The learner profile could finally give us the broad curriculum we need

After years of talk, it’s time we see real change in the assessment system

Adrian Lyons Former HMI national lead for economics, business & enterprise

The recent publication of headlines from Rethinking Assessment: ‘Leading Experts Call for A Digital Learner Profile to transform “narrow” education system’, gave me a strange sense of Deja Vue.

Over the last decade I have been involved in various attempts to improve the education system to make it more relevant and engaging. And we keep coming back to the same place: our current approach to assessment is not incentivising the broad curriculum that the economy requires.

In 2014, David Cameron appointed Lord Young as his ‘enterprise advisor’. Lord Young established several advisory groups, one of which looked at enterprise in schools. It has passed into folklore that Margaret Thatcher once said that “all ministers bring me their problems. David [Young] brings me his solutions.” But despite this reputation, even he was unable to make any real difference beyond setting up a network of enterprise advisors.

Our group’s key message was that enterprise education must not be seen as turning young people into little entrepreneurs. Rather it is something much broader and relevant for everyone:

Enterprise education is a vital part of preparing young people for their futures and helping them to become effective consumers, producers and citizens. It is about developing employability skills (intrapreneurial skills) and entrepreneurial skills for self-employment. It is also about developing economic and business understanding, including financial awareness.

Lord Young’s actual report (‘Enterprise For All – the relevance of enterprise in education, June 2014) had two key recommendations. The first was to establish a network of enterprise advisors for schools. This has happened but with minimal impact as they have no influence on the main curriculum.  The second recommendation was to introduce:

“‘A Digitally-Enabled Passport’ – A digital record provides an accessible way for young people’s enterprise activity to be validated and recorded. I envisage that scheme providers would input activity and level of achievement into a young person’s Enterprise Passport, and the recipient would be able to view and share the record of attainment with prospective employers as part of their CV or job applications.”

A year after ‘Enterprise for All’, I was commissioned by Ofsted’s then Chief Inspector to review how well school prepares students for the world of work.  This resulted in Ofsted’s 2016 report ‘Getting Ready for Work’.

Much of what employers told us could not be included in the report because it conflicted with Department for Education (DfE) education policy. The key message from employers was that qualifications do not represent the skills they seek. Employers want confident communicators and employees with a range of skills such as team working, risk management, creativity, initiative, organisation, planning, financial literacy and leadership.

Engagement groups were strongly of the view that the curriculum is driven by examination requirements that assess the wrong things. For example, the basic skills still matter, but functionality in English and mathematics often matters in the workplace rather than specific GCSE grades. For example, speaking/listening/debating skills are often overlooked in the school setting but are very important to employers. We teach the wrong type of mathematics and English for the skills required by employers. The removal of the employability skill of speaking and listening from GCSE English was cited as an example of mixed messages from the DfE.

A major concern from the business engagement groups was that school accountability is based far too narrowly on academic outcomes. They argued that we need a more formal and broader range of measures. ‘The danger of Ebacc is it’s another performance level based on grades and academic outcomes’. The group was clear that a broad-based education will become increasingly important over time. As a follow up, a quick survey of business leaders involved in successful scale-up activity was undertaken. It found that:

  • the business leaders did not know what the Ebacc is;
  • the business leaders thought that the Ebacc subjects were fine as far as they go, but equally important to them were (in order) business, economics, technology, music and art;
  • only two of the 62 respondents thought that the Ebacc would help pupils’ employability.

In my 2016 research school leaders were genuinely confused. On the one hand they were aware of educational research and the calls of business for more application of knowledge and for filling the skills gap. On the other hand, government policy is committed to a knowledge driven curriculum. Since 2017 this has been further complicated by an Ofsted chief inspector who believes that schools should not be ‘loaded up with teaching everything that children ought to learn outside school’, because ‘every single thing that gets added in means taking something out of the main curriculum’.

In conclusion there have been many well-intentioned attempts to broaden the curriculum. The very narrow accountability regime (league tables and the ideology of the current Ofsted inspection framework) determines assessment and assessment determines the curriculum. Reform to assessment and curriculum are desperately needed in English education, but they need to come hand in hand. Perhaps the proposals by ‘Rethinking Assessment’ could see Lord Young’s 2014 proposals finally realised.

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