for that.

But 150 years on, do we think differently? Modern employers believe behaviour is as important as academic brainpower.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption At a graduate recruitment fair

It is now standard practice for bright graduates looking for top jobs - in both public and private sectors - to traipse off to assessment centres where they have to pretend to lead a team, sell something or give a presentation.

Whether that is really any more meritocratic than having to recite the names of the chief magistrates of Rome, I'm not sure.

But it should be noted that despite all the effort put into recruitment these last 150 years, nepotism still isn't quite dead. Even Trevelyan found himself able to overlook his passionate belief in merit when it came to finding jobs for his own friends and relations. He was endlessly writing letters to grandees in India trying to secure a job for his brother, and also happy to give more distant relations and cronies a leg-up.

It's quite shocking. Or is it? Fast forward to the present day to see just how comfortably meritocracy and nepotism still co-exist. To get a sought-after internship at one of the big investment banks, what do you need? A great CV, a good degree and the ability to write a cracking cover letter.

But if your dad also happens to play golf with a senior vice-president, well, the job's as good as in the bag.

This piece is based on an edited transcript of Lucy Kellaway's History of Office Life, produced by Russell Finch, of Somethin' Else, for Radio 4. Episode three, The Career Ladder, is broadcast at 13:45 BST on 24 July

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