Seeing as the Conservative Party is planning to replace A-levels and T-levels with an ‘Advanced British Standard’ while the Labour Party is planning a wide-ranging ‘curriculum and assessment review’, there is evidently a sense among politicians that our education system is in need of reform. That said, there is much less agreement on precisely what those reforms should entail. In recent years, EDSK has published five reports that have collectively analysed the strengths and weaknesses of the present approach to the curriculum, assessment and accountability in state schools and colleges. Based on our extensive research, this new report seeks to provide a balanced critique of the current primary and secondary education system so that both supporters and critics of the recent direction of travel can recognise that those on the other side of the debate have an equally valuable perspective to share.

The case for the status quo

Supporters of the agenda pursued by successive governments and Education Secretaries since 2010 can point to a number of success stories. For example, England’s rise in the international rankings for tests such as PISA (reading, maths and science for 15-year-olds) and PIRLS (reading for 9/10-year-olds) suggests that many interventions over the last decade or so have contributed to these welcome improvements. These interventions include the promotion of ‘phonics’ as the dominant method for teaching reading in primary schools as well as the ‘knowledge rich’ approach that underpinned the new National Curriculum in 2014.

Opportunities for plagiarism and bias within GCSEs and A-levels had also become a serious concern by the time that the Coalition Government took office, with numerous studies questioning the trustworthiness of the grades being awarded to students. This led to a greater emphasis on academic rigour within the reformed versions of GCSEs and A-levels that were rolled out from 2015 onwards, including the switch from coursework to externally marked written exams in many subjects – a change that was criticised by some stakeholders but was nonetheless based on compelling evidence. The use of external assessments for SATs in primary schools has endured for the same reason. Furthermore, the creation of new accountability measures that focus on pupils’ progress (from ages 4 to 11 and then 11 to 16) instead of pupils’ attainment has also been widely acknowledged as a positive innovation.

The continued reliance on GCSEs to measure the performance of pupils and schools is also firmly rooted in the important purposes that these qualifications serve. More than 50 per cent of students move institutions at age 16 – a process that is supported by the existence of external assessments at this point in secondary education. Similarly, the specialisation into a smaller number of subjects after age 16 (e.g. three A-levels) facilitates access onto single-subject university degrees. Without this specialisation, major changes may be required to the structure and content of university courses, including the possibility of an extra year of study and the associated costs that this would generate for both students and taxpayers.

The case for reform

Irrespective of the benefits offered by the current education system, the drawbacks are hard to ignore. The lack of breadth after age 16 – where many students only study three A-levels, one BTEC, one T-level or one apprenticeship – is in stark contrast to almost every other developed nation, as is the absence of any compulsory subjects. Prior to this narrow diet at the end of secondary education, schools are faced with ‘complete content overload’ in the National Curriculum and GCSEs, with over half of GCSE teachers reporting that they struggle to get through the syllabus in time. The most startling example of content overload is T-levels, with a single T-level being equivalent in size to three A-levels. Both Ofsted and the Education Select Committee have published damning reviews of how T-levels have been designed and implemented, forcing the Department for Education (DfE) to recently announce an urgent review of the content of every T-level as drop-out rates have now hit one-in-three students.

Alongside the lack of breadth in subject choices, the current system appears unable to improve the literacy and numeracy skills of many young people. England is an international outlier in allowing 16-year-olds to drop all forms of English and maths rather than continuing to take them until age 18. Moreover, when pupils only need 47 marks out of 240 to ‘pass’ GCSE maths (higher tier), or 73 marks out of 160 to ‘pass’ GCSE English, it is hard to have confidence in these exams as a method of guaranteeing a basic level of literacy and numeracy. Meanwhile, ‘Functional Skills’ qualifications that explicitly aim to teach literacy and numeracy have been deliberately sidelined and the GCSE resits policy is widely regarded as having a negative impact on the three-quarters of students who end up failing the same exam (sometimes more than once). Some of the problems with literacy and numeracy can be traced back to primary education, with 40 per cent of pupils still failing to meet the ‘expected standard’ in reading, writing and maths before they start secondary school.

The relentless focus on academic subjects and accompanying relegation of technical and vocational learning to second-class status is another unwelcome feature of the current system. The dramatic decline in art, music, design and technology, drama and other related GCSE subjects has been well documented, yet the DfE has resolutely refused to treat these subjects as equivalent to supposedly more academic GCSEs in the sciences and humanities. The dominance of A-levels over other courses for 16 to 19-year-olds is another indication of how little value has been placed in recent years on non-academic pathways. Despite the government’s rhetoric, the proposed ‘Advanced British Standard’ would not resolve this problem, not least because it excludes apprenticeships and would force students who want to pursue a technical course down a separate channel.

The emphasis on high-stakes tests such as SATs and GCSEs has also promoted undesirable behaviours such as ‘teaching to the test’ and a narrowing of the curriculum to focus on test preparation – all of which can damage a pupil’s education. Worse still, an increasing number of pupils no longer receive a broad and balanced curriculum from age 11 to 14 because more schools are teaching GCSEs over three years instead of two – a situation that ministers have complained about but failed to solve. The considerable time gaps between the high-stakes tests (ages 4 – 11 – 16) compound these pressures because the performance of both pupils and schools is essentially distilled down to these one-off assessments, thereby making them even more significant. As noted earlier, recording pupils’ progress between these tests is sensible, but the DfE’s current ‘progress measures’ contain serious flaws. For example, there is no progress data recorded for almost one-in-five primary schools, while secondary schools and colleges that only teach pupils from age 14 onwards are still being held to account for a pupil’s progress from age 11 to 16 – creating an inaccurate view of their performance.

What’s more, the enduring fixation with pen-and-paper exams as the dominant form of assessment in schools and colleges makes England look increasingly behind the times, with other countries such as Australia, Wales and Denmark having already switched to national digital assessments. Using regular online tests throughout primary and secondary school (particularly in reading and maths) is a far superior method of monitoring pupils’ attainment and progress over time, yet ministers have not made any commitment to implementing online national tests despite the benefits they offer. The ongoing use of pen-and-paper exams is not helped by the increasingly absurd approaches to grading, with GCSEs using numbers (9-1), A-levels using letters (A*-E), many vocational qualifications and apprenticeships using Distinction-Merit-Pass (sometimes with triple-starred variations) and T-levels handing out separate grades for each course component. Such inconsistency creates unnecessary confusion and complexity for students, parents, employers and universities.


Regardless of which political party forms the next government, there will no doubt be a temptation to leave behind the legacy of previous administrations and set our education system on a brand new course. As this report explains, significant reforms are certainly needed to address the obvious limitations in the present approach to the curriculum, assessment and accountability. However, that is no reason to throw out the policy baby with the political bathwater, and future ministers should tread carefully when seeking to change an education system that has many commendable features and has delivered strong outcomes in several areas. Consequently, this report aims to inform the thinking of policymakers in the next parliament by identifying the existing features of primary and secondary education from ages 4 to 18 that deserve to be protected in future while also highlighting those features that should indeed be reformed.

Some observers may question the need for large-scale reforms when schools and colleges are battling a funding crisis as well as a recruitment and retention crisis. Far from being a reason to ignore such reforms, many of this report’s proposals – such as scrapping SATs and GCSEs and slashing the amount of curriculum content in all year groups – are intended to give students more time to enjoy their learning and give teachers more time to enjoy their craft by reducing the pressures that they currently face. As the title of this report suggests, the ‘revolution’ set out in its recommendations – including national online tests in primary and secondary schools and a four-year ‘Baccalaureate’ in secondary schools and colleges – would be delivered as a gradual ‘evolution’ over the course of a decade to ensure that there is enough time to build the new approach to primary and secondary education in England.


A new foundation for primary and secondary education in England

  • RECOMMENDATION 1: To create a consistent and coherent approach to state-funded education in England, the system should be formally divided into three phases: Primary (ages 4-11), Lower Secondary (ages 11-14) and Upper Secondary (ages 14-18). This will underpin a single approach to the curriculum, assessment and accountability across primary and secondary education.
  • RECOMMENDATION 2: In advance of the full package of recommendations in this report being implemented, the Government should set an immediate goal of reducing the curriculum content in all Key Stages across primary and secondary education by a minimum of 10 per cent in all subjects.

A strong core of literacy and numeracy skills from 4 to 18

  • RECOMMENDATION 3: To promote the development of core skills through primary school and into Lower Secondary education, SATs at age 11 will be replaced by online adaptive assessments in reading, spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPG) and numeracy. Pupils will take the new adaptive tests approximately once every two years, from Year 1 (age 5) to Year 9 (age 14).
  • RECOMMENDATION 4: To encourage pupils to develop their writing skills from Primary into Lower Secondary education, writing will be formally assessed in Year 2 (age 7), Year 6 (age 11) and Year 9 (age 14) through ‘comparative judgement’ exercises.
  • RECOMMENDATION 5: To make sure that everyone leaves school or college ready for work, study and life, all students will be required to study two compulsory subjects in Upper Secondary education: ‘Core English’ (literacy) and ‘Core Maths’ (numeracy). Students will sit an online test in Years 11, 12 and 13 in both Core English and Core Maths and must study them until age 18 unless they achieve the highest possible grade before then.

A clear purpose for Lower Secondary education (currently Key Stage 3)

  • RECOMMENDATION 6: To ensure that all pupils receive a broad and balanced education in Lower Secondary education from ages 11 to 14, the National Curriculum will be made compulsory for all state-funded schools delivering this phase of education including academies.
  • RECOMMENDATION 7: To monitor their progress during secondary education, all pupils will take online adaptive ‘Progress Check’ assessments in Core English, Core Maths and almost all National Curriculum subjects at the end of the Lower Secondary phase (Year 9 / age 14). The results of these low stakes ‘Progress Checks’ will support pupils’ decision-making as they choose which subjects to study in Upper Secondary education.

The new Upper Secondary ‘Baccalaureate’

  • RECOMMENDATION 8: To put academic, applied and technical courses on a level playing field in Upper Secondary education, students in state-funded schools and colleges will progress through a four- year ‘Upper Secondary Baccalaureate’ (USB) from Year 10 to Year 13. The Baccalaureate will provide a rigorous and flexible framework in which students can select courses from a wide range of disciplines to suit their interests, abilities and aspirations.
  • RECOMMENDATION 9: To allow students to gradually specialise in their preferred subjects, the USB will use a ‘slot’ system to signify how many courses need to be studied alongside Core English and Core Maths. Most subjects will be ‘single’ subjects i.e. fill one slot. The number of slots will reduce to allow more specialisation as a student progresses:
    • Year 10 – six slots
    • Year 11 – five slots
    • Year 12 – four slots
    • Year 13 – three slots

  • RECOMMENDATION 10: To promote a broad and balanced education for all students, minimum requirements will be applied in terms of which subjects are studied in the first year of the USB (Year 10). Alongside Core English and Core Maths, students must study: Double or triple science (2-3 slots); at least one humanity or language subject e.g. geography, history, French (1 slot); and at least one artistic or technical subject e.g. art, music, D&T, construction (1 slot). This will leave 1-2 spare slots that students can fill with any other subject.
  • RECOMMENDATION 11: Large technical subjects and apprenticeships will become available in Year 12 and will be ‘double’ subjects, filling two slots in the USB to account for their size. Students will only be able to choose one ‘double’ subject in Year 12 alongside two ‘single’ subjects to maintain a broad and balanced education.
  • RECOMMENDATION 12: To significantly reduce the existing exam burden, students will only be externally assessed when they drop a subject or when they reach the end of the USB in Year 13.
  • RECOMMENDATION 13: To support transitions between institutions at age 16, students can sit extra ‘transfer tests’ in addition to their Core English and Core Maths assessments in Year 11 to provide more information to prospective institutions about their current level of attainment.
  • RECOMMENDATION 14: End-of-year assessments in the USB will be ‘digital by default’, meaning that students will take digital rather than pen-and-paper exams in the majority of cases. Subjects with a significant practical element (e.g. art, design & technology, engineering) will continue to use non-exam assessments where necessary. Digital assessments in the USB will typically last 1.5-2 hours for each subject.

A new accountability system for primary and secondary education

  • RECOMMENDATION 15: To create a more coherent approach to grading, a 10-1 scale (with 10 being the highest grade) should be used to assess all classroom-based subjects, starting from the new Progress Checks in Year 9 up to the end of the USB in Year 13.
  • RECOMMENDATION 16: When they finish school or college, students will be given an ‘Upper Secondary Certificate’ that displays the grades that they achieved in all their courses during the USB from Year 10 to Year 13.
  • RECOMMENDATION 17: To hold schools and colleges to account in a fair and transparent manner, the digital tests in primary and Lower Secondary education and the end-of-year assessments in the USB will be used to construct a new and fairer accountability system that consists of two main measures:
    • Progress – the average progress made by learners during their time at a school / college relative to their peers attending other institutions
    • Attainment – the average scores achieved by learners in their national tests

      MAY 2024