Qualifications reform: Reaching the tipping point

Written by: Nansi Ellis | Published:
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The Times Education Commission is the latest body to call for an overhaul of GCSE examination. Nansi Ellis considers what is wrong with our current system and how we might change it...

As we come to the end of summer exams, many will breathe a sigh of relief. In-person exams have resumed, and while there were changes it has felt like a return to “normal”.

But the questions aren’t going away – why are we still commandeering school gyms for teenagers to sit in silent rows, hand-writing what they can remember in eight and 16-mark segments, in papers that will be painstakingly collected and driven around the country to be marked?

What is wrong with the system?

Not everyone is dissatisfied with the current model. Nick Gibb, former minister for schools, told his successors “to resist the siren voices of those who call for GCSEs to be abolished”, arguing that it would widen the attainment gap, leave too many students without any academic certification, and allow weak schools to grow weaker (Gibb, 2021).

Not that Nadhim Zahawi needed persuasion. He too believes that “exams are the best and fairest form of assessment”. Elsewhere in government, Michael Gove has said that there is “not enough emphasis on examinations”, the “proper assessment” that ensures pupils acquire knowledge and demonstrate skills.

But the dissatisfaction is building, becoming increasingly widespread across the political spectrum, with the Times Education Commission’s final report (2022) being the latest iteration. There is growing agreement about the problems: the system doesn’t work for young people nor will it meet our future needs.

We know about “the forgotten third” of young people who don’t achieve at least a Grade 4 in English and maths (ASCL, 2019), but we also know about the stressed achievers, those who get good grades at the expense of their mental health, or by intense focus on exam technique rather than deep learning. Poverty, neurodiversity and bias mean too many students face additional barriers to exam success.

We know that exam grades don’t tell employers enough about young people, and that narrow preparation for exams can damage the independence and growth mindset needed for work (IAC, 2022).

We are increasingly seeing university students wanting to know how to get a good mark, rather than to “study the subject until my head hurts” as Professor Mary Beard has put it (Woolcock, 2021).

There is little in our qualifications system that encourages personal development, community engagement or citizenship. Instead, it narrows curriculum, forcing students to specialise early, to focus on academic or vocational study, and to choose between sciences, humanities or the arts. As Covid showed, there are risks with the focus on exams as the only method of assessment.

We have lost sight of the purposes of education in our national quest to “increase standards”.

What needs to change?

There is growing agreement around a model that celebrates the achievements of every young person, including the practical, sporting, creative, civic, personal, technical and academic. One that encourages a broad, interdisciplinary curriculum that is future-focused, develops deep learning, imagination, independence and empathy, and keeps a firm eye on wellbeing and mental health – of students and teachers.

Assessment that is authentic, assessing skills and knowledge in ways they will be used in the real world, and sustainable – environmentally, economically and educationally.

What could change look like?

What the many commissions and reports show is the need for an integrated qualifications system including “vocational” and “academic” elements, skill development, extended interdisciplinary study, and community contribution (IAC, 2022).

Different reports propose baccalaureate-style models: with pathways that can be academic or career-related, and include an extended project, community service, literacy and numeracy (see the Times Education Commission); or academic, applied (broad areas of employment) and technical (specific occupations) – see Tom Richmond’s Re-assessing the future report (2021). The National Baccalaureate Trust has a credits system, using components of current exams, incorporating core learning and personal development (NBT, 2022).

GCSEs can be rolled into the baccalaureate, with exams taken when ready, or replaced: with national computer-based assessments of national curriculum subjects at age 15 (Richmond, 2021); or a slimmed down set of exams in five core subjects, with continuous assessment and online tests forming part of the grade (Times Education Commission).

We can also make better use of technology. The Times Education Commission proposes a Digital Learner Portfolio, an idea already being tested by Rethinking Assessment, and already national policy in Australia.

The World Economic Forum suggests assessment via presentations, projects and interviews, much of which can be done online. Exams board AQA and exams watchdog Ofqual are trialling online exams and adaptive assessments.

What next?

So far so good. But there have been many reviews before. Changing the status quo needs political and professional will. It needs movement at national, local and classroom levels. I suggest we need to:

Clarify what we mean: Conversations with politicians show that there is, rightly, concern about maintaining standards and rigour. Does that mean “exam standards”, having similar proportions of students at each grade year-on-year, improving our position in international tables? Does rigour have to mean testing everyone in the same way at the same time? Does reforming qualifications mean scrapping all exams, or are there changes that will improve them? What would it mean to integrate academic and vocational qualifications? A lot of argument could be avoided if we were clear about what we are arguing about.

Reflect on the possible consequences of change: Even well planned changes can have negative impacts and we need an honest assessment of how these proposals might impact on standards and accountability, the school and college system, teacher workload, and student wellbeing. For change to be sustainable, every part of the system needs to be considered and adapted.

Continue the conversation: As the IAC reported in February, change requires a high degree of engagement from all affected communities, and it particularly needs open and honest engagement with those who are not part of the broad consensus. Change is limited when we operate with caricatures of “the other side”.

Concluding thoughts

Paradigm shift is hard. These reports show increasingly widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo. We are beginning to see the development of new models to better fit our needs. But the difficult bit is still to come – agreeing a model and a long-term strategy, reaching a tipping point where advocates of the new outweigh those supporting the old.

Sustainable change requires commitment, leadership and time. We need to start now.

  • Nansi Ellis is an education policy consultant and was formerly assistant general secretary for education policy and research at the National Education Union. She supported the Independent Assessment Commission, which reported in February. You can contact her via nansi@nansiellis.co.uk or follow on Twitter @NansiEllis

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