LETTER FROM LONDON
By Teresa Lim FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
SUDDENLY, the name of our Republic is popping up in newspapers here with a disconcerting frequency. For a change, it is not in sneery accusation (for being bourgeois, or politically uptight) but in praise.
British Education Secretary Michael Gove has been working hard to upgrade the British education system. About a week ago, there was the inevitable leak. There are more government policy leaks here than from a sieve, and they always find their way into the newspapers. This time, it was the Daily Mail.
Mr Gove was duly summoned to Parliament to say if it was true he was planning to scrap the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) by 2014, and to explain why.
This is what he said: 'We would like to see every student in this country able to take world-class qualifications like the rigorous and respected O levels taken by Singapore students.'
For years I have been telling my two incredulous sons that my results as a 16-year-old an unmentionable number of years ago are worth more than theirs. Now I have the British Education Secretary on my side.
It is a bittersweet victory as it also means I have to confront the idea that they might not be as well-schooled as I was. In fact, they have each had an excellent education. The difference is, mine was free. Theirs has been extremely expensive, and yet they still use calculators for simple sums for which long division or multiplication might do the trick.
[So in Britain, the parents are lamenting that children today can't do simple math that the parents were taught in school years ago. Here in Singapore, parents are complaining that kids today are doing math in primary school that their parents had trouble with in Secondary school! Which problem would you rather have?]
So to the 'S' word again.
'The way that they teach mathematics in Singapore is brilliant - both in theory and in practice.' This is the Daily Telegraph a week ago, quoting Dr Martin Stephen who until last year was head of one of the top boys' schools in Britain, the private St Paul's which is based in London.
This national newspaper has been campaigning for recognition of what it calls 'the mathematical crisis' facing Britain.
But mathematics does not seem to be the only thing in trouble here. England's teenagers are near the bottom in Europe with foreign languages. They have problems even with their own. The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment's latest country profiles are for 2009. These show that in the nine years from 2000, Britain slipped from seventh place to 25th for literacy.
Mr Gove rightly senses that it is education overall that is in crisis. One problem is simply structural. Incredibly, in Britain, there are three awarding organisations for A-level and GCSE qualifications, at least one of which stands to benefit financially from more schools subscribing to its tests because it sells the teaching resources and textbooks.
Reportedly, representatives from some of these boards do the hard-sell on their qualification by assuring schools that their tests are extremely easy to pass. Mr Gove calls this 'the culture of competitive dumbing-down' with examination boards vying with one other to make their exams the least difficult.
I do remember helping my younger son three years ago with his GCSE revision. I was sure I had misunderstood one of the past papers. After all, the answer seemed to have been given in the question - only to be reassured by my son: 'Yes mum, it is that easy!'
But Mr Gove is facing resistance to his overhaul of the current GCSE system. Already Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, is said to be livid at Mr Gove's proposals, which have not yet been discussed within the Cabinet.
Mr Clegg is upset at the prospect of a two-tier education system being brought back. GCSEs replaced O levels and the more vocational Certificate of Secondary Education 24 years ago to provide a comprehensive examination everyone could take.
In fact, the GCSE system is already two-tiered. There is the higher tier, where students can achieve grades from an A-star down to an E, and there is the foundation tier with pass grades of C down to G. Foundation-tier students with an 'F' or a 'G' would have failed by the standards of self-respecting school systems elsewhere, but in Britain, they have passed.
Mr Gove is right to rail against a system that flatters to deceive because it lets children down. But he is going to have to convince those who worry that the reintroduction of any O-level equivalent is elitist, disadvantaging those who do not qualify to do it. One way must be to bring up the quality and value of a vocational education.
In Singapore, O levels are the national curriculum, unlike in countries where it is offered only by private schools. Mr Gove recognises that ours is the gold standard for the qualification. His challenge, when forging something similar, is also to introduce back to Britain a culture of respect for learning, for moderate discipline, and for methods of teaching which may include some traditional rote learning.
How interesting that former premier Margaret Thatcher should have observed 27 years ago on her first official visit to Singapore: 'Each time I come back, I marvel at the pace of change, and at the confidence with which you undertake enormous investment. I like to think that once you learnt it from Britain. And now we are re-learning it from you.'
So it is with O levels. The only irony is that GCSEs were introduced under Mrs Thatcher in 1988, three years after her speech.
The writer is a Singaporean living in London.