Commission proposes school report card and slimmed down exams at 16

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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​A new school report card as part of a reformed Ofsted, slimmed down exams at 16, an “electives premium”, better SEN identification, and a 15-year strategy for education – after more than 600 witnesses and 12 months’ work, the Times Education Commission has reached its conclusions.

The final report offers a 12-point blueprint which has been backed by 10 former education secretaries and two former prime ministers.

The commission was set up to consider how education must evolve to meet challenges such as declining social mobility and wellbeing as well as developments in technology and the changing nature of work.

Fortnightly evidence sessions took place involving 22 commissioners who heard testimony from experts across the education sector and beyond. Evidence was also collected from school visits (here and abroad), youth panels, and parents focus groups.

Among the key challenges facing the education system, the commission identifies the inequalities which are “ingrained from an early age”. It calls for a significant focus on preschool education, including more finding for early years, pointing to research showing that 46% of children are not “school-ready” when they arrive at primary school.

The commission says the current curriculum is “outdated”, offering no flexibility for regional variation and taking “little account of employers’ needs”.

The report bemoans the impact of high-stakes testing. It states: “No other developed country’s teenagers sit as many high-stakes tests as ours do and the focus on academic attainment has unbalanced the system.”

It also turns its ire on Ofsted, labelling it a “toxic brand”. It states: “Teachers are leaving the profession in their droves because they feel overworked and undervalued. Ofsted, which is supposed to support them, is a toxic brand.”

And it says that education must do more to prioritise wellbeing while also better identifying and supporting the vast array of SEN.

The commission’s 12-point plan is listed in full below, but highlights include:

A school report card as part of a reformed Ofsted

When the commission asked teachers to rate Ofsted in the way that Ofsted ranks schools less than 0.5% gave it an “outstanding” rating. An overwhelming majority – 79% – categorised Ofsted as “inadequate” or “requires improvement”. And only 9% of teachers thought Ofsted had improved the education at their school.

The commission heard evidence of teachers’ time being taken up by regular “data-drops” just in case inspectors turned up and the impact on teacher wellbeing of Ofsted’s “reign of terror”. The report slams this “system of suspicion” and an “almost total breakdown of trust between Ofsted and schools”.

The report calls on Ofsted to become more supportive and less punitive: “Ofsted has to uphold academic standards and defend rigour, but it should also assess pupil wellbeing, the quality of enrichment activities, teacher morale, attendance and inclusion.”

The report states: “Reform is needed to make Ofsted feel less like a ‘big stick’ and more of a ‘helping hand’.”

Schools should get a ‘report card’ which would include metrics including wellbeing, school culture, inclusion, and attendance, it recommends: “There is no reason that Ofsted inspections should not be planned in advance. The criteria used to assess schools must also be widened to encourage the rounded education pupils need and deserve.”

Slimmed down exams at 16 and a new baccalaureate at 18

The commission calls for a complete rethink of how assessment is done at 16, with the commission proposing the introduction of a British Baccalaureate at 18 – “an equally rigorous but broader qualification than A levels with academic and vocational options under the same umbrella”.

It states: “There is no other country in the developed world that has so many high-stakes tests at both 16 and 18. The number of exams that pupils take in England sucks an inordinate amount of time and energy out
of their schooling, squeezing out the space for other things.”

It finds that a young person doing eight GCSEs and three A levels will take as many as 42 external exams including mocks and lose about two terms of learning in preparation and exam time.

It proposes: “At 16, pupils should take a slimmed-down set of exams in five core subjects, with continuous assessment as well as online tests contributing to their grade.

“This would allow children to progress to the next level and provide accountability for schools but lower the stakes and reduce the amount of time spent on preparing for and taking exams. Everybody would be expected to pass English and maths at a basic level necessary to be able to participate fully in life.”

An “electives premium”

The commission heard evidence from Bedford Free School, where an electives programme is offered to every child, including things like chess, gardening, debating and sports. Students in schools in the Laurus Trust in Manchester, meanwhile, choose two electives a week, which are classes held after-school. The programme is funded by the MAT sponsor to the tune of £47 a year per-pupil.

The commission liked this approach, and its report proposes: “An ‘electives premium’ of £50 a year for secondary school pupils to fund additional sports coaches, cultural clubs, and outings. It would cost the Treasury about £175m a year, or £215m if the sum were doubled for Pupil Premium students.

“This extra money should be seen as seed funding for the scheme, with schools also tapping into teachers’ interests as well as local community and philanthropic organisations such as sports clubs, theatres, art galleries and debating societies.”

SEN identification, inclusion, and wellbeing

With around 1.4 million state pupils judged to have SEN and with this designation covering a wide range of conditions “that the system cannot adequately address”, the commission wants all teachers to be better trained to identify and help children with SEN.

It wants to see a “greater focus on inclusion” and a duty on schools to remain accountable for the pupils they exclude.

And it also calls for wellbeing at the heart of schools: “One thing that parents put at the top of the list for their children’s education is confidence about their wellbeing. The evidence suggests that they are being let down.”

It cites The Children Society’s annual survey which found that more than 300,000 10 to 15 years-olds in the UK are unhappy with their lives.

The report concludes: “There should be a counsellor, physical or virtual, in every school to help pupils before they reach crisis point.

“Teachers, who are often the first to see an emerging mental health problem, also need more support. There should be annual mental health training for all teachers, just as there is on safeguarding. There must be a shift towards prevention rather than cure, with more emphasis placed on developing the emotional resilience of young people.”

Times Education Commission: 12-point plan

  • A British Baccalaureate offering broader academic and vocational qualifications at 18, with parity in funding per pupil in both routes, and a slimmed-down set of exams at 16 to bring out the best in every child.
  • An “electives premium” for all schools to be spent on activities including drama, music, dance and sport and a national citizen’s service experience for every pupil, with volunteering and outdoor pursuits expeditions to ensure that the co-curricular activities enjoyed by the most advantaged become available to all.
  • A new cadre of Career Academies — elite technical and vocational sixth forms with close links to industry — mirroring the academic sixth forms that are being established and a new focus on creativity and entrepreneurialism in education to unleash the economic potential of Britain.
  • A significant boost to early years funding targeted at the most vulnerable and a unique pupil number from birth, to level the playing field before children get to school. A library in every primary school.
  • An army of undergraduate tutors earning credit towards their degrees by helping pupils who fall behind to catch up.
  • A laptop or tablet for every child and a greater use of artificial intelligence in schools, colleges and universities to personalise learning, reduce teacher workload and prepare young people better for future employment.
  • Wellbeing should be at the heart of education, with a counsellor in every school and an annual wellbeing survey of pupils to encourage schools to actively build resilience rather than just support students once problems have arisen.
  • Bring out the best in teaching by enhancing its status and appeal with better career development, revalidation every five years and a new category of consultant teachers, promoted within the classroom, as well as a new teaching apprenticeship.
  • A reformed Ofsted that works collaboratively with schools to secure sustained improvement rather than operating through fear and a new “school report card” with a wider range of metrics including wellbeing, school culture, inclusion and attendance to unleash the potential of schools.
  • Better training for teachers to identify children with special educational needs, a greater focus on inclusion and a duty on schools to remain accountable for the pupils they exclude to draw out the talent in every child.
  • New university campuses in fifty higher education “cold spots”, including satellite wings in FE colleges, improved pay and conditions in the FE sector and a transferable credit system between universities and colleges to boost stalled British productivity.
  • A 15-year strategy for education, drawn up in consultation with business leaders, scientists, local mayors, civic leaders and cultural figures, putting education above short-term party politics and bringing out the best in our schools, colleges and universities.

Times Education Commission: Bringing out the best: How to transform education and unleash the potential of every child, June 2022:


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