Toughening Up: Changes to UK Assessments and the Fascination with East Asia

The last few years have seen politicians, commentators and the media showing an increased interest in East Asian education systems as a preferable model to our own. Michael Gove’…choice statement back in 2010  that he’d like to see a ‘cultural revolution just like the one they had in China’ (yes, you read that right), the BBC’s School Swap: Korea Style last year, and their provocatively-titled Are our kids Tough Enough? in 2015  are just a few examples of a phenomenon which has accompanied growing criticism of our ‘lazy’, ‘coddled’ pupils and a shift in how they are assessed at GCSE and A-Level.  Coursework has been all but done away with and assessment is now focussed on high-stakes summative examinations, with grade boundaries and course content re-jigged in order to make the exams more ‘challenging’.

The general consensus seems to be that our kids are, in fact, not tough enough – certainly not compared to their East Asian counterparts – and that a return to ‘traditional methods’ and ‘academic rigour’ is the solution.

Here’s the thing though: given that most of the Cabinet have never set foot in a British state school for longer than a photo op, it is highly unlikely that they have spent any length of time in an East Asian state school. While I don’t consider myself to be an expert, I do think my time spent teaching ESL in China, Korea and Vietnam has given me some insight into the impact these decisions are likely to have on teaching and learning in general, and on the teaching and learning of Modern Foreign Languages in particular. The following observations are based on my time in a Korean state school, but many of the principles apply equally to schools in China, Singapore, Thailand and many other East Asian countries.

Teaching to the Test: Turbo Version

For most students, the Su Neung (the standardized university entrance exam) will decide their future. At the age of 18, all students in the equivalent of Year 13 sit the same exam on the same day. On that day, the country stands still: planes are delayed and roads blocked so as not to disturb exam-takers, invigilators wear slippers, and it is not unheard of for students running late to get a police escort to the exam.  If you are a Korean student, the Su Neung marks the culmination of your school career and the finish line of a marathon for which you began competing against every other person in your age group in primary school. If you attend one of Seoul’s more elite schools, you know how you rank against every other student of the same age in the country. By High School, your timetable likely looked something like this:


(BTW, this is for kids in the equivalent of Years 11 and 12. By Year 13, it ran from 6am – 2am).

If the voracious studying doesn’t pay off and you don’t get into the university you hoped for, you might resit the Su Neung the next year. Other than that, it’s the end of the road. There’s no equivalent of adult education, so you can’t go back to college at 25 and do your Su Neung again in order to improve your prospects, and in any case even a year off the expected path is greeted with suspicion by employers, future parents-in-law and society at large. Whatever happens on that one day aged 18, it sets you – for better or worse – on a path for life.The top companies predictably only hire the top graduates of the top universities, and with prospective marriage partners depending on the university on your CV as well as your career, it’s hard not to feel like your whole life has been decided by one very high-stakes exam. For this reason, as well as family and social pressure to do well, if your school was like mine it might have had ‘safety bars’ on the windows, or windows that didn’t open past a certain point.

So what is this test actually like? Typically, it consists of a series of multiple-choice questions in a range of subjects including Maths, History, Sciences, Korean and Modern Foreign Languages. Students will prep for all of these by literally sitting in front of a Su Neung textbook with a ruler and memorising it word for word, line by line. You would think that this couldn’t work for Modern Foreign Languages – after all, how can you test the ability to communicate with a set of tick-box questions? The answer is simple: there is no test of spoken or written communication. At all. This in turn means that teaching focusses entirely on rote-learning vocabulary and grammatical structures, and on exam skills. All the UK teachers you hear getting irate about being forced to teach to the test, and it being the thin end of a wedge? This is the thick end.

Impact on Language Learning

Needless to say, this doesn’t lead to the most confident speakers, writers or in-context users of language. Conversely, my East Asian tutors have been universally appalled by what they saw as my stupidity and laziness (high points include the Chinese tutor who would hit the table and shout ‘NO!’ every time I mispronounced a tone – which was often – and my Korean tutor’s genuine mystification at my inability to learn 100 new words a day).

Meanwhile, I was merrily teaching away according to contemporary ESL methodology which is based on Communicative Language Teaching (CLT). CLT basically aims to make students talk to each other as much as possible: the vast majority of lessons consist of peer-peer communication in pairs or small groups. The teacher acts more as a facilitator, grouping students strategically then initiating and monitoring interactions between them and providing feedback. New grammar or vocabulary is introduced and drilled by the teacher, but thereafter students practice the language together in realistic contexts. Rather than the teacher simply correcting errors as they hear them, they are put on the board at the end of a stage or a lesson for students to mull over and correct together with discreet monitoring and guidance. Aside from upping the time students spend interacting in English, this is intended to reduce anxiety around making mistakes – it’s less stressful to be corrected by a peer during group work than by a teacher in front of the whole class.

I noticed, though, that even in groups with whom had a strong rapport, many students felt stressed by making the switch from their normal teaching style to the communicative method. This was partly because of a morbid fear of mistake-making and loss of face, and partly because there seemed little point wasting an hour learning how to do a Western-style debate when it contributed not a jot to the very high-stakes exam they had been preparing for since the age of 6.

And here’s the rub – there was plenty of good to be found in my Korean school, and in the generalised East Asian approach to teaching and learning, too. In fact, I’ll talk about it in my next post. But it was certainly not to be found in high-stakes assessment methods, or in the ‘toughness’ expected of the students. I fear that the current, much-oversimplified and un-nuanced representation of East Asian school life in the context of such changes to our own system will do our pupils more harm than good.

Lucy McCormick is the Owner and Head of Client Services at Struck Fluent, a community of tutors specialising in Modern Foreign Languages and ESL. She has extensive experience as a teacher and tutor of French and ESL in the UK, China, Korea, Vietnam and India. When not teaching or language geeking, you can generally find her in the company of a book, a gin or (preferably) both.

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