Young people should be judged in the round - and it should be at 18 not 16

Improved destination measures would produce a richer picture of success

Olly Newton Executive Director at the Edge Foundation

In my early days at the Department for Education, I was part of the team that led on raising the participation age. Since 2015, young people must be in some form of education until 18. That change was originally planned as one small part of a much bigger transformation – a shift towards a broader, more balanced curriculum, clearer routes and the introduction of Diplomas.

The rest of that transformation never took off and that was one of the biggest missed opportunities in recent decades of education policy.

What we’ve been left with is a system that requires everyone to continue to participate in education to 18 but retains the legacy of high-stakes testing at 16, an anachronism that it is time to address.

Exam results day is stressful enough at the best of times, but this year the cancellation of exams, the algorithm and the U-turn have just served to multiply that stress. It begs the question – what should we really be measuring, and how should we be measuring it? Edge’s focus is on tackling these questions.

Young people need more than exams to thrive in life and work

The sad truth is, our obsession with exam results is a longstanding problem. Irrespective of the pandemic, coursework, oral tests and science experiments are increasingly being weeded out in favour of written exams. The problem is, teaching to the test fails to acknowledge that young people need more than good results to thrive in life and work. For years, employers have expressed that what they really want are communication, team-working and problem-solving skills.

Rigorous destination measures

Our future vision would be for all young people to undertake a rounded assessment at the age of 18. Importantly, this needs to end the division between A-levels and qualifications like BTECs – we must start treating technical and academic subjects with equal merit. It should include a focus on personal development and an extended project, too, allowing young people to develop independent skills. This isn’t radical. The Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) already exists as a legacy of the era of Diplomas. It’s widely-used by independent schools and well-respected by universities. But it remains vastly underused.

The second step is to measure young people’s skills development as well as their knowledge acquisition. Edge partners a fantastic organisation called Skills Builder. Largely run by teachers, they help measure and develop young people’s skills from primary school all the way through secondary. They also partner with employers, offering huge potential for connected skills development in the workplace.

We must also create a rigorous set of destination measures. While current measures exist, they only track young people for six or nine months post-education. Yet the data exist to measure progress for up to a decade. While we can’t attribute a young person’s entire early career to their education, it would certainly help identify patterns and it would give schools and colleges much greater freedom to focus on what young people need for their future. Improved destination measures would produce a richer picture of success.

Now is the time for change. Education has never been one-size-fits-all, but there’s far more freedom in the system than people realise. Many academies and free schools are already increasing teacher training, partnering with local employers and cultivating a shift towards project-based learning. By building confidence and awareness of the possibilities, Edge aims to help all education institutions adopt new approaches. To create more opportunities for young people, we need to shift away from rote learning alone.

The pieces are in place. There are strong views from teachers that this is the right approach. Employers want it. Polling by Edge also suggests that most parents would support a move away from high-stakes testing at 16. Lockdown has brought things into focus, and no doubt the results fiasco has only sharpened it further. The current situation offers the greatest opportunity for step change that our education system has seen in years. Transform today, and we can better prepare young people for an unpredictable future.

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