Requires improvement: urgent change for 11–16 education Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Chapter 2: The 11–16 curriculum

1.It is vital that pupils experience a wide range of subjects and curriculum content up to the age of 14 to keep their future options open, inform their subsequent choices and ensure they receive a broad and balanced education. Although it is helpful for schools to have some flexibility over their curriculum, this should not extend to ‘squeezing’ key stage 3 into two years or dropping foundation subjects entirely. The growing number of academies in 11–16 provision brings into question the appropriateness of the current national curriculum’s status, as it is no longer mandatory for the vast majority of schools. (Paragraph 43)

2.The Government should conduct a review of the national curriculum’s status, with the aim of ensuring that all mainstream, state-funded schools are teaching a genuinely broad and balanced curriculum throughout a three-year key stage 3. The proposal for a mandatory national curriculum that ensures a common entitlement for all pupils should be considered in this context. The review should consider the impact of any curriculum changes on specialist schools, to ensure that innovative approaches are not undermined where they are to the benefit of pupils. (Paragraph 44)

3.The Government’s emphasis on a knowledge-rich approach has led to an 11–16 curriculum which is overloaded with content, particularly at key stage 4. The extent of the material to be covered hampers pupils’ understanding of core concepts and stifles engagement. (Paragraph 51)

4.The Government should reduce the overall content load of the 11–16 curriculum, focusing particularly on GCSE subject curricula. It should undertake a review to establish how this can be achieved, and publish its findings. (Paragraph 52)

5.Supporting pupils to achieve a basic standard of literacy and numeracy should remain a core purpose of the 11–16 system. These skills are essential for young people to progress in their education and to succeed in life and work. The stubbornly high proportion of pupils who do not achieve a grade 4 or above in GCSE English and maths each year must be addressed. (Paragraph 69)

6.The Government should determine why around a third of pupils do not secure a grade 4 or above in GCSE English and maths each year, and publish its findings. (Paragraph 70)

7.We recommend that high-quality level 2 literacy and numeracy qualifications should be available for pupils to take during key stage 4, and that attainment in these should be recognised in school performance measures. Such qualifications should be genuinely distinct from the discipline-based English and maths GCSEs and should focus on the application of essential skills. We invite the Government to launch a consultation to assess whether the existing English and maths functional skills qualifications could fulfil this purpose, or whether the development of new qualifications is required. (Paragraph 71)

8.Oracy is an essential skill for pupils to develop in preparation for their future life and work, but it may not be being consistently prioritised by schools in the 11–16 phase. (Paragraph 75)

9.As part of a wider review of the key stage 3 and GCSE curricula, the Government should embed opportunities for oracy and communication skills development. (Paragraph 76)

10.We heard persuasive evidence that an applied computing GCSE should be introduced, to provide an alternative to the more academically focused computer science GCSE. This could help to address the declining uptake of digital qualifications at key stage 4 and support us to meet the growing demand for a wide range of digital skills across the economy. (Paragraph 89)

11.Working closely with stakeholders, the Government should take steps to develop and introduce a new GCSE in applied computing as soon as possible. (Paragraph 90)

12.All pupils should have the option of taking a digital literacy qualification in the 14–16 phase. This would support the development of core digital skills, particularly for those who do not choose to take a computing qualification at key stage 4. (Paragraph 93)

13.The Government should explore introducing a basic digital literacy qualification that can be taken at key stage 4, to ensure that all pupils have an opportunity to develop the basic digital skills needed to participate effectively in post-16 education and training, employment and wider life. (Paragraph 94)

14.Secondary education must support young people to develop the knowledge, skills and agency they will need to live in a world affected by the impacts of climate change. We welcome the actions relating to climate education set out in the Sustainability and climate change strategy published by the DfE, particularly the recognition that providing effective support, training and resources for teachers will be critical to the delivery of high-quality climate and sustainability education to all pupils. It is essential that the Government meets the commitments detailed in this strategy. (Paragraph 103)

15.We also welcome the new natural history GCSE and the opportunities it will afford for pupils to learn about the natural world as part of their key stage 4 studies. However, without reform to embed nature, climate and sustainability education more widely across the 11–16 curriculum, particularly at key stage 3, the qualification risks becoming a ‘subject silo’. It could also see low take-up, as pupils may be less likely to select a GCSE in a subject to which they have previously had limited exposure, and not all schools will have the necessary resources to deliver it. (Paragraph 104)

16.The Government must ensure that a core purpose of future reviews of the key stage 3 and 4 curricula, and GCSE content specifications, is to identify and incorporate opportunities to educate pupils about climate change and sustainability across a wider range of subjects. This is necessary to avoid the persistence of ‘subject silos’ and to ensure that teaching on such topics is available to all. (Paragraph 105)

17.Proficiency in modern languages is an important asset, both in individual relationships and for career pathways. The low take-up of GCSEs in modern foreign languages, despite the inclusion of languages within the EBacc subject combination, is therefore concerning. We heard that a number of different factors contribute to this. (Paragraph 112)

18.The Government should explore innovative ways to encourage schools to promote language learning, whether or not as a GCSE subject, and to address practical barriers, including the limited supply of suitably qualified teachers. (Paragraph 113)

19.Pupils must have genuine, substantive opportunities to study creative and artistic subjects at key stages 3 and 4. This is vital to enable them to develop creative skills and to support a diverse talent pipeline for our creative industries, which are a key sector of the UK economy, and the many other businesses that are crying out for creative skills. We have heard that the delivery of these opportunities is increasingly difficult in the current context due to funding constraints and the deprioritisation of creative subjects due to accountability measures. (Paragraph 127)

20.A principal aim of future adjustments to key stage 4 school accountability measures, including those called for in this report, should be to reverse the impact of the current measures on the take-up of creative subjects at GCSE. (Paragraph 128)

21.There has been a significant decline in recent years in the number of pupils taking up technical subjects during key stage 4. This is coupled with a wider decline in the opportunities available throughout 11–16 education for pupils to develop practical skills. The current system is overly focused on academic pathways and changes are needed to ensure that there are clear and coherent routes from key stage 4 into post-16 technical education. (Paragraph 146)

22.The collapse in take-up of design and technology requires the urgent attention of the Government. The expansion of technology and engineering learning at key stage 4 is essential to opening up opportunities for young people and nurturing core talent for the future economy. (Paragraph 147)

23.We support the ambition of the MBacc and UTC sleeve proposals in seeking to promote the status and availability of technical education in the 11–16 phase of education. We recognise, however, that careful consideration is needed to ensure that any changes of this nature can be effectively and equitably delivered within the current system. (Paragraph 148)

24.The Government should set out how technical and vocational education opportunities can be promoted to a greater number of pupils during the 11–16 phase, with the aim of enabling all pupils to study at least one technical or vocational subject should they wish. The Government should engage closely with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s proposal to offer, as an alternative to the EBacc, a key stage 4 subject combination focused on technical careers, and the Baker Dearing Educational Trust’s proposal for a “UTC sleeve”, and publish its response to these suggestions. (Paragraph 149)

25.We are encouraged by the House of Commons Education Committee’s conclusion that reasonable progress towards improving careers education, information, advice and guidance (CEIAG) in secondary schools has been made over the past decade. We heard that an even greater emphasis on CEIAG is needed in the 11–16 phase, and that this can be enhanced through meaningful engagement between schools and employers. (Paragraph 157)

26.Careers education, information, advice and guidance in the 11–16 phase must give equal status to the full range of post-16 pathways, including technical and vocational qualifications, such as BTECs, and apprenticeships. We support the House of Commons Education Committee’s call for the Government to develop potential solutions to the problem of schools being overly incentivised to encourage pupils to follow academic routes. (Paragraph 158)

Chapter 3: Assessment

27.We have heard that the high-stakes nature of key stage 4 assessment in England necessitates an emphasis on terminal, exam-based testing. Witnesses have suggested that the current focus on exam-based assessment places considerable pressure on pupils and can have a detrimental impact on their learning experiences in the 11–16 phase. While there remains a need for some kind of formal assessment at 16, given the number of pupils who change institutions at this age, the current exam burden is disproportionate, since pupils must now remain in education or training up to 18. (Paragraph 177)

28.We recognise that radical reform of GCSEs would constitute a major shift in the current secondary assessment system. This transition would need to be made as part of a long-term programme, alongside changes to the post-16 phase, and extensive consultation would be critical. This clearly goes beyond the Committee’s remit for this inquiry and so we have not made detailed recommendations in this area. We do, however, support recent proposals to move towards a slimmed-down form of assessment at 16, with externally validated assessment used across a smaller set of subjects. (Paragraph 178)

29.We urge the Government to consider proposals to reduce more dramatically the amount of external assessment undertaken at age 16, as it reviews options for a less onerous GCSE assessment model. The Government should set out further details of its proposed review of GCSEs in its response to this report. (Paragraph 179)

30.There is some evidence to suggest that non-exam assessment produces less reliable grades than traditional exams. However, we heard that non-exam assessment supports the development of knowledge and skills that are more difficult to assess in an exam context. Witnesses suggested that, used alongside exams, it can lessen the pressure of assessment for pupils, by reducing the significance of terminal exams to their overall grade, and help to capture the full range of their achievements. We are persuaded that an increase in the use of non-exam assessment at GCSE would bring benefits for pupils. (Paragraph 196)

31.Concerns about reliability, plagiarism and the impact on teacher workload mean that an increase in the use of non-exam assessment should be approached cautiously. Careful consultation with teachers and schools will be vital to ensure that any increase in the use of non-exam assessment at GCSE is manageable to deliver. Increasing take-up of the Higher Project Qualification would enable more pupils to experience the benefits of non-exam assessment at key stage 4, without requiring any significant changes to the current suite of GCSEs. (Paragraph 197)

32.As part of a longer-term review of qualifications at 16, the Government should introduce a greater proportion of non-exam assessment at key stage 4. In the short term, the Government should set out how greater take-up of the Higher Project Qualification at key stage 4 could be encouraged, to enable more pupils to undertake an extended project qualification alongside their GCSEs. (Paragraph 198)

33.Paper-based exams that require pupils to write for extended periods are increasingly out of alignment with the experiences and tasks young people will encounter in their education, life and work. On-screen testing represents a more modern approach and offers huge potential to enhance the assessment experience for learners. We welcome Ofqual’s initial investigatory work in this area and support its future vision of a mixed model combining on-screen and paper-based assessment. (Paragraph 216)

34.We recognise that there are numerous barriers to delivering a greater proportion of on-screen assessment within national exams at the end of key stage 4, including the need to develop school infrastructure and ensure pupils are equipped with the necessary digital skills. It is imperative that the transition towards on-screen assessment at GCSE is managed in a way that ensures fair treatment of all learners. (Paragraph 217)

35.The Government should lead on ensuring that the transition towards on-screen assessment at GCSE is implemented successfully. In its response to this report, the Government should summarise the steps it is taking to support progress towards a greater proportion of GCSE assessments being undertaken on-screen in future. (Paragraph 218)

36.It has been suggested that the system for determining GCSE grade boundaries requires a fixed proportion of pupils to ‘fail’ their English and maths GCSEs each year. However, we are persuaded that it does not set quotas for the number of pupils who can be awarded each grade. (Paragraph 225)

37.Where external assessment is used, it is vital that GCSE grades are, and are perceived to be, accurate reflections of a pupil’s performance. This is particularly important given that, at present, a pupil’s GCSE results can have a direct impact on the post-16 options they are able to pursue. Robust processes must be in place to assure the reliability of grading. These should be kept under review, including in light of the potential enhancements that emerging technologies such as AI may bring to marking. (Paragraph 232)

38.We heard that taking steps to increase the reliability of GCSE assessment would be likely to entail more extensive testing of pupils, or moving to a more limited set of question types. Such changes could have a detrimental impact on learners and would run counter to efforts to transition to a more varied and less onerous assessment system at key stage 4. (Paragraph 233)

39.The Government should instead prioritise lowering the stakes of assessment at 16, to ease the pressure for testing at this age to meet such high reliability standards, and reduce the present emphasis on exam-based assessment at the end of key stage 4. (Paragraph 234)

Chapter 4: School performance measures

40.The interplay between Ofsted’s inspection regime and the collection and publication of school performance data relating to the 11–16 phase results in an accountability system that places intense pressure on schools. Its overreliance on key stage 4 attainment figures disproportionately raises the stakes of assessment in this phase and also pressurises teachers and pupils. (Paragraph 246)

41.The Government must ensure that the type and volume of school and college performance data it publishes balances the needs of users against the risk of undesirable outcomes, such as disproportionate pressure on schools and pupils. Taking forward the recommended reforms to specific key stage 4 accountability measures set out in this report presents an opportunity for the Government to conduct a wider review of the data it publishes for this phase, to ensure that an appropriate balance is being struck. (Paragraph 247)

42.The Government’s ambition that 90% of pupils in state-funded schools should enter for the EBacc sends a strong message as to which subjects should be prioritised, which is echoed by the references to the EBacc in Ofsted’s handbook and recent school inspection reports. Faced with the pressures of a high-stakes accountability system and stretched resources, schools have understandably organised their curricula in line with the EBacc’s requirements, often deprioritising creative, artistic and technical subjects as a result. (Paragraph 268)

43.Core subjects such as English, maths and science should form a central part of the key stage 4 curriculum, and all pupils should have the opportunity to pursue traditionally academic subjects at key stage 4 should they wish. Nonetheless, the EBacc subject combination is overly restrictive and demotes to second-tier status subjects that bring breadth and balance and enable the development of essential skills. (Paragraph 269)

44.There is a continued connection between the EBacc’s composition and the facilitating subjects list previously used to designate the A-level subjects most often required for entry to high-tariff universities. This gives undue prominence to the university route and is no longer justifiable given the Russell Group’s withdrawal of this classification. (Paragraph 270)

45.The Government must immediately abandon the national ambition for 90% of pupils in state-funded mainstream schools to be taking the EBacc subject combination. The EBacc subject categorisation, and the EBacc entry and EBacc average point score accountability measures, should also be withdrawn in their entirety, and all references to the EBacc in the Ofsted school inspection handbook removed. (Paragraph 271)

46.Progress 8 is an improvement on the previous headline accountability measure and was introduced with the valuable aim of capturing the average level of progress pupils in a school make during key stages 3 and 4 across a range of subjects. We welcome the emphasis it places on supporting pupils of all abilities to increase their attainment. (Paragraph 287)

47.The dominance of EBacc subjects within the Progress 8 measure limits flexibility around subject choice and incentivises schools to focus their resources on a narrow set of academic subjects. This constricts in particular the take-up of creative and technical qualifications, and compounds the impacts of the EBacc described earlier. Withdrawing the EBacc subject classification would change the composition of Progress 8 by removing the requirement for pupils to take three additional EBacc subjects, alongside English and maths. This presents an opportunity for further refinement of the measure. (Paragraph 288)

48.In the short term, we favour adjustments to Progress 8 that would enhance the flexibility and choice it offers, while reducing the disruption and risk of unintended consequences that changing the number of subject slots which comprise it might cause. A reformed Progress 8 could be structured around the core subjects of English, maths and science, complemented by up to four open slots. It should give schools greater flexibility to offer the subjects and qualifications that would best serve their pupils, based on a balanced curriculum that includes scope for creative, technical and vocational subjects. (Paragraph 289)

49.A revised Progress 8 should also record results gained in English and maths functional skills qualifications, to ensure that even if pupils do not take English and maths GCSEs, their attainment in literacy and numeracy is recognised. (Paragraph 290)

50.We call on the Government to review the current set of headline accountability measures, particularly Progress 8, in light of evidence that the existing measures are failing to support schools to deliver a broad and balanced curriculum. The review should examine how, following the withdrawal of the EBacc, Progress 8 can be further refined to ensure that schools maintain an appropriate level of focus on the core subjects of maths, English and science, while enabling them to promote a broader range of subjects to pupils at key stage 4. Consideration should also be given to how results achieved in functional skills qualifications in English and maths would be incorporated into the measure. (Paragraph 291)

51.Although we are sympathetic to the idea of increasing the prominence of destination data in the key stage 4 accountability system, further investigation is necessary to determine the benefits of doing so and the best approach by which to achieve this. As with any adjustment to performance measures, changes should be approached cautiously to avoid increasing pressure on schools and inappropriately driving behaviour. A consistent approach to school performance measurement across key stages 3, 4 and 5 is essential to ensuring that efforts made to promote technical qualifications and apprenticeships in the 11–16 phase are not undermined by the impact of performance metrics used at key stage 5. (Paragraph 297)

52.The remaining headline accountability measures, including the percentage of pupils staying in education or entering employment, should be re-evaluated as part of a wider review of the key stage 4 school performance measures published by the Government. The Government should also review the key stage 5 destinations measures, including the entry to Russell Group universities metric, and adjust or withdraw these as required to ensure that performance incentives for schools and colleges are coherent across the 11–16 and 16–19 phases. (Paragraph 298)

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