From the way people talk about overseas exam systems and what we can learn from them, you would think there was a boundless evidence base of hundreds of comparability studies of qualifications for 16-year-olds. There isn't. Thus, when the UK government asked Cambridge Assessment to produce "qualifications that set expectations that match and exceed those in the highest-performing jurisdictions", we took it extremely seriously, launching a huge research project.
This mammoth task involved looking at 23 of the world's highest-performing countries, provinces or cities across English, maths and science. We mapped school systems, curricula and assessment. The picture we are now able to paint is more comprehensive than ever before.
Of course, straight comparisons can be problematic. And we know - and will go on the record - that borrowing policy solutions from overseas can be bad for you. However, it is appropriate to ask what underlying themes can be found in the wealth of material we have amassed.
Our work has made it clear that in the highest-performing jurisdictions, students are expected to know more, understand more and, contrary to popular opinion, apply that knowledge more than in systems that perform less well. Many complex factors drive the educational successes of the highest performers, including cultural commitments to learning, societies that militate against the unlearned and a commitment by governments to consensus-building around teaching.
Moreover, it is clear that almost all are committed to developing the teaching profession, through continuing professional development and teaching aids and through working on the profession's status among the public. They also do not forget the children for whom learning does not come easily, providing other qualifications and alternative routes to success.
Successful systems are not simply a matter of hard work. Children in England work immensely hard, as almost any teacher, parent or examiner can verify. Similarly, teachers work immensely hard, some putting in extremely long hours, with many routinely going beyond the syllabus. Thus, our transnational analysis suggests that we should ask questions about what is learned, how progress is managed and how students are supported.
Turning from the big picture to individual subjects, we were interested to discover that some particular elements are more or less constant across the high-performing systems we looked at, from Shanghai in China to Massachusetts in the US. In maths, for example, it turns out that most curricula look pretty much the same. As such, we can conclude that the problem lies elsewhere - partly in how exams are designed.
Most of the places we looked at do not recognise "numeracy" as a separate idea, treating it as an integral part of maths. Our own discussions with mathematicians have led us to consider that "numeracy" encompasses fluency in basic calculation and also its wider functional application in real-world contexts.
In English, too, we found attitudinal differences. Most high-performing jurisdictions recognise that it is not enough to read and write, even to very high levels. Speaking and listening, in some form, are fundamental parts of their curricula, as these skills are vital to being able to engage with the world of work and society.
But they are difficult to assess externally, requiring large numbers of assessors, while internal assessment suffers from poor validity when linked to high-stakes accountability. Our proposed solution would be to decouple speaking and listening from the main assessment, thereby removing the high-stakes nature of the test, and then to issue a separate certificate based on internal assessment that would be externally moderated.
As with "numeracy" in maths, "literacy" tends to be integrated into mainstream English testing overseas. So we believe that neither a hurdle nor a separate assessment should be used to examine numeracy and literacy in maths and English. Better-crafted questions within exams should elicit clear evidence that students are appropriately numerate and literate.
The core concepts
The general conclusions on the teaching of science are not as clear, sadly. This is not to say, however, that we failed to find any useful conclusions. Our forensic mapping of science curricula worldwide delivered many insights.
Perhaps most importantly, some of the high performers we looked at focus on core concepts in science; things that are essential for an understanding of energy, chemical reactions, forces and so on. This requires all years of the national curriculum to be set out, enabling students to revisit areas of science in ever more depth at different stages without common misunderstandings becoming embedded. This is undoubtedly a more challenging way to teach but it is ultimately more effective, leading to alignment between pedagogy and curriculum, teacher and government, accountability and education.
If we are to take one thing from our mammoth project it is that the highest-performing jurisdictions are certainly improving at a far faster rate than other jurisdictions, and with impressive gains in equity.
So, are tougher exams that force students to take the same trajectory as their overseas equivalents the answer?
Well, if we aim to change attitudes to education in society and enhance teacher status and quality - all underpinned by rigorous exams - then we will be working towards the tenets of the best education systems in the world. While there is no magic bullet, clearly there are things we can do to improve.
Tim Oates is director of assessment research and development at international exam group Cambridge Assessment.