End high stakes exams at 16, says independent commission

A new report on the future of exams and assessments in England says GCSEs “need to change fundamentally”

The Independent Assessment Commission (IAC) has released its report on the future of assessment and qualifications in England.

It argues that qualifications should meet the needs of every young person, and address the growing mental health crisis in schools. For this to happen, the report says, “fundamental changes” to the current system are needed, and GCSEs should be “comprehensively overhauled”.

Its key recommendations are that:

  • High-stakes, or ‘cliff-edge’, examinations should not be used as the only mode of assessing student achievement – GCSEs in their present form “need to change fundamentally”.
  • There should be no arbitrary assessment of all young people based around a fixed age of 16 – instead, pupils should “have opportunities to demonstrate achievements when ready” between the ages of 14-19 in “a coherent 14-19 assessment and qualification experience”.


The IAC launched in June, funded by the National Education Union, and pledged to “shake-up the failing exam system and ‘start a national conversation’ to transform the way the country’s young people are assessed”. The commission was chaired by Professor Louise Hayward of the University of Glasgow’s School of Education and commissioners included students, parents, teachers, employers, policy makers and researchers. The IAC published and consulted on an interim report in September 2021.

England’s exam system needs to change. Equality, diversity, inclusion and health and well-being must be central to an assessment system that has a positive impact on all students – Prof Louise Hayward, IAC

“I am very proud to present this far reaching and visionary report,” said Professor Louise Hayward.

“The IAC has concluded that the current approach to qualifications requires fundamental change. It is beyond doubt that it is failing its own test to provide a system of assessment that sufficiently serves society, the economy and the young people being educated in England’s schools and colleges.

“Today, we have laid out a vision, a set of principles and a series of specific recommendations for a new era of equitable, reliable, assessment (ERA).

The IAC report identifies inequalities deeply ingrained in a system and which has to change if there is to be greater educational equality.

“We need a system that helps every young person to progress to college, employment or university with qualifications that recognise their achievements and the capabilities they need to succeed in the challenging times that lie ahead. New ERA qualifications should open doors to future learning and employment for every young person.

“Currently, too many young people feel that they are denied opportunities because their time at school has not been properly recognised – this is not good for them, nor is it good for their future employers, our economy and society.

“England’s exam system needs to change. Equality, diversity, inclusion and health and well-being must be central to an assessment system that has a positive impact on all students.

“The proposed IAC reforms will help attract and retain teachers by recognising and developing their professionalism, providing greater job satisfaction as they help students develop further their skills in problem solving, critical thought and innovation.

“Ending high stakes exams as the only mode of assessment will improve mental health and reduce the stress experienced by teachers, students and their parents and will also ensure that disadvantaged students receive the support they need and that practical, technical skills, and ‘soft’ skills of collaboration, teamwork, creativity and entrepreneurship are recognized.

“The time has come for change. We urge policy-makers to listen to this report and act upon it. Our economy, our society and our young people need nothing less.”

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