Current exam system in England "not fit for the future", says expert report

The Independent Assessment Commission (IAC) has today (14th September) published its Interim Report considering the future of exams in England.

The IAC, whose chair is University of Glasgow's Professor Louise Hayward, which reflects the growing and broad coalition advocating change, has concluded that there is an overwhelming case for changing the current system of assessment and that the time to begin that process is now. 

They say that the current system:

  • Is not fit for the future; 
  • Is not sufficiently reliable, authentic or fair;  
  • Does not support high standards of education for all; 
  • Undermines student and teacher mental health

In looking at what change looks like the IAC has developed 5 ‘New ERA principles’.  The IAC are clear that these principles are not being delivered under the current system and that they should underpin future change 

The New ERA principles will deliver a fairer, more reliable and better system for pupils, parents, teachers and for our society and economy. 

The IAC are clear that underpinning our country’s assessment system with these five principles will ensure our assessment framework is fit for purpose.

We need a system that assists rather than hinders our ability as a country to meet the multiple social and economic challenges we as a country will face in the future, including how we address, adapt to, and mitigate climate change.

Professor Hayward, said: “What underpins all five New ERA principles is the commission's shared belief that the current system does not deliver on these vital foundations for an equitable, reliable assessment system.

“Central to all five New ERA principles is a deep understanding of how currently far too many people leave school with too little to show for their time there.

“Too many young people are giving everything and leaving with little to show for their time at school. Delivering on New ERA principles requires change to the system in its present form.”

Professor Hayward, who is based at the University's School of Education, added: “Exams should be just one part of a wider assessment system for everyone, which would measure many skills and competencies. This would move the focus beyond just academic skills and would provide all young people with recognition that acts as a measure and recognition that they can use to help move them forward in the next stage of their life journey.”

“Ending cliff edge exams will also help the well-being of young people, their parents and teachers. We have heard from young people and teachers during the research and found that the current system is taking a terrible toll on too many young people and teachers.” 

“This cannot be right; a system making our children unwell is a system that has to change. This has to change. The time to start the process of change is now."

“The New ERA principles will deliver a fairer, more reliable and better system for pupils, parents, teachers and for our society and economy. Underpinning our country’s assessment system with these five principles will ensure it is fit for purpose and assists rather than hinders our ability as a country to meet the multiple social and economic challenges we face, including how we address, adapt to and mitigate climate change”.

Highlights from the report 
  • The Covid-19 pandemic has led many people to question the current assessment and qualifications system. As the country moves forward from the current crisis. It is timely to ask if the current qualification system is fit for the range of purposes needed to serve the future needs of all young people, the economy and wider society.
  • By working collaboratively with employers, parents, policymakers, practitioners, researchers, students and professional organisations, the IAC has sought to establish common ground amongst all those who are concerned with the future of assessment and qualifications in England – culturally, economically and socially 
  • Currently, too many young people leave schools and colleges without the qualifications, knowledge, skills (including soft skills), understanding or attributes they need to transition effectively into college, employment or university
  • The final years of school and college are dominated by constant testing and examination rehearsal
  • The need for change has been amplified by the recognition that a young workforce will emerge from education into the world of the fourth industrial revolution amidst the impacts of climate change and global pandemic
  • Employers identify that the labour market needs a broader skillset than that currently examined. The qualification system does not provide sufficient information about students’ skills and abilities in the subjects assessed.  Further, it is perceived to limit the development of the competencies that employers need, such as nimble decision-making, collaboration and innovation
  • Parents, students and wider society have realised that a particular grade does not necessarily show what has been learned or to what standard. Instead, it indicates where a student sits in comparison with others who took the exam. A reliable system should provide evidence that forms the basis for students’ next steps
  • There is growing evidence that the grading system is unreliable. Evidence suggests that, on average, one in four grades at GCSE, AS and A-Level each year could legitimately be one grade higher or lower.
  • The system is also perceived to be unfair. In a normal exam year, a system of comparable outcomes is used to determine the percentage of students achieving each GCSE grade, by looking at the achievements of previous cohorts with similar KS2 results. This means that, because of the system, around a third of pupils are denied the opportunity to attain a grade 4 pass in English and maths at GCSE
  • Although examinations are a valuable mode of assessment, they cannot measure all that matters. A more rigorous system would promote the teaching and assessment of all that matters.
  • The current accountability system is perceived to encourage an educational focus on a narrow range of academic subjects, one that separates vocational and academic pathways, and devalues the vocational. This is perceived to damage the educational experiences of students who may achieve good exam results but have few opportunities to explore topics in depth to expand their breadth of learning. It is also perceived to impact negatively on those who have aptitude in practical, technical and vocational ways of learning and assessment. These issues have serious implications for equity
  • The current system is seen as inequitable and not able to provide the young people of England with the skills and competences they need to thrive in a global, 21st century environment.
  • There is a perception that a concern for accountability takes focus away from student learning, increases teacher workload and impacts negatively on both teachers’ and students’ wellbeing.
The principles that must underpin change

The IAC proposes five principles to inform a new ERA (Equitable, Reliable Assessment) for England’s assessment and qualifications system; one that will serve young people, their parents, teachers, employers and England as a society more effectively.  

The New ERA Principles developed by the IAC are intended to stimulate a national conversation.  

This  national conversation should inform the design of an assessment and qualifications system that will most effectively position England to respond positively, creatively and sustainably to the personal, social and economic opportunities and challenges posed by our rapidly changing society

The design principles for a new Assessment ERA should clearly link the vision with plans for how it might be brought into practice. This needs to involve 

Principle 1: Qualifications and assessment should serve the individual. They should provide information to all young people, their parents/carers and users of qualifications about the knowledge, skills and competencies young people have to allow them to flourish, to participate in the community, and to make good progress in the next stage of their lives, in employment, college or university. 

Principle 2: Qualifications and assessment should be recognised to be part of a wider education system including curriculum, pedagogy and accountability. Care should be taken to ensure that approaches to accountability do not distort qualifications.

Principle 3: Qualifications and assessment should serve the future needs of society, culture and the economy to enable the nation and young people to thrive in less predictable times socially and economically, nationally and internationally. 

Principle 4: Qualifications and assessment should be inclusive both in purpose and in the design and development of the system.  

Principle 5: Qualifications and assessment should support progression for all young people, but should not exist only to act as a mechanism for determining the next examination or selection. 


First published: 14 September 2021