Foundation: Too Easy To Fail?

Kelly reading the Foundation book
Studying for Foundation

There was an interesting discussion thread rumbling away in the Unofficial RSGB Members Facebook Group recently that I thought I’d share with you. As always, comments in the section below would be very welcome, if you’re interested in training.

The topic was the Foundation exam, asking “Why do so many people fail?”

Looking at the most recent numbers, 1,475 people passed Foundation in 2015, with a pass rate of 84.5%. A pass means completing the Foundation practicals, and getting 19 or higher in a 26 question multiple choice test. So why, in 2015, did 15% (over 330 people) fail?

One poster in the Facebook group has suggested that it could be for a combination of reasons: Perhaps some candidates lack the ability, fail to put in the study required, or stuck in the ways and habits of CB? Alternatively, could it be that some clubs failing with the level of training provided?

It’s led to some lively, and ongoing, debate. I’ve only been in the hobby for 6 years, and for 5 of those years, I’ve been involved in training. I’ve already had my say on Facebook, and thought I’d share a few thoughts here. They’re a little random, so please bear with me.

Completing the Foundation Optical marking Sheet
Completing the Foundation Optical marking Sheet

Why do 15% fail?

Perhaps some of the suggested reasons are true, and in my time as a trainer, I’ve seen people walk away from Foundation without pass. There are lots of possible reasons, including:

  • Lack of preparation: I run an online Foundation course, and it’s clear that with effort, comes reward. I’ve seen candidates shoot through what’s intended to be a 5-hour course in under an hour, then spectacularly fail the mock at the end. The content at Foundation is actually pretty basic, but you do need to review all of the material, and try a few mocks to get a feel for the wording and style of the questions
  • Nerves: I took my exam aged 40, which is “young” in ham radio circles. For many sitting their Foundation, they’ve not sat an exam since school
  • Over-confidence: More rare, but still an issue. When I got started in amateur radio, I was lucky that I’d had a good grounding. I’d done some basic electronics, had worked in broadcast radio, and had dabbled with CB in the 80s. Much of the syllabus was familiar. That could have easily made me over-confident, and likely to fail due to the weighing of the questions towards the ham radio licensing rules, which were new to me, and made up 9 of the 26 marks.


It ain’t like it used to be…

This is a position I’ve seen mentioned many a time. Until the early 2000s, the way to get your licence was the RAE, the Radio Amateur Exam. These were held up and down the country twice a year at City & Guilds examination centres. As I understand it, you’d self-study using books, attend up to six months of evening classes, or learn with the help of a mentor or radio club. The paper was multiple choice, and it was all theory – no practicals.

The heydey for the RAE was in the early 1980s (perhaps due to interest sparked by the CB boom?). In 1982, 8,476 people passed. Happy days.

Fast forward twenty years to 2002 and the world had changed. Mobile phones and home Internet were common, making personal and portable communication much easier. In 2002, only 366 people got an amateur radio licence – a very significant reduction.

Something clearly had to be done, and so was born the three-tier Foundation > Intermediate > Full scheme that we still use today.

As an aside – imagine if that hadn’t happened? 366 people is not a lot, and over the next 10 years, we’d see the adoption of smartphones, Skype, social media and the mobile Internet – all comms gamechangers. Working on the same scale, we’d be looking, ten years on, at potentially under 50 new amateurs a year. 

The syllabus changed, and we now have to do practicals. Today, to get started, candidates have to build a station, make some QSOs, tune a dipole and try some basic Morse. To get over 10 watts, they have to demonstrate their ability to solder safely, make a patch lead, construct a kit, use a multimeter and calibrate a VFO in front of an assessor. Far more hands-on than the RAE, and much of the practical stuff is of actual use to an active amateur. 

Amateur Radio Foundation Practical Assessment
Amateur Radio Foundation Practical Assessment

Comment has been made that the supply of reference material (such as the band plan, and in the Full licence, a list of common formulas and a copy of the full Ofcom licence) in some way “dumbs down” the process of becoming a ham. In the RAE days, it seems that you had to hold this little lot in your head- although how anyone could reasonably be expected to memorise the fine detail of the frequency schedule and band plans.

The US exam

Those of us in the UK may be interested in getting a feel for how our exams compare to those in another country. This is an eye-opener. I took my US Technician (entry-level) exam at the RSGB convention a couple of years back. Boy – what a difference. No practicals, half the price of the UK exam, and a lower pass mark. Instead of 26 questions, there are 35, but all of the answers are publicly available. Not being familiar with the FCC licence conditions, I downloaded an app that steps through all 400 questions as a huge mock. The ones I got wrong would come round again until I got them right.

I took my US Technician (entry-level) exam at the RSGB convention a couple of years back. Boy – what a difference. No practicals, half the price of the UK exam, and a lower pass mark. Instead of 26 questions, there are 35, but all of the answers are publicly available. Not being familiar with the FCC licence conditions, I downloaded an app that steps through all 400 questions as a huge mock. The ones I got wrong would come round again, until I’d memorised the answers. It’s possible to pass by remembering answers, with no actual understanding of the material.

I sat my exam and the paper was marked with me in the room. Unsurprisingly, I passed, and was handed the paper for the next level up, General. I’d not studied for this one, but winged it, and got a pass. I was then handed the paper for the equivalent of our full (they call it Extra). This I failed. Not a problem, as you can do an instant, and free, resit. In fact, for the single fee, you can take the exam over and over again in that same session, until you pass. 

How different to the UK structure…

US Exam Paper and FCC Licence paperwork
US Exam Paper and FCC Licence paperwork

Did I mention the power limitation? At entry-level in the UK, we get 10 watts on 2 meters. In the US, entry level is a maximum of 1500 watts on 2 meters. At entry-level, you can’t exceed 200 watts on HF in the US. Scare yourself with a look at the ARRL Frequency Allocations.


In conclusion, I feel we have a pretty robust system. If we’d stuck with a six-month RAE, there’d be no-one new in the hobby. Today, at Foundation, we’re asking students to demonstrate basic competency with QSOs, station construction and antenna tuning – something which didn’t happen with the old RAE, and doesn’t happen in many other countries.

Yes, Foundation isn’t perfect, and there’s a strong argument for swapping the Morse appreciation for a different practical – but Foundation is seeing a lot of newcomers get into the hobby. Generally, the material you need to learn at Foundation is pretty straightforward and doesn’t present many with too much of a challenge. For me, Foundation seems about right, and the upcoming RSGB syllabus review will hopefully iron out a few of the minor issues reported by some of the tutors.

I’d love to get your thoughts on Foundation, and how well it’s working for amateur radio today. Please add a comment below…

Pete M0PSX

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