Oliver Lewis

The Gaokao challenge

China’s fearsome university entrance exam shows us why British schools are falling behind

The Gaokao challenge
Text settings

There is a word, unknown in this country, which once a year strikes terror into the hearts of millions of young people: Gaokao. This is the slang term for the Chinese National Higher Education Entrance Examinations, and though only a few translated questions have found their way out of the secretive state, their level of complexity raises serious concerns about our own education system. The results released by Pisa (the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment) this week not only raise the same concerns but absolutely confirm them. The Pisa people tested nearly half a million 15-year-olds worldwide, in maths, literacy and science. What did they find? China comes top; Britain 25th, having dropped several places since the last study.

I remember my own first encounter with a Gaokao question all too clearly. I was in the Junior Common Room at Trinity College, Oxford, where I am an undergraduate, when a friend bounded up to me: ‘I’ve found something on the internet that will make you feel utterly inadequate,’ she beamed as she showed me some exam questions on her laptop. With a set of decent A-levels behind me, I felt quietly confident. Five minutes later, I leant back in the chair to try and work out what had just happened.

The Gaokao, it turns out, is a far cry from any British exam, not just because it’s technically difficult, but because it requires students to think for themselves. Just look at the essay questions. Whereas British pupils are usually asked questions which require them to rehash rehearsed answers about plot or character, the Gaokao likes to see how Chinese children handle surprises. Essay titles include: ‘Looking at the stars with your feet on the ground’ and ‘Nostalgia for the heavens’.

Then look at the questions on group theory, ‘If a,b∈R and {1,a+b,a} = {0, b/a,b} then b-a =?’, or their questions on approaches to science: ‘Write an 800-character essay on “Innovation is not a thing of mystery. If you use your mind to discover, you too can have the ability to innovate”.’ My personal favourite is this take on Pythagoras: ‘In a square prism ABCD — A1B1C1D1, AB =AD =2, DC=2√3 AA1=√3, AD⊥DC, AC⊥BD, and the foot of the perpendicular is E. Prove BD⊥A1C’. Compare these to this question found on a British university’s first-year science examination paper three years ago: ‘Angle ABC is a right angle, AB = 3m, BC = 4m. What is the length of AC?’ By anyone’s criteria, the Chinese are well ahead of us.

But the most interesting aspect of the Gaokao is not that it’s hard, but how it’s hard. Our A-levels in some cases include more difficult questions, but they’re standardised, predictable. The reason the Chinese students have aced the Pisa exams is that they’re taught not just to recite answers, but to stretch their minds. Here’s a very telling and chilling quote from this year’s Pisa study: ‘In mathematics, more than a quarter of Shanghai region 15-year-olds can conceptualise, generalise and creatively use information based on their own investigations and modelling of complex problem situations. They can apply insight and understanding and develop new approaches and strategies when addressing novel situations. In the OECD area, just 3 per cent of students reach this level of performance.’ The same was true for just 1.8 per cent of English students. And it gets worse.

The Pisa study found that students in Canada, Finland, Japan and Korea all perform well above the average for the developed world, ‘regardless of their own background or the school they attended’. The same cannot be said for Britain, where the study identified an educational apartheid. The gap in attainment between private and public schools is bigger than in any other major country except Brazil. Such a gap hardly exists in Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. In Japan and Italy the results for private schools are worse.

I suppose it is encouraging that England’s private schools remain amongst the best in the world: there is excellent teaching to be had for those who can afford it. But Britain’s government-run schools have let down their pupils badly, even though funding per pupil doubled (to £6,330) during the Labour years. It has taken 13 years and millions of shortchanged pupils to show that pouring cash into an unreformed school system does not work.

Why do students from Shanghai soar ahead? One answer is that however much they may hate science or long to give up essay-writing, they have no option but to knuckle down. The Gaokao is a prerequisite to enter almost any centre of higher education in China, and in 2010 some nine million Chinese students sat it. By contrast, only 77,001 British pupils sat a maths A-level this year, and the Royal Society of Chemistry has warned that too many science undergraduates are not taking maths A-level, putting them and the universities at a disadvantage.

Unsurprisingly, Chinese teachers (who have themselves been through the Gaokao) also far surpass those in the West. I’ve discovered one study in which a group of Chinese teachers and American teachers were given the equation 1¾ ÷ ½ and asked to solve it. All of the Chinese teachers solved it correctly, while only 43 per cent of the American teachers could do so. The same study also found, alarmingly, that most Chinese children complement an eight-hour school day with two hours of homework at night (and eight hours at weekends).

This is not to say that the Chinese education system is perfect: it really isn’t. There is huge geographic variation and, ironically for a ‘communist’ state, there’s class division because some schools demand fees. In the UK we have already made huge strides towards ending class divisions and Michael Gove’s new academy initiative promises to give teachers the chance to innovate and overcome the problems of local deprivation, helping to end the postcode lottery — but the government can do even more.

The way forward, demonstrated by the Gaokao, is to continue to promote essential A-level subjects such as maths and English while setting ‘minimum standards’ to a much higher level, encouraging more complex questions. Let’s not forget that children actually enjoy being challenged. The Uncle Albert book series teaches quantum physics to nine-year-olds in terms that they understand. Mr Gove may well wish to support initiatives like this while allowing market forces to enter and drive up standards. The news that next year’s Education Bill will benchmark exams against far eastern alternatives is a step in the right direction.

Britain really needs to get its act together. Quite apart from the hope that we might crawl our way back up the Pisa table, we live in a world in which our economic success depends on how well we can compete in the international markets, and with China. And this depends on our students.

The world’s top 25

Pisa rankings:

1      China (Shanghai)

2      Korea

3      Finland

4      China (Hong Kong)

5      Singapore

6      Canada

7      New Zealand

8      Japan

9      Australia

10    Netherlands

11    Belgium

12    Norway

13    Estonia

14    Switzerland

15    Poland

16    Iceland

17    United States

18    Liechtenstein

19    Sweden

20    Germany

21    Ireland

22    France

23    Chinese Taipei

24    Denmark

25    United Kingdom