The great fall of China? No room for emerging giants in exams study

19th November 2010 at 00:00
English-speaking education set to be focus of Ofqual's Gove-commissioned comparative research

A major government-commissioned study of exam standards around the world is unlikely to include the key emerging economies of China and India, it has emerged.

Education secretary Michael Gove has been calling for the comparative study to be carried out by Ofqual since he was in opposition to see how England's exams measure up against those of its global competitors.

He has consistently said the investigation should include exams set in China, India, South Korea and Singapore.

Indeed Mr Gove spent last week in China as part of the ministerial trade delegation, promoting links between the two countries.

In June, when it first announced the study, exams watchdog Ofqual said the same thing.

But last week in a TES interview, Dennis Opposs, the quango's standards director, revealed the comparative study would compare history, chemistry, maths and English A-levels with their equivalents in Hong Kong, New Zealand, New South Wales in Australia, the Netherlands and some parts of the United States.

He said the list had not been finalised and accepted it was "a bit of short on Asia". "We are still trying to see if we can get one or two more countries from the Far East on board," Mr Opposs said.

But to include countries in its study, Ofqual needs them to co-operate by providing past papers and other material it required to make accurate comparisons.

Asked about the slant towards English-speaking and English-style education systems in the list, Mr Opposs admitted there was a bias but said, "I don't think it's wholly intentional".

Ofqual has picked these countries by looking at the qualifications foreign students use to get into UK universities. It also plans to compare A-levels with the International Baccalaureate and Cambridge International A-levels.

But pupils in India, China and South Korea also sit domestic exams to get into their own universities. Mr Gove has said that he wants the study to help English pupils compete for university places worldwide.

"Our young people will increasingly be competing for jobs and university places on a global level and we can't afford to have our young people sitting exams which aren't competitive with the world's best," he said in September.

In the same speech he said he wanted the Ofqual study to "measure the questions our 11, 16 and 18-year-olds sit against those sat by their contemporaries in India, China, Singapore, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Canada".

Mr Opposs said it was dangerous to make simplistic comparisons: "I am not sure a ranking is quite the idea... a table from one to 12 saying that one is the hardest and 12 is the easiest," he said.

"The main purpose is to try to see where there is things we can learn to help improve A-levels in future."

He said the study would compare the content of the exams and "breadth vs depth", pass rates, what proportion and what sort of pupils took them and what they did afterwards.

Ofqual is publishing the study's methodology on its website this month. AQA, the biggest A-level exam board, has already claimed that the regulator lacks the necessary expertise and that another of its comparative studies was "full of flaws" and "doesn't work".

Andrew Hall, AQA chief executive, has told The TES that the watchdog should outsource its international study to a university.

Ofqual is including university academics in the expert panels being set up for the study to oversee each of the four subjects. They will sit alongside representatives from subject associations and exam boards - domestic and international.

An interim report is due early in the new year, with a final report completed before the summer.

China facts

Fast mover

- Before 1949, 80 per cent of the Chinese population was illiterate.

- Chinese citizens must attend school for nine years.

- Chinese youth have a 99 per cent literacy rate.

- China intends to match developed countries for supplies and school conditions by 2010.

- Private schools were not implemented until the 1980s.

- Local governments and businesses oversee secondary education.

- Senior-level middle school pupils or high school pupils must pay tuition.

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