Learning is not confined to schools - assessment shouldn’t be either

Why the needs of learners both inside and outside of the mainstream school system need to be considered for assessment to work fairly for all

Katie Finlayson Home Educator & representative of the Home Educators' Qualifications Association

When we consider assessment systems, we tend to think of schools. Schools are, after all, where the vast majority of our children learn, where our educators work, and our researchers study. They are what those involved in education know.

But learning does not only take place in school. As a home educator, my four children have never been on roll at a school. They have learnt with friends, in their community and online. They have learnt by exploring woods and beaches, visiting castles and museums, taking classes with peers from around the world, attending talks and workshops, going to the theatre, raising animals, attending community meetings, reading, building, playing, creating and collaborating. Sometimes they’ve even learnt at home, at a desk, with a textbook.

Now in their teens, my older children have plans. They want to attend a mainstream college at 16, and then on to a university course. They know their life may one day require job applications and that external validation of their skills and knowledge will be important for those goals – starting with the GCSEs that gain them entry to college at the right level.

Families choose to home educate for all sorts of reasons. Some, like us, decide to explore an alternative educational approach when their children are barely toddlers. Some start school, and later find out that it doesn’t fit their child. Others find school doesn’t meet their child’s physical or mental health needs and start looking for a different way.

The diversity of home educating families and their children is reflected in their approaches to learning, many of which look very different to traditional schooling approaches. The assessment routes they seek out will vary too – but all children should have the opportunity to access the external qualifications that are right for them.

In fact, why stop there? If the skills we are validating through assessments are important and worthwhile to learn, they’re worthwhile not just to teenagers in school or outside it, but to all learners – adults, home educated students, and school pupils learning both the standard curriculum and tackling their own interests at their own pace outside of school time.

It’s never been easier to tailor learning to the interests and needs of an individual student. We need an accessible assessment system that supports those individual approaches and isn’t locked in to a one-size-fits-all school system.

This won’t happen by accident. Summer 2020 and 2021 have shown the difficulties of taking an established system and hastily replacing it with another – disadvantaging those outside of the core system. The needs of learners outside of school need to be considered from the outset for an assessment system to work fairly for all.

Currently, home educators are mostly limited to exam-only based assessments, with even some core linear GCSEs needing to be replaced with the more flexible International GCSE equivalents. Where available, these assessments allow all learners to access the same method of validating skills, and support flexible, independent study. Currently, internal and continuous assessment approaches simply aren’t widely supported outside the structure of a school.

A more diverse approach is possible – but it takes work to design it in a truly inclusive way. Some International GCSEs offer a choice of coursework or external assessment, leading to the same qualification. Science practicals can be assessed through examination, or via a one-off lab session. Widely available music grades test complex skills through a fixed assessment, with a mastery approach that allows for retakes without penalty until an agreed standard is reached. Arts Awards are often available through local communities, and Functional Skills may be taken online. Transcripts, dual enrolment, portfolios and standardised tests all offer other options to explore.

Home educators are used to creatively achieving the key qualifications while continuing a wider education. They often spread exams over several years, and may choose less common subjects that fit a child’s interests. Many will only look for external validation of the areas that are necessary for future plans, acknowledging that learning does not need to lead to a qualification in order to have value, and that young people do not all grow at the same pace or in the same way. While the context is different, schools could benefit from adopting some of these approaches.

It is not an easy task to design a system that allows all learners to demonstrate their skills and knowledge, wherever their learning takes place. But if we get it right, it opens up a vista of flexibility for the next generation – and maybe even our own. It’s a task worth tackling.

Katie writes here in a personal capacity

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