Curriculum and assessment not fit for purpose – HMC report

Just five years since the introduction of reformed GCSEs and A-levels, a report by HMC finds that the system falls “significantly short in preparing young people to thrive in the 21st century”

Only five years since the introduction of reformed GCSEs and A-levels, an HMC report published today has found that the current curriculum and methods of assessment are not fit for purpose.

The system “[falls] significantly short in preparing young people to thrive in the 21st century”, concludes the poll of 790 individuals from across a range of educational settings, with 450 responses received directly from (predominantly state) school senior leadership teams and teachers.

Written by Sarah Fletcher, high mistress of St Paul’s Girls’ School and chair of the HMC Reform of Assessment working group, the report contains seven key findings:

  • 94% of respondents believe GCSEs need reform, with strong support for the teaching profession to play a lead role.
  • The current system focuses too much on qualifications at the expense of broader educational aims.
  • There are concerns about how well the education system develops wellbeing, both mental and physical. It also falls short in promoting the values, creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving skills young people require.
  • Students are demotivated by an inadequate response to their needs.
  • The educational system does not meet the needs of diverse learners, including those with disabilities; neurodiversity, mental health and economic status remain the biggest blockers to securing equal opportunities in education.
  • Assessment is too narrowly focused and is being used for the wrong ends. Exams better serve the purposes of university selection and employers than encouraging learner development or motivating educational engagement.
  • There should be further research into the use of technology to improve access to learning and assessment.


“The challenges we face in the 21st century and the framework within which we work have changed beyond all recognition and we now need to reset the dial,” said Fletcher.

“The world has changed since the curriculum was devised. While the acquisition of knowledge and qualifications are understood to be important, these are currently limiting broader learning.

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“There needs to be more emphasis on curiosity and a love of learning, so young people develop the flexible, adaptable mindsets they need to upskill and reskill in later life. Cultural and social awareness are essential if they are to engage positively in an interconnected world, while skills in digital literacy and engagement with new technologies are at a premium.

“Crucially, creativity and critical thinking lie at the heart of problem solving and innovation, and are essential if young people are to feel empowered in a changed and changing world. In none of these respects is our curriculum perceived as successful.

“We need to find new ways of developing and nurturing the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values young people need to take control of their own futures and to play their part in creating an ethical, sustainable, and respectful world.”

While concluding that the system itself is flawed, Fletcher is altogether more positive about the people attempting to work within it: “The passion and idealism of the teaching profession shines through. Respondents support student centred and future facing outcomes.

“They are excited by the advantages technology could offer in improving standards, bringing learning communities together, and in developing more personalised approaches to assessment. They are clear, however, that the current educational system is falling short.

The challenges we face in the 21st century and the framework within which we work have changed beyond all recognition and we now need to reset the dial – Sarah Fletcher, St Paul’s Girls’ School

“In [the survey respondents’ view] the curriculum is not sufficiently relevant or motivating,” she added. “Assessment appears to focus more on benchmarking and the needs of university selection than on student progression, and there is real worry about inclusion.

“The scores relating to the needs of students with physical and mental ill health are very low, while economic status is still viewed as the biggest barrier to success. Social mobility, curriculum and assessment are closely intertwined and there is no doubting the need for a proper review of our provision if we are to offer the inclusive, equitable system to which we aspire.”

The report calls on government to appoint an apolitical individual or organisation to swiftly lead a widely ranging consultation with educators, business, universities, parents and students to help inform the design of a new model of assessment.

This process should, according to the HMC report:

  • Beyond the acquisition of knowledge and learning skills, curricula focus should be placed on the development of the wider qualities needed for personal agency and active, ethical citizenship in a respectful, tolerant, and sustainable world.
  • Address concerns about mental and physical health and wellbeing, in consultation with wellbeing experts and neuroscientists.
  • Research how best we motivate and engage young people in the learning process.
  • Focus on prioritising inclusion and meeting the needs of every student.
  • Consider how educators can be supported with resources and training to enable them to fulfil a holistic educational role.
  • Create a mechanism which enables teachers, students and others to contribute to ongoing conversations about the future of education.
  • Explore the role of edtech in teaching, learning and assessment, paying careful heed to its ethical and practical implication.


“There is real appetite amongst the teaching community to look at these issues and soon,” said Fletcher.

“The overwhelming belief is that politicians should cede place to professionals, allowing review and reform to be driven by those at the forefront of education – teachers, academics, researchers, wellbeing experts and recent school leavers.”

The report’s findings were endorsed by the chair of the HMC Academic Policy Committee, Martin Collier.

“It is of central importance that the national assessment system is relevant and fit for purpose,” he said. “Above all else, it needs to best serve the interests of all students. This report will help inform the on-going debate about the national assessment system and how it might be reformed.”

Read the full report

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