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06 November 2023

A fairer assessment system for England's primary and secondary schools

A new report authored by Dr Nuala Burgess, a King’s Research Associate for the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Schools, Learning and Assessment, makes the case for a fairer, more useful and fit-for-purpose way to assess children and young people in the 21st century.

Black and white photo of a woman speaking in a microphone at an APPG event.

The report for the APPG for Schools, Learning and Assessment drew together a wide range of written and oral evidence submitted by leading academics, educational think tanks, consultants and educationalists, as well as a sample of post-16 students and parents. Based on the evidence, the APPG made a set of recommendations, three of which it described as ‘urgent’. 

These included the phasing out of Standardised Assessment Tests (SATs), the introduction of a secondary baccalaureate, and a new type of post-16 English and Maths qualification. 

At primary level, the report recommended replacing SATs with a system of pupil sampling which would allow schools to compare their performance with other schools at local and national levels, and better understand where they may need additional support to improve. 

At secondary level, the report recommended the creation of a secondary baccalaureate to include academic, vocational/technical and creative subjects, and the assessment of a wider set of skills than GCSE and A Levels currently allow. It would mean that examinations played a part rather than being the only means of assessing a young person’s learning and achievements.

The report also called for a new qualification in post-16 English and Maths. The APPG’s recommendation is designed to ensure that all learners who are not already studying for a qualification in English and Maths leave school equipped with literacy and numeracy skills for future study or work.

Other recommendations included replacing school league tables with a more holistic form of school accountability to help schools understand their strengths and areas for improvement, and the use of digital learner profiles. Already being piloted by the group Rethinking Assessment and in use in Australia, digital learner profiles would provide every school leaver with a record of all their academic, creative and practical achievements.

Dr Burgess, the author of the report, said that the wide range of evidence she considered for the APPG’s report made “the failure of our current assessment system abundantly clear”. Experts who submitted evidence pointed out that assessment of learners at every level of schooling is being conflated with school accountability. Many of the contributors questioned an education system which had completely forgotten the principles of assessment for learning.

Dr Burgess added that there was also great concern among contributors about the damage that high stakes testing was causing young people’s mental wellbeing. She said that the fact that the report was welcomed by all parties at this year’s political party conferences demonstrated the level of cross-party support for assessment reform. She concluded: 

The message of this report is that it is time to allow schools to return to their role as places that nurture learning. The APPG’s report calls for an end of schools as exam factories and a return to an education system with the learning needs of children and young people at its heart.

Dr Nuala Burgess, Research Associate, School of Education, Communication & Society, King's College London

The APPG for School, Learning and Assessment launched the report at a reception held in the House of Commons on 16 October. Guests included MPs, members of the House of Lords, educators and education campaigners. Speakers included Alice Bradbury, Professor of Sociology of Education at the UCL IoE, Flick Drummond, Conservative MP and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Schools, Learning and Assessment, and Al McConville of Rethinking Assessment.

Read the APPG report

Written by Dr Nuala Burgess, Research Associate in the School of Education, Communication & Society at King's College London, the report is available on the APPG website.

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Nuala Burgess

Research Associate