Rethinking Assessment: A commitment to change

We would like to see a commitment made by all political parties for every young person to have the opportunity to demonstrate the breadth of their learning, skills and achievements through a digital learner profile.

With an election in the UK looming in 2024, Team Rethinking Assessment has been considering our hopes for the commitments that political parties will make to transform the life chances of all children and young people in the country.

Our particular area of interest is of course, assessment, and the impact that this has on young people's experience of education; their access to learning and opportunities; their well-being, their preparedness for further education, work and lifelong learning; their ability to make positive transitions; and importantly, having their strengths and capabilities recognised and valued – so that they leave education believing that their future matters.

For a great many young people, this is currently not the case.

As noted in the Department for Education’s consultation document on the proposed Advanced British Standard: “A substantial number of young people leave compulsory education without high-quality qualifications to support their career progression”

  • 25% do not achieve a ‘standard’ pass in English and Maths by 19. Nearly 40% do not reach Level 3 (equivalent to 2 A-levels). Disadvantaged students are more likely to miss out.
  • Nearly 20% of young people leave compulsory education at age 19 without level 2 qualifications (GCSE equivalent)
  • Of those who did achieve level 2 qualifications, only 65% had a sustained education, apprenticeship or employment destination.

If you are a neurodiverse young person, have special education needs or a disability, or live in poverty, the disparity and inequality in achievement is even starker.

With chronic persistent school absence rates now at record levels and a third of young people not feeling connected to school, as Jean Gross puts it, arguably “pupils are voting with their feet”.

We urgently need reform, and, in sync with other international jurisdictions, start to move towards a modern, broader, fairer and more balanced education and assessment system which engages, motivates and better prepares all young people to thrive.

Looking back over the last three years, there have now been 20 significant Commissions, reviews and consultations making the case for change to the assessment system in England, and numerous senior politicians, including eight former Education Secretaries, that have backed a whole raft of possible reforms.

In recent times, the Conservatives have acknowledged the need for greater breadth through their Advanced British Standard proposal. Labour have mooted an increased emphasis on oracy, creativity and digital skills. The APPG for Schools, Learning and Assessment called for the reform of SATS and the implementation of a learner profile at secondary level, and the House of Lords 11-16 Education Select Committee has proposed a significant rethink of curriculum, assessment and accountability.

Rethinking Assessment is one of a number of organisations currently developing and testing out new solutions, and in 2021 we published our Blueprint for Change, which outlined six specific steps to a fairer and more equitable assessment system.

The centerpiece of our vision is for every young person to build a ‘Digital Learner Profile’ over the course of their school career and into adult learning, which is cumulative, holistic, reliable and validated. This approach has significant momentum internationally – particularly in the USA and Australia – and our learner profile framework draws strongly on global evidence and practice.

We would like to see a commitment made by all political parties for every young person to have the opportunity to demonstrate the breadth of their learning, skills and achievements through a digital learner profile.

I am more than just my grades

We know that children and young people have a range of skills, strengths and capabilities that are currently not recognised, assessed or rewarded in the education system – but are essential for life and for work. Learner profiles expand the lens of achievement to take a broader and more comprehensive view across a number of domains.

It enables children and young people to develop the vocabulary, self understanding and confidence to articulate their knowledge, skills, attributes, and achievements. To tell the story of who they are and show what they know and can do, which is especially critical at key transition points in their lives, particularly for employment.

Polling evidence from Parentkind suggests that 74% of parents “would support the introduction of a learner profile which records their child’s skills, qualifications and achievements throughout their education.” (Parentkind Parent Voice Report 2022)

There are a number of strands to our vision for a learner profile:

Strand 1: A core of literacy, numeracy, oracy, and digital literacy. Every young person should secure the foundations in these foundational skills, and we support the idea of a passport qualification in English and Maths, as proposed by ASCL’s Forgotten Third Commission.

Strand 2: Depending on the phase of education, every young person should have an entitlement to a broad and motivating curriculum and menu of courses and qualifications – single subjects, interdisciplinary courses, applied learning and technical courses. The Lifetime Skills Guarantee and lifelong learning entitlement would support this aspiration for all into adulthood.

Strand 3: Every young person should have time devoted to being able to do meaningful work in an area where they have a personal passion or interest. This could include extended study, real world learning, action research, meaningful work experience / experiences of the workplace, service learning / volunteering, undertaking a recognised high value project qualification. Many schools are using the well respected Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) to give students in the sixth form the chance to design projects that combine knowledge, skills and dispositions to produce a social enterprise or a thesis or product that has real value to the learner and the world beyond school. The Higher Project Qualification (HPQ) exists to offer similar opportunities in Key Stage 4.

Strand 4: Essential skills including communication, creative thinking, and collaboration should be integrated into the curriculum and extracurricular learning, and explicitly taught and evidenced in a learner profile. These are key things that employers are looking for when they recruit, and that young people know are important for their futures. Skills frameworks such as the Skills Builder framework, backed by nearly 200 organisations including major employers, can be used to structure skill development across the curriculum, and this is now a key focus of effective careers provision.

Across these four strands, a student's knowledge, skills and dispositions should be evidenced in multiple ways / forms, relevant to the type of learning being assessed and the purpose of the assessment.

We need to move from one main method of assessment, the high stakes written exam, to a variety of modes tailored to the type of assessment. Some might be oral, some might be portfolio based, some might be observing the student in action. Exams have their place in a portfolio of evidence, but so do other assessment approaches.

Our report Rethinking Assessment: in Education: The Case for Change highlights promising practices in better models of assessment from around the world that are producing rigorous, valid, reliable and practically useful assessment of knowledge, skills and capabilities.

Closer to home, new research is also showing a way forward, for example:

Digital learner Profiles – can this be done now?

The short answer is yes!

At Rethinking Assessment we have been testing out the concept of digital learner profiles with primary schools, secondary schools, SEND settings, colleges and local authorities for the past 18 months. Piloting different strands and components of the learner profile framework, and the best ways to evidence and record learning and achievement.

We have been doing this using both paper based and digital formats, and have found that anyone (including busy teachers) can make their own digital learner profiles using free Google and Microsoft tools. As one example, Jonathan Palmer, Deputy Headteacher at Wapping High School, describes their approach here – Learner Profiles: a richer picture of learning for student – and you can read more in our blog series.

To support schools, colleges and learners on this journey we have launched a free Starter Kit which includes: templates and examples of learner profiles for teachers and leaders to adapt; video demos and presentations from schools already using learner profiles; lesson resources and teacher starter materials; research into different learner profile technology products available; and an introduction to frameworks for evidencing skills, capabilities and attributes.

We have also launched a community of professional practice and are supporting hundreds of educators to try this out in their settings as part of a collaborative community. These sessions enable teachers and leaders to think through the pedagogies and practices needed for effective implementation, and build their knowledge and understanding.

Our blog Rethinking Assessment digital learner profile pilots: learnings so far outlines things we are learning through our pilot work, and some of our most noteworthy insights so far include:

  • Learners gaining confidence, self understanding and motivation – particularly through the use of multimedia formats within the digital profile, and goal setting
  • Teachers engaging with reflective practice and improving assessment literacy, expanding their professional learning
  • The incentivising of greater connection between learning inside and outside of school – elevating the status of the informal learning sector / youth sector / work based learning. Promising examples of place based connected learning include: Region of Learning, Morecambe Bay curriculum, Cities of Learning, and the Greater Manchester Baccalaureate (Mbacc).

Essential considerations for implementation

Moving from promising practices to adoption at scale requires careful consideration. It requires teachers and educators to think differently about the ‘operating system’ of their school / college, in integrating a more holistic approach to teaching, learning and assessment. Developing learner profiles needs to become a core part of teaching and learning, and day to day / week to week routines, requiring practice change over time.

How are learner profiles being used in practice currently?

  • In primary schools for capturing holistic student development, interests and achievement and to enhance parent reporting and communication
  • In secondary schools for student conferencing/formal presentations of learning, for CIAG (Careers Information Advice and Guidance) planning and documentation, reflection and meta-learning, for supporting UCAS applications
  • In colleges for capturing industry experience, task management and goal setting, creating a showcase of work for employers or admissions
  • In Special Educational needs settings to evidence strength-based holistic development
  • In Higher Education for demonstrating practical application of theoretic concepts, to provide a rich and dynamic record of learning and experience, and to prepare for candidate interviews and employment
  • In work based and adult learning to provide ongoing evidence of experience, training and development, career achievements and examples of professional headlines and highlights

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Essential considerations for widespread adoption include:

1. The need for teacher training and support – for example building system-wide capability in a variety of assessment methods.

2. The roles of different supportive adults to help learners build their profiles – including teachers, mentors, and coaches.

3. A national digital strategy and digital infrastructure (access to broadband, devices, digital literacy). From a lifelong learning perspective, a Universal Digital Learner ID is a promising idea, and an evolution of the unique pupil number.

4. The mobilisation of an ecosystem of learning and experience providers such as employers, the informal learning sector and civil society organisations. This is already happening through the Careers Hubs, and regional models outlined above including Cities of Learning and the MBacc. We support the proposal from the Times Education Commission for an ‘electives premium’ to fund additional sports coaches, cultural clubs and school trips, as well as a renewed focus on the value of enrichment activities. We are very interested in how digital badges or micro credentials can recognise and validate different forms of learning and skill in the learner profile – as shown in some of our Starter Kit templates.

System wide implementation of digital learner profiles is a 5-10 year journey – but change is already underway with interest and demand growing, and we continue to learn from our international counterparts.

With the plethora of Commissions, official reviews, and multiple efforts taking place at the grassroots, we must make sure this moment of change counts.

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Further reading – reports making the case for change

Rethinking Assessment in Education: The Case for Change Centre for Strategic Education & Rethinking Assessment (2021)

Re-assessing the Future (Part 1) EDSK (2021)

Re-assessing the Future (Part 2) EDSK (2021)

House of Lords Select Committee on Youth Unemployment (2021)

Qualified to Succeed: Building a 14-19 education system of choice, diversity and opportunity Pearson (2022)

Times Education Commission (2022)

Independent Assessment Commission (2022)

Independent Commission on Primary Assessment (2022)

Independent Commission on the College of the Future (2022)

How to Futureproof Education in England Tony Blair Institute (2022)

Learning and skills for economic recovery, social cohesion and a more equal Britain Labour Council of Skills Advisors (2022)

Out of kilter: How to rebalance our school system to work for people, economy and society IPPR (2023)

Beyond the baccalaureate: Learning from across the world Edge Foundation (2023)

The Future of Learning: Delivering Tech-Enabled Quality Education for Britain Tony Blair Institute (2023)

Making it Click: The case for digital examinations in England AQA (2023)

TRANSFORMING SKILLS: A CALL TO ACTION NCFE (2023)

Fair Education Manifesto 2023: Achieving a Fair Education in England Fair Education Alliance (2023)

Towards a fairer, more useful and fit-for-purpose way to assess children and young people in the 21st century APPG Schools Learning & Assessment (2023)

Building Tomorrow’s Healthy, Confident and Productive Citizens: an Education for Our Children Laidlaw Foundation (2023)

Requires improvement: urgent change for 11–16 education – House of Lords Education for 11-16 year olds Committee (2023)

Youth Voice Census 2023 Youth Unemployment UK (2023)

A World Class Education System: The Advanced British Standard Consultation Department for Education (2023)

Further blogs

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