skip to Main Content

Alternatives: Assessment

There are lots of alternatives to summing up young people’s achievements through high stakes tests and exams. For example, lots of countries don’t have exams at 16, preferring a broader qualification at 18. Here are some other ways of judging students.

The Tomlinson Report

Back in 2004 the then Labour government asked the respected education expert Mike Tomlinson to come up with a new way of assessing children between the ages of 14 and 19. His big idea was a much broader qualification at 18/19, which would include an extended project and various modules which you could take when you were ready, rather than at a certain age. You would end up with a transcript of the various elements you had taken, along with core modules in for example maths and English. Maths would equip you for working life rather than being full of advanced content, though you could take more difficult modules if you wanted. There was scope to do community projects and work with employers, which would form part of your transcript. The idea was that higher education and employers would have a much fuller account of your achievements than traditional, narrowly academic qualifications. Sadly, Tony Blair rejected these ideas in favour of the alleged ‘gold standard’ of GCSEs and A-levels. The rest is history. You can read about the Tomlinson report here:

The Mastery Transcript

Similar to Sir Mike Tomlinson’s ideas, this is an American concept that’s been building in the last few years in private schools and is now spreading into public schools (what we call state schools). It is a digital record of a whole range of ‘credits’, each of them covering key areas of a student’s knowledge, skills and disposition. Both Harvard and Yale universities have endorsed the approach. Each transcript can be easily read by both universities and employers, and is a deeply personalised, student-driven summary of their capabilities. It is an on-going, constantly updated record which also enables teachers to coach students on where they need to improve. Students gain credits when they are ready – so it’s about stage, not age. The credits are substantiated by evidence from every stage of student’s educational journey, both inside and outside the classroom. The transcript tells a story about the student: who they are, what they have learned, how they have grown, what they love, and who they want to be.

The International Baccalaureate

The international baccalaureate operates at all school levels. The 16 to 18 diploma is taught in schools in over 140 countries, in approved schools. Students complete assessments in six subjects from a subject group, alongside three core requirements. Students are evaluated using both internal and external assessments, and courses finish with an externally assessed series of examinations, usually consisting of two or three timed written tests. Internal assessment varies by subject: there may be oral presentations, practical work, or written work. In most cases, these are initially graded by the classroom teacher, whose grades are then verified or modified, as necessary, by an appointed external moderator. THE IBDP is seen as harder than A-levels. One feature is its interdisciplinary thinking.

Bedales Assessed Courses

As mentioned in our Teaching and Learning section, Bedales independent school has developed five bespoke courses, designed by it own teachers, to sit alongside IGCSEs in core subjects. These are assessed by the staff, externally moderated and are accepted by universities. The school believes the courses extend their pupils beyond the confines of GCSE and free them from the examinations treadmill. Instead, they work with material designed to promote Bedales’ central educational aim, “to develop inquisitive thinkers with a love of learning who cherish independent thought”.

More examples to follow!


Alternatives: Teaching and Learning

Not so long ago it would have been possible to come up with about 30 English state secondary schools doing something different from the ‘normal’. Unfortunately, the 2016 reforms brought in by Michael Gove as education secretary – with Dominic Cummings as his special adviser – have systematically laid waste to these pioneers, who were developing a curriculum, teaching methods and assessment to meet the needs of their particular communities. Among them was the award-winning Stanley Park High School, where Rescue Our School’s David Taylor was headteacher until 2018.

Accountability measures such as Progress 8 – which looks at pupils’ alleged progress from SATs results to GCSEs – and an inspection regime which often punishes those that are not compliant, makes shining a light on viable alternatives in the English state sector much more difficult. But a few do exist. There are also some independent schools that have used their freedoms to develop innovative approaches. Beyond that, as England harks back to ‘traditional’ education centred on ‘teacher-led instruction’ and high stakes exams, most of the new thinking is happening overseas. Below are some key examples from the UK and beyond.


Teaching and Learning:

XP School, Doncaster

The motto of XP school is “Above all, compassion”. The school devotes more than six hours a week to time spent in ‘crew’ – a bit like a super-small tutor group of around 12 students – as a way of strengthening relationships between students and with teachers. The school encourages key ‘habits of learning’ – to work hard, get smart and be kind. XP thinks the kinder students are to each other, the higher the quality of work they produce and their academic outcomes. The school’s other big idea is to teach mainly in ‘expeditions’ – they are mixed ability, cross-curricular termly projects led by a guiding question on a big, contemporary issue, ending with a presentation to families. These are mapped to the demands of the national curriculum and GCSEs, and linked to the local community using resources devised by school staff. The school has been judged Outstanding in all categories by Ofsted. Its first set of GCSE results in 2019 were above the national average. It is eleven times oversubscribed and you have to enter a lottery system to get in. XP is a new school set up under the government’s free school programme (this is the only way in which a new state school can be opened in England at the moment).

Check out these short films made by Rescue Our School’s Madeleine Holt:


School 21, East London

A 4- to-18 free school, School 21 believes that education should be about head, heart and hand. Its founders came together with a shared belief that education must be done differently if we are to prepare young people properly for the world they are going into. Their conviction was that we needed schools to rebalance head (academic success), heart (character and well-being) and hand (generating ideas, problem solving, making a difference). Like XP, it values real-world learning through projects and exhibitions of student work. It places huge emphasis on oracy – students being able to speak confidently. School 21 believes the qualities that 18-year-olds need when they leave school are professionalism, expertise, craftsmanship, eloquence, grit and spark. It has been judged Outstanding in all categories by Ofsted.

The education charity, the Edge Foundation, supports both schools. You can read more about real world learning here:

Project-based Learning in the North East and Scotland:

Edge is also supporting projects in schools in the North East of England and Scotland. They’re inspired by an approach developed in Nashville in the US by Ford Next Generation Learning (see below). It brings key stakeholders into schools to work out a “leaver’s profile” – the knowledge and skills students will need for the future. It piloted the approach in three schools on Tyneside:

Park Community School, Hampshire

Park School in Havant serves one of the most deprived communities in the UK. It has become the hub of the local community, providing a food bank, free Christmas dinners and a range of social services to support families. It believes in providing a huge range of vocational opportunities to students: the school has its own design and printing works, construction training centre and market garden. The school was delivering some of the highest scores for student progress until the introduction of Progress 8, with its focus on narrow, academic achievements.

Bedales School, Hampshire

Bedales School near Petersfield in Hampshire is a private school founded at the end of the 19th century to provide an alternative to the authoritarian regimes of the time. The school believes in an education for the head, heart and hand, encouraging students to find their individual passions beyond the purely academic. It sees GCSEs as narrow and dull so has devised its own qualifications at 16 in five key areas, alongside conventional IGCSEs in English, maths, science and languages. Bedales Assessed Courses (BACs) are designed by Bedales teachers, externally moderated and recognised by universities. BACs give students a say over what books they study, mainly involve coursework as opposed to exams, and focus on the outdoors, arts and humanities subjects.

High Tech High, California, USA

High Tech High has inspired teachers around the world, among them the founders of XP School in Doncaster. It believes in combined academic work with making things, learning through cross-curricular projects, and holding public exhibitions as way of allowing the community to judge the work of the school. It actively seeks a socially diverse, mixed ability intake in the belief that difference is a strength. It’s strongly focused on giving all students the chance to go on to university. It started with just one school in 2000 but now has sixteen schools across California.

Columbia City Schools, Ohio

State schools – public schools in American – are coming together with local communities to define the ‘portrait of a graduate’: the skills and knowledge that young people will need to meet the challenges of the future. They are adapting their curricula accordingly to deliver deeper capabilities than being able to memorise and regurgitate facts. The schools worked with Battelle for Kids, a not-for-profit in the US which encourages community commitment to local schools and a 21st century curriculum.

Ford Next Generation Learning

A similar approach to Columbia City has been pioneered in Nashville, with the help of Ford Next Generation Learning. The curriculum adjusts to provide opportunities for project work with local employers, have experts come into school, and encourage students to stay in education and training.

There are many more international examples – watch this space!


Back To Top