How they do it in Singapore

Speaking about his plans – leaked to the Daily Mail – to reform school exams, and introduce a system in which more academically able students would sit a different exam from those less gifted, education secretary Michael Gove said he wants to offer a system similar to “the rigorous and respected exams taken by Singapore’s students” and to “tackle the culture of competitive dumbing down by ensuring that exam boards cannot compete with each other on the basis of how easy their exams are”.

Back to the future – with O-levels & CSEs

Critics say a return to what they describe as a mythical ‘golden age’ of O-levels and CSEs – a framework designed over 50 years ago – would create a two-tier system, with many as early as age 14 deemed only fit for the ‘scrapheap’ of a simple CSE-style exam, largely drawn up by businesses. Tougher O-levels, say critics, would cater for the few at the top, according to The Guardian stirring “suspicions of an exclusive preoccupation with high-achievers” – a claim which has “instantly flicked a fairness switch in Lib Dem minds”.

The end to ‘dumbing down’?

But Michael Gove says his ideas would end years of dumbing down; according to The Guardian, “there is reason to think there has been grade inflation, stoked by rival exam boards competing for market share”.

According to the Daily Mail, “British pupils have slipped down international league tables in key subjects over the past decade”; Gove’s ideas would introduce what are described as “world class exams”, comparable to those in countries including Singapore and Hong Kong.

Singapore: ‘top performing nation’

In terms of education, Singapore is viewed as a “top performing nation”, with students consistently ranking amongst the top five in the world in mathematics and science. Gove’s admiration of the country’s system probably comes from its ‘banding’ of each subject at secondary level: 60% of students are in “express” streams, a quarter in normal bands and 15% specialise in “technical” classes.

A slightly different curriculum is used for each stream, and pupils also sit different exams.

It seems Gove’s proposed new system seeks to emulate this banding, in which the majority take the equivalent of O-levels while the minority sit the equivalent of CSEs; in the old English system it was the other way around.

While teachers may be pleased to hear that there won’t be moves to completely reinvent the exam system right now, Michael Gove is already setting out his stall for the next election and beyond.

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