Qualifications from countries as diverse as Scotland, South Korea, Finland and Hungary will help to set the standard for tougher GCSEs to be introduced in England from 2015, TES can reveal.
Education secretary Michael Gove has long been an advocate of the growing use of international comparisons to help shape domestic education policies. Last month he asked the qualifications watchdog, Ofqual, to "increase the demand of GCSEs to reflect that of high-performing jurisdictions".
As the reforms begin, Ofqual is analysing 13 exam systems in 12 countries, which also include: Alberta and Ontario in Canada; China; Hong Kong; Japan; Taiwan; Massachusetts in the US; New Zealand; and the Netherlands.
"We are looking at what is taught and how it is assessed: for example, the balance between internal and external assessment," an Ofqual spokesman explained. "We are also looking more widely - at the structure of the education system, the accountability system and regulation - because qualifications don't exist in a vacuum and the context is important."
The list is not an exact match for the top 12 countries in Mr Gove's favourite international comparative rankings, the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), as Singapore, Australia, Belgium and Norway are missing. But it is close, although some might note that Hungary placed below the UK on science and below the UK and the Pisa average for maths in the 2009 tests. Ofqual said it has selected systems that are high-performing, are considered economic competitors andor "are internationally held in high regard".
But Professor Robert Coe, from Durham University's School of Education, said that while international comparisons made through common tests like Pisa would be insightful, comparing different exam systems is of limited use.
"That kind of thing is very difficult to get much that is sensible out of," he said. "It comes down to what you mean by standards, anyway. There is a lot of judgement involved and a lot of the context is quite hard to take account of. It is hard to judge how difficult (exam questions) are, because if the same question comes up every year it is not hard any more."
The influence of international comparisons has grown in the past 10 years as nations attempt to outscore each other in rankings. In some cases, countries have tried to "game" the system.
Mr Gove has given Ofqual an extra statutory objective to ensure that England's exam standards are comparable with other countries. But the watchdog's findings have not always tallied with government views. The education secretary has said that exams in England are "below par when compared internationally", but Ofqual reported in October 2011 that its international comparative work showed that A levels "stood up pretty well" compared to equivalent qualifications.
Last May, the watchdog suggested that A levels could move away from their "exclusive focus on reading and interpreting traditional forms of text" and introduce more multiple choice questions - ideas that appear to contradict Mr Gove's enthusiasm for traditional methods.
Ofqual had already begun its international GCSE comparisons before Mr Gove announced his plans to reform the exams last month. It is currently looking at different grading systems - a change that the education secretary believes there is a "strong case for".
"Our international research plays an important role in making sure that our qualifications, including new GCSE and A levels, are benchmarked against the best on offer in other countries," said Glenys Stacey, Ofqual chief regulator.
Key GCSE changes
- More demanding at "pass" and grade-C level.
- Better preparation for A level.
- Longer, tougher questions.
- The end of bite-sized modules.
- Benchmarking with "high-performing international jurisdictions".
- A possible new grading structure.
- Internal assessment to be kept to a minimum.
- The end of two-tier qualifications, although extension papers could be offered alongside a common core.
- First teaching from 2015, with first exams from 2017.