Education on the Move

Rethinking Assessment event Spring 2022

Al McConville Deputy Head, King Alfred School

On Saturday 19th March the ever-expanding Rethinking Assessment community gathered at King Alfred School in north London for a day conference on the need for reform.

The theatre was packed to the rafters to hear from multiple perspectives ways in which the current system is broken: Aliyah York from Pupil Power spoke of the dehumanising effect of relentless high stakes assessment on adolescent minds; Kerry-Jane Packman from Parentkind outlined the overwhelming concern from the parent population about the impacts on well-being; it was striking to hear the consistently high percentages of people reporting their sense that significant reform was needed. As they stand, exams cause harm.

Rachel Macfarlane from Herts for Learning showed why GCSEs work against equity and penalise the least advantaged; she put forward the radical hypothesis that, as it stands, the GCSE regime is, in effect, racist, since evidence shows that those from black and other ethnic minority groups achieve less well under high stakes conditions relative to their white counterparts, but equally well under lower stakes conditions. The government mantra that exams are “Best and fairest” sounds rather hollow in the face of that accusation. Harmful and unfair.

It’s not only about equity. Olly Newton from the Edge Foundation outlined the huge economic cost of the skills gap caused by a narrow curriculum; employers can’t fill their positions because there aren’t enough skilled applicants to fill the vacancies, and this is costing the economy billions of pounds a year. Harmful, unfair and costly. Vanessa Dewhurst from Mishcon de Reya then laid out how, even where the appropriate skills exist, the data coming from schools is inadequately informative for employers to make the right selections. A list of 9s is no predictor of workplace success. Far more nuanced and holistic information is required.

Mike Nicholson from Cambridge University built on that theme to show how far more subtle evidence is needed to help people to get to destinations which suit them, not just at highly competitive universities, but across the board. Harmful, unfair, costly, and insufficiently informative.

In the middle section of the day delegates carouselled around a number of schools and universities, who spelled out ways in which they’ve already broken the mould and taken matters into their own hands. At St Paul’s Girls’ and Bedales, they run their own courses in lieu of GCSEs, assessing them in much broader ways. At School 21 pupils take 8 GCSEs and use the 9th slot to work on real world projects with external partners.

Crucially, it’s just not the case that pupils need 9 GCSEs to progress. The London Interdisciplinary School explained their holistic approach to undergraduate admissions in which grades are heavily contextualised with other rich data, but all universities can cope with a varied set of data on an application. In fact they are often looking for something that makes a candidate stand out from the norm, as are employers. Alternatives can work to a student’s advantage.

In the afternoon we heard from Gwyn ap Hari and his son Jac about the XP story, where GCSEs happen, but through project based learning, to great acclaim – “just do something” Gwyn urged us! The practical outcomes from XP’s ‘expeditions’ show how learning can be connected to real world applications, and make students feel like active citizens.

To wrap things up, excitingly, Peter Hyman of School 21 unveiled a prototype of the Learner Profile which Rethinking Assessment has been working on to present students’ achievements in a richer and more colourful light. The vision is of a holistic, digital record of a young person’s achievements, interests and ambitions in the wider sense, which can replace a traditional academic transcript. So, not only what they have learned, but what difference it has made to them and others, and how they have applied their learning to things they care about. What do they know, what can they do, and how does this connect to their concerns. This approach is already happening in other countries like Australia, and there was a strong sense from all that this was part of the solution to the very many problems caused by a narrow focus on high-stakes assessment.

We had explored the problem, met pioneers already tackling it, and then rallied around a scalable solution. It was invigorating and stirring to spend the day and felt like a collective reaffirmation to push things forward for the sake of our young people’s well being and their future success in life.

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