The New Year is a moment to look forward, but also to reflect on the many insights available from the past.

With many commentators expecting policy debate on qualifications and assessment to grow in 2022, it is useful to look at key points in historical debate, for example, the landmark 1963 Newsom Report.

Entitled Half of Our Future, the report considered the different ways the education system could support those leaving education with few qualifications. In 1963, this group represented around half of the secondary school population, or as the report highlights: Half our Future.

The report warns early on:

…the idea of 'below-average ability' easily suggests 'below-average people', as though the boys and girls so described were being regarded as generally inferior and in some way less worth educating…- It is possible that the potential of these children is very much greater than is generally assumed and that the standards they could achieve might surprise us all.[1]

Several of the report’s recommendations have subsequently become government policy, for example, the extension of compulsory education from 16 to 18 to mediate the challenges of entering the labour market.

Nevertheless, several of the report’s proposals were never enacted, or remain works-in-progress, while still having relevance to contemporary debate and would not look out of place in the upcoming education White Paper, scheduled for later this year.[2] Therefore, this blog investigates: how relevant are past challenges for today’s policymakers?

Recommendation 9. (a) The school programme in the final year ought to be deliberately outgoing - an initiation into the adult world of work and of leisure

Current debate on preparing young people for the labour market is reflected in this recommendation, and the perennial trade-off between prioritising acquisition of academic knowledge versus workplace-relevant skills.

Research suggests a lack of contact with employers has left 45% of undergraduates and 36% of further education leavers feeling ill-prepared for the workplace,[3] indicating preparedness for the world of work remains an issue.

However, compared to 1963, the issue is complicated by the huge increase in the percentage of young people taking part in post-18 education, such as university, shifting back the transition into the world of work from school to campus.

Nevertheless, re-imagining the final years of education to be more like the adult world work and leisure is perhaps more relevant today than ever. Now that the leaving age for compulsory education and training has been raised to 18, young people leaving school are adults – many will be able to vote, drive a car and buy alcohol before they leave education.

Recommendation 9. (b) All links with, and knowledge about, the youth employment service, further education, the youth service and adult organisations need strengthening.

Forging a strong relationship between pupils, employers and schools remains a key issue for the current education system. A 2019 survey[4] published by the CBI found that one quarter of employers were dissatisfied with school/college/university leavers’ basic skills. The 2016 study commissioned by the OECD[5] further identified around one in ten of all university students in England have numeracy or literacy levels below Level 2.

The Department for Education’s statutory guidance[6] for schools and guidance for further education colleges and sixth form colleges, with its focus on the Gatsby Benchmarks, show how seriously policymakers still view these challenges.

Recommendation 10. (a) The schools should provide all sixteen year old leavers with some form of internal leaving certificate… irrespective of any external examinations they may take.

(b) [Schools] should resist external pressures to extend public examinations to pupils for whom they are inappropriate.

Subsequent government policy has largely diverged from this recommendation. Almost all 16-years old are expected to take external exams in the form of GSCEs, and internal leaving certificates have a negligible role. Nevertheless, the experience of teacher assessed grades in 2020 and 2021 has seen some teachers wishing to continue with undertaking internal assessments for the purposes of certification.

More widely, proposals to equalise further education opportunities have included a general leaving certificate, greater use of tiering in assessments and individualised qualification pathways. For example, entering students into Functional Skills Qualifications when they are unlikely to pass a GCSE in either English or Maths.

Recommendation 4 (b) attention should be paid both to the imaginative experience through the arts, and to the personal and social development of the pupils.

Once again, this recommendation from the Newsom Report echoes current debate on the absence of arts subjects in the EBacc, and on the role of PHSE in the curriculum.[7]

Nearly 60 years ago, the Newsom Report proposed innovative recommendations, but some of the problems the report highlighted are challenges that policymakers are still grappling with today.

At the start of 2022, it is interesting to look back at how education policy debate has evolved, and at the warning of Half of Our Future:

There is no time to waste… our future is in their hands. We must see that it is in good hands.[8]

[1] Ministry of Education. (1963). Half or Future. [Report of the Central Advisory Council for England], p. 4, XIV.

[2]Zahawi pledges white paper to tackle illiteracy and innumeracy”. (2021, October 4). Politics.co.uk.

[3] JISC. (2021).Nearly half of university students are unprepared for employment. [Report].

[4] CBI & Pearson. (2019). Education and learning for the modern world [Report].

[5] Kuczera, M., Field, S. & Windisch, H C. (2016) Building Skills for All: A Review of England [Report].

[6] Department for Education. (2021). Careers guidance and access for education and training providers [Statutory guidance].

[7] Department for Education. (2021). Personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education [Guidance].

[8] Ministry of Education. (1963). Half or Future. [Report of the Central Advisory Council for England], p. xiv.