Towards A New Model For Qualifications

by Sir Alasdair Macdonald

December 18, 2020





“Our qualification system should focus for all students on what they have achieved not on what they have failed to achieve” – Sir Alasdair Macdonald, NVEG Chair


As all young people now stay in education or training until the age of 18, we need a system of formal assessment and qualifications that has at its core:

  • a belief that every young person can achieve and therefore we should focus on what they have achieved not what they have failed to achieve,
  • a commitment to ensure that all young people leave school with the knowledge, skills and understanding that they will need in the 21st century,
  • a recognition of different but equal pathways through the education system.


The current system, dominated by GCSEs and A Levels has, since at least the Education Act of 1944, focuses on sorting and identifying appropriate pathways for our students and in the deeply held opinion of government, the media, and many employers, it provides an objectivity that cannot be achieved in any other way.

However over recent years concerns have been expressed about the failings and limitations of an approach overwhelmingly based on written exams taken at 16 and 18. The arguments are well rehearsed and include:

  • the diminishing need for high stakes terminal exams at 16, given that allf young people are expected to stay in education and training up to age 18,
  • the narrowness of the curriculum at 16-18,
  • the stress and pressure on our young people confronted with large numbers of written papers,
  • the high stakes accountability system with its frequently perverse incentives focused on externally imposed performance indicators that have turned assessment into an accountability tool rather than an integral part of teaching and learning,
  • the continuing low value placed on vocational education, and
  • perhaps most importantly the identification of a third of our students, largely from disadvantaged backgrounds, as having ‘failed’ at the age of 16, after at least 11 years of formal education- the ‘forgotten third’.

There is a long and complex history of attempts to address these issues, many alternatives have been raised and discussed and there are, of course, different models across the world.


Some examples of alternative approaches

1.In 2003 The Tomlinson Report recommended a 14-18 stage of education with a Diploma comprising:

  • Core Learning- getting the basics right including literacy, numeracy and the generic skills, knowledge and attributes necessary for participation in Higher Education and working life
  • Main Learning chosen by the learner to develop knowledge, skills and understanding in academic or vocational subjects, valued equally, that will provide for employment, work-based training or Higher Education
  • An Extended Project chosen by the learner to pursue her or his interests in depth.

2. The International Baccalaureate, for 16-19 year olds, also recognises the concept of core and main learning but offers this in 2 formats – a Diploma and a Career-related Programme.

The Core element of the Diploma Programme has three components

  • Theory of Knowledge in which students reflect on the nature of knowledge and on how we know what we claim to know.
  • The extended essay which is an independent, self-directed piece of research, finishing with a 4,000-word paper
  • and a project which students complete focused on creativity, activity and service.

The second element of the Diploma is made up of six curriculum areas groups.

  • Studies in Language
  • Language Acquisition
  • Individuals and Societies
  • Sciences
  • Mathematics, and
  • The Arts.

Students must study a subject from each area.

The Career-related Programme core is composed of courses on Personal and Professional Skills, Service Learning and Language Development and a Reflective Project. The second element is a mix of 2 courses from the Diploma and four components of career-related study.

3. In Canada, one of the OECD’s most highly regarded education systems, the final stage of compulsory education is from 14-18 and culminates in High School Graduation. Most provinces have a literacy and numeracy test normally taken when the students are age fifteen. This is externally marked. Apart from these, all other courses are internally assessed. In order to graduate students need to accumulate 18 Credits from a broad range of Compulsory courses covering Language, Science, Maths, History, Geography, the Arts and Physical Education. In addition, they must gain 12 more credits in optional subjects and they also must complete 40 hours of community service.


What stands out is that there are several features that these 3 examples have in common, and in fact are shared by many more education systems around the world:

  • They have, at their core, a belief that every young person can achieve and should have the opportunity to have their achievements recognised. In many systems such as Canada every student can graduate if they fulfil the course requirements. An individual can even complete their High School Graduation after they have left school.
  • Other aspects of a young person’s development such as community service, creativity and physical and mental well-being are valued highly.
  • Unlike the narrow 3 A level approach in England, there is a much greater emphasis on breadth as well as depth in the curriculum.
  • There is recognition that terminal high stakes exams are not the only valid method of assessment and that teachers can be trusted to judge their students fairly in a system with more balanced accountability. In particular there is an emphasis on completing an extended piece of work be it in the form of an essay or a more practical project.
  • They recognise that compulsory education or training continues to the age of 18 and high stakes exams at age 16 are not necessary.

It is time to do better – a way forward

As already noted there is a growing awareness of the faults with our current system and aspects of this have been further highlighted during the pandemic not least an acceptance that schools can, with sufficient time and support, assess their pupils and be trusted to do this.

There are a variety of groups and individuals including politicians across all 3 parties, who, while agreeing about the failings of the current system, are coming up with diverse proposals regarding a way forward. There would appear broadly to be three approaches.

The first would involve retaining the current system including GCSEs and A levels, but broadening the curriculum from its current narrow academic focus.

The second would focus on the concept of graduation/baccalaureate as an overarching qualification that would retain the current qualifications but include new higher status vocational pathways of equal status. This approach might also add an extended project, greater emphasis on personal development and/or community service.

The third, the most radical, would involve moving to a re-designed 14-18 curriculum with both academic and vocational pathways. This would have greater breadth and a reduced emphasis on terminal exams. It would be a new curriculum and qualification system designed for England but drawing on and learning from Tomlinson, the IB and jurisdictions such as Canada, and would include as with the second approach an extended project, greater emphasis on personal development and possibly community service.

The three approaches might not be mutually exclusive.  A potential way forward might have a phased element with the first being a stage towards the second and possibly ultimately to the third.

There is strong consensus amongst many politicians and some educationalists supporting the current high stakes exams at 16 and 18. Some seem to regard it as axiomatic that exams provide the fairest means of assessing student achievements in 2021 and beyond. However the New Visions for Education Group believes that this, combined with the current narrow, academically oriented curriculum has resulted in an outdated system, that excludes a third of our young people from achieving success and that does not value vocational education. Nonetheless though replacing examinations with better planned and moderated Centre Assessed Grades in the extraordinary circumstances of 2021 has much to commend it and could strengthen the case for change, the immediate abandonment of GCSEs is not our primary objective.

We recognise that this is a complex debate, but if those of us who are proposing alternatives to the current system are not focused on what unites them, it will be easy to divide and rule.

Nonetheless it is important that the debate should take place. The crisis brought on by COVID19 has only served to highlight the failings of our current system. The New Visions for Education Group believes that the characteristics common to the three models briefly described above should provide the starting point for a review of assessment, qualifications and therefore the curriculum for 14-18 year olds.

The core principles for a new model

1. We need to retain greater breadth in our curriculum up to the age of 18 and value vocational achievement equally.

2.We need to value more highly other aspects of our young people’s personal development – creativity, service, physical and mental well-being.

3.Our assessment and qualifications system should focus on what our young people can achieve. In particular the ‘forgotten third’s’ achievements must be recognised and celebrated equally.

4. Terminal exams are not the only method by which student achievement can be measured. Greater trust needs to be placed with our teachers.

5. High stakes exams at 16 are no longer needed.


The New Visions for Education Group is a dynamic education policy advocacy group made up of leading educationalists, practitioners, academics and lifelong commentators. Its purpose is to promote in England and Wales a high quality, collaborative, inclusive and equitable education service. Contact with the group is by email to