The Harbour School

Search Trigger

The “Gold Standard”

  • High School
  • Leadership
Peter Hawksworth, THS High School Principal


I recently took part in an online roundtable discussion with two other high school principals of international schools in Hong Kong as part of the SCMP Education Conference.  The experience was highly enjoyable. We covered a lot of ground, discussing issues of mutual interest while exploring some of the similarities and differences in the approaches taken by our different schools.  Notably, THS was the only one of the three schools offering an American-style curriculum and qualification while the other two schools offer the International Baccalaureate, as do most international schools in Hong Kong.  

While I understand that Hong Kong was a British dependency until 1997, this does not explain the apparent near-monopoly on educational qualifications that the UK enjoys.  Another panel discussion at the same conference had the title, ‘Why British Qualifications are still the Gold Standard’, a troubling notion as I went through the British system as a child and young adult.

Firstly, a clarification.  There is no ‘British’ system.  The system referred to is the English system.  The Scottish educational system has always been different to the English system, and is one I rather like - broad and comprehensive, encouraging young people to study a fairly wide range of subjects to the end of school and continuing two or three subjects into the first couple of years of a four-year degree course.  Whilst the Welsh and Northern Irish systems are broadly similar to the English system, they do differ in significant ways that are beyond the scope of this discussion.

The English examination system is based on two principal qualifications: GCSE and A Level.  The General Certificate of Education (or its International equivalent) is normally sat by 16 year old students - those completing Year 11 in the English system or Grade 10 in the American.  Whilst there is a wide range of different possible subjects, successive governments in the UK have tried to ensure all students take English, Maths, Combined Science, a humanities subject and a foreign language.  Most students do therefore have a fairly broad curriculum up to the end of Year 11, but the material in the GCSE/IGCSE is extremely prescriptive and needs to be taught in a certain way to ensure success.  The ‘standards agenda’ that drives UK education and demands ever higher grades - the notion that all children should be above average academically - is emotionally destructive to young people and has contributed to the significant rise in mental health problems among children in the UK.

GCSE is also, except in a very small number of cases, a one-size-fits-all qualification.  Students take the same final examination papers regardless of their interests or ability.  Success is measured in very limited terms and there is little opportunity for creativity or individuality.

The problems are compounded with A level.  Introduced in England in 1951 as the General Certificate of Education Advanced Level, the qualification was intended for a very small proportion of the population (no more than 10 per cent) and was conceived as a pathway to university.  Successive governments in the UK have clung on to the qualification as a totem of the academic excellence offered in England whilst at the same time trying to continually increase the proportion of students in the population taking the exam.  So a deliberately elitist qualification conceived 70 years ago when the world was a different place is now the only academic route for over 50 per cent of the young people in England.  It is not, and never was intended to be, an appropriate qualification for everyone.

A levels work on the principle of depth over breadth.  Students study three subjects (very occasionally four) to a very high level of content mastery.  The exam is academically rigorous, and prepares students for high level study at university.  Indeed, a degree course in England is almost always in a single subject and takes three years to complete because students are typically required to have an A level in the subject to access it at university level.  Which means that for English young people, decisions on careers and therefore which degree is required for the career need to be taken prior to choosing GCSE subjects.  This means knowing what your adult ambition is at the age of 13.

My sister is a typical example.  She decided at 14, halfway through her first year of GCSE study, that she wished to be a doctor. Medicine is an undergraduate degree course in the UK.  She had made the wrong GCSE choices, and so my parents had to get a tutor to teach her GCSE Biology privately, something we were luckily able to facilitate as a family.  She then studied A levels in Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics and subsequently qualified as a doctor at Sheffield University.  Had she decided she wanted to be a doctor even six months later, it would have been too late.

The same problem would not have come about in the American system.  She would have completed a High School Diploma over four years that demanded a genuine breadth of study and allowed her to explore a wide range of different areas of interests.  She would have continued to study a variety of subjects at University, probably centering on Science and Math based courses, before being able to confirm that Medicine really was what she wanted to do around the age of 21. Medicine in the US is a graduate programme.

Students at The Harbour School study an American-style curriculum and graduate with a US High School Diploma.  It is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, the leading accreditation body of its type which guarantees the level of rigour in the programme.  However, the THS approach, with its personalisation and interdisciplinary programmes, the emphasis on creativity and exploration of ideas, allows for individual growth that can never be achieved in the English system.

So when considering the notion of whether the English system really is the gold standard for examinations, I actually think that it is, but not for the reasons others might.  The gold standard was once used to organise the monetary systems of the entire world.  It was novel and worked extremely well while it lasted.  But it ceased to be used for very good reasons half a century ago and is now an obsolete relic that no one dreams of returning to.  I see A levels in a similar way.  They were very appropriate for England in the immediate aftermath of the second world war, but the young people of today need to be equipped with a very different range of skills in a vastly different world from the 1940s.  The highly personalised THS High School programme offers this, and the success of its students demonstrates just how powerful, even transformational in some cases, the impact of the programme is.

In my next mythbusting blog, I will bring the International Baccalaureate or IB program into the fold of this discussion which is arguably sold as the new “gold standard” in education in Hong Kong. We look at factors one should take into consideration before deciding which pathway to commit one’s child into. Hardly rocket science, it is simply about knowing your child, and finding the right fit. 

Explore More

Begin your journey