From education to employment

Changing the impossible: how an online ‘escape room’ could hold the key to unlocking the assessment system

students sat on individual tables with a piece of paper each

Sophie Maxwell, Founder of The Really Neet Project, explains how a chance encounter in an escape room set her on a path to transforming the assessment system, and why an innovative pilot with the awarding organisation NCFE is helping to find the solutions.

Let’s go back to 2015. The 30 young people within our alternative provision setting are about to take on their maths and English functional skills assessments.

I observe as I watch our team passionately moving around the room to try and make it as comfortable as possible for the young people.

We fought hard to put in place all the reasonable adjustments we could negotiate with the awarding body and had long conversations with the young people, trying to support them into the right headspace to take on the assessment.

Despite the heroic efforts of the team, it still led us to the inevitable. Another year of many of our young people getting distressed, getting upset after just a few questions, and walking out of their assessment.

This annual process left us feeling deeply saddened for the young people we work with. We could see the distress the assessments caused and, when reflecting with our young people post-assessment, we learned that their experiences were heavily influenced by a deep fear of failure, a lack of self-esteem, or their external worlds were so chaotic or rooted in trauma that taking an exam felt detached from their current realities.

But we had no other solution for them aside from having a reader, supervised breaks, a scribe, or extra time. For many of them, none of the reasonable adjustments seemed to have any impact on reducing their distress.

After the dreaded assessment week, we took the same group of young people to experience an escape room and I watched them confidently take on a 60-minute, time-pressure environment where they answered maths and English questions.

They were able to show their working on a whiteboard with smiles on their faces. I couldn’t help but draw a comparison to the paper-based assessment they had just attempted. It led me to consider why the escape room environment had provoked such a different reaction among the young people.

The lightbulb moment

This moment of clarity led me on an eight-year campaign to transform assessment as we know it. I spent many a weekend adapting past assessment papers into immersive stories; zombie apocalypse stories into English papers and Special Forces stories into maths papers. I began to test a niggling theory that was forming in my mind around immersion being able to take away the fear of assessment.

I even went to B&Q and purchased a load of small boxes, tubes, magnets, and locks to create a physical miniature escape room in a box that young people could use during their assessment, to keep them focused and engaged. This DIY creation led to a prototype designed in partnership with Sheffield Hallam University called an ‘Escape Pod’.

But the Escape Pod was costly to manufacture and difficult to fit into the regulatory requirements of Ofqual. It became clear that to meet the regulations we needed to find another way.

It was during the pandemic that the lightbulb moment came to me. Me and my partner purchased an online escape room and, as I was taking part in the game, I could see how the same format could be applied to an assessment. The concept of online story-based assessment was born.

Change just isn’t possible

I relentlessly pursued influential education figures to try and get them to listen and bring about change within the sector. Eventually it led me to one such leader. He listened intently to what I had to say, paused, and responded, “I hear what you’re saying Sophie, I like what you’re trying to do, but you will never change the traditional mindsets that sit within the regulatory bodies. The change you’re talking about just isn’t possible.”

I responded, “Listen, if I have two pieces of paper, I write the same maths sums on both but I draw squares around the first and flowers around the second, ultimately the sum is still the same. Why does it matter what we wrap around the questions if the young person is demonstrating they have the embedded skill?

“If everyone had the attitude that nothing is ever going to change, so why bother, it’s an absolute certainty that nothing is ever going to change, at least if someone tries there’s a chance.”

He looked at me and said, “I don’t think I’m your person to take this further, but I know a man that I think can help.” The gentleman put me in contact with the Chief Executive of NCFE, David Gallagher. David understood the concept from the very start. He believed in the transformation of assessment within the UK and, true to his word and quick to respond, his organisation released the Assessment Innovation Fund.

We tendered for the fund and became one of its first recipients, embarking on an 18-month pilot to develop the online platform and test the niggling theories I had so many years ago.

More fun and exciting

When asked about their historical experiences of traditional assessments, many of the young people expressed a concerning level of distress and anxiety about traditional exams, using phrases such as ‘terrified’, ‘I hate them’, ‘overwhelmed’, ‘sick in stomach’ and ‘I have dark thoughts and feel trapped’. These feelings extended beyond the exam itself and had significant consequences, including not taking the exam at all.

After the young people in the pilot had taken the story-based assessments, they were asked whether they thought the new assessments would be helpful. An overwhelming 69% of the young people reported that they would be useful, making comments such as:

“… it engages people in a more visually enriching way… It makes it more fun and exciting.”

“… it helps as everything links together and makes sense. Having everything story-based makes it more entertaining/fun and makes you want to answer the question / influence the outcome.”

“…you don’t have the pressure like with the paper-based exam.”

“… it helps me de-stress.”

I watched a Ted Talk recently that struck a chord with me. The woman said, “In gaming, young people will fail over and over again to complete a level without it seemingly affecting their self-esteem, but in education, the impact of real or perceived failure can be catastrophic to one’s outlook on their chances in being successful in life.”

We believe our pilot shows that it is not only possible to create valid, credible and reliable story-based assessments but, further to that, we have demonstrated it is absolutely necessary in order to make assessments accessible for young people with additional needs and to avoid the distress articulated all too often within our pilot project.

We have an awarding body that took on the change, we now need the regulator, Ofqual, to see that it doesn’t matter whether you put squares or flowers around a question, what’s important is the skill that sits within it.  

By Sophie Maxwell, Founder of The Really Neet Project

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