Sir Nicholas Winton

“If it’s not impossible, there must be a way to do it.” Sir Nicholas Winton

On Wednesday 27th January, Robert Halfon, MP for Harlow and Chair of the Education Select Committee, outlined his vision for the future of education and assessment at an event organised by the Edge Foundation, alongside leaders from the Rethinking Assessment movement that Edge helped found.

His vision is built on three principles:

  1. A skills and knowledge based system
  2. That is aspirational for all young people
  3. And relevant to the world we live in

Halfon quoted information from Edge’s recent report on the impact of Covid-19 on education to show the impact of lockdown on young people’s access to education and mental health – for instance, evidence from the Sutton Trust which shows the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their better off peers has widened with 55% of teachers at the least affluent state schools reporting a lower than normal standard of work returned by pupils compared to 41% at state and private schools.

He went on to highlight the challenges facing the economy and young people seeking to move into the labour market, from Edge’s skills shortages bulletin published last week. For instance, findings from the Department for Education’s own Employer Skills Survey showed that in 2019, nearly a quarter of vacancies- 214,000 roles- were skills shortage vacancies. The latest figures from the Office of National Statistics estimate that 757,000 young people (aged 16-23 years) were NEET (not in education, employment or training) in July to September 2020.

Halfon highlighted that, with an education system built on foundations as far back as 1911, it’s no wonder that it is failing to meet the needs of employers more than a hundred years later. GCSEs were introduced in the 1980s to assess young people at the end of their formal education. Since 2015, all students have to stay in education up to the age of 18, so it’s time for the education and assessment systems to catch up.

Halfon said;

“For too long, this argument has been characterised as one of polar opposites. Between traditionalists and progressives. Between knowledge and skills. Between vocational and academic. I am in support of a “What works” approach, not a one size fits all system.”

Robert is backing an end to written exams as the only form of assessment – instead, he wants to blend together knowledge, skills and attitudes in our assessment system and in the teaching that underpins it. That is what employers want and international experts like OECD recommend. He praised the International Baccalaureate and institutions like the Edge Hotel School in Essex and XP School in Doncaster which blend knowledge and practical experience. 

“Knowledge is only useful where individuals have the skills to interpret and communicate it, and skills are only useful where young people have a core knowledge to draw from. A surgeon cannot rely on their knowledge alone, they need skills like teamwork, good communication and the ability to sew to get the job done.”

The Edge Foundation is a founding member and supporter of the Rethinking Assessment movement, which aims to provide a strong evidence base for the changes that Halfon set out. Key members of the movement joined the panel discussion following his speech. Contributions and key points included:

Bill Lucas, Professor of Learning and Director of the Centre for Read- World Learning, University of Winchester

“We have become stuck in a semantic rut of attainment, test and qualification when the world of further and higher education, lifelong learning and employment requires a more thoughtful palette of nouns and verbs as we think about assessment.”

Christine Gilbert CBE, Former HMCI, Ofsted

“Life expectancy is extending, and our young people may live to be 100. How can we prepare them to thrive over a long life, be active citizens, confident learners and support them to flexibly learn throughout their lifetime?”

Peter Hyman- Co-Director Big Education

“We should look first at the curriculum and think about how we can encompass “head, heart and hand”. Government in England keeps reinforcing knowledge alone, but the OECD says we need broader knowledge, skills and attributes.”

Alice Barnard, CEO Edge Foundation

“If not now, when? Education has been put under the microscope and a movement is building that wants to see systemic change. Teachers, parents, young people and employers want to see reform in assessment, the only outlier to change at the moment is the government.”

Rachel Macfarlane, Director of Education Services, Herts for Learning

“Learners should be in the driving seat of their own journeys - bursting at the seams with evidence from their own learning journey, rounded and relevant to their own interests, passions and next steps in life.”

Through the Rethinking Assessment movement, we are building the chase for change, building a broad coalition, looking around the world at what works and might be useful to us, building a set of principals around what assessment needs to be.

We want to involve everyone with an interest in that process – including teachers and tutors, parents, employers and students themselves. This is a complex debate where we want as many voices as possible to take part.

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