In search of a system fit for purpose – the ‘State of the Nation’ on the subject of assessment reform

Despite many voices calling for significant reform to public examinations, is there any consensus on what should be done, has any meaningful progress been made, and where should our collective priorities lie, asks Miles Latham.

Over the past two years, it has become something of a truism to talk about ‘opportunity arising from disruption’, but it cannot be doubted that the ever-shifting landscape created by the pandemic and the long-rumbling debate on the efficacy of public examinations created a storm of debate on the subject.

In the latter part of 2021, a scathing report from HMC described the current system as “[falling] significantly short in preparing young people to thrive in the 21st century”, and as recently as February 2022, the Independent Assessment Commission (IAC) suggested that GCSEs, in their current state, needed to “change fundamentally”.

Regardless of such findings and statements, however, nothing substantive has happened on the topic, and GCSEs and A-levels look set to continue in their current form for now, at least.

So where do leaders on the ‘front line’ – in schools still regaining the confidence to operate ‘normally’ – think the current opinions and options lie as we head into the main ‘exam term’ of 2022 and beyond?

The appetite for change in a weary educational landscape

It would be disingenuous to pretend that the world of education is fresh and rested. The endless toing and froing of Covid restrictions – along with the insidious personal and professional anxiety that surrounded them – will take their toll on individuals, even school leaders. “All the talk of a better future,” comments Guy Ayling, headmaster of Mount Kelly, “did dissipate somewhat, especially in the second lockdown. We craved the old normal, in every aspect of education; face-to-face teaching, kids doing sport, kids having assemblies. The excitement for educational reform was dented.”

However, that restless desire for improvement that is embodied in a great teacher still appears strong. “That said,” Ayling adds, “I think it’s still a hot topic, and there are some very fundamental challenges ahead with how we assess and measure performance, and the results of education as a whole.”

“If you ask [young people] if the exam system needs reforming, they’ll definitely say ‘yes’… the system we’re working in is a recall system – at best – and given the technology at our disposal we don’t need recall systems in the same way as we did. We need to consider if we’re only rewarding those with a good memory” – Rebecca Glover, principal, Surbiton High School

This is clearly recognised by students as much as staff. “If you ask [young people] if the exam system needs reforming, they will definitely say ‘yes’,” observes Rebecca Glover, principal at Surbiton High School, adding, “The system we’re working in is a recall system – at best – and given the technology at our disposal, we don’t need recall systems in the same way as we did. We need to consider if we’re only rewarding those with a good memory.”

Standardised assessment vs Individualism: the core of the debate

Assessment exists, of course, for a very necessary purpose. Chris Wainman, headmaster of Silcoates School, rightly notes, “Society does need doctors and pilots, for example, to have measurable skills first and foremost; but really great doctors have a kind bedside manner, and great pilots have a calm and confident Tannoy voice.”

The question appears to lie less in the need for assessment but the object of it, or, as Guy Ayling puts it, “It’s not the measure that’s the issue; it’s what we’re choosing to measure with it.” But how should this mechanism develop when dealing less with the ‘empirical’ and more with the ‘individual’?

“A light was shone on this with the need to do CAGs and TAGs assessments,” Glover tells us. “We had a full range of grades at A-level and GCSE; our teaching staff and our [students] know what they are capable of achieving.”

There is great possibility, it would seem, coming from a solution forged from necessity, but there are still problems to overcome even in this approach. “If we go forward with this at all,” Glover adds, “there would need to be a very robust form of quality checking to make sure bias and personal relationships don’t cloud results.”

An approach that gives more value to the individual – rather than just their ‘performance’ – is not divorced from the real world. “If you look at the OECD Framework for 2030,” suggests Ayling, “the skills required for the workplace centre on critical and creative thinking.”

Glover expands on this: “Children are likely to have many different jobs in their lives; we should be preparing them to be creative, independent, flexible and adaptable. What we shouldn’t be rewarding is content alone – it should also be holding conversations and constructing well-balanced arguments – skills for interview that aren’t assessed.”

The importance of ‘wellbeing’ in designing reform

Debates of this type are held back by extremes.

The idea that we have a ‘snowflake’ generation who need to toughen up in the exam hall is as farcical as the idea that children should be protected from all forms of pressure in perpetuity. What does appear clear is that the role of wellbeing in how exams are designed in the future is now, at least, a significant voice at the table.

“… sitting 25 to 30 hours of exams at the age of 16 does seem disproportionate and does undoubtedly impact wellbeing” – Guy Ayling, headmaster, Mount Kelly

“Strong characters are forged in the hardest of challenges – and having a bit of rigour and stress is no bad thing,” Ayling reflects, “but sitting 25 to 30 hours of exams at the age of 16 does seem disproportionate and does undoubtedly impact wellbeing.”

“We have the chance to put children in situations where they can experience the pressure of potential failure but do so in a safe way,” notes Glover. “When you overload children with pressure, you don’t see the people they are. There’s so much more in that person than what happens in that exam and that’s what we don’t capture.”

There is also a question, here, of the priorities of families in a post-Covid world. “Increasingly parents are more concerned with their child’s wellbeing than ‘9s’; that is coming through very loudly,” adds Glover.

The demand of the ‘customer’, in that sense, is shifting towards the balance between wellbeing and achievement, rather than a temporary abandonment of the former to secure the latter.

How far does assessment need to go, and when?

Is there too much burden on assessments done during schooling? The ‘cliff-edge’ nature of GCSEs is undoubtedly a throw-back to a time when the majority left school after that period of their schooling, but this is clearly no longer the case.

But is it realistic or useful to try to measure ‘all’ of a person at this young age?

“If we’re going to measure,” adds Guy Ayling, “we have to be aware of the contradiction between standardisation and individualism and accept that we can’t measure the ‘absolute individual’. Such a realisation can come later in life.”

Should any exam reform, therefore, be looking to assess the right things at the right times rather than trying to measure the ‘unicorn’ of foundational knowledge and personal traits in perfect harmony?

Here we start to see the green shoots of practically implementable solutions that are more akin to modern context. The timing of assessments – however they are done – is very open to question. “We have this huge gap between 11 and 16 where there is no assessment, and it might be a little too late,” suggests Ayling.

“Assessment has to become more cumulative and not just the end of years 11 and 13… perhaps starting GCSEs in year 9 and committing to more ‘mini assessments’ along the way” – Rebecca Glover, principal, Surbiton High School

“Assessment has to become more cumulative and not just at the end of years 11 and 13,” adds Glover, “perhaps starting GCSEs in year 9 and committing to more ‘mini assessments’ along the way.”

We hear consensus on this…

“This is potentially less about format and more about timing,” Ayling continues, “and we could explore low-stakes assessment at age 15 to allow for a three-year ‘Sixth Form’ where we can allow for greater scope in the education itself.”

Where to go from here?

“Maintaining the status quo would feel like a backwards step and a missed opportunity to improve,” Wainman states, “and we have the realisation that emotional intelligence, critical-thinking skills, confidence, and articulacy are key parts of the puzzle.”

Nevertheless, it is evident from the brief exploration of ideas around format, timing and subject of measurement above that any reform will have to be nuanced. Entirely throwing away existing structures may cause more harm than good.

“Initial steps need to be changing what happens within GCSEs and A-levels,” concludes Glover, “such as taking a more cumulative attitude and facilitating internal assessment far more readily.”

But, finally, is now also our chance for a wider consideration about the outcomes of such assessments?

“We need to have a discussion around failure,” notes Ayling. “Nationwide, we still have a large proportion of young people who are ‘failing’ – whatever that means – so where do they go? What do they do? This screams of a system that shows what the child cannot do, rather than what they can do.”

Where the appetite for reform burns brightest appears to be here – in creating a system that shows not where young people have fallen short, but in what they can bring to the world they are going to inherit.

You might also like: Curriculum and assessment not fit for purpose – HMC report

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