GCSE Exams – Could academia point the way to a better form of assessment?

Applying methods of assessment from Higher Education in schools

Steve Kenning CEO Aspirations Academies Trust

This blog was first published on TeachWire

A few years ago, I met with representatives of McKinsey – a global management consultancy company that was running a boot camp for university graduates who had secured jobs. The purpose of the sessions was to get them work-ready by helping them develop non-formally assessed ‘power skills’, such as teamwork, critical thinking and problem-solving.

Seeing the sessions in action was a pivotal moment, prompting me to question what at that point had been my 37 years in education as a teacher and school leader.

I’ve observed thousands of lessons throughout my career. While I’d class most as ‘good teaching’, they consisted largely of teachers imparting knowledge that will help students pass exams. And on many such occasions, I could see how passively disengaged the students were.

My meeting with McKinsey took place five years after I co-founded the Aspirations Academies Trust, and planted the seed for what would eventually become our unique ‘No Limits Curriculum’. This combines traditional learning with project-based learning, in order to help students develop attributes that are important to employers.

Exams aren’t working

A common thread amongst employers I’ve spoken to over the years is that the workplaces of today are worlds apart from those of a generation ago, and places where exam results no longer hold the same value they once did.

This year, thousands of young people across the country returned to sitting GCSE and A-level exams for the first time in two years, post-COVID. However, it marked the return of an assessment model that’s over a hundred years old, and which labels as many as a third of young people, often from disadvantaged backgrounds, as failures.

The young people sitting those exams will have been in education for up to 13 years. During that time, they will have handed in countless assignments and contributed to a multitude of different activities, yet almost the entirety of their education will be judged solely on their performance in written, high-stakes exams or tests.

Globally, we’re seeing a trend towards more effective forms of assessment that not only measure what students know or can recall, but also how they’re able to use the skills they’ve learned and apply their knowledge.

Real-world learning

The real world isn’t confined to one single subject, so why would we ever teach it that way?

Our KS2/KS3 No Limits Curriculum – which uses applied transdisciplinary learning (ATL) – and our Y12 Aspirations Employability Diploma (AED) both focus on project-based learning. Project-based learning itself isn’t a new idea, but what distinguishes the Trust’s approach is that we run ATL assignments in government-funded schools.

Instead of overturning our conventional curriculum – which still follows all government guidelines – we’ve adapted it to incorporate ATL and the AED. ATL and No Limits provide our young students with opportunities to apply subject learning to real-world problems. This in turn helps to build the interpersonal skills, collaboration, initiative and resilience they’ll need to succeed.

Alongside their usual subjects, pupils have six ATL lessons a week. Through a ‘driving question’, students may, for instance, explore the theme of climate change. These driving questions provide students and teachers with a learning purpose, and are designed to be engaging, provocative and open-ended, with several possible solutions. Through answering them, pupils are taught key workplace traits, including interpersonal and communication skills.

In this instance, the driving question might be, ‘How can we, as global citizens, understand climate change in order to initiate eco-friendly practices at our academy?’ Pupils will first learn about the geographical and scientific aspects of climate change in their individual subjects. Then, during their ATL lessons, they’ll come together and take on assignments that explore how climate change impacts upon people in the real world, what’s being done about it and so on.

Discuss this post