Several countries are evolving their summative school exams to become more digital. Some, like Finland, have done so completely.

Here in the UK, the debate is in its infancy.

Quantitative surveys warn us that Head Teachers are concerned about potential changes. Ofqual’s survey in December 2020 indicated that 73% of Head Teachers didn’t think a move to screen based examinations would be ‘manageable’.

Big quantitative questions are blunt instruments. They are good at ‘what’ but not ‘why’ and the pandemic changed attitudes significantly.   

So AQi decided to speak to 4 school leaders and Head Teachers to better understand their views.

Simon Gilbert Barnham, Head Teacher, Ormiston Venture Academy

Please briefly describe your school...

“Ormiston Venture Academy is in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk with over 850 students.

46% receive free school meals and 36% are SEN.” analysis

What would be the benefits of digitising exams?

“It is the direction of travel. Our students are entering a digital world and they need strong digital skills.

There are also benefits in security, access to examinations outside school and essential flexibility in difficult times like the ones we’re still coping with.

And there is a world of different possibilities in making new forms of exams that are engaging and draw in wider knowledge, just as we try hard to do when we are teaching the curriculum.”

What are your concerns?

“I really have no knowledge or experience of longer form digital exams so inevitably such significant change would make any Head nervous.

Practically, we’d need to do some investment and have discussions with the IT team but I think we could make it work.

A few years ago, access would have been a big concern but that is less of an issue now.

Paper-based assessment suits us very well. We are good at helping our students build up the toolkits and strategies that they can apply in paper-based exams.

So, my biggest concern would be having the time for both us and the students to learn how to evolve those strategies for digital exams.

I am sure we could do it, but we’d need to build the digital fluency of our students not just in typing but in planning and structuring exam responses digitally.”

What would be a sensible timescale?

“3-5 years would be a sensible goal to start some digital exams.

The key would be a steady transition over several years with some trials to help us overcome the inevitable challenges.”

What would your advice be to those thinking about how exams might be digitised?

"Avoid the big bang approach where all the shifts and changes arrive at once. 

A planned and gradual shift allowing schools and students to develop their pedagogy alongside the change will ensure all students have the full opportunity to achieve the grades they deserve."

Jon Chaloner, CEO of GLF Schools

Please briefly describe your schools...

"GLF is a 41 school multi-academy trust with 7 secondary schools.

They are located around the Home Counties and into Oxfordshire."

GLF Schools website.

What would be the benefits of digitising exams?

"Personally I think that it is overdue. The world has already digitised and we need to too.

It will be good for our students I am sure.

We are not trying to pioneer and this makes me more comfortable. We can learn from other countries that have gone first.

Our SEND students often use laptops in written papers already. The students who we need to think of first are in many ways ahead of the game. We are in the helpful position where the technology won't badly affect those who need the most help - in fact, used cleverly I think it will help them.

And there's the added bonus that our schools can probably save some money over time, with respect to examination fees."

What are your concerns?

If you had asked me before the pandemic, I would have had many concerns but we've learnt so much about overcoming every sort of technology challenge.

I asked for feedback from our 7 secondary Head Teachers.

Their responses ranged from 'Yes, we can do that' to 'That would be a big challenge' but I think we could cope with those challenges with a sensible amount of time and good planning.

Our Head Teachers made some good points that we would need to address:

  • Every school has different spaces and infrastructure so we'd need time to practice and learn how to make the logistics work.
  • We'd need some good training.
  • And the exam boards would need to work together. It would add unnecessary complexity to have more than one platform.

But none of the challenges unduly concern me.

What would be a sensible timescale?

I think 4 to 5 years is a good timescale.

If you told us now that certain exams were going digital in 2026 I think both schools and students would be well-prepared with some well-thought-out training and support.

What would be your advice to those thinking about how exams might be digitised?

"Full steam ahead, I would say.

But please engage with schools as early as possible. Take us with you.

That way we will all grow confidence and the inevitable concerns will dissipate.

My other advice would be to get together with some year 10s and year 11s. They will give you lots of good advice. I'm sure that they'll be keen to contribute to the debate."

Dame Sally Coates, Director of Secondary Education, United Learning

Please briefly describe your schools…

“We have over 50 secondary schools across the country, mostly academies but also some independent schools.

United Learning is the largest multi-academy trust.”

What would be the benefits of digitising exams?

“It’s inevitable that examinations digitise and that schools become more digital. The world around us is digitising fast. I think pen and paper may largely disappear during my lifetime.

Many professional qualifications are already assessed entirely online.

If we don’t move towards digitisation. We would be ignoring the world around us when our role is to prepare young people for exactly that world.”

What are your concerns?

“It must be a sensible process.

The pandemic has changed all our relationships with technology. We’ve all taken massive strides.

But people will still feel threatened.

There will be fears that the technology will go down. We’ll need to have enough devices. After all, exams are very important.

These are all practical barriers but far from insurmountable ones.

Most importantly we need time to prepare our students. We would want to start working with them early to help them become accustomed to what will doubtless be a very different assessment experience.

It is all about planning.”

What would be a sensible timescale?

“We need to get started now to give enough lead time.

A phased approach with the first exams in 2027 feels about right.

We would want to know early which exams will go first and what sort of exams to expect. Then we can start to integrate digital exams into our mid and end-of-year exams.

That way we can prepare our students and our teams so that there are no shocks or surprises.”

What would be your advice to those thinking about how exams might be digitised?

"A pilot and review programme would get things started and thrash out the challenges. I think lots of schools would want to join the pilot and we would all gain confidence in the process and spread the word.

Digitisation should also reduce exam fees. Bringing down the costs would be a big win for schools."

Rhys Spiers, Head Teacher, Ark Greenwich Free School

Please briefly describe your school…

Ark Greenwich is a traditional, academic school.

We have 600 students and are located in a deprived part of London.

In 2020 our Ofsted inspection rated us ‘outstanding’. We are working hard to have that confirmed. analysis

What would be the benefits of digitising exams?

There are clear benefits in preparing students for the modern world.

We’re in a world where half the workforce operates remotely, where every aspect of life is digital so all our students need to be skilled in digital technology.

What are your concerns?

“They are logistical and practical.

Access to devices is an issue. It has to be fair. We faced these issues during the pandemic and found solutions. I am sure we would find good solutions again but we’d need more time since exams are so important.

We would need enough time to prepare our students properly.

Give students enough time to learn to type. Give the teaching team time to help students learn how to communicate their knowledge effectively on screen rather than on paper.

These are very useful life skills to focus on but we don't want them to be at the expense of other things. We would help students build these skills gradually.

I am sure the team and the students would rise to the challenge and then it would just become normal.”

What would be a sensible timescale?

"I would like a phased transfer over 5 or 6 years.

We (in the UK) aren’t up to speed in the thinking and haven’t started preparing. We are still largely paper-based. So it will take that sort of time for a smooth transfer."

What would be your advice to those thinking about how exams might be digitised?

"This is something that has to happen. We must be wholly committed to doing what is best for our kids for the real world. Digital is their real future.

My one note of caution is the need for technology to be used responsibly. Our students already have so much screen time. We need to consider how screen based we want both learning and assessment to become. We need to work out the best path.

But otherwise, we should get on with it. We should start learning."

Read more on this topic:
What do senior leaders think of on-screen assessment
Digital assessment: Why we're closer than we think
Online exams: The robots are coming