The future of the left since 1884

Put to the test

Now is the time to modernise our exam system. Mark Williams explains.



A central theme in the current educational debate is how we assess young people’s learning, the future for GCSEs and A-levels being of particular concern. The discussion about the best way to award these qualifications has been intensified by the pandemic and its disruptive effects on education. Meaningful reform is needed, but it is unlikely we will get this if the argument becomes too adversarial and entrenched. We should consider an alternative means of developing new policy, based on bringing people together and fostering measured debate.

GCSEs and A-levels are a focal point at the moment because of how the final grades are awarded. Two years of a student’s learning are largely assessed by exams at the end of the course. Calls for reform of this system are growing. For instance, the National Education Union spring conference passed a motion to permanently replace GCSE and A-level exams with a ‘wider ranging‘ and ‘more flexible’ form of assessment.

Change is not only necessary but possible. The pandemic reminded us of the inherent risks of putting all leaving assessments to one-off and high-pressure exams, while those working in education showed they can handle changes easily and quickly.

If we are to reform the assessment system, there are two core issues we must acknowledge before proceeding: First is the often-entrenched nature of the education debate. Second is the sheer variety of options for reform.

The nature of educational debate means it can easily become polarised, usually between ‘traditionalists’ on the one hand, and ‘progressives’ or ‘revisionists’ on the other. Reforming the assessment system by largely doing away with exams would signify a break from traditional practice. Reform, in other words, would change the current educational culture. However, the last thing we need is for education to become another front in a wider ‘culture war’ largely fuelled by allegiances and passion. Arguments for reform should be evidence-based and seek to allay the fears of those who are intellectually or emotionally bound to the tradition of the summer ‘exam season’.

Options for reform are numerous. At this stage you might expect me to list my ideas for changing the system, but the key point is that this issue is too big, and too nuanced, to be approached simply from the point of view of one person or group. There is considerable expertise in this country about how to appropriately assess a learner’s knowledge and skills without relying on the blunt instrument of a stressful timed exam. Similarly, there is a wide range of good practice in other countries that could be studied. Faced with so many options, we should be prepared to consider the best of them, and thus ensure that any final recommendations on a new system are fully and properly informed.

A process of careful deliberation is needed, to develop a strong policy agenda that has wide appeal and embeds lasting change. The broad aims of this process should be to bring people together, and to encourage a rational debate based on the wide variety of ideas and evidence available. Crucially, we should ensure a level of meaningful engagement with the end users of a reformed assessment system, including young people themselves. In trying to foster measured deliberation, we should try to avoid polarisation of all kinds.

A citizen’s assembly, for example, would give representative members of the public a chance to hear the evidence presented by educational experts, weigh the options, and indicate a future policy direction. I’d argue that policy recommendations emerging from such a structured consultation process would be more objective, closer to public sentiment, and less potentially divisive.

We have a recent precedent for this. The UK’s first citizens’ assembly on climate change was set up by six Commons select committees, in order to understand public preferences on how climate change should be tackled. The assembly’s final report, with recommendations, was published in September 2020.

Emphasising unity and developing wider public consensus through deliberation is important, because it contrasts with the general stance of the current government. It seems to think that leadership consists of talking tough and confronting perceived enemies. On the question of exams, the government can easily revert to authoritarian-traditionalist type and go back to business as usual. If it did reform the assessment system somehow, it could simply dictate terms without its proposals being subject to wider public scrutiny.

We are currently at a crossroads. To agree on the best way forward, people need to come together and consider all the options. It therefore makes sense for Labour to push for a meaningful public consultation on assessment reform, in pursuit of a modern system that is balanced and fair, that commands confidence, and that is truly outstanding.

Mark Williams

Mark Williams is secretary of the Fabian's Education Policy Group.


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