The Times Education Summit calls for a radical rethink of our flawed assessment system

Leading experts call for a new approach to education and assessment

Peter Hyman Co-Director of Big Education

GCSEs are failing too many young people, risk irrelevance to countless employers and are based on outdated science.  It’s time for a radical rethink on how we assess young people and measure their progress through the education system.  

This was the hard-hitting message from the Times Education Summit which I and other members of the Rethinking Assessment community spoke at in London Bridge this week.

The event was held by the Times Education Commission which was set up to examine the future of education in light of the Covid-19 crisis, declining social mobility, new technology and the changing nature of work.  It brought together experts from the worlds of education, business, academia and media.

The summit marked a crucial moment to join together the latest thinking in education and was an important opportunity to continue building a coalition for change.

Reflecting on the event, two clear messages came across strongly.

The current emphasis on high-stakes exams at age 16 is fundamentally flawed

Several speakers drew attention to the problems with GCSEs in particular.  Specifically, they drew attention to how the exams were:

  • Failing too many young people – Geoff Barton, head of the Association of School and College Leaders and a member of the Rethinking Assessment advisory group, noted that a third of young people are labelled failures by the GCSE system.  He argued that the government’s grade targets were making it harder for young people to achieve their potential.
  • Proving irrelevant to workforce performance – Euan Blair, founder of apprenticeships firm, Multiverse, spoke about the limits to what he called an “obsession” with academic markers.  He argues that grades secured at GCSE make little difference to performance during apprenticeships and that what matters is how you apply learning in the field.  
  • Being based on outdated science – Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, professor of psychology at the University of Cambridge and member of the Rethinking Assessment advisory group also queried the appropriateness of exam stress at such a young age.  She argues that GCSEs were designed around the outdated belief that the human brain had finished developing by the time people reach 16.  We now know that our development can continue well into our 20s.
  • Losing currency with employers – PwC’s UK chairman, Kevin Ellis, claimed that employers increasingly favour their own assessments rather than rely on GCSE and A-Level results.  He stressed that the current exam system does not assess the skills that stand the test of time: empathy, resilience and agility.

We are not assessing all the skills that matter most

The event highlighted the limits that the exam system places on the curriculum and the classroom experience.  

Paul Gurney, founder of personal development organisation, BecomingX pointed out that wellbeing is only ever emphasised at schools because of the determination of teachers.  As things stand at the moment, it can be difficult for schools to justify time to teach crucial character traits that young people need, including resilience and teamwork.  These are not recognised by the education system, he said. 

Inspiring figures from outside education also joined the event.  These included Dame Kate Bingham, the head of the vaccine taskforce.  Dame Kate spoke about the power of failure and how a positive attitude toward it could transform learning.  However, when the assessment system depends almost exclusively on high-stakes exams, there is little room for failure or for young people to develop a healthy and creative relationship with it. Entrepreneur James Dyson echoed this view, saying that we should be showing evidence of teamwork and the ability to experiment and learn from failures.

Read more coverage about the Times Education Summit

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