Building back better: The curriculum and assessment

Written by: Deborah Lawson | Published:
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Many have said that the pandemic offers us a chance to build back better. But what would this look like for education? Deborah Lawson on how curriculum and assessment might change

Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time? It’s a fair bet that most of us never foresaw a year like this one, but as educators we spend our working lives preparing learners for the future – encouraging enquiring minds, developing the skills we believe they will need to succeed and flourish in a world that does not yet exist.

As a key part of this, we need to investigate the curriculum and exam syllabus that learners follow, and even the format of the examinations they take, and ask three key questions…

1, What do learners need to learn?

Since 1988, the national curriculum has outlined what is taught in most schools, and this is particularly specific in the “core” subjects. But does it meet the needs of modern learners?

While there have been some first indications of a curriculum modifying itself, with the introduction of computer science, is this sufficient to prepare learners for the future? Should it all be about the “core” subjects, or about STEM?

What about computer programming which, with the addition of English, art, music and drama, is a creative industry that contributed almost £13 million to the economy every hour in 2019 – according to figures from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport?

What about how we deliver this curriculum – through discrete subjects, through topics or project work, or in a completely different way? How do we assess it?

2, How can we assess and measure learning?

The exam specification forms the basis of many schools’ GCSE curriculum, and all learning time is dedicated to this, giving rise to the question, do we measure what we value or value what we measure?

To put it another way, can we truly measure the learning of our learners or do we only value what we can test? And what does that mean for knowledge and skills that are difficult to assess?

The summer exam debacle starkly exposed the problems with a system based wholly on terminal examination. A system built on a range of assessment would have been more robust and provided a wider data base on which to calculate any outcome much more reliably.

This could include a wide variety of assessment methods such as online, coursework, and practical assessment rather than just written exams. It is unlikely in their future careers that candidates will have to hand-write a document in exam conditions, and it is undoubtably better to allow candidates to demonstrate all of their learning rather than just be tested on a narrow selection.

Maybe now is the time to consider a huge change. What is the purpose, when education or training must continue until 18, of subject exams at 16? What does that tell us as educators, and what is the value for the learner?

3, Does this prepare people for the future?

It is often said that we educate children for jobs that do not yet exist. We know that a foreign language is increasingly useful in a global economy, and that learners need good communication skills, both spoken and written. Computing skills and those which imbue confidence are certainly increasingly attractive to employers, and we will always need practical numeracy.

During lockdown we have all consumed vast amounts of music, film, television and game content. The need for designers and artists, web engineers, and games, television, film and music creators is not waning, even if the jobs are not always immediately visible.

We hear talk of a green economy, and jobs in renewables, but it must not be just about employability; what about the curriculum itself? Is theoretical study more useful than practical and applied? What skills do we need learners to have? Can we appreciate the practical skills of plumbing, electrical engineering, horticulture and farming, and those relating to trades? How do we validate the skills agenda? And, if the GCSE is obsolete, what are the alternatives?

The shape and design of the curriculum and assessment has to involve those in the classrooms as well as employers, colleges and universities, and might have a more holistic approach rather like the international baccalaureate, which looks at students' intellectual, emotional, personal and social skills across a range of subjects. Could this provide a route map for the future?


There is not room here to outline all possible alternatives, but we need a curriculum of opportunity for all and assessment that accurately reflects achievements – existing for the benefit of learners and recognising their knowledge and ability and decoupled from school attainment tables. The time is ripe for forecasting the future and we must not squander this opportunity to ask the questions and pursue change.

  • Deborah Lawson is assistant general secretary of the Community union (Voice Section). In October 2020, Voice became Community’s education and early years section. Visit


Posted By: ,
Dear Deborah
Thank you for your thoughtful article. May I tentatively suggest that we actually need to do some even more fundamental thinking that outlined. I would like to suggest that we need to ask 2 key questions to inform any changed model of education. What knowledge package, critical skills and personal attributes do young people need to be 'successful' when they leave school. What will they need in 10/15/20 years time.
I would propose Sir Ken's answer to the first question. Young people need to be economically independent (this ensures national economic sustainability), to be good citizens (socially and community aware and active), and to achieve some degree of personal fulfillment. The 3rd question is does our current curriculum offer any of this?
As a starting point exploration of the answers to these questions would help us vision and extrapolate and curriculum experience that 'educates' children and young people. In parts of the world where they have already moved forwards with this 'school' is looking very different and moves away from our fixation with subjects.
I agree that it is a debate that we must have and with policy and decision makers who are able to initiate and drive such change.
A final question. What is the appetite of education professionals for such change. Without a consensus of the benefits we would all realise such change is stymied before it starts.

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