During lockdown, when exams were cancelled and remote learning was forced upon us en masse, people started blogging and tweeting about the possibility of doing things differently on a permanent basis. More recently, as part of the exam grades fiasco, people have been discussing the flaws in our exam-dominated system and the accountability machinery that goes with it.
We have seen rallying calls ranging from rebalancing exams to include more coursework and teacher assessment up to GCSEs being scrapped altogether. In contrast, plenty of others have seen the challenges of remote learning and CAGs as evidence that a return to full in-person teaching and examinations is essential as soon as possible. As, ever, a lot of people seem to feel that the crisis has provided evidence to support their pre-existing. biases and values. (I’m no different!)
All of this has added some currency to the ongoing debate about the nature of our national curriculum and qualifications, now and in the future. My view of this is that anything like ‘scrap GCSEs’ is deeply unhelpful unless you are proposing an alternative. Similarly saying things like ‘we should trust teachers to assess students’ or introduce criterion referenced assessment – as part of some crude anti-exam rhetoric, to me, often reveals rather poor understanding of how our ideas of standards are set and maintained. In truth, both teacher assessment and exams are very useful assessment tools in different circumstances; both lead to gross distortions under excessive accountability pressure. It’s nothing to do with trust per se.
However, I do think that the current situation gives us an opportunity to pause to consider what an alternative system might look like. Is there a system we could adopt that would provide a better framework of curriculum, assessment, qualifications and accountability than what we have now?
Along with others involved in the National Baccalaureate Trust – which has been lying low for a couple of years but is starting to gear up again – I firmly believe that a full-on Bacc model would yield numerous benefits:
- A more holistic, wrap-around set of assessments capturing examined and non-examined elements, representing students’ achievements in a more rounded manner – which is better for them and more useful for employers and universities.
- A framework for all young people that softens the intensity of assessment at 16, placing greater emphasis on the end point at 18 or 19, allowing credit to be accumulated in a more diverse, flexible manner, not in a giant intense high pressure final round of exams – twice in every student’s life.
- An inclusive framework that blends academic and technical pathways with more common elements and choices, reducing the sheep and goats effect whilst maintaining specialist routes.
Essentially it could be like an English IB – a bacc designed around curriculum and assessment traditions that are well established, but taking a broader, more flexible approach. But what might this look like in practice? We are still discussing this – with plans to share ideas over the coming year; our main focus is so promote the Bacc principle. However, I like details! My personal interpretation would be that a National Bacc for England could look something like the worked example set out below.
Essentially, this example model is based on there being a nominal 10 slots per year from Year 10 -Y13. These represent units of curriculum volume – which loosely equate to time allocations.
Our current system – with say 10-GCSE plus 3 A levels, looks a bit like this:- the grey boxes are empty because nothing happens in them!
The problem with this is that we have enormous assessment weight at Y11 and again at Y13 – largely based on terminal exams. It’s very very exam heavy. We have very little space for non-examined elements- and the three A level model is remarkably narrow in curriculum terms. Even at KS4, there’s a sense that every curriculum element only has value if we examine it at the end. Each element has value separately – students get large numbers of individual grades – but there is no sense of the overall curriculum being more than the sum of its parts. It lacks overall coherence. It’s a patchwork of bits; not a whole. It’s also possible not to study any history or any arts after Y8 in our system – which is nuts.
Is there a better way? Well, yes. Here’s what a Bacc model might look like:
Here – a model I sketched out as an example this morning – the key concept is that there are 40 curriculum units ( 4 x 10), each of which contributes to the final Baccalaureate. By completing all 40, a students would achieve the National Bacc award. However, completing a unit can take many forms:
Some are traditional subjects with traditional exams; some are courses that are teacher assessed; some elements are simply counted as completed. Some elements are academic subjects – others could be personal development electives or projects. The mix and balance of curriculum content and modes of assessment is all up for discussion. However, we simply do not need to think of doing 10 examined GCSEs in Year 11 as a sacrosanct feature of a great education. It just isn’t.
Across the four years, courses can vary in length – one or two years – and in volume. The example above has three advanced courses that look like A levels (each making up 4 units); the examples below have different traditional equivalents; the idea would be for students to select courses from a school or college menu – filling up their 10 slots per year, making up 40 overall. Across four years, it could be that a student takes just one unit in a music course – rather than not doing any arts at all. It could be that they do the maximum allowable number of science units or social science units. There are lots and lots of permutations.
Part of this model is that English and Maths are compulsory elements of the curriculum throughout. That’s my personal preference – something to debate. In Maths, I envisage something akin to piano exams where students take ‘when ready’ assessments online at various points in a year, moving to the highest level they can achieve. In English, there’s a different approach – depending on the level students reach; it’s not about everyone taking identical exams on the same day in order to gain their credit.
11-16 schools would provide opportunities for students to complete the first part of their Bacc before they passported all their banked achievements to their colleges. Schools could still be held to account – just in a different way.
In all of these models, it might be possible to give more weight to certain elements within the overall Bacc at the same time as placing an emphasis on completing the whole 40 unit programme. You don’t need to pass an exam in ethics or PSHE – but you do need to complete the course. You might need to complete your personal project and include a certain number of arts units – but you might not need scores and grades for these elements. Not everything needs to be examined to have value. We could debate whether to give unit point scores and argue over how they would be allocated and combined into a total Bacc score – but the key is to emphasise the value of the whole Bacc over the value of each of the little bits on their own. All the details could be captured in a common transcript – much richer information than a set of grades.
The point of this blog and this particular 40-unit example is to show that it is possible to conceive of specific alternatives to what we do now. I would encourage everyone interested in this debate to think in this way. For sure, start with a critique of what we do now – but don’t stop there. Think of something that would be better. I think a four-year Bacc model is much better on many fronts compared to what we do now. It’s challenging, broad, ambitious, varied and flexible, inclusive… and not entirely reliant on an unwieldy public exam system. What’s not to like??? I’m sure there’s plenty – but if you have suggestions, make the case for your alternative.
The ideas here are just one of many possibilities that I’ve used for illustrative purposes. Over the coming months the National Baccalaureate Trust will be discussing a range of ideas and mechanisms for getting this debate moving again at the level of policy and practice, publishing some documents and hosting webinars. Watch out for further info… .