Finding consensus amidst the chaos

Rethinking Assessment reflections on education policy and the next election

Rethinking Assessment Team

As we head towards a general election, and the formulation of party manifestos, it’s been really encouraging this week to see both the Conservative and Labour parties prioritising policies on education and skills.

It is inconceivable to talk meaningfully about economic growth in all its complexities without talking about the growth and development of people, and the role of our education and skills system. As Andreas Schleicher, Director of Education and Skills at the OECD, notes in his book World Class: “How a society develops and uses the knowledge and skills of its people is among the chief determinants of its prosperity. We must distribute the core asset of our times, human potential, far more equitably.”

In both Rishi Sunak’s statement and the report from Labour Council of Skills Advisors’– which set out their respective trajectories of thought – there were a number of things which resonate with our work and thinking at Rethinking Assessment.

1. Multimodal assessment 

We believe that an education system that relies solely on cliff edge exams to measure a young person’s success is unsustainable and unfair.

This summer we saw the attainment gap between the economically advantaged and their peers who are eligible for pupil premium funding increase to the largest in ten years. We know that learners from economically challenged families and those with other vulnerabilities are disproportionately disadvantaged by high stakes, terminal exams. Over half now leave school at 16 judged to have ‘failed’ academically.

Student Anisa Farook wrote for us about her EPQ essay, The Future of GCSE Assessment, in which she argued that no single assessment method is suitable for all students. Chris Lore of the Ruskin Mill Trust writes about his experience of assessing students with special educational needs and comes to a similar conclusion. If we want a fair system of assessment that goes beyond a deficit-based paradigm, to one which showcases the strengths of every student, we need to provide a range of ways to be assessed on those strengths. 

What might different ways or modes look like? We’ve been working with Voice 21 to look at oracy assessments using comparative judgment. Nia Treharne from Livingstone Academy Bournemouth describes the possibilities and value of authentic assessment of artifacts by experts in this blog, which also gives a flavour of the school’s interdisciplinary curriculum.

We’ve been looking at assessment practices in higher education, and Rachel Macfarlane outlines in this piece what we can learn from multi-dimensional assessment at the University of Exeter Medical School. Here expert knowledge is tested in a variety of ways, including through computer-based exams that have inbuilt resting time, and Objective Structured Clinical Examinations which are designed to test how the soon-to-be-doctors perform in real-life situations. Open book assessments are also becoming more widespread. 

2. The teaching of skills 

We have argued that breadth of strengths, including dispositions such as creative thinking and collaboration, should be routinely taught and evidenced in schools. The SkillsBuilder Partnership, cited in Labour’s report, has made great headway on this over the last 10 years, providing a framework that has currency and value for teachers, learners and employers. Hannah Senior and Tom Ravenscroft explain more about their approach in this blog. We’ve also been looking at how teaching creative thinking can be embedded within core subjects across the national curriculum, and in March, with FORM in Australia, published this Field Guide to assessing creative thinking

In Scotland, the SCQF Creative Thinking Qualification is now available for schools, supporting challenge based learning around five core learning outcomes at level 5/6 (GCSE /AS equivalent), and has UCAS points attached. For primary settings, the Centre for Education and Youth and Big Education have just started work on a Primary Extended Project Award, supported by NCFE, which will recognise a range of learning dispositions through collaborative project work in Year 5 and 6. 

We know that the cultivation and demonstration of core skills really matters for employers, and for success in the workplace. Across a range of sectors, employers are increasingly using strength based assessments, and looking beyond academic grades for recruitment. Patrick Connolly, Academy Director for Mishcon de Reya LLP, wrote for us about how exam results are far from what they look at when assessing candidates. From the very first step of the application process Mischon looks for attributes which describe aspects of character, aptitude, knowledge and motivation that are valued by Mishcon, and are predictive of success. 

3. Common ground on a more expansive curriculum and approach to assessment 

In this blog Frank Norris, Education and Skills Advisor to the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, describes the detrimental impact of our current narrow approach to curriculum and assessment. Across the spectrum, concern around this narrowness is being more loudly voiced. Broadening what is assessed, and how assessment is conducted beyond solely timed written exams, we think lays the foundations for a wider portfolio of evidence of student learning and achievement. A richer, broader dataset which more fully reflects what a young person knows and can do, beyond just numbers and letters, is what schools, students, employers, and Higher Education providers want.

In June, we published our vision for a national learner profile, and a call to action signed by school leaders, practitioners and experts from across the sector. Over the next year we will be supporting schools to put this idea into practice, building on the great examples we are already seeing in schools such as Golftyn Primary School in Wales around e-portfolios, and drawing from promising practices globally such as the work being done by New Metrics for Success in Australia. 

An important principle for us is that students have ownership over their profiles – they are curated by them and enable them to tell the story of their learning, their strengths, struggles and achievements. Loic Menzies explored this recently in a blog for Cambridge Assessment, republished on Rethinking Assessment, looking at how young people can have more ownership, voice and agency in the data that is collected and shared about them. 

4. A Baccalaureate for England

There is significant energy and momentum around this concept, proposed by the Times Education Commission and in other major reports over the last year. In May, the National Baccalaureate Trust launched their proposal for a new Baccalaureate model, and Tom Sherrington writes here about their proposals. The Welsh and Scottish Governments are exploring this too as part of their education reforms. 

At Rethinking Assessment we are interested in how the learner profile could lay the groundwork (in curriculum and assessment practice) for a longer term more significant reform like a Baccalaureate style qualification. We’ve been looking at different Baccalaureate and school leaving certificate models from around the world and, with our partners the Edge Foundation, will be setting up a working group to look at this further over the next 6 months. 

Globally, we are seeing ambitious and visionary aspirations for education and lifelong learning being set out by national Governments. Michael Stevenson, Senior Advisor to OECD, published Education for Human Flourishing and is working with a range of jurisdictions as part of the OECD’s High Performing Systems for Tomorrow initiative to create education systems that enable all children and young people to thrive and have their different strengths valued. This involves thinking about curriculum and pedagogy, as well as assessment.

We hope that all political parties will look outwards over the coming year – as well as inwards at these numerous ideas germinating at the grassroots – and go further in their aspirations and commitments to and for children and young people. 

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