Open Letter to the Sunday Times explaining the reasons for Rethinking Assessment

Launching a broad coalition of state and independent schools, universities and academics, employers and stakeholders

Rethinking Assessment group 

We were told this Summer that it was a ‘mutant algorithm’ that had caused the anguish of the exam fiasco. Covid may have exposed the failings, but in truth, something more profound is going on, and it has been brewing for years: we have a mutant exam system. Created with good intentions – “to raise standards’, it has mutated into something that neither measures the right things nor is very reliable – and leaves in its wake a trail of stress and unfairness.

Many of those who are involved in the exams merry-go-round are reaching the same conclusion – it’s not fit for purpose and needs to change.

Rethinking assessment

This week a new group, the start of a movement, called – Rethinking Assessmentis being launched to do something about it. Independent schools, a range of Headteachers and key figures from the state sector are joining neuroscientists and business people, universities and a range of stakeholders with two pressing purposes: (i) to make the argument for change through case studies and sharp analysis and (ii) to provide workable solutions and practical ideas that we will pilot in our schools and offer as real alternatives.

Two things unite us above all others. We believe that the purpose of education is to develop the full and diverse range of strengths of every child. We are also doers and not just thinkers; deeply worried at the impact the current system has on the lives of the children we teach and we are determined to make lasting change. We are sick of talk without action.

The case for change

The case for change is becoming more compelling by the day. Many young people find the relentless practice for exams increasingly stressful; depression and self-harm statistics confirm this. The over-crammed curriculum on which tests are premised ensures ‘covering content’ matters more than a love for the richness of a subject. Thirty or more GCSEs in one month; intense high stakes written exams couldn’t be designed better to induce anxiety.  Childhood has become significantly less enjoyable. The UK has the lowest happiness levels in Europe according to OECD statistics.

More than that, all students, however successful they are at exams, leave school with only a partial record of their strengths. No credit given to those who are skilled communicators, thoughtful team players, clever problem solvers or creative thinkers; in short the stuff that helps you thrive in life, and makes you invaluable to employers. That is why, though some companies still use traditional qualifications as a way of sifting candidates, increasing numbers, including  PWC, KPMG and EY are developing their own strengths-based assessment processes to recruit the employees they are looking for. We can learn a lot from their work.

Perhaps worst of all, each year – not just in these exceptional Covid times – there is an algorithm that is designed to ration the number who pass exams. Unlike most other countries, a young person in the UK does not get a qualification if they meet the required level, but only if they are better than enough of their peers. The result is that after 12 years of education, a third leave with nothing. At the top end the highest grades are limited to about 8% – however well students perform. We are passionate about social mobility and believe both these things are wrong.

GCSEs are in many ways a good starting point for reform. They were introduced to bring O levels and CSEs together in a fairer way at a time when the school leaving age was 16. Now that the school leaving age is 18, and the exam has become less fair, the vast majority of school leaders, and politicians including former Education Secretary Lord Baker, who brought them in, believe they are no longer needed.

To those who say, GCSEs may be flawed but they’re the most reliable thing we’ve got, look at Ofqual’s own 2018 research which shows that around 50% of grades may have been wrongly awarded in some subjects. Dame Glenys Stacey, who is back running Ofqual the exams regulator told MPs that exams “are reliable to one grade either way.” In other words if you get a B grade at A level, it could equally have been an A or a C. This is the system we are meant to have so much faith in.

Drawing on the best assessment practices across the world

For us, it is not enough for the case for change to be strong. Moving to a better system takes time and needs skill; there are no easy answers. But what we do know is that across the world there are great examples of assessment practices that we could learn from.

The OECD’s PISA has drawn on worldwide expertise to devise assessments that measure problem solving, creativity, and social emotional learning not just subject disciplines.The principles from these assessments could be applied in this country in order to measure and value more than subject disciplines.

Technology is providing a range of new possibilities. Comparative judgement allows teachers to make assessments by comparing the quality of different answers. Portfolios and electronic badging enables recognition for broad  accomplishments. The Mastery Transcript Consortium in the USA brings together a range of schools to do just that. Every child could leave school with a portfolio that could be used in a range of different ways.

Many countries rely more on teacher judgement, and for those worried about inflated grades, these can be moderated in skilled ways as already happens for drama, art, music, and languages at GCSEs and A levels.

All of this is achievable, and post Covid there is a growing appetite for change. Please join us in our quest to make this a reality; add your voice and ideas. Just as students marched for fairer assessment during the Summer, all of us have it within us to make this generation and the next  feel valued and well prepared for a complex and challenging world beyond school.


Peter Hyman, Co-Director, Big Education, Co-founder and first Headteacher School 21, Co- founder Voice 21

Alistair McConville, Director of Learning and Innovation at Bedales School

Bill Lucas, Professor of Learning and Director of the Centre for Real-World Learning, University of Winchester

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience, University of Cambridge

Kenneth Baker, Baron Baker of Dorking, former Secretary of State for Education

Geoff Barton, General Secretary, the Association of School and College Leaders

Rachel Macfarlane, Director of Education Services, Herts for Learning

Dr Meeta Vouk, Director, IBM Singapore Research Centre

Tamsin Ford, Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge

Leanne Forde-Nassey, Headteacher, The Key Education Centres, Gosport and Havant

Sarah Fletcher, High Mistress, St Paul’s Girls’ School, London

Julian Drinkall, Chief Executive, Academies Enterprise Trust

Robert Lobatto, Headmaster – King Alfred’s School, London

Dame Alison Peacock, Chief Executive of the Chartered College of Teaching

Jonnie Noakes, Director of Teaching and Learning, Eton College, and Director of the Tony Little Centre for Innovation and Research in Learning

Neil Strowger CEO, Bohunt Education Trust and Headteacher, Bohunt School, Hampshire

Simon Henderson, Headmaster, Eton College

Gwyn ap Harri, Co-founder, XP School, Doncaster

Olly Newton, Executive Director of the Edge Foundation

Magnus Bashaarat Head, Bedales School, Hampshire

Sally Dicketts, Chief Executive of Activate Learning

Will Goldsmith, Director of Teaching and Learning, Latymer Upper School, London

Phil Avery, Director of Education, Bohunt Education Trust

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