Requires improvement: urgent change for 11–16 education Contents

Chapter 1: Introduction

The inquiry and the work of the Committee

1.The House of Lords Education for 11–16 Year Olds Committee was appointed in January 2023 to “consider education for 11–16 year-olds with reference to the skills necessary for the digital and green economy”, and to make recommendations. Our inquiry has therefore centred on the key stage 3 and 4 phases, which cover years 7 to 11.

Table 1: Overview of key stages 3 and 4

Child’s age

School year

Key stage

National assessments













Some pupils take GCSEs




Most pupils take GCSEs or equivalent qualifications

Source: Department for Education, ‘The National Curriculum’: [accessed 7 November 2023]

2.The Committee met for the first time on 9 February 2023. A call for written evidence was issued in March 2023, and is reprinted in Appendix 3. Over the course of our inquiry, we received 101 written evidence submissions and heard from 41 witnesses in 15 oral evidence sessions. We are very grateful to all those who took the time to provide us with evidence. A list of those who gave us written and oral evidence is included in Appendix 2 and is available on our website.1

3.It was vital to our inquiry that we heard the views of teachers and pupils on the issues we were examining. The Committee held two roundtable sessions in September 2023, at which we spoke to teachers and pupils from schools across England.

4.We are very grateful to our specialist adviser, Tom Richmond, founder and director at EDSK. His expertise has assisted us greatly in our deliberations during the course of this inquiry.

Key themes and areas of focus

5.The Committee’s terms of reference invited a focus on the role of secondary education in England2 in preparing young people to enter employment in a future, low-carbon economy. Skills shortages in relation to digital and green roles are well recognised. The Government acknowledged when publishing its 2022 UK Digital Strategy that “over 80% of all jobs advertised in the UK now require digital skills”, but that employers say the lack of available talent is the single biggest factor holding back growth. It is estimated that the digital skills gap costs the UK economy as much as £63 billion a year in potential GDP.3 The 2021 Green Jobs Taskforce report suggested that the extent of the skills gap it identified pointed to the “need to significantly increase the size of the green workforce to deliver net zero.”4 Evidence to this Committee suggested that as we work towards national decarbonisation targets, over the next five to 10 years, more than 200,000 jobs could be created in energy efficiency5 and the retrofitting of buildings alone could require the training of 45,000 technicians each year.6

6.Alongside specialist skills, recent research has emphasised the increasing importance of transferable, ‘soft’ skills. The Skills Imperative 2035 programme undertaken by the National Foundation for Educational Research identified six “essential employment skills” that are predicted to be those “most heavily utilised in the labour market in 2035”: communication; collaboration; problem-solving; organising, planning and prioritising work; creative thinking; and information literacy.7

7.The impact of technology and the transition towards net zero on the skills demands of our economy is clear, and ensuring that the country can meet its future workforce needs is unarguably a core purpose of the education system as a whole. Recent reports have suggested that “bold reform” of secondary education is required to ensure that future skills demands can be met.8 We agree with this assessment. Indeed, much of the evidence we heard reaffirms the conclusions and recommendations reached by other organisations.

8.The Committee did not limit this inquiry, however, to assessing the effectiveness of the 11–16 system in preparing young people to enter employment. We recognise the challenges of attempting to define the job opportunities that will be available to young people in the future, given the pace of technological and societal change. We were advised not to “chase today’s skill requirements in the 11–16 curriculum”9—today’s 11 year-olds will not enter the workforce until the 2030s.

9.We also sought to keep a clear focus on the role of the 11–16 phase within the wider education system. Given that all young people must now remain in some form of education or training until 18,10 pupils do not need to be ‘work ready’ on completion of key stage 4. Post-16 education will generally be the most suitable time for young people to develop the sector-specific skills and knowledge that will enable us to address existing and future skills needs.

10.We took evidence on how the 11–16 phase can play a preparatory role, laying the groundwork that enables pupils to progress to the next stage of their education and training, across the full range of post-16 options.11 We examined to what extent pupils have access in the 11–16 phase to a broad and balanced education that provides opportunities to acquire knowledge, skills and behaviours in different ways, both within and across subject disciplines. We also assessed how the current system supports young people to develop core literacy, numeracy, communication and digital skills, which will be critical to success in whichever pathway they go on to pursue.

11.Across the evidence we received, criticism of the state of 11–16 education centred around several concerns. The system is underpinned by a ‘knowledge-rich’ approach, which has led to a significant expansion of the content pupils are expected to learn in this phase. This has been accompanied by a renewed emphasis on exam-based testing of knowledge at GCSE. These changes, coupled with the pressure schools feel to achieve good scores against headline performance measures, has led to a system that is disproportionately skewed towards academic study. Witnesses suggested that the current system has negative consequences for the take-up of creative, artistic and technical subjects in particular, and could be limiting opportunities for pupils to develop practical, creative and technical skills.

Reforms to 11–16 education since 2010

12.In 2010, the coalition Government published a Schools White Paper, The importance of teaching. This set out plans to reform the national curriculum, with the aim of slimming down content and giving teachers greater flexibility and control over what they taught.12 A revised “forward-thinking, knowledge-rich national curriculum” was introduced in 2014.13 It was said to “embody high expectations” for pupils and aimed to combine elements adapted from high-performing school systems around the world, such as those in Finland, Hong Kong and Singapore.14

13.The concept of a ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum derives from the work of Professor E. D. Hirsch. According to the Department for Education (DfE):

“Hirsch argues that it is crucial to provide all pupils with access to a core of broadly shared, societal, ‘communal’ knowledge to help them develop the intellectual and cultural capital they need to succeed. Hirsch explains that subject specific knowledge forms a foundation for new knowledge to ‘stick’ to, making it easier for pupils to commit new information to long-term memory. Pupils who have more relevant prior knowledge therefore find it easier to learn new information, compared to pupils who have less.”15

Under this approach, knowledge acquisition is considered to be the primary aim. The Government argues that a knowledge-based curriculum is necessary to tackle the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers, who “have accumulated more of this knowledge at home and therefore find learning easier at school.”16

14.Alongside introducing the new curriculum, the Government undertook a series of reforms to GCSE qualifications, aimed at increasing their rigour.17 Assessment in most subjects is now by exam only, with non-exam assessments such as coursework being used only when this is essential to assessing skills “intrinsic to the subject”.18 GCSEs were also made linear, with assessments normally taken at the end of the course. Tiered papers were removed from most subjects.19 A new grading system was introduced, which uses the numbers 1–9 to identify levels of performance, with 9 being the highest grade. The GCSE curricula were also reviewed. The amount of content to be covered in many GCSE courses increased—by “about 25%” in some cases, according to teachers.20

15.In 2010, the Government also introduced a new school performance metric, the English Baccalaureate (EBacc). It measures the achievement of pupils who have been entered for GCSEs in English, maths, the sciences, history or geography, and a language. The Government stated that the principal purpose of the new measure was to increase the take-up of “core” academic qualifications.21 In 2017, the Government announced its “national ambition” that 75% of year 10 pupils should be studying the full suite of EBacc subjects by 2022, rising to 90% in 2025.22

16.A further school performance measure, Progress 8, was introduced in 2016. This aims to report the progress a pupil makes between finishing primary school and the end of year 11. As with the EBacc, the raw data that inform Progress 8 calculations are the grades pupils achieve in their GCSEs.23

Considerations on further reform

17.The combined impact of the current curriculum, assessment model and school accountability system has led bodies such as the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change and the Times Education Commission to call for radical reforms to secondary education.24 The Times Education Commission, for example, called for the wholesale replacement of GCSEs.25

18.In scrutinising possible options for reform, the Committee was acutely aware of the existing pressures schools are under. We recognise that managing any change to the education system places demands on school leaders and teachers, as well as on pupils themselves. Responding to the growing calls for extensive reform of GCSEs and A-levels, the Institute for Government argued that an “assessment revolution” would present challenges for schools as they continue to deal with “the after-effects of the pandemic and ever tighter funding”.26

19.These after-effects are extensive and are still being felt acutely in the sector. A 2022 research review by the Education Endowment Foundation concluded that “COVID-19-related disruption has negatively impacted the attainment of all pupils”.27 It also noted that “there is evidence that suggests the pandemic has negatively impacted children’s mental health” and that “teachers have identified mental health as a significant challenge in the classroom.”28 Of particular concern are the elevated rates of absenteeism among school pupils, which remain above pre-COVID levels.29 On funding, a recent report by the National Foundation for Educational Research found that two-fifths of secondary schools in England had or were expecting an in-year deficit in 2022–23.30

20.Schools are also struggling with a shortage of teachers as, over the past decade, the overall number of qualified teachers in state-funded schools has not kept pace with increasing pupil numbers.31 This issue affects secondary schools in particular, with recent data showing that recruitment levels for trainee teachers in the 2022–23 cycle fell below government targets in 13 out of 17 subjects.32 The House of Commons Education Committee established an inquiry into teacher recruitment, training and retention in March 2023. In view of this, and recognising that we could not do justice to the complexity of this issue within the scope of our remit, we do not cover these issues in detail in this report. However, we acknowledge that addressing the challenge of teacher supply is a prerequisite for the successful implementation of any future reform, as well as the overall sustainability of our secondary system.

21.We also heard that recommendations for reform must be considered in the context of the education system as a whole. This was emphasised in the evidence we took on the experience of education reform in Scotland and Wales.

22.The Welsh Government is currently undertaking a substantial programme of education reform, which will make changes to the primary and secondary curriculum; national qualifications, including GCSEs; and the school inspection system. This arises from a review of the Welsh education system, conducted by Professor Graham Donaldson, which resulted in the Successful Futures report, published in February 2015. The report concluded that “the current national curriculum and assessment arrangements no longer meet the needs of the children and young people of Wales”.33 Taking forward recommendations from the report, the Welsh Government identified four guiding purposes for the new curriculum, which are underpinned by development of the following skills:

Literacy, numeracy and digital competence are positioned as “cross-curricular skills”.35 Pupils must be given opportunities to develop these across all areas of the curriculum.

23.From September 2023, all year 7 and 8 pupils will follow the new ‘Curriculum for Wales’ and, by the 2026–27 academic year, it will be followed by all secondary school pupils. Alongside the new curriculum, a new suite of GCSEs will be introduced. Changes have also been made to the role of Estyn, the school inspectorate. The Welsh Government suggested that it will now focus more on identifying “strengths and areas for improvement for schools”, rather than reaching summative judgements on school performance.36

24.Scotland introduced its ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ in 2010. It emphasises interdisciplinary learning, skills development and teacher autonomy. A review of Scotland’s education policy conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), published in June 2021, concluded that while the curriculum “continues to be an inspiring example equated with good curriculum practice internationally”, there had been issues with its implementation.37 These included “misalignment” with the qualifications system, which then “became a barrier” to its implementation in secondary education.38

25.The Scottish Government accepted all of the recommendations made in the OECD’s review. It then commissioned several further reviews and has already committed to introducing a new qualifications body and school inspectorate.39 The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills made clear in June 2023 that Scotland’s approach to reform will “be holistic and reflect a clear expectation that all elements of the education and skills system will work together as one single system”.40

26.A recent report prepared by Professor Bill Lucas for the Edge Foundation sets out other international examples of curriculum reform.41 Australia, for example, introduced the first iteration of its current curriculum in 2010. The curriculum recognises seven ‘general capabilities’, which are addressed across all learning areas “where they offer opportunities to add depth and richness to student learning”:

27.We heard from many witnesses that reform on a scale similar to that described above is required to address the issues currently facing 11–16 education in England. Our report therefore considers some potential options for longer-term and more significant readjustment of the current system. However, we acknowledge that change of this kind is a significant undertaking. We are clear that such options would require further consideration and consultation, and would need to be reviewed within the context of the education system as a whole, taking account of areas which fall beyond the Committee’s focus on the 11–16 phase. Our report therefore focuses primarily on recommendations aimed at facilitating immediate change—measures that we believe could realistically be delivered in the shorter term. The evidence we have heard convinces us of the urgent need for reform, despite the challenging environment in which schools are operating.

1 See ‘Education for 11–16 Year Olds Committee’: [accessed 29 November 2023]

2 Education, training and skills are devolved matters. Much of the evidence we received, and the corresponding conclusions and recommendations we have drawn, therefore focus on the situation in England. We did, however, take evidence on education policy in other parts of the UK, particularly the reform programmes currently being undertaken in Scotland and Wales.

3 Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, ‘New Digital Strategy to make UK a global tech superpower’ (13 June 2022): [accessed 4 October 2023]

4 Green Jobs Taskforce, Report to government: industry and the skills sector (July 2021), p 45: [accessed 4 October 2023]

5 Written evidence from UCL Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability Education (EDU0065)

6 Written evidence from EngineeringUK (EDU0092)

7 Information literacy is described as being “closely related” to critical thinking and involving “accessing and examining data or facts to determine appropriate actions or recommendations, discerning and evaluating arguments, and making and defending judgements based on internal evidence and external criteria.” National Foundation for Educational Research, An analysis of the demand for skills in the labour market in 2035: Working paper 3 (May 2023), pp 73–78: available at [accessed 8 November 2023]

8 Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, Ending the big squeeze on skills: how to futureproof education in England (August 2022), p 4: [accessed 23 October 2023]

9 Q 72 (Sir Jon Coles)

10 The Education and Skills Act 2008 made it compulsory for all young people in England to participate in education or training until the age of 18. The requirement came fully into effect in 2015.

11 In the 16–19 phase, pupils can remain in full-time education, studying academic qualifications (A-levels) or vocational technical qualifications (such as T-levels or BTECs); start an apprenticeship; or work or volunteer for 20 hours or more a week while undertaking part-time education or training. These routes can be followed at various institutions, including school sixth forms (part of a secondary school) and separate 16–18 colleges, which may have a technical or academic focus. Department for Education, ‘School leaving age: Can you leave school at 16 and what are your options?’ (24 April 2023): [accessed 2 November 2023]

12 Department for Education, The importance of teaching: the schools white paper 2010 (November 2010): [accessed 23 October 2023]

13 Department for Education, ‘New curriculum will make education system ‘envy of the world’’ (4 September 2014): [accessed 23 October 2023]

14 Ibid.

15 Written evidence from Department for Education (EDU0085)

16 Ibid.

17 HC Deb, 11 June 2013, col 161

18 Ofqual, Reforms to GCSEs in England from 2015 (November 2013):–11-01-reforms-to-gcses-in-england-from-2015-summary.pdf [accessed 23 October 2023]

19 Ibid.

20 Ofqual, GCSE reform in schools (December 2019): [accessed 23 October 2023]

21 Department for Education, ‘Michael Gove to Westminster Academy’ (25 November 2010): [accessed 23 October 2010]

22 Department for Education, ‘Ambition for vast majority of students to study core academic GCSEs’ (19 July 2017): [accessed 23 October 2023]

23 Department for Education, Secondary accountability measures: guide for maintained secondary schools, academies and free schools (October 2023), p 13: [accessed 23 October 2023]

25 Times Education Commission, Bringing out the best (June 2022), p 94: [accessed 23 October 2023]

26 Institute for Government, The exam question: changing the model of assessment reform (August 2022), p 1: [accessed 23 October 2023]

27 Education Endowment Foundation, The impact of COVID-19 on learning: a review of the evidence (May 2022), p 3: [accessed 29 November 2023]

28 Ibid., p 14

29 The latest DfE attendance statistics for a complete academic year are for 2021–22, when the absence rate for any reason was 8.5%. This is much lower than the previous year when absence was affected much more by the pandemic (25.9% absence rate for any reason in 2020–21). However, it is higher than in the six years prior to the pandemic (when absence ranged between 4.5% and 4.8%). These figures were cited in House of Commons Library, School Attendance in England, Research Briefing, Number 09710, 29 September 2023.

30 National Foundation for Educational Research, Cost-of-living crisis: impact on schools (September 2023), p 8: [accessed 2 October 2023]

31 House of Commons Library, Teacher recruitment and retention in England, Research Briefing, Number 07222, 8 December 2022

32 National Foundation for Educational Research, Teacher labour market in England annual report 2023 (March 2023), p 9: [accessed 6 October 2023]

33 Welsh Government, Successful futures: independent review of curriculum and assessment arrangements in Wales (February 2015), p 11:–03/successful-futures.pdf [accessed 23 October 2023]

34 Written evidence from Welsh Government (EDU0101)

35 Ibid.

36 Ibid.

37 OECD, Scotland’s curriculum for excellence (June 2021), p 11: [accessed 29 November 2023]

38 Ibid., p 12

39 Written evidence from Scottish Government (EDU0103)

40 Ibid.

41 Professor Bill Lucas, Beyond the baccalaureate: learning from across the world (July 2023), pp 17–21: [accessed 1 November 2023]

42 Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, ‘General capabilities (Version 8.4)’: [accessed 29 November 2023]

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