Out-of-date and unreliable - DfE info comparing England’s exam system with other countries

Janet Downs's picture

Ministers have insisted GCSE reforms were essential to bring England in line with countries which perform highly in the three-yearly international PISA tests – the altar at which many governments worship.

Four years ago, this site researched exam systems in countries which had done well in PISA.  This found most high-performing countries did not have high-stakes exams at 16.  If tests at the end of lower secondary (age 15/16) existed they were few in number and used to decide upper secondary progression.   

It’s possible, of course, that these countries might have changed their systems since 2013 and increased emphasis on age 16.  I would think this was unlikely – graduation at 18 makes much more sense. 

Nevertheless, I decided to find out by checking the Department for Education (DfE) website.  

Unfortunately, the DfE’s definition of ‘outside the UK’ refers only to Europe*.  The DfE website, then, only allows comparison with European countries.

I followed the link.  Brexiteers, brace yourselves; it leads to the European Commission.     

Nevertheless, there’s a handy table comparing some, but not all, European countries.   This further reduces the number of countries for comparison. 

Unfortunately, the information given in the table is out of date.  It describes AS levels as worth ‘half a full A level’ but AS marks no longer contribute to the overall final A level grade.  The referencing report for the UK was dated March 2010.  That’s before Michael Gove became Education Secretary and well-before his ill-thought-out exam reforms.

It’s not possible, then, to use information supplied by the DfE to compare exams currently taken at 16 or 18 in England with qualifications elsewhere.

Given the huge emphasis by governments since 2010 on harmonizing secondary exams in England with those in high-scoring countries, it should be possible to find up-to-date information on the DfE’s website explaining clearly how exam systems compare.

But we can’t.  And the much-hyped synchronization of exams doesn’t do what it claims to do.  It entrenches a system which is already out-of-step with most other developed countries where the focus of exams is at the end of upper secondary, age 18.  


*There’s a second link allowing users to compare a specific UK qualification with one outside the UK for a fee.   This appears to be more concerned with post-school qualifications.  Readers following the link will find themselves on the website of UK NARIC  (National Recognition Information Centre).    UK NARIC is part of the NARIC network, a European Commission initiative. The network ‘aims at improving academic recognition of diplomas and periods of study in the Member States of the EU, the EEA countries and the associated countries in Central and Eastern Europe and Cyprus.’   Whether the UK will remain part of this network after Brexit is unknown.

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Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 29/12/2017 - 14:06

"Four years ago, this site researched exam systems in countries which had done well in PISA. This found most high-performing countries did not have high-stakes exams at 16. If tests at the end of lower secondary (age 15/16) existed they were few in number and used to decide upper secondary progression."

Janet is right. So why do we have high stakes testing at the end of KS2 and KS3? As so often in the field of education, the 'obvious' answer that the tests are to benefit pupils/students as 'qualifications' to support them into the next key stage, is completely wrong.

At KS2, this is fairly clearly the case. SATs are not qualifications for anything. Many parents believe that secondary schools use individual SATs results to place their offspring in 'ability' streams or sets. They may feel that such a passport to higher academic groupings will benefit their children by ridding them and their teachers from the 'distraction' of teaching and learning alongside 'dimmer' children, who often live in 'rougher' areas like council estates. No amount of data contradicting such expectations is likely to dislodge such convictions. However, even if such an advantage did actually accrue, it would not make up for the developmental damage inflicted during years 5,6 as behaviourist teaching methods based on instruction, testing, cramming and revision replace 'slow learning' approaches that support cognitive development and deep learning. See




Then there is the question of the validity of the SATS results of individual pupils. Making SATs very high stakes for schools and teachers incentivises 'gaming' and 'cheating'. The Chief Inspector has written at length about this, as has Professor Alastair Sharp many years previously.


Secondary teachers of Y7 classes are only too aware of the unreliability of individual SATs results, which is why most secondary schools do not use them at all, relying on their own judgements and other more diagnostic forms of testing. Unfortunately SATs provide the only universal data source for the judgements of OfSTED, which continues to misuse them.

At KS4, Janet is right to question the value to students of national testing at 16+. Here the corruption of teaching methods by the imposition of 'business model' type training imposed by Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) is even more widespread and damaging than at KS2, but the same fundamental objection is that the system is devised primarily to enable schools to compete with each other in the marketised and increasingly privatised education system designed by Kenneth Baker, imposed first cautiously and belatedly by Margaret Thatcher and then enthusiastically and ruthlessly by Tony Blair, with the latter even being willing to corrupt the exam system itself through phoney 'vocational equivalents' to cover up the continuing failure of marketisation to raise real standards.

The only route to the genuine raising of educational standards lies in focusing on the cognitive development of individual pupils/students through slow/deep learning approaches. At KS2 this would make years 3/4 the key years for 'heavy lifting' in terms of inspiring, facilitating and supporting the development of each individual pupil. In too many primary schools it has become fashionable for these years to be wasted on the boot camp/Stalinist behaviour conditioning methods needed to crush any symptoms of rebellion and individuality, so that the really mindless imposition of instruction and testing can be successfully imposed during Years 5 & 6 so as to maximise KS2 results for the schools and excite the base instincts of child hating delegates at Conservative Party Conferences.

A parallel process then takes place in secondary school with the developmental potential of KS3 thrown away in favour of behaviourist conditioning for the high stakes mindless grind of GCSE courses that amongst many other negative effects, succeed in turning most students away from maths and the associated STEM science subjects, which the lack of prior cognitive preparation and development in KS3 render to appear to be hopeless taxing and inaccessible.

Thankfully not all schools are like this. I am personally aware of excellent exceptions. But this remains the general direction of travel of the English education system. I am still awaiting a clear understanding of these issues from the Labour opposition.

agov's picture
Sat, 30/12/2017 - 10:09

"I am still awaiting a clear understanding of these issues from the Labour opposition."

Perhaps after Momentum purge Angela Rayner?

The current system Ofsted uses in judging progress in their KS4 schools places more emphasis on KS2 results than previously. It will be interesting to see whether MATs find ways to minimise headline achievement in their KS2 schools in order to boost the apparent progress of their KS4 schools. Perhaps KS2 schools will become the new Infant schools.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 30/12/2017 - 10:25

MInisters and Shadow Ministers frequently lack experience and expertise in the front line activities of their departments. This is fine if the advice of genuine experts is sought, rather than those prepared to feed the populist ideological prejudices of the ignorant cabinet post holder.

Michael Shayer told me that in the 1990s his and Philip Adey's advice was rejected on the grounds that it was 'complicated theoretical stuff', when common sense policies were what was needed. Angela Rayner certainly needs better advice than she appears to be getting.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 30/12/2017 - 10:08

Sorry - I obviously mean the end of KS2 and KS4 (not KS3).

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