Flick Drummond is MP for Meon Valley.
Two years ago, I wrote about the future of assessment in primary and secondary education and my fear that GCSEs have turned our schools into nothing more than exam factories.
I had other ideas too like an extended school day where pupils could take part in enriching activities.
Initially this was met with scepticism from many quarters but I pressed on and wrote down my thoughts in a One Nation Conservative paper.
At the back-end of Covid, when our schools and exams have been so disrupted, it seemed to me that a perfect opportunity had arrived to examine whether our education system – especially our exam system – is still fit for purpose.
Public examinations are important. But are the present exams truly reflecting what pupils are achieving, and are they preparing our children for the modern world of employment while giving them resilience and the right technical, problem-solving, and communication skills?
After that initial cool response, it seems that I was onto something after all. Since 2020 there have been no less than five commissions all asking similar questions.
I am not going to let this interest lapse, and have teamed up with Emma Hardy, a Labour MP, to set up a new All Party Parliamentary Group on Schools, Learning and Assessment. Our first meeting with the chairs of all the Commissions is on November 30, and I hope a battle plan to reform our exam system will take shape.
Our starting point should be a further examination of our assessment system and asking whether there is a better solution, such as our own version of the Baccalaureate.
So why is this important? At present 30 per cent of pupils fail English and Maths GCSE and there is a huge disparity between girls and boys (56 per cent to 48 per cent in 2022). The lack of basic skills is reflected by businesses, where the Times Education Commission found a third said they had shortages of basic skills, including literacy and numeracy.
Central to what I want to see change is this question: why are we making pupils sit exams at 16 when we are asking them to stay in education or training until 18?
Most other countries do not have public exams at 16 where they expect young people to stay in college a further two years. And even more important is this: what are GCSEs preparing pupils for and why are we not looking for a broad 14-18 curriculum, with a single set of exams or assessment system at the end of the school?
Two vital extra years would give young people more time to learn new skills. It is madness to be losing seven months of valuable school time revising and sitting GCSEs when so many pupils do not fit this assessment model and fail. By broadening the curriculum and having a mix of rigorous exams and continuous assessments, we can engage more of those young people who do not fit the ‘one size fits all’ assessment system.
Education is key to social mobility and there are numerous examples of people that have achieved despite the odds stacked against them. We lap up these stories and conveniently forget the far more numerous examples of pupils disengaged from school despite the best intentions of some of our excellent teachers.
Is it because they are limited by the assessment system that restricts the curriculum? These are the types of questions that the Commissions and the APPG are looking at.
One of the areas that concerned me was the mental health of our young people. The Children’s Society’s Good Childhood reports have shown an increase in mental health issues over a number of years, especially with regard to young people’s attitude to school and exams.
This is reflected by parents and teachers concerned about the mental health of their children. They think that the system focuses too narrowly on exams. Most parents are more interested in a school where their child is learning and achieving at their capabilities than an exam factory. Parentkind regularly polls parents and finds that they are increasingly worried about the stress that schools place on young people to pass exams, that is because schools are judged on exam results rather than the overall quality and range of their education offer. This needs to end.
The Independent Assessment Commission, chaired by Professor Louise Hayward and funded by the NEU, has set out five principles and ten recommendations based around the vision:
‘…that Assessment and qualifications in England should recognise the achievements of every young person both to allow every student to thrive in the next stage of their lives, be that in college, employment or university, and to support England to thrive socially, culturally and economically’.
This is also reflected in Rethinking Assessment report which recommends that every child should compile their own digital learner profile to show to universities or employers. Such a portfolio would be far more useful to future employers.
Similarly, the Lords Commission ‘Skills for Every Person’ report of November 2021 is concerned about the shortage of skills and especially digital skills arguing they should be embedded from primary age to prepare young people for the modern job market.
They emphasise that the core components of the national curriculum such as English, Maths and Science must remain central but there is not enough flexibility for a broader curriculum, with additional subjects that deliver essential skills alongside technical, cultural, creative and professional subjects.
This narrow range of assessment has real life consequences. Some 39 per cent of companies are struggling to recruit people with the right digital and technological expertise, the Times Commission found, to the detriment of young people and our country.
The same commission states that a 15-year plan for ‘cradle-to-career’ education would give time for reform and would cover the full cycle of a single cohort. They have asked for a broad strategy drawn up by business, politicians, cultural, scientific and civic leaders to determine what the curriculum should include.
This is a sensible way forward and it limits political interference. I agree that education is too important to be a political football. That is why Emma and I will work together to make the APPG a success and one that will influence future education policy.
As Michael Morpurgo says in his introduction to the Times Commission: “we have a system of education geared to the system, not the child and the teacher and parent and the school”.
I passionately believe this is the wrong system, it is broken, it is failing too many young people and our country, and it must change.