Requires improvement: urgent change for 11–16 education Contents


The 11–16 phase of education is a crucial stage in a young person’s life. During this time, most young people will work towards national qualifications, usually GCSEs, and make important decisions about their future education and training. Our inquiry focused on whether the current system effectively equips young people with the knowledge, skills and behaviours they need to progress to the next phase of their education, and to flourish in the future.

The Committee received extensive evidence about the 11–16 system in England from pupils, teachers, school leaders, academics, exam boards, trade unions and subject associations, among others. The evidence left us in no doubt of the need for urgent action. Our conclusions recognise that the 11–16 curriculum must be revised to incorporate a greater emphasis on technical, digital and creative areas of study. We are convinced that the burden of GCSE assessment on pupils and teachers should also be eased, by reconsidering the quantity of content studied and the number of subjects assessed externally. This approach is supported by our range of recommendations.

The need for reform

Reforms to the 11–16 system initiated by the Government since 2010 have been guided by an emphasis on knowledge acquisition and academic rigour. Education in this phase now prioritises a restricted programme of academic learning, delivered through a narrow set of subjects and teaching styles. We heard repeatedly that this approach fails to take account of wider societal and economic shifts. Technological advances have transformed the way we learn, work and live. These, combined with the transition to net zero, mean the demands of the UK labour market are also evolving rapidly.

Today’s 11 year-olds will leave school in the 2030s. They need change to be made urgently. While it is difficult to predict what jobs will be available when they enter the workforce, digital, creative and technical skills are likely to be in even greater demand. Skills such as collaboration, creativity and problem-solving are also expected to become increasingly important. Opportunities to develop these skills have, however, been squeezed out of the 11–16 phase.

We were told that the Government’s focus on a ‘knowledge-rich’ approach has resulted in an overburdened curriculum that necessitates narrow teaching methods such as rote learning and ‘cramming’ subject knowledge, particularly when pupils are studying for their GCSEs. There is also little scope to engage with topics beyond the curriculum or apply learning to real-world issues such as climate change, with pupil engagement suffering as a result.

Young people also have insufficient opportunities in this phase to develop and apply the essential skills they need to thrive in the future, particularly in literacy and numeracy. Each year, around a third of pupils in England do not secure a ‘pass grade’ in GCSE English and maths, which often leads to more limited opportunities in the post-16 phase. A greater focus on other core skills, such as oracy and digital literacy, should be incorporated into the 11–16 curriculum.

Witnesses also told us that the pressure created by the current assessment system has become unsustainable. Pupils are now tested purely via exams in many GCSE subjects. Sitting 25 to 30 hours of exams at the end of year 11 is a stressful experience for many pupils, and those who do not excel in this type of assessment have few other opportunities to demonstrate their achievements. This exam burden is disproportionate when all young people must now remain in education or training until the age of 18.

We heard compelling evidence that intense exam pressure is felt by schools and teachers, as well as pupils, since GCSE results underpin the majority of the Government’s school performance measures for the 11–16 phase. Several of these measures, particularly those based on the English Baccalaureate (EBacc), incentivise a focus on a limited set of traditionally academic subjects. Schools have accordingly adjusted their timetables and resourcing to promote these subjects to pupils and maximise their performance against these metrics.

As a result, subjects that fall outside the EBacc—most notably creative, technical and vocational subjects—have seen a dramatic decline in take-up. Opportunities to experience more practical, applied forms of learning have become increasingly limited, even though many pupils enjoy, and excel in, this way of acquiring knowledge and skills.

The Government’s ambition is to see 90% of 14 to 16 year-olds taking the EBacc subject combination, despite the fact that some pupils would be better served by studying other qualifications. A broader subject range is also critical to inspiring and equipping pupils to pursue the full range of post-16 options, including the technical courses and apprenticeships that the Government wishes to prioritise.

Action for reform

This inquiry was established in response to growing concerns that the present 11–16 system is moving in the wrong direction. Several recent reports into the secondary system, including those by the Times Education Commission and the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, have called for extensive reform within this phase.

The evidence we heard persuades us that major change is necessary. In this report, we assess proposals for long-term reform, while also setting out a package of measures that we believe can be delivered in the shorter term. We are convinced that change must be undertaken without delay and recommend the following priority areas for attention:

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