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The battle for the future of assessment: ‘We must hasten slowly’


Commissions, reviews and reports on the future of assessment and exams are springing up everywhere. Schools Week investigates …  

The  headlines have been building for a while. You will have seen them: “Scrap GCSEs”, “Reform exams”, “Focus on skills”.

But some of the recent calls for change are not coming from teaching unions, but from voices within – or once close to – the government.

A year ago, Conservative MPs published a paper saying GCSEs should be “replaced with academic, technical exams and apprenticeships at 18”. Then in January the thinktank EDSK unveiled plans to scrap GCSEs by 2025 and replaced with low-stakes assessment. Just before the pandemic, Robert Halfon, the education select committee chair, said “pointless” GCSEs should be replaced with a “national baccalaureate”. 

Some backbenchers have also been unnerved by evidence that Michael Gove’s reforms to GCSEs in 2015 had widened, rather than closed, the disadvantage gap.  

Then Covid-19 hit. Confidence in the system plummeted as exams were cancelled followed by countless U-turns and chaos.

As academy trust boss Peter Hyman, says: “The problem was particularly bad in countries like England, because we don’t have multiple modes of assessing. It’s launched a conversation about not putting all our eggs in the exams basket.” 

It’s about not putting all our eggs in one exam basket

Now there are more commissions, reviews and reports on assessment than perhaps ever before in the country’s history. The Labour and Conservative Party conferences were also packed out with fringe events on the topic. 

The players pulling the strings 

A number of reviews and commissions have been established. The Independent Assessment Commission (IAC), which is looking at the 14-19 age range, is hosted by the National Education Union (NEU), a campaigner for reform. 

The IAC has ten commissioners, including Dame Alison Peacock of the Chartered College of Teaching and Olly Newton of the Edge Foundation think-tank. It is chaired by Louise Hayward, professor of educational assessment at the University of Glasgow.

In an interim report, the commission proposed five principles for assessment, including being more inclusive and future-facing, with a “New ERA” of “equitable, reliable assessment”. The full report arrives next month.  

I ask Hayward whether the commission will recommend GCSEs be scrapped, but she says she cannot speak before the final report. However, she is clear on one thing: comparable outcomes must go. 

The commission, like many others, is significantly motivated by what the Association of School and College Leaders calls “the forgotten third” – the proportion of pupils who do not get a pass in English and maths at the end of secondary school because of the “comparable outcomes” methodology of grade distribution introduced in 2011. 

“Qualifications should reflect what a young person has achieved, not be downgraded or advantaged by their year group,” Hayward says.  She wants a return to criterion-based, rather than comparative, assessment. 

Nansi Ellis, the NEU’s assistant general secretary, adds that as learners now stay in education until 18, there should be fewer exams in year 11. “There’s no reason you should have to bank everything at age 16. Instead, you could bank some things, at different times, and not always through a written exam.” 

‘Teachers want more involvement in assessment’ 

The Future of Qualifications and Assessment research project, set up by the education giant Pearson, is another player in the debate. It has a 25-strong “independent expert panel”, including academy trust bosses, Lord Blunkett, the former education secretary, and Sir Michael Wilshaw, the former chief inspector. 

The focus is once more on 14-19 and an interim report out in June, which claimed to bring together the views of 6,000 stakeholders, found “young people want something to show for their years of learning”.  However, it also found teachers “want more involvement in assessment” and overall “there is too much weight on exams”.  

Sharon Hague, a senior vice-president at Pearson, says the consultation revealed that “accountability is a limiter. The way school performance is measured limits schools being able to give children a completely free choice.” 

On comparable outcomes, she adds: “I’m not saying there aren’t changes we can make to how assessment operates to make it more equitable. But that’s obviously not something exam boards can do alone.” 

Third, there is The Times Education Commission, which includes Lucy Heller, the chief executive of Ark Schools. Assessment will be discussed, she believes, but she shares her own thoughts with Schools Week

“I’m really keen we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater – our exams are rated throughout the world.” But she is also concerned by a model in which some pupils leave without a sense of their strengths.  

We must not throw the baby out with the bathwater

“I’m never clear why we don’t use the system of music grading [for instruments] for modern foreign languages or other subjects. So rather than a GCSE [grade] in French, you would have a ladder in language training.” It’s a version of “stage not age” assessment, she says.  

This idea crops up again as a popular solution for that “forgotten third” in other groups.  

Soft skills trial to roll out across schools

The Rethinking Assessment group was launched a year ago by Hyman, who is co-director of the Big Education Academy Trust, in partnership with the Edge Foundation.

He believes a “comprehensive learner profile” in which pupils bank credits and achievements across projects, subjects and skills throughout their school career will allow them more insight into their strengths, and be useful to employers.  

“Employers are spending millions on what they call strengths-based assessment, so we’re looking to see how we could bring that into schools.” 

The group is also putting the new ideas into practice: this year assessment pilots will begin across schools on “ways of creating a holistic umbrella qualification that recognises the strengths of every child”, Hyman says. 

Schools Week understands that Academies Enterprise Trust is also interested in exploring ways of recognising wider pupil achievements and assessing oracy skills. Chief executive Rebecca Boomer-Clark said: “Qualifications are always going to be important – but as a sector, in addition to this, we need to explore how we assess and value a wider portfolio of evidence so that we capture and recognise what young people have experienced throughout their school days.”

The idea that “soft skills” should not or cannot be rigorously and reliably assessed makes no sense, continues Hyman, given that the early years framework requires staff to assess these skills in toddlers. “We’ve got this weird anomaly where when they’re four-years-old, we think it matters, but then, for some reason, not later.”  

Meanwhile the frantic circumstances of the pandemic don’t prove teacher assessment is unreliable, he says. After all, Ofqual’s own research in 2018 showed one in four exam script grades at GCSE and A-level was wrong. 

But what about teacher stress? Last month Ofqual and the government admitted teacher assessed grades had had “significant workload implications for teachers”. 

 ‘Time to consider fewer exams’ 

Groups not running a commission or review have also put forward their thinking on paper. 

The Confederation of School Trusts (CST) is running a Bridge to the Future series, or think-piece papers, including “Coherence and Systemness: The Future of Assessment and Qualifications”. 

Steve Rollett, its deputy chief executive, says his organisation is cautious about some suggestions. “The risk of not assessing at 16 is we could end up with a narrower set of qualifications only at 18.”

There’s also a “difference between saying we ought to develop soft skills in children, and saying we ought to assess them”.  

However, CST thinks the number of exams children have to sit needs to be thought about. Staged assessment might be useful in some subjects, he says. 

A “Blueprint for a fairer education system”,  published in June by the Association of School and College Leaders, suggests reducing assessment in primary schools to just a year 1 phonics test and year 6 SATs test.

The association also wants to tackle the “forgotten third” through national assessments set by a curriculum review body on a ten-year cycle.

“The slower pace of curriculum change would mean assessments change less often, and then comparable outcomes becomes less necessary,” says Julie McCulloch, the director of policy at the association.

Like others, she calls for “adaptive testing” on digital devices, which presents questions in response to an individual pupil’s performance, so reducing a sense of failure as well as stretching high-attainers. 

Calls for ‘caution’ over exam replacements 

There are, of course, warning voices too – although they do not appear to have mobilised as have their opponents, despite flaws in many of the proposed reforms.

A version of assessing children “when they are ready” was piloted in single level tests in 2007, says Carole Willis, the chief executive at the National Foundation for Educational Research.

She said a range of concerns were raised at the time. More tests would be needed for children at every level throughout their schooling, the curriculum and teaching could be distorted, costs would be higher and children could end up taking tests many times in order to ‘pass’. 

Removing comparable outcomes is also tricky because “some mechanism is needed to maintain standards, and ensure that exams and grading decisions remain consistent over time – because the questions change every year”, she said.

Meanwhile, Tim Oates, the director of assessment research and development at Cambridge Assessment, says that qualifications and exams in England “have supported a whole series of helpful functions.

“They structure learning, support selection, give students and teachers an idea of standards and depth of treatment of topics and ideas, motivate young people and help the state look at the quality of education”. 

For many of these reasons, the top performing education systems have high-stakes assessment at 16, he says. “The idea we’re an outlier just isn’t accurate at all.” 

Colin Hughes, the chief executive of exam board AQA, also warns there “just isn’t a huge groundswell of desire to abandon 16-plus examinations”.

A report on GCSEs from AQA out this week found 73 per cent of pupils surveyed were glad they did GCSEs – but they would also like to be assessed on a broader range of skills.

Both are concerned, though, by the impact too many exams at once have on mental health.

An Ofqual spokesperson said: “While we are looking forward to the return of familiar exams and assessments, it is right that we are open to considering new approaches to assessments we regulate and that we learn from experiences during the pandemic.

“The aim overall is to improve existing gold-standard qualifications.” 

Everyone is agreed a conversation must be had. It’s an exciting conversation, but there are some oversights, with more focus on GCSEs than primary assessment, and little mention of assessment of SEND pupils. It’s also perhaps surprising that there is no official group set up to retain the current system. 

“We must hasten slowly,” smiles Heller.

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