The new schools assessment system is unfit for purpose – here’s why

Last week, I took part in a roundtable discussion with educationalists to consider whether the new GCSEs and assessment system were valid, working, and fit for purpose.  I left it to others present from schools to comment on whether they were working.  However, from our perspective at Young Citizens, the new system is neither valid, in that it measures a single dimension of pupils, and favours some pupils over others; nor is it fit for purpose, in that it is not suitable for measuring the types of skills young people need in the 21st century.  Here’s a summary of what I said.

Young Citizens – formerly known as the Citizenship Foundation – has been helping young people  become active, engaged and motivated young citizens for the almost 30 years.  Our ethos is that, in order to be active citizens, they need the opportunities to develop the knowledge, skills, confidence and attitudes needed to take a full part in society.  This goes to the heart of what our education system should be about.  It means that the purpose of education must not simply be to prepare young people for the world of work.  Of course that is important – but education is so much more than that.  It’s about preparing them for life.

Our proudest work at Young Citizens involves providing young people – usually through schools – with real-life citizenship experiences.  This enables them to practice in real-time what it means to be a citizen.  These schemes include our Mock Trial competitions (where students take over court-rooms and take part in mock trials, in front of real judges and barristers); our Make a Difference Challenge, where pupils decide on social issues they want to take action on, and then plan and implement their own campaigns to make a difference; and our Experts in Schools programmes, linking up experts with classes, to share their knowledge and experience.  We are told by pupils, parents and teachers that these sort of experiences can change young people’s lives – setting them up to be confident citizens.

The title of this roundtable is, ‘Is the new assessment system valid, working, and fit for purpose?’  I will leave it to those closer to schools to decide whether it is working.  But from Young Citizens’ perspective, I can say categorically that it is neither valid nor fit for purpose.  Here’s why.

Not valid

The new system is not valid because above all else, in returning to an assessment system fixated with examination, it tests cramming ability above all else.  I’ve nothing against a bit of cramming (it has personally been very useful for me during my school days and beyond!).  The ability to accumulate knowledge and the skill to recall it quickly are important.  But this is just one single dimension.  Those pupils that might be very talented in all sorts of ways but not so much in cramming are disadvantaged.  This system restricts what teachers can teach and how – with teachers focused on what is needed for that final exam – and it squeezes out the type of experiential learning that I’ve described above…which for many pupils have the biggest impact on their skills and confidence.  It make me want to weep when I hear of schools deciding to pull out from experiential programmes, and cancel field trips and other events, because they have little choice as they need to prioritise the exams.  This system is ignoring the skills and confidence and attitudes which are key competences for young people in the 21st century.

No wonder we hear reports of pupils and teachers becoming so stressed and overwhelmed – with schools needing to put on mindfulness classes for pupils to help them cope with the anxiety.  We’ve created a system involving the highest of stakes, where it all comes down to win or lose in the single exam. No wonder, too, that an increasing number of parents (who can) are opting out altogether – with the growth of forest schools, and home schooling.

Not fit for purpose

The new system is not fit for purpose either.  I grew up in Suffolk, one of the biggest agricultural areas of Britain.  During the time I grew up, the landscape changed dramatically.  Farms amalgamated, hedgerows were ripped up, fields became bigger prairie-like, with a single crop as far as the eye can see.  Monoculture.  We’re creating something similar with school curricula.  They are losing their diversity and becoming increasingly barren.  The new focus is on a hierarchy of subjects, where it is only those of English, Maths, Science and the new Ebacc which are prized.  Other subjects – such as citizenship, art, music, drama – are being ripped out of curricula, just like those hedgerows.  The reality for pupils is that they are facing an increasingly narrow curriculum – one which is dull and dry.  And in so doing, we are also ripping at young people’s natural curiosity and enthusiasm for learning.

This is also out of step with most other developed nation education systems.  I’ve said that we believe that education is far greater than simply preparing young people for the world of work…but on that measure too, this assessment system fails.  Employers say that what they want to see from young people is more of the soft skills – critical thinking, negotiating, advocating, articulating, collaborating – that are vital in the workplace.  And, of course, at a time when the UK is going to make its own way in the Brexit world, this couldn’t be a more important time.

What is needed is a more balanced assessment approach – which includes examination, of course, but also includes project work, team work, and community engagement.  And we need to return to valuing diverse curricula where young people get the chance to study a broad variety of subjects.

Certainly, pupils’ progress might be harder to measure this way than via a simple end-of-course examination.  But it ultimately boils down to a simple choice:

Do we value only that which we can easily measure?

Or do we try to measure those things that we truly value?

Increasingly, in our fixation with assessment, we are losing sight of the real purpose of education.  The entire system is being shaped around the assessment process.  And that assessment process is not even primarily about the pupils – it’s an accountability system, for schools to prove to regulators that they are performing to standards.  This is back-to-front; and it is damaging the chances for young people to be rounded, confident, happy citizens.  Time for a change.