Results may have arrived – but reform has only just begun

10 Aug 2021, 16:12


Students and teachers are increasingly saying written exams aren’t the best way to assess, writes Alice Barnard

Thousands of young people have been waiting anxiously for their results. Finally, results week is upon us and the wait is over.

Today, more than 340,000 students received vocational and technical qualifications (VTQs). Meanwhile around 200,000 students received their A-level results.

Unlike A-levels which relied solely on teacher assessed grades (TAGs), VTQs have been awarded via broader assessments.

Some learners carried forward centre assessment grades from 2020, some results were determined through adapted assessments, and others were determined using TAGs.

Following a similar trend to 2020, this year saw an increase in the volume of level 3 entries for VTQs, from approximately 250,000 in 2020 to 340,000 in 2021 – particularly in applied general qualifications (AGQs) such as BTECs.

While the proportion of top grades was mixed, overall, results showed an increase in the awarding of distinction grades, from 26 per cent in 2019 to 32 per cent in 2021.

Bigger attainment gap

But we can also see there is a worsening attainment gap.

For AGQs in 2019, 2.7 per cent of learners assigned to the “very low” prior attainment group were less likely to achieve top grades compared to middle ability peers.

Now that gap has increased to 8.6 per cent in 2021.

Despite students and teachers working tirelessly, this shows the ongoing disruption from Covid to learning and assessment – with struggling students the most likely to miss out.

Further analysis will be needed over the next few months to understand the full impact of the pandemic on this cohort.

What change is needed?

Despite the increase in applications to VTQs, the government continues to over-simplify the post-16 qualifications landscape, and recently confirmed that apprenticeships, A-levels and the new T levels will become the main progression options after GCSEs.

Meanwhile, qualifications such as tech levels, technical certificates and AGQs (including BTECs) are due to be scrapped.

This will lead to a restriction of choice and the removal of well-known qualifications that have worked for many learners, and are trusted by employers.

Reform should not be about restrictions, or about a binary choice between academic vs vocational.

All qualifications should instead be held to the principles of purpose, necessity, quality, progression. They should draw on labour market relevance and employer demand to remove funding on a case-by-case basis.

Students should also be supported with better information, advice and guidance to fully understand their options.

They should be encouraged to blend academic and vocational skills as is currently the case with the combination of BTECs and A levels.

The fiasco of the last two years has also thrown our assessment system under the spotlight and we are hearing from multiple voices that the assessment system is no longer fit for purpose.  

Employers increasingly value a mix of academic and technical qualifications, alongside problem-solving, communication and team working skills.

Teachers argue that assessments should recognise a broader range of capabilities, through more than just written exams. And young people are finding exams increasingly stressful and not a true reflection of their potential.

Our curriculum and assessment system should blend knowledge as well as technical and transferrable skills.

Great examples such as School 21 integrate project based learning into their curriculum, so students develop essential skills such as problem solving, communication, and creativity.

Teachers argue that assessments should recognise a broader range of capabilities

We also need more models such as our Edge teacher externships which support teachers to develop cross-curricular lessons alongside employers.

We should also move from ‘age’ to ‘stage’ so that young people undergo assessments when they are ready.

At Edge, we are working closely with the Rethinking Assessment movement to explore how to better evidence the full breadth of young peoples’ strengths, building on examples from across the world.

We also support the National Education Union who are calling for an equitable reform of exams through the Independent Assessment Commission.  

Our learners deserve breadth, depth and choice. We now have a window of opportunity to build a better future and make education truly relevant for all.

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