Learner profiles are a crucial reform to level up our system

A system entirely geared towards reductive assessments is failing to tackle entrenched inequalities, writes Rachel Macfarlane

A system entirely geared towards reductive assessments is failing to tackle entrenched inequalities, writes Rachel Macfarlane

5 Mar 2023, 5:00

The number of penalties handed out to students caught cheating has risen for a second year

I recently heard David Gallagher of NCFE compare written exams to penalty shoot-outs. I like the analogy. To suggest that, after 12 years of schooling, we should assess the strengths, knowledge and understanding of a 16-year-old learner through a series of high-stakes, individual, formal written exams in test conditions is no more satisfactory than deciding the winners of a football tournament on spot kicks.

Penalties are just one of a wide array of skills footballers must demonstrate. Managers look for technique, pace, mental attitude, work ethic, creative flair, the ability to read the game and to play with others to elevate the performance of the team. The same is true of employers. They want the equivalent of skilled defenders, midfielders or attackers – not just penalty takers.

What worries me about metaphor is the assumption that we don’t spend our time practising metaphorical shoot-outs in school. My experience is that, in our high-accountability system, classroom activity mirrors assessment: silent and individual writing exercises, non-contextual factual recall of content, mock exam practice and GCSE questions studied at key stage 3.

Meanwhile opportunities for open-field play are being squeezed. There’s less space for student-led, expansive, enquiry-based activity, pair or group collaborative tasks or learning through talk and interaction with peers. 

In spite of all this practice, many of our students are failing to get their penalties in the back of the net because their barriers to learning are not effectively addressed. It’s as if their boots are the wrong size, they’re battling with the flu or shooting from the half-way mark.

We have more children than ever living in real poverty, and increasing numbers are arriving at school with a backpack full of worries and anxieties. They are fearful of stigma and painfully aware of the gaps in their knowledge and skills after three years of Covid disruption and a decade of cuts to in-school and external agency support.

In our system, classroom activity mirrors assessment

What they need is a school experience that convinces them that they belong. A school that envelops them in a safe, low-threat learning environment and encourages them to explore new concepts and skills with their peers. A school where staff have time to build strong, deep and trusting relationships with individual pupils, to uncover their strengths and to support them to build on them.

Instead, faced with content-heavy lessons and common-to-all assessments in timed conditions and with no learning aids, many are simply sitting it out on the bench.

A learner profile, capturing a student’s achievements, knowledge and skills in a multi-modal way and over time from reception to 18 is central to creating the safe assessment environment in which all can thrive. It allows learners to demonstrate achievements and skills as part of a team as well as individually, to show progress when they are ready rather than at a set time, to show their knowledge practically or orally as well as in writing. It allows them to reflect on and better understand themselves as learners, to articulate their strengths and achievements, their learning journey and challenges, their aspirations, interests and dispositions. It supports them to translate their skills from a school context to the outside world.

The inequalities between the educational experiences and outcomes of groups of learners are stubbornly entrenched and the data around the life chances of those who ‘fail’ at school – in terms of correlation to low-skilled employment, stunted earnings, poor health and cost to the state – are well rehearsed. If we are serious about levelling up, we have to enable students to graduate after 14 years of schooling with more than a reductive set of numbers and grades.

A learner profile would equip them with a robust record of their skills, knowledge, capabilities, real-world experiences and achievements including, but not limited to, academic test and exam success.  

Politicians of all persuasions need to build the concept of a learner profile into their party manifesto pledges if they really want to effect social mobility through education.

Because continuing to decide education’s winners and losers on penalties taken on a slanted pitch is not taking our system into the champions’ league.

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One comment

  1. Maybe a more realistic metaphor is a penalty shoot out with moving goal posts. For even if the student is on-target, and merits, say, grade 4, Ofqual’s failure to deliver reliable grades can result in a certificate showing grade 3. That happens, and more frequently than you might think. In fact, about 1 grade in every 4 suffers from this, implying that of the ~6 million grades awarded in summer 2022, about 1.5 million were wrong. And since this happens even if there are no ‘marking errors’, there is no appeal. Ofqual know this but have done nothing to fix the problem – but it is a ‘good thing’ that the Chief Regulator is on record acknowledging that exam grades “are reliable to one grade either way”. Think about that…