The pandemic has exposed many issues in education and society more broadly. These existed well before the first Covid-19 case arrived in the UK, but have been exacerbated since its arrival.  One such key issue from NEU members’ perspective is the assessment and curriculum associated with qualifications in the 14-19 phase of education.

How did we get here?

Since GCSE and A-Level reform in the early 2010s teachers have reported worsening experiences for students. Teachers report that content has increased in size and is very challenging to complete in the two years intended. This has led to many students starting GCSE courses in Year 9[1], shortening Key Stage 3 and narrowing subject choice earlier in their educational journey.

The increased difficulty of the specifications, mixed with the fact that success in many subjects depends entirely on how you perform on one or two days at the end of the course, has come with further side effects. Students, parents and NEU members have reported wellbeing issues, with stress and pressure focused on one cliff-edge moment. In those subjects with just one mode of assessment, the written paper, it is also the case that students can’t demonstrate what they are capable of unless they can remember it in the moment and express themselves entirely in writing.

In this sense, a one-size fits all approach to assessment, where exams are the default regardless of the discipline being assessed, is far too blunt to be useful. Exams can help test what someone remembers about something, or how well they write under pressure. Exams, however, are far less helpful at evaluating various other, sometimes more complex or nuanced attributes. For example: oracy; problem solving; verbal reasoning; collaborative working or practical skills. Therefore, to state that ‘exams are the best and fairest’, regardless of what you’re trying to assess, is simply nonsensical.

It became clear that these weren’t the only problems and that many with a stake in education had concerns. Employers, for example, have for a while now reported[2] that the narrow set of subjects enforced by accountability measures, and assessment in which memorisation is prioritised over other important attributes, are not preparing people for life or work in the 21st century.

The OECD too have reported[3] that jobs of the future will be less about what you know and more about what you do with what you know and how you apply it to new situations. Yet we still assess students in the same way as our predecessors did in the early to mid-20th century – in silence, on what they can remember and write down from the past two years, with pen and paper, in 90 minutes.

It was important to NEU members, therefore, that a broad range of stakeholders was brought together, and their thoughts shared and reported. This led to the establishment of the Independent Assessment Commission (IAC). [4]

What did the IAC find?

The IAC brought together parents, students, teachers, leaders, employers, politicians from all the main political parties, policy-makers and researchers in the fields of equalities and assessment both domestically and internationally. Its findings and recommendations highlight a system which does not work for any of those groups involved and is not fit to serve the needs of the economy or society in the 21st century.

That isn’t to say some students don’t ‘succeed’. Many do achieve the grades they want and go on to further study or employment as they had hoped to. However, the final report is clear that the system doesn’t do justice even to the most able students, who are becoming disengaged whilst learning is reduced to rote memorisation and exam technique, and who will be as equally unprepared as their peers for the type of global, automated, green, ever-changing (and in some cases unforeseeable) jobs and life experiences of the mid to late 21st century.

Entrenching disadvantage?

What was also clear from Commissioners’ findings was that the system entrenches disadvantage. England has become an increasingly less equal society over the past ten years and despite being the fifth largest global economy, poverty has increased[5]. This means that until a broader plan to create a more just and equal society is in place, there will only ever be so much that assessment can do.

However, the current system adds to the inequality, creating an unlevel playing field which works against many students. The sole use of exams to determine the entirety of a grade brings with it the consequence that those with resources at home to revise for the one-off performance, including access to tutors, have the best chance to perfect their technique or artificially inflate what they might normally demonstrate on a day-to-day basis.

This is made worse by the reality that exams are also then used to rank order students, and grades in effect awarded by where in the rank order you appear. So even if a student with less support at home manages to prepare well, and score plenty of marks, to achieve a certain grade they must out-perform a proportion of other students, who may have had more support than them. In other words, grades are more about where you finish in the race, than they are about what you yourself have shown you can do.

The pandemic has exposed this reality to more and more students, especially with the originally proposed use of ‘the algorithm’ for grades in summer 2020. The thought of their destiny and the outcomes being not entirely in their own hands is understandably very demotivating for many.

What next?

The debate provoked by changes to assessment during the pandemic has continued, with the formation of various other Commissions and bodies researching assessment in England. There is a lot of great work going on but what the NEU hoped to add with the establishment of the IAC was a demonstration of the wide-reaching consensus about the need for change.

We didn’t know exactly what the various commissioners would decide when brought together, but we felt that to get a genuine representation of the strength of feeling about the need for change, a broad, independent group was absolutely necessary.

Doing so, we believe, has led to a very powerful outcome. To have findings and recommendations which have been devised and supported by so many different groups is unusual. 

Everything reported by commissioners and the communities they work with means that change is increasingly urgent if England wishes to develop citizens with skills and attributes fit for the future, rather than the past. Ultimately, it is only the government who can make this change and so it is they who need to listen to this ever-growing consensus, which bridges usual political divides. The IAC’s “New ERA” for qualifications and assessment provides a vision, principles and recommendations to act as a framework for this urgently-needed, national conversation about what a fit-for-purpose future system would look like and the process of change towards it.

As part of AQi’s work, we are inviting people from a wide range of viewpoints to engage with us on a wide range of topics. We welcome alternative views to help stimulate discussion and ideas. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent the views of AQi or AQA.

[1] National Education Union (2018, August 21st). Reforms GCSEs are damaging the mental health of young people, and failing to accurately reflect their abilities [Press Release].

[2] Confederation of British Industry (2019) Getting young people ‘work ready’ [Report], p. 32.

[4] Sylvester, R. (2022, January 26th) “What’s wrong with our schools – and how to reinvent them for the digital age”The Times Commission.

[4] New Era Assessment (2021) Homepage.

[5] Bristol Poverty Institute (2019, May 22nd)  UN Rapporteur: Final Report [Report].