ASCL Blueprint


National assessments and qualifications which link seamlessly to the core curriculum and post-16 pathways. These are constructed in a way which enables all children and young people to demonstrate their knowledge and skills, and to be recognised for this. Students’ results in national assessments play a proportionate role in how schools and colleges are held to account. 

National assessments and qualifications at both primary and secondary are based on the core national curriculum, determined (as set out in building block 1) by a curriculum review body on a ten-year cycle. This means that they will, by default, be based on those aspects of learning which we have collectively determined are most important for future success.

Any significant changes to the content of national assessments and qualifications take place in response to changes to the national curriculum.

National assessments take place at carefully planned points during a child’s education. This includes an end-of-primary assessment in Year 6, a more streamlined set of GCSEs at age 16, and appropriate post-16 assessments depending on the pathway a student chooses.

There is an appropriate balance between terminal exams and more modular assessments. The approach taken varies between subjects.

Developments in technology increasingly enable us to refine and improve our approach to assessment. Adaptive approaches mean that assessment can be more intelligent and personalised, enabling all children and young people to demonstrate what they can do, and reducing the amount of time pupils need to spend on national assessments to provide that evidence.

The system used to allocate grades to students in national qualifications is fair. It insulates young people from the natural dip in the performance of a cohort of students, through no fault of their own, when qualifications change. But it also ensures that no artificial ceilings are put on students’ attainment – that there is no actual or perceived sense that, as the contributors to ASCL’s Forgotten Third commission13 so eloquently put it, some young people must fail so that others can pass.

The performance of a school or college’s students in national assessments plays a proportionate role in how they are held to account, as part of a ‘dashboard’ of measures (see building block 5). The fact that they are only one measure among many limits the extent to which they distort the curriculum.

National assessments and qualifications have undergone significant reform over the last six years. These reforms had been starting to bed down, although the pandemic has led to an entirely different approach needing to be adopted in 2020 and 2021, and will necessitate some changes in 2022 and potentially beyond.

National assessments and qualifications currently significantly distort the curriculum, and put students, teachers and leaders under considerable stress. This is partly to do with the sheer weight of assessment, particularly at GCSE, where most 16-year-olds undergo more than 30 hours of assessment14 over a four-week period. But it is particularly driven by the emphasis placed on national assessments and qualifications in our accountability system, with its reliance on performance tables which are heavily weighted towards students’ performance in these assessments.

The number of assessment points at primary has gradually crept up over the last few years. Pupils now undertake national assessments in Reception, Year 1, Year 2 (if they don’t reach the expected standard in the phonics check in Year 1), Year 4 and Year 6. In other words, only Years 3 and 5 are completely free of national assessments.

Most GCSEs and A levels are now based entirely on terminal exams, with no opportunity for any form of ongoing assessment, and no role for teacher assessment.

Most national assessments and exams are ‘one-size-fitsall’ paper-based tests. Beyond the option of foundation tier papers in GCSE maths, science and modern foreign languages, there is little adaptation of assessments to enable all pupils to demonstrate what they can do, or to reduce the burden of assessment by focusing on questions and tasks which align with the level at which a pupil is working.

The current approach to grading GCSEs, AS and A levels, based on ‘comparable outcomes’, protects students from the negative impact of qualification change. Exam boards control for the impact of qualification change by, essentially, setting grade boundaries to ensure that the numbers of students who achieve a particular grade each year is similar to previous years. However, this can also restrict the capacity for all students to demonstrate and be recognised for what they can do. It also makes it more difficult to demonstrate improvement (or, indeed, decline) at a national level. The national reference test provides a mechanism by which standards can rise, but this can only happen in a limited way. In the meantime, this approach is contributing to the ‘forgotten third’ of young people frustrated at not being recognised for what they can do, and perceiving themselves as failures.

A reduction in statutory primary assessments to two key points: a phonics check in Year 1 and an end-of-primary assessment in Year 6.
The phonics check has had a positive impact on the teaching of reading in primary schools, and should be retained. The end-of-primary assessment should focus on those aspects of learning which we have collectively agreed are the most important for future success, as determined by the curriculum review body. The current Key Stage 2 SATs should be replaced with adaptive assessments, which make much greater use of technology to ensure they are more intelligent and personalised, and enable all children to demonstrate what they can do.

The results of these two statutory assessments should form part of an ‘accountability dashboard’ against which primary schools are held to account, as one part of a wide range of measures (see change 20 below). Between these two statutory assessment points, schools should be free to determine their own approaches to ongoing assessment.
A reduction in the burden of assessment at 16.
This could include the reintroduction of more ongoing assessment over the course of a qualification, and potentially a ‘stage not age’ approach for some subjects, as advocated by the ‘Forgotten Third’ commission15. As at primary, it should also include a much greater use of technology, particularly adaptive approaches, to make assessment more targeted, reduce bureaucracy and costs, increase the accuracy of grading, and enable more young people to demonstrate and be recognised for what they can do.

A review of the current comparable outcomes-based approach to grading GCSEs, AS and A levels.
This should include consideration of the pros and cons of the use of comparable outcomes in the system we wish to see – one based on a longer, carefully planned cycle of curriculum and assessment reform. It should also recognise that it will not be possible to compare the results of GCSEs and A levels in 2020, 2021 and (potentially) 2022 with other years, given the very different approach needed to be taken for those cohorts.

(Changes related to vocational and technical qualifications are included in building block 1 above. Changes to the role of national assessments and qualifications in accountability are included in building block 5.)

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13 ASCL - The Forgotten Third

14 Pupils will spend eight hours extra sitting exams under new GCSEs | Tes News

15 ASCL - The Forgotten Third
ASCL Blueprint