Testing times - both here and in China
With proposals leaked and then confirmed about possible changes to the English schools examinations, its worth noting that aspects of the current system are actually held in high regard in some overseas markets and indeed present an opportunity for entrepreneurial types in education. Take China for an example
Mind-boggling statistics and China go together so automatically these days that that its too easy to become simply numbed by the numbers. So if I tell you that some 9 million Chinese teenagers sat down over a couple of days at the beginning of June to take the national university entrance exam, I am not wholly surprised if your response is shrugged 'Whatever - big place, big metrics ?'
In fact, big numbers notwithstanding, higher education in China is experiencing challenges from parents and from society in general there, that not only chime clearly with experience here in the West but also present opportunities for better mutual understanding.
Just as in the UK, parents, employers and young people in China want to emerge from university with a qualification that means something and crucially is going to give them an edge in terms of getting a job. And despite a massive expansion in higher education in China in recent years, the continuing belief across all three of these groups is that is you don't get a place at one of the top five - or stretching a point - the top ten ranked universities, then, you may just be wasting your time.
Those top ten universities offer some 50,000 places each year. And you need far less mathematics than Chinese universities demand from their applicants to work out that 9 million doesn't go in 50,000 very comfortably.
The upshot is two fold. The education system is - inevitably - geared solely to the examination rather than any wider purpose. There is a concern - one that our own system sometimes generates - that it values knowledge too highly at the expense of understanding and analysis. Success in the examination becomes a benchmark of achievement that stays with one for the rest of one's life. European colleagues working in Chinese businesses will report that deference is accorded to graduates of the best universities irrespective of their actual workplace competence.
The status of the great national examination is probably buried deep in the Chinese psyche. Through centuries of imperial rule the belief was that even the humblest born Chinese through study and application could achieve influence - and more material benefits - through ascending the emperors service. The social mobility that both the old system and the current one are said to create may well be overstated but there seems a general view that, at very least, the current university entrance system is less tainted by corruption than are many other major Chinese institutions.
That being the case, wealthier Chinese parents are looking at other routes to secure advantage for their children and demand for education overseas ( for high school and for first and higher degrees) - and in non-Chinese systems within China - is expanding rapidly. There Is a rapid growth in private schools offering A level or the United States SAT examination that better prepare young people for places in the Western university system.
The coolness that the Chinese authorities have felt with regard to overseas education seems to be lessening a little as increasing numbers of young people ( perhaps in the face of the western economic sluggishness) are going back to China armed with foreign education -and even better with work experience - that can give a real boost to a career and add value to the national economy.
Taken together these trends means that there is a real and immediate business opportunity in the provision of education services at this level to this fast growing market - the opportunity takes in teaching skills, professional development for Chinese teachers and the development of quality assurance systems in education. It's significant that alongside Jaguar, Land Rover and JCB, A levels seem to be another British brand with genuine global resonance.
But in addition to this immediate opportunity, there are more long term advantages that connection though education can deliver. Within China in particular, for those who attend university, the connections with classmates are the most profound and enduring relationships that are formed outside the immediate family. The appetite within China to study here is as great as ever -and thus the scope for building these compelling tied and business relationships in the UK. However in an environment here where there is public concern about immigration, action on student visas and associated short term work experience is seen as an 'easy' way of responding to these concerns.
Perhaps we need a more considered way of balancing the claims of those national assets - like education - we have which are internationally tradeable with legitimate domestic anxieties