Far too many cliff edges for my liking

Frank Norris discusses how the current assessment system is failing students and businesses alike

Frank Norris  Education and Skills Adviser to Northern Powerhouse Partnership; Independent Chair of Blackpool Education Improvement Board

I want to admit something that is a bit of an embarrassment to me. I know I shouldn’t feel this way because what I am going to reveal is something shared with millions of citizens in England. When the event happened, it wasn’t life changing and it didn’t stop me from getting a worthwhile job and it didn’t stop me from switching careers to become a Primary school teacher. Are you ready? I didn’t pass my mathematics O Level! In fact, I didn’t take it!

I suffered from some very poor teaching of the subject from Year 6 (Junior 4, sorry) onwards and although I was strong in numeracy it was all the other stuff, including algebra, that was just too difficult for me. I enjoyed writing and loved history and politics so there is no logic to explain why I got a job in a bank when I was forced to cut short my sixth form studies after one year due to a serious lung condition. I went to the careers’ office on Thursday where no one asked me why I hadn’t passed the mathematics O Level and started work the following Monday. I had my five O Level passes and one year of 6th Form study and that was good enough. I experienced few academic cliff edges in those days, and I was grateful for that. I often wonder where I would have ended up if I had to pass that mathematics O Level in order to progress.

It is my own experience as a young student, together with the observations I have made as my own children grew up alongside the thousands of children I have taught, and the insight I gained from my work as a Senior HMI and as the CEO of a large multi academy trust that made me despise the cliff edge culture that has been created in education. 

Too often examinations are seen as a pass or fail and rely on outdated assessment tools, namely cramming young people into often hot and sticky examination halls during the summer to handwrite answers to questions created so that about a third do not achieve the Grade 4 and a small proportion achieve the highest grade. If ever there was a system to demotivate some of the hardest to reach young people, then this is it.

Anyone who knows me professionally will know the high importance I place on regular school attendance. This is particularly important for those who fail to fully engage with school life, particularly as they become teenagers. Having regular contact with dedicated school staff is an important element in keeping them engaged and motivated, despite the cliff edges. The pandemic has, however, created a problem for some of these students because they are telling me that there is no point in regular attendance because ‘the system seems to be against us’. They know good exam results were difficult before the various lockdowns, but lockdowns have tipped some into the ‘what’s the point?’ group.

If we are serious about re-engaging all young people as we move to a different normality we need to be open to greater flexibility and a wider range of assessment approaches. Getting as quickly back to where we were pre-pandemic won’t encourage those hit hardest by the effects of the pandemic to re-engage. What’s needed is a fundamental review, and the recent report ‘Qualified to Succeed: Building a 14-19 education system of choice, diversity and opportunity’ by Pearson is a good starting point. 


It emphasises the importance of making GCSEs work better for all students, ensuring that the right skills are assessed in the right way and tellingly, they suggest that ‘too many assessments are testing what can easily be assessed rather than what should be assessed, with a greater focus on reliability at the expense of validity’.  

In my current role as Education and Skills adviser to the Northern Powerhouse Partnership I regularly speak to business leaders, and many are trying to work around the limitations of the GCSE and A Level system. They are looking for a broader assessment of the student’s knowledge, skills and attitudes and understand the current approach that relies primarily on handwritten assessments is limited. 

They understand that this approach conveys a certain element of academic ability, but they are equally interested in the students’ oracy skills, their ability to work effectively with others, their digital strengths and whether they would be a great ambassador for their business. Our current assessment system doesn’t play into these areas particularly well, or at all. Employers are becoming more creative in the recruitment approaches they are adopting because they understand that ‘talent is widespread but opportunity, sadly, isn’t’ So they are taking the recruitment of young people from minority groups more seriously and are trying to create recruitment processes that do not rely solely on cliff edge assessments.

As we consider a way forward for assessment, we need to consider the requirements of a changing economy and society and the knowledge, skills, behaviours and attitudes that will be required. Our national assessment system, which directly shapes what is taught and valued in schools, must adapt to meet these demands. If it doesn’t, then one key component, preparation for working life, will become a non-existent part of national education. Our national assessment system may lose the confidence of businesses who rely so much on it for their future and consequently, our nation’s future.


Frank Norris MBE FCCT

Education and Skills Adviser to Northern Powerhouse Partnership

Independent Chair of Blackpool Education Improvement Board

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