The Evolving Landscape of International Education: A Conversation with Andrew Coombe from Oxford AQA

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For both parents and students fortunate enough to have this problem, thinking about standardized exams such as the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE), or the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) can be stressful.

Some might wonder, “Which exams are better?” or “What is the point of these tests; are they still relevant?” Your mind might also ponder, “Who offers these tests and for what purpose?”, “Is it still paper-based?”, “Why are there so many acronyms?” or “Do people actually cheat on them?”

We sat down with Andrew Coombe, the managing director at Oxford AQA International Qualifications, which offers international GCSEs, AS, and A-levels to schools worldwide, to hear his thoughts on these questions and the current landscape of international schools after the pandemic.

Thai Enquirer: What are some of the teaching trends that you can see being practiced in international schools in the United Kingdom and Europe at the moment?

Coombe: International schools, particularly at Oxford AQA, are now focusing on developing skills that students will be able to use in the future.

It is still important to gain subject knowledge and mastery of the subject, but in addition, we want students to develop teamwork, the ability to collaborate, and to think critically about information.

Not simply to take everything at face value, but to question things and understand different points of views. This way of thinking will help students develop the skills they will need in the future, whether in university or their careers.

Thai Enquirer: Has the level of intake at international schools in the UK and Asia recovered after the pandemic?

Coombe: It has recovered globally, and in Asia, it is coming back strongly as well.

Parents still recognize the value of international education, and what we are seeing now is growth. It might have dipped down a bit during the pandemic, but it is coming back really fast. We can see that from the exam entries, which have been growing throughout, including during the pandemic because those students who were already at schools had to take their exams.

We are also seeing a lot more schools coming on board with us. We see growth in those schools as well, and we are seeing that growth because we are the fastest-growing of the international school exam boards.

The number of Asian students coming to study in the UK is still growing. What we are also seeing is more Asian students traveling internationally within the region, but still, that flow to the UK is still growing.

Thai Enquirer: Are these standardized tests still relevant in the digital world that is full of opportunities today?

Coombe: The qualifications are globally recognized by universities around the world, including here in Thailand, and that is one of the advantages. But it is not just about the exams and qualifications themselves; it is also about the process that the students go through to get there.

We also see a lot of students taking up an International Extended Project Qualification, which is at the same level as A-levels (Advanced Level qualifications), but it is very much valued by universities because it shows that students can conduct their research and develop their learning in an area that is of interest to them.

Of course, students might have an enormous number of choices now, but I think the qualifications demonstrate a foundation that will set them up well for the future, whatever they choose to do.

Thai Enquirer: What is the main benefit of taking UK qualification exams over the US qualification exams?

Coombe: International AS and A-levels offer a huge amount of flexibility where you can take a wider number of subjects at AS and A-levels and adapt them to whatever universities want around the world.

I think the UK-styled qualifications are still more extensive than the US, and besides the flexibility and global recognition, another thing that universities like about A-Levels is the depth that students can go into, such as further maths.

Thai Enquirer: How do you incorporate technology into your functions as exam providers?

Coombe: The technological advances that we are using are in terms of marking the exams at the moment.

We are also moving towards digital exams but that is a process that will take some years because schools are at different levels of development and we need to make sure that we do that when schools are ready.

We think paper-based exams will continue until 2030 and possibly even beyond that and for some subjects, it will be way beyond that because not every subject lends itself particularly well to the on-screen experience.

Computer-based tests have been around for years, particularly in formats that involve multiple-choice questions. However, the ease of implementation seen with multiple-choice assessments does not translate seamlessly to project work or essay writing.

Thai Enquirer: Any concern about people being able to cheat easier with technology?

Coombe: If there are exams that take place online, we will make sure that students do not have access to anything else besides the test. We also have sophisticated means to detect plagiarism to a pretty good extent these days.

Besides these, there are also people who claim to be able to sell an exam online in advance of before the exam takes place and in almost all cases that we found, there were scams where students paid money for them did not get anything back at all or they got the wrong exam.

Artificial intelligence also poses new challenges in schools where students should embrace it but they should not use them to simply answer questions as it is much better to use AI to gather information or get inspiration and then build on it using your own knowledge.

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