The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Singapore's educational edge.

Singapore has an educational edge, over its erstwhile imperial master. About twenty years ago, the UK dropped the rigorous O level examination, in favour of the more democratic GCSE. By "democratic" I mean that it is an exam meant for everyone, and not for the better students, as O level was. Singapore, however, wasn't fond of the democratic idea of the GCSE and continued to favour the elitist O level. The results are clear.

Twenty years later, Singapore continues to use the O level examination. (This is the one that Ainan took. He is the youngest person to have done so.) I think this is a promising situation for Singapore - and the other former colonies and members of the Commonwealth that use the O level - and a terrible situation for the UK.

The O level challenges the student on two levels: in terms of the level and detail of knowledge required - and in terms of the level of reasoning needed to use that knowledge to solve the problems set. GCSE is much weaker. Less knowledge and less reasoning are required - so much less, in fact, that those who pass the GCSE with good grades probably wouldn't pass the O level at all.

Now, this is a serious problem for the UK. Their students have been set a bar that is too low. This means that the more able students are not being stretched up to the age of 16. The bar was deliberately lowered because only the top 20 % of students were able to handle the O level at 16. This was was thought unfair, so the bar was lowered, with a new exam which more people would be able to cope with. In Singapore (and many other countries around the world), the decision was made to keep the bar high and challenge the students to reach it. Their thinking was not that things should be made easy for the students, but that the students should just get on with meeting the challenge. (However, Singapore did recognize the situation in its own way, not by scrapping O level, but by bringing in a second-tier exam, the N level, for the kind of students who would need GCSE in England. This meant the standard was preserved, at O level, and all were happy.)

I rather think that, in substituting an easier exam, for a harder one, the UK is undermining its own national competitiveness. By lowering the bar, they have lowered the potential of an entire nation.

The rest of the world did not follow the UK's lead. The old style UK exams of the O level (and A level) are still popular around the world. This means that the rest of the world is leading the UK, in educational standards, simply by keeping the standards that the UK once had. It seems somewhat ironic that the rest of the world could overtake the UK simply by aping what the UK once was - but the UK no longer remains.

My sons will take the O level. I don't want them to be underchallenged and I see no point in taking an exam that lowers the bar. There is no achievement in achieving less than they could achieve.

In the UK, however, when Ainan is mentioned, they say that he passed his "GCSE". This is wrong. He took O level - a much harder exam. However, I understand why the newspapers do that. It saves them from having to explain to their readers that the rest of the world did not dumb down by adopting the GCSE when the UK did - and that much of the rest of the world still takes O levels. It would, of course, be rather embarrassing, to have to explain that.

I do not want to see the nation of my childhood go into long-term decline. Yet, I cannot help but feel that by lowering its own internal standard, by dropping the "elitist" O level, in favour of the "democratic" GCSE, it is ushering in age of just such a decline. I rather hope that something is done to reverse it before it is too late.

Isn't it funny that the rest of the world remembers the standards of UK's bygone age...while the UK itself has forgotten them? In that memory, will the rest of the world find success, while the UK finds a long slow decline.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and seven months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, five years exactly, and Tiarnan, twenty-eight months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, wunderkind, wonderkind, genio, гений ребенок prodigy, genie, μεγαλοφυία θαύμα παιδιών, bambino, kind.

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 8:50 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, the problem of the quality of GCSEs is limited mostly to state schools; half of the private and independent schools in the UK supposedly use IGCSEs, which are more in line with the old UK 'O' Levels. Also, some of these private and independent schools use the International 'O' Levels, I think. State schools have to use the GCSEs offered by local boards for political reasons, I suspect.

With regard to the 'A' Levels in the UK, even Cambridge is now developing a new Pre-U qualification, which is supposedly going to be adopted by the more... exclusive 6th form colleges.

So things are taking a turn for the better, although its mostly the more exclusive schools.

12:21 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I am glad to learn that something is being done. Isn't it ironic though that what is being done, basically, to improve standards is to wind it back to what it was before the GCSE? It just goes to show that it was all a twenty year fiasco.

Thanks for letting me know of the improvements - even if only in limited sectors.

8:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This watering down is actually done by the Politically Correct Brigade, with their goal of equal outcomes for all. I suspect most developed countries will actually go down this path, with the democratization of exams and results, such that marks are supposed to be meaningless, etc. The US once had a much more rigorous maths curriculum too, until New Maths and New New maths. Even now, exams in Singapore are slowly being removed, such as in primary school; some also want the PSLE to be scrapped. Its the triumph of idealism over reality.

In the end, the real people who suffer are the 'bright' students stuck in state schools with no recourse to a better education, but this was probably the goal all along, to try and equalize outcomes for as many people as possible.

11:43 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Equalizing outcomes...that would destroy any society that achieved it. People are inherently different, if you get equal results from all, that means you have dumbed down the best to the level of the rest. That is hardly an achievement. It could be the end of achievement.

You are right about the PC brigade. Their well meaning campaigns poison life with their rigid positions. In some areas, the loss to society is great - for instance, in education.

I only hope that people begin to see what is being lost...and take steps to reverse the position.

Which exams are being shelved in primary school? What are the reasons for ending the PSLE?

11:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'But Senior Minister of State for Education Grace Fu stuck to her guns, reiterating the need to move away from an overly strong emphasis on exams at the lower primary level.

Ms Fu, who heads the committee that did the review on primary education, also said that exams can be eased in at Primary 2 for schools that are ready.'

'The long-standing debate over the need for the Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) was given an airing on Tuesday, with some MPs questioning if it is still relevant, given the changes being planned for primary education.'

'Others felt that retaining the PSLE goes against the overall aim of creating a better learning environment.'

'MP for Marine Parade GRC Ong Seh Hong said: "Singaporean parents are practical people. Despite the good intents of the proposed changes, if the end product of the primary education is examination-based and results-oriented, parents will continue to steer their children towards doing well in the PSLE. I'm afraid that in the end, all our efforts to improve primary education may go to waste."'

12:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i am from the UK and have not much of an idea about O levels. I was just wondering if you could clarify some doubts for me.
are the papers in the link below the O level papers for Singapore?
compared to the O level past papers from the syllabus that the UK had dropped they dont seem to be of an equal level.I gathered from the wikipedia page that the grades are given as follows
and that A1-C6 are passes. But what they havent maentioned is the percentage that this is usually above. Could you please clarify and correct this for me?

1:31 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

No. They are not the Singaporean O levels. They are in fact Cambridge International Examinations.

Personally, I have not taken Singaporean O levels (I am not Singaporean), so I haven't seen one. I only know that the idea was that they should preserve their standards, rather than shift to a GCSE (which they didn't do).

I do not know, offhand, what the marking band for Singaporean O levels are, in terms of percentage...but I could try to find out.

We have no experience of the Cambridge International exams you have provided a link to, I can't help much in their appraisal.

Regarding standard: the standard also depends on the mark expected, and the strictness of that marking. So it is difficult to judge the Cambridge International Exams you have provided, without knowing how they will be marked and the standard/detail of answer required to get those marks.

I will try to find the bands for you. We have not taken any Singaporean O levels or other official exams, in my family - because there is an age limit that prevents young candidates.

12:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for helping. Would you also be kind enough to provide a link to any past O level papers?

9:42 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Sorry, I don't know of any site on which Singaporean papers have been uploaded.

9:15 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

What is your interest in the O levels, by the way? Are you going to take them for yourself or a relative?

9:16 PM  
Blogger dEviLiSh aNGE| said...

I'm just curious... I thought there is a min. age requirement of 15 to take O level? :X

7:21 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes. There is such an age limit for Singapore's examining board...but you know what: the world is full of examining boards with more open minds than Singapore's...all you have to do is go to an OVERSEAS board.

Thanks for your observation.

9:15 AM  

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