Qualified to Succeed

Building a 14-19 education system of choice, diversity and opportunity

Pearson's report into the Future of Qualifications & Assessment in England

Learning has the power to transform and shape lives. That’s why it’s crucial our education system and model of assessment work for the millions of young people who experience them each year.

Following the unique impact of the pandemic on exams, many questions have been asked of our assessment system, not least around fairness and equity for 14–19-year-olds.

As the world’s learning company, we decided to investigate how our education system and assessment model are working and if there’s room for improvement. Together with 6,000 teachers, learners, parents and employers, and a steering group of experts from across education, academia and politics, we’ve sought to find the answers.

So what should a good system look like? Our report includes the findings of our one-year research project and recommendations on shaping a better and bolder future for qualifications, assessment and our young people. 

Future of Qualifications and Assessment in England: Our flagship report and recommendations
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Our seven recommendations: at a glance

The following recommendations are based on our independent research, consultations and surveys and input from our expert panel.

1. Make GCSEs work better for all learners

They are versatile and valued qualifications, but we must reform how they are used, when they are taken and how they are recognised.

Objective assessment of students’ learning supports motivation and provides an external benchmark in a learner’s development. At this age, it also helps those without the social capital outside of the education system to promote their capabilities to progress. 

The versatility of GCSE should not be undermined by the design rules that have governed the most recent reforms.  At Key Stage 4, accountability measures should follow, not lead, good curriculum and assessment policy. There needs to be a degree of adaptability to allow schools to deliver the curriculum their pupils need.  

In the post-16 phase, a GCSE ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to maths and English fails too many learners. Learners need to acquire the numeracy and literacy skills required to access higher technical education, and beyond that, into work. Relevant, alternative qualifications need to be available and clearly understood by further and higher education institutions and employers. 

Potential next steps

  • Adapt the Ebacc and Progress 8 measures to allow schools to provide a more tailored, high-quality curriculum.
  • Where valid, different types of assessment should be reintroduced into the qualification design.
  • The policy of retaking GCSE Maths and English until 18 requires an urgent rethink. Consider alternatives to GCSE to signal proficiency. 

"While GCSEs work for the majority, others are unable to reach the standard needed and require an alternative. It is wrong to suggest that these young people cannot progress, when it is our actions which are narrowing their options, denying them choice and putting barriers in the way of success."

- Lord Blunkett Secretary of State for Education (1997–2001)

2. Set out a coherent curriculum framework

One linking expected outcomes to the ‘learning journey’ of students.

A single framework showing a clear curriculum journey through the 14–19 phase of education – making links between the purpose of education, learning at the various stages, and expected outcomes – would be beneficial to all. 

At present we have disconnected statements of ambition that fail to draw connections between defining what the education experience should look like and delivering it for learners.

Clearer linkage of these purposes to the curriculum could be transformational for learners in understanding how study choices help meet career and life goals.  

Potential next steps

  • Draw on the best thinking to evolve a coherent framework tool for teachers and learners linking what is learned in school to learning outcomes and assessment.     
  • Identifying values, skills, and attitudes which already exist across the Programmes of Study and in qualification content.  

3. Shift wholescale curriculum and qualification reform to a model of continuous, evidence-based improvement

Recent reforms have not always made the best use of institutional memory and policy cycles can be too short to establish strong evidence and/or sufficient data to support radical change. 

The system needs to remain agile enough to support periodic change when supported by evidence. Our interim report showed teachers and employers wanting small improvements to the 14–19 phase, not wholesale (disruptive) change. Where teachers had control over elements of curriculum or assessment, they felt they could make positive impacts on their learners.

Potential next steps

  • Reform of qualification and assessment systems should shift to an ongoing cycle of continuous change supported by strong data, impact studies, or evaluation, and at a pace whereby all stakeholders have sufficient time to implement successfully.  

"The Covid-19 pandemic has intensified debate over the way we organise education and training, how we recognise achievement, and our use of qualifications. In what should be a culture that strives for continuous improvement, we should take time to reflect on our true ambitions for the future, drawing on lessons from the past."

- Dr. Mick Walker President of the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors

4. Create greater diversity and representation in curriculum that reflects young people’s lives, to better engage them in learning

The curriculum should reflect the diversity of the world we live in. Even where students may already see themselves reflected, they should see others reflected too.

Teachers told us of lost opportunities to inspire learners and stimulate their ambitions because of a lack of space for creativity in the curriculum content to incorporate diversity of thought, or through young people failing to connect with learning as the content does not reflect or represent their lives. Teachers need more support to make this happen.

Potential next steps

  • The recently announced DfE priority to level up standards in schools must give consideration for greater diversity and representation across the curriculum and be done carefully.
  • The citizenship curriculum is a good opportunity to allow learners to reflect on these themes, making links between themselves, society and their own aspirations. 

"Make the specification relate to the times we live in – e.g. not just acknowledge Black History Month or Pride Month but have a unit specifically on black history and pride history that we study throughout our school years."

- Student (14–19) Response from our survey and consultation

5. Assess the right skills in the right way, enabling learners to highlight their strengths and successes

We need to dramatically improve how we are assessing skills. Too many assessments are testing what can easily be assessed rather than what should be assessed, with a greater focus on reliability at the expense of validity.   

Rules governing funding or performance measure recognition are heavily prescriptive, leaving little room for innovation. And the drive towards terminal assessment has led to teachers feeling they have a reduced stake in the assessment of their learners.  

Our research revealed instances where assessments were not testing real skills, rather their comprehension of a skill, with the consequence that students become turned off education.  

During the pandemic, where required, many teachers showed ingenuity in creating and adapting effective assessments. There is room for more ambition in the structure of assessments, and teachers are well placed to contribute to this.   

Potential next steps

  • We should aim to foster a culture of innovation in assessment – including reintroducing different forms of assessment such as internal assessment or coursework into appropriate subjects.   
  • We should continue to pilot new approaches to assessment giving skilled practitioners the opportunity to help drive forward innovative assessment ideas.  
  • Allowing a safe space to develop these processes within a regulated framework would help to drive flexibility in assessment.  
Future of Qualifications and Assessment project: How education prepares for the future
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Thoughts from one student on how education prepares young people for the future

6. Provide more incentives for employers to engage with educators and strengthen teachers’ capacity to bring work themes into the classroom

Careers should inspire young people. 

We need to build a culture of employer engagement with education. Teachers must be supported by qualified careers practitioners. There is a willingness of employers to inspire our young people and employees of the future, however employers need more support to learn how their expertise can complement the delivery and assessment of the curriculum.  

Teachers told us they often know what a good qualification is for their students, but are unable to always relate to how that links to opening and closing doors in employment.  

Delivering the most authentic learning experiences requires plentiful opportunities for employer engagement. Teachers raised concerns that the high demand for work placements for new T Levels could reduce employer engagement more broadly in education.

Potential next steps

  • Schools and colleges need to be resourced to facilitate high-quality employer experiences for all learners, and regular sector updating for teachers. This would build on the positive impact of the Government’s long-term Careers Strategy and introduction of the Gatsby Benchmarks.
  • Employers need financial incentives to engage with schools and colleges on curriculum matters, particularly where they don’t see an immediate benefit to their recruitment pipeline.

7. Accelerate the digital transformation programme, bringing all parts of the system together to realise the opportunities that technology can bring to the education experience

The pandemic has highlighted inequalities in access to digital resources and how this affects outcomes for disadvantaged learners. We have also seen how AI and digital learning in assessment technologies can be transformative.

It is important that technology is used where it adds value to assessments – used correctly it can improve accessibility, reliability and can also address some of the security pressures where assessments are high stakes.

A comprehensive and refreshed national digital strategy across schools and further education that brings together and enhances existing policies and initiatives is required. The challenge is complex, covering home and institutional infrastructure, funding, and having all agencies aligned and able to drive change at scale. 

Potential next steps

  • This digital strategy should link to assessment developments to ensure they keep pace with how digital is transforming learning. This digital strategy must be delivered or reviewed on a rolling basis to ensure continuity and that no learners are left behind. 
  • Existing digital initiatives and strategies should be brought together under an umbrella programme to support a more consistent national picture.    
  • The digital transformation programme should include improving universal access to technologies and connectivity, training in digital skills for teachers, access to online resources and learning platforms, and safeguarding policies.  
Future of Qualifications and Assessment in England: Mary Curnock Cook CBE on digital transformation
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Mary Curnock Cook CBE (Chair of the Pearson Education Limited Board) on the need for digital transformation in education

Reflections on the report and recommendations

Future of Qualifications and Assessment in England: Mary Curnock Cook CBE on our recommendations
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"This report makes a very valuable and balanced contribution to the current debate. Importantly, it recognises how achieving the goals of our system is dependent on the development of a coherent curriculum and assessment framework. 

Drawing on a grounded research approach that recognises the complexity of a national system of education and training, the outcome of this work is a rational and thoughtful guide as to how we can evolve for the benefit of learners and our wider society."

Mary Curnock Cook CBE

Chair of the Pearson Education Limited Board

Dr. Mick Walker

President of the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors

Continued collaboration and conversation are key to driving positive change. This report is the starting point for further exploration in shaping the future of qualifications and assessment:

More about the research

Our independent expert panel have shared their experiences, expertise and views generously to inform the project.