Our broken assessment system: How schools are leading change

Written by: Elena Wilson | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

A four-year upper secondary phase, a baccalaureate-style award, a stage not age approach – now is the time to rethink our assessment system says Elena Wilson. She sets out her case and considers some examples that schools can build on...


Last year’s assessment fiasco and the cancellation of exams for the second year in a row has thrown our assessment system under the public spotlight in a way that has not happened since the Tomlinson Review in the mid-2000s.

If ever there was a time to look again at fundamental reform, surely it must be now.

At the Edge Foundation, we believe that a broad and balanced education and assessment system should equip young people with the skills and knowledge they need to reach their full potential.

But up to now, exams have dominated our entire education system, influencing what is taught and how it is taught. Even before the pandemic, many young people found the exam system increasingly stressful and not a true reflection of what they can do.

More and more, we are hearing from a range of voices that we urgently need to change the way the system works (Edge, 2021).

Employers have told us that they value a mix of academic and technical qualifications, with many prioritising skills such as problem-solving, communication, self-management, team-working, creativity, numeracy and digital skills. This was evident in the Employer Skills Survey 2019 (DfE, 2020).

We know that teachers and school leaders are experiencing a significant workload crisis, stretched to meet administrative and compliance measures and spending hours preparing students for high-stakes exams.

Our recent YouGov polling with teachers found overwhelming support for reform: 92 per cent agreed that the assessment system needs to recognise the full range of a young person’s strengths and skills, through more than written exams and 96 per cent felt that schools should be judged on the quality and range of the education they offer, beyond exam results.

Not only this, but young people are also telling us that the assessment system is not fit-for-purpose. As part of our Young Lives, Young Futures project, our panel of young people told us that: “The current obsession with grades is not sustainable. It fails to treat young people as individuals with unique strengths and dreams.”

For a strong student perspective, see the excellent blog from Bohunt Sixth Form which offers their reflections on why we need to rethink GCSEs (2021).


Go big and go bold

We need to equip our young people with the knowledge and skills to flourish in their broader lives and we need new ways to evidence and recognise this. In the long term, we need to go big and go bold, with whole-system change.

We believe young people would be better served by a relatively open upper secondary phase that spans four years, but allows five if need be. It would finish with a graduation or baccalaureate-style award that combines study and experience at different levels and spans the full general-vocational range.

It could include academic qualifications, technical skills, employer interaction and extra-curricular activities such as outdoor pursuits, creative and cultural activities.

We are already seeing examples where innovative change is taking place. For example, School 21 in London interweaves three pedagogies into its curriculum – wellbeing, oracy, and project-based learning – to support students to find their voice, develop deep knowledge and create beautiful work that has real value beyond the classroom (Minero, 2016).

Meanwhile, South Eastern Regional College in Northern Ireland offers each student a career-enhancing experience through an enterprise-driven curriculum where students work on live projects, solving problems for real businesses.

Since all learners learn differently, and at different stages, we also advocate moving from “age” to “stage” so that young people undergo assessments when they are ready. Assessments becomes less linear, and more of a progress check rather than a make or break point.

Teachers should also be given the time and space to work with staff across departments and with employers to create exciting cross-curricular lessons. For example, our Edge teacher externships offer a model for teachers to engage with local employers and integrate what they learn into their curriculum (see further information).

We know that sustainable change will require careful collaboration between teachers, schools, government, parents, students and employers.

At Edge, we support the Rethinking Assessment movement, a coalition of state and independent schools, multi academy trusts, further education colleges, academics, universities, employers and researchers, who are working together to develop new and better ways of evidencing the full breadth of young people’s strengths, building upon what is already happening elsewhere in the world.


Change starts now

While we continue to push for large-scale change to assessment as a future goal in England, foundations are already being laid. In the short term, here are some examples that schools can build on.

Building a common language around skills: The Skills Builder Partnership is a consortium of education and employer organisations that has defined essential skills for young people, alongside progression frameworks for achieving them. More than 500 schools have already adopted this framework to evaluate and certify their pupils (see further information for this an subsequent links).

Embedding skills into the curriculum: Skills and competencies can also be developed in schools in a variety of settings, from classroom work to extra-curricular activities. Our Edge Future Learning initiative focuses on three key ingredients that help bring learning to life – community-connected learning, project-based learning, and real-world learning. Schools and colleges can access our on-demand training and events to learn how they can integrate these approaches into their current curriculum.

Closer interaction with employers: Rather than setting employer interaction and employability skills apart from the curriculum, XP School in Doncaster is designed around expeditionary, highly interactive learning. Students work on real-world projects with employers in their local community and then present their portfolio of work at the end of each project. These include books that have become best-sellers in the local Waterstones to documentaries shown to the public in local cinemas. This style takes a much more holistic view and through this students develop a range of life-skills such as risk-management, presentation delivery and critical thinking.

Embracing digital: The Mastery Transcript Consortium, a coalition of schools in the US, uses digital high school transcripts as a form of certified school records. These capture students’ holistic learning experiences, unique strengths, abilities, interests and personal histories on a specially designed software platform. The platform tracks everything from academic outcomes to leadership skills. Since credits are defined and certified by individual schools, the system is far from one-size-fits-all. The transcripts are also recognised by university admissions, much like UCAS here in the UK.

Access more examples: Rethinking Assessment’s recent publication Rethinking assessment in education: The case for change (Lucas, 2021) articulates a clear case for changing assessment and includes a rich palette of examples and promising practice.


How can schools support the movement

We want to involve everyone with an interest in changing assessment, and we look forward to working with teachers, parents, students, employers, policy-makers to open up a space for this complex debate.

We are holding a discussion with Kate Green MP, the shadow secretary of state for education, in July and everyone is welcome to join in the discussion. This follows on from a discussion we held in January with Robert Halfon MP, chair of the Education Select Committee, who outlined his vision for a reformed education and assessment system (see further information).

You can also sign up to the Rethinking Assessment newsletter, get involved in Rethinking Assessment’s community challenges, or find out more about supporting workable pilots of new assessment approaches.

We are also supporting the National Education Union’s call for a fair and equitable reform of our exam system and will be responding to the National Baccalaureate Trust’s open consultation (2021).

  • Elena Wilson is Policy Manager for The Edge Foundation, which is an independent foundation working to give all young people the knowledge, skills and behaviours they need to flourish in their future life and work. Visit www.edge.co.uk


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