Developing international qualifications for schools worldwide

Developing international qualifications for schools worldwide

philip-parker-WEF-2016-original-small-imageI spoke at the Westminster Education Forum’s event ‘Promoting UK education abroad’ last week, although I was expecting to be in the audience rather than on the podium! Unfortunately my colleague Peter Monteath, who was billed to speak, had a bicycle accident – an occupational hazard given we work in Cambridge – so I stepped in and spoke about the international nature of our work.

At Cambridge International Examinations we are working with over 10,000 schools in 160 countries. This year those schools will make 2.5m examination entries. However, given the nature of the event I was speaking at, I highlighted one group of schools that we find are increasingly receptive to UK-style education, and also how we try and develop truly international qualifications that are suitable for schools around the world. 

Independent schools catering for local students

In some respects, the nature of our work has remained constant since 1864 when the University of Cambridge first promoted UK education abroad – we examine school children. In other respects, the direction of our work has changed.

"We see greatest growth among independent schools that cater for local students."

Fifteen years ago, our educational partners would have been mainly Ministries of Education. Now in 2016, these partnerships remain and ever more countries are asking us to help them develop their education systems. However our ministry work is now complemented - indeed dwarfed - by our work with individual schools and groups of schools.

And the type of school that is increasingly receptive to UK-style education is not the traditional international school, teaching the children of families working overseas or in global businesses. Rather, we see greatest growth among independent schools that cater for local students. That is, Chinese students in China, or American students in the USA.

This seems to be the consequence of several factors:

-The use of English as an international language of education and business.

-Economic development that sees more families able and willing to invest in their children’s education.

-The growing recognition that a UK-style international education broadens horizons, creates opportunities for study and work around the world, and prepares students for the challenges of modern life.

Developing international qualifications for schools worldwide

Given this demand, there are three important considerations for UK-based organisations offering international qualifications:

-Balancing knowledge and skills.

-Ensuring appropriate content.

-Paying attention to practicalities.

First, balancing knowledge and skills. Today’s learners need to be well equipped for a world that is changing, both technologically and economically, at an extraordinary pace. "Today's learners need to be well equipped for a world that is changing at an extraordinary pace."



UK-style qualifications such as GCSE and A Levels have always focused strongly on subject knowledge, and schools around the world find this extremely flexible - they can fit UK-style subject qualifications into their local systems, picking and mixing to suit their needs. Cambridge offers 70 subjects in which students learn about key concepts in depth.

"International schools can fit UK-style subject qualifications into their local systems, picking and mixing to suit their needs."

Schools around the world also want to access the UK’s expertise in thinking and learning skills, so we build this into our subject qualifications. We design subject syllabuses that stretch, challenge and inspire students of all abilities and we use assessment techniques which develop these skills, including group projects, research projects, presentations and reflective learning.

My second consideration is ensuring appropriate content. With syllabus design, it is essential to avoid a UK-centric approach to content. In England’s newly reformed GCSEs, for example, English Literature set texts must be written by British authors - no more John Steinbeck! It would be inappropriate to follow that model for international qualifications so, in addition to British born writers we have set texts from authors from Nigeria, India and America, and we give schools flexibility to include locally chosen content, "We give schools flexibility to include locally chosen content appropriate to their culture."

appropriate to their context and culture.

And with writing question papers, exam setters need to be mindful that English may be a candidate’s second or foreign language. We are testing their understanding of chemistry, for example, not their understanding of the preamble to a chemistry question.

My final consideration is to pay attention to practicalities. For example, the date of examination results. We already offer June and November exams to suit the academic year in northern and southern hemispheres, and last year we introduced March exams for schools in India. We also release November exam results earlier to help students applying to universities in Southern Africa.

Getting this sort of detail right matters to schools. When time tabling exams, we must recognise that not all schools have the same working week. We have to ensure that exam security is maintained, as the Internet creates the risk of exams leaking around the world. We also have to deal with the logistical "It is always humbling to work with and support schools who are dealing heroically with the disruption caused by war, famines and droughts, or natural disasters"

challenges of getting exam materials on time to schools in remote locations, such as the Pacific Islands. It is always humbling to work with and support schools who are dealing heroically with the disruption caused by war, famines and droughts, or natural disasters, something our Group Chief Executive touched on in a recent blog looking back at the effects of the Second World War on our candidates and examiners.

Schools around the world are wonderful in their diversity, and with appropriate adaptation and flexibility, UK-style international education is undoubtedly in demand. It is a great privilege to be able to work internationally, and it is certainly never dull.

Philip Parker
Head of Corporate Affairs, Cambridge International Examinations


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