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Could do better? Qualifications for students, the economy and society

Post pandemic, one of the many burning policy questions facing policymakers in England is whether qualifications in England are fit for purpose for the late 21st century? The evidence gathered to date by the Independent Assessment Commission (IAC) suggests not. Students, parents, teachers and headteachers, employers, researchers, policymakers and politicians from across the political spectrum believe that England’s qualification system could do better; many believe it could do much better.  

Our commission, the IAC, is clear that there is an overwhelming case for changing the current system of assessment and qualifications and that the time to begin that process is now.  We believe that the current system is not fit for purpose and not fit for the future; that it Is not sufficiently reliable, authentic or fair; does not support high standards of education for all and, for many, undermines mental health. 

Commission members come from a broad range of organisations, yet there is consensus about the need for change. And we are not alone.  Rethinking Assessment, The Times Education Commission, the Pearson Commission and NCFE are part of a growing coalition advocating for change.

The current system does not provide information on key aspects of what young people need to be successful in future and those young people will determine the future success of the economy and of wider society.  Knowledge and skills matter but so do other things, for example, the ability to work as part of a team, to be able to persevere with problems, to work independently, to create new ideas.  The current system provides no evidence of crucial student abilities on which future users of qualifications can rely. 

Neither does the current system support high standards of education for all.  Too many young people leave schools with few qualifications to support them into education or employment.  Too many young people contribute a great deal to their school and community, yet leave with little to show for their time there. No society can afford economically, morally or socially to exclude young people.

Exams are neither good nor bad. 

They are simply one way of gathering evidence. For some things, exams work well but not everything that matters can be measured by an examination.  Ending cliff edge exams will also help the well-being of young people, their parents/carers and teachers.  The IAC  heard evidence from them that the current system is taking a terrible toll.  This cannot be right: the system should be better than that.

But what would better look like?

What should be the touchstones for the design and development of assessment and qualifications that are fairer, more equitable, more reliable, more useful sources of evidence both for young people and for users of qualifications for further or higher education or employment? 

IAC’s ‘THE FUTURE OF ASSESSMENT AND QUALIFICATIONS IN ENGLAND‘ interim report presents 5 principles for a new assessment era:

  1. First, qualifications should serve the individual. They should provide information to all young people, their parents/carers and users of qualifications about the knowledge, skills and competences young people have achieved. 
  2. Second, qualifications and assessment should be recognised as part of a wider education system and care taken to ensure that approaches to accountability do not distort qualifications. 
  3. Third, qualifications and assessment should serve the future needs of society, culture and the economy to enable the nation and young people to thrive in less predictable times socially and economically, nationally and internationally. 
  4. Fourth, qualifications and assessment should be inclusive both in purpose and in their design and development. 
  5. Fifth, qualifications and assessment should enable progression for all young people, not only used as a mechanism to determine the next examination or selection. 

Reacting to a global pandemic is one thing. Considering how policy on qualifications might change in the longer term is another entirely.

Good policy change takes time. It also takes thought. Thought to identify if, and if so why, change is necessary, who needs to be involved, what evidence should inform change and what principles should serve as touchstones, returned to regularly over time, to ensure that intentions remain consistent with emerging practice. 

The IAC will now consult on these new ERA principles.  We would welcome your views.

Our final report will be published in November and will include information on what agreed principles might look like in practice. It will also identify the kinds of support needed to ensure successful change; and, in a post COVID world likely to cry out for stability, identify what risks might be anticipated as policy becomes practice. 

We have to find a balance between stability and justice and a system that excludes so many young people is ultimately one that is neither just nor stable. We must do much better.

Louise Hayward, Chair of the Independent Assessment Commission (IAC)

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