The teenagers anxiously opening their GCSE results on Thursday will be wondering whether they might be among the last to do so.
The future of GCSEs is in doubt, as we wait to see how the government moves forward with exam reform and who prevails in the coalition struggle over education policy.
We know that the education secretary, Micheal Gove, is impressed by Singapore’s education system, and there is indeed much to admire.
In Singapore, 15-year-olds are 10 months ahead of those in the UK in English.
They are 20 months ahead in maths.
South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Shanghai match Singapore’s performance.
So we most definitely have something to learn from Pacific Asia.
The question is what?
Eastern cultures have valued education for centuries:
The belief is that diligence will be rewarded.
The “talent myth” that is ubiquitous in Atlantic societies – that either you’re smart or you’re not – is roundly rejected.
Parents – such as “tiger mothers” – prize and prioritise education.
Eastern governments do likewise.
South Korea pays teachers well, and recruits the best graduates into teaching.
It pays for that by having much larger classes; whereas across the Pacific California chose a class size cap, which in effect limited teachers’ pay.
The former strategy worked; the latter didn’t.
When President Obama asked South Korea’s President Lee about his biggest problem in education, he was told it was parental expectation.
Nice problem to have.
But at the very moment when Gove is looking east, the east is looking west.
Leaders in Pacific Asia are realising that what worked in the last 50 years is not what will be required in the next 50.
They have come to the conclusion that their economies need to become more innovative and their schools more creative.
It is one thing for an education system to produce well-educated deferential citizens; another to produce a generation of innovators.
They see that mastery of the basics, while essential, is not enough.
When I talk about the future of the curriculum, including not just knowledge but also ability to lead by influencing those around you, I find a ready audience among leaders of Pacific Asian systems.
People understand too that while exams are important, the obsession with them among parents can be dangerous.
As the Chinese say, public exams are the batons that conduct the entire orchestra.
If students are to develop well across the full range of this emerging curriculum, innovation in tests and exams will be essential.
Hong Kong’s new exam system began this year, after a decade of careful consultation with parents.
The National Institute of Education in Singapore is a hub of innovation in assessment, while the OECD as a whole is looking to assess collaborative problem-solving from 2015 onwards.
The best computer games may be a good pointer to the assessment revolution ahead.
The educational challenge for Pacific Asia is to encourage greater diversity and individuality by building on its undoubted high standards in the basics.
For Gove it is to match Pacific Asia’s standards in the basics – which really are basic – while also developing the capacity to innovate that is evident in the US.
As Arne Duncan, the US education secretary, told me:
“The US is still ahead in experimentation … we have many islands of excellence.”
However, the US struggles to apply to the system the lessons from those islands.
In future, education systems will need to combine a high-quality, reliable system with the capacity to innovate at scale.
Pacific Asian countries know this only too well and are beginning to move in the right direction.
We don’t yet know what Gove plans for the exam system.
As he makes up his mind, it will be important for him to learn not just from where Singapore is, but also where it is heading.
Source: The Guardian