DVQs (Da Vinci Qualifications) – a new model for the future of assessment

A transdisciplinary, contextual, project-based alternative to high-stakes exams

Rosina Dorelli  Founder & Director of Da Vinci Life-Skills

We are in a pivotal moment. Applied theory, experiential learning and life-skills are finding their way back to the curriculum.

Back in the 1980s, I was part of the first cohort to sit GCSEs. Lord Baker, former Minister of Education, created GCSEs to be a more well-rounded and fairer assessment of human ability. I remember the excitement of assessed coursework and less pressure on high stakes exams. Through our coursework we were able to get feedback from our teachers, improve our work, learn from our mistakes and put forward our best attempts for evaluation.

GCSEs have since taken the limiting route back to the realm of high-stakes testing of pure recollection and fact analysis, like the previous O Level exams. Now, with compulsory education to the age of 18, even their creator is calling for change. Questioning whether we need GCSEs at all, he proposes, “a single phase of 14-18 education in which young people study a variety of subjects to a greater or lesser degree of depth, over a time span of four years, and adapted to their individual talents and preferred styles of learning.” (Baker, 2013).

From my experience working as a teacher in state secondary education, assessment seems to be more about accountability for the school, league tables and OFSTED than educating the individual. This intense pressure on schools and teachers translates to high anxiety in students. I have witnessed unacceptable levels of mental illness and distress amongst students to the point where I believe that our current system is neither ethical nor sustainable.

The Edge Foundation’s recent research by Cambridge neuroscientist Sarah Jane Blakemore suggests that young people cite exam stress and the fear of academic failure as their most prominent worries (in multiple large surveys). In the drive for standards and accountability, I feel that we have lost sight of the diverse range of human beings involved in this process.

This has to do with the question whether we are indeed measuring what we value, or whether we are just measuring what we can easily measure…so that targets and indicators of quality become mistaken for quality itself…it is no longer a question of what school can do for their students, but what students can do for their school.” (Biesta, 2016).

What is education for? Is it a protracted process of university entrance, or a chance to help students find their strengths and weaknesses and evaluate gaps, to feed forward into the next stages of their learning? We understand that universities and employers need a way to tell students apart and to see who is best suited to study their courses or work in their companies, but are GCSEs and A Levels good indicators? The 2019 Confederation of British Industry and Pearson Education report found that employers were concerned about the narrowing curriculum and that school leavers and graduates were lacking a range of important skills valued by industry, such as self-management, teamwork and problem solving.

I made a promise to my students that I would do whatever I can to improve this situation. This was the drive for the founding of Da Vinci Life-Skills. We are building a model school for the future to showcase what education could look like if student wellbeing, ethics, sustainability, processing failure and finding one’s purpose in life were at the heart of the curriculum.

We have created five transdisciplinary, contextual, project-based pathways that embed the national curriculum, student interest and 21st century life-skills. These projects are: 

Food, Enterprise, Production, Gaming and PEPs (Personal Exploration Projects)

They all incorporate physical, social/emotional, creative/intuitive and academic skill domains. They are continuously, formatively assessed, through self, peer and mentor assessments, gathering evidence as we go to build comprehensive digital portfolios. We have created 5 DVQs (Da Vinci Qualifications) which can be gained at the end of each year and are evidenced through digital portfolios. These DVQs can be externally accredited at the end of middle school (aged 14) and at the end of high school (aged 18).

We are transforming ‘assessment of learning’ into assessment for learning. Research has shown that formative assessment can significantly raise standards in education and increase students’ intrinsic motivation. I hope our project can help influence change for all and we can start to see a future where all students are valued for the unique contribution they can make to their communities and the planet. We face a perilous future with climate change and the technology age, we need everyone at their full potential to build sustainable, diverse and biodiverse futures for all. 

Come join us at, https://davincilifeskills.com.



Baker, K. (2013). 14-18: A new vision for secondary education. UK: Bloomsbury.

Biesta, G.J.J. (Eds.) (2016). Good education in an age of measurement, ethics, politics, democracy (2nd ed.). Oxon: Routledge.

Black, P. and Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Retrieved from www.electronic.com 

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