Secondary assessment: could England learn from Scotland?

A review of secondary assessment and qualifications in Scotland has recommended fewer exams and a wider range of assessment methods to meet the needs of all students.


Prof Louise Hayward chaired the Independent Assessment Commission – New ERA – which was instigated by the National Education Union (NEU) to look at the future of 14-19 assessment and qualifications in England and reported in early 2022. More recently she was commissioned by the Scottish Government to conduct a review into secondary assessment and qualifications north of the border.

In the last three years I have had the privilege to be involved in two major independent reviews of assessment and qualifications. The first was in England, initiated by the NEU, and the second in Scotland, established by the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills.

In some ways the education systems in England and Scotland are very different, e.g. in scale and in structure but, at least in the context of assessment and qualifications, the two reviews suggest England and Scotland share similar aspirations. Both systems: 

  • recognise the need for change in the context of significant societal change.
  • aspire to an approach to qualifications and assessment that is inclusive and recognises the achievements of every learner.
  • understand the importance of having a broad range of approaches to assessment within qualifications, including examinations, but acknowledging the need to reduce over-reliance on them.
  • understand the importance of a future where traditional barriers between academic and vocational qualifications are dismantled.
  • recognise the need for a digital profile for learners’ lifelong learning.

The review in England led to a statement of vision and principles; the review is Scotland went beyond that to design a possible future system for qualifications and assessment. The Times Education Commission report (2021) covered similar ground and proposed a future Baccalaureate for England that they offered to other parts of the UK. The review in Scotland reacted against the use of the term ‘Baccalaureate’ perhaps because there is already a Scottish (and a Welsh) Baccalaureate that is not extensively used. However, the proposed Scottish Diploma of Achievement draws on many of the strengths of a Baccalaureate type approach. The Diploma has three parts and to tackle issues of equity, every learner in Scotland will be entitled to experiences in each area.

  1. Programmes of learning – learners will continue to study subjects/courses across what traditionally would be described as academic and vocational subjects/courses. A wide range of approaches to assessment will be included, reflecting what is important in different subjects/courses.
  2. Personal pathway – here, learners have opportunities to “select aspects of their experiences that reflect their interests, the contributions they make to society and their career aspirations in employment”.
  3. Project learning – where learners have the opportunity to use the knowledge and skills across the subjects/courses in their programmes of learning to tackle a significant question or problem that is important to them. For some learners, the focus could be on a global challenge, for example, climate change, migration or social justice; for others It could be a local issue. 

However, perhaps the most important ideas in the review relate to the recommendations on the process of change. Change should be carefully planned in three phases. The speed of change should relate to the level of resource available and be fully costed. Teachers should be at the heart of the change process, working together with learners, local and national policy makers and researchers to keep change principled and practical. Finally, existing national data gathering should change to reflect the Diploma and should include every learner’s achievements, but in the longer term the Scottish Government is urged to consider the re-introduction of a national survey.

The reviews were both designed to be inclusive using the Integrity Model of Change (Hayward & Spencer, 2010, Hayward et al, 2023) Both reviews built on evidence from policy, practice and research (national and international) and, most importantly, worked from the outset with all those who have an interest in the future of qualifications and assessment: those for whom qualifica₥tions matter most – learners and, as appropriate, parents and carers; those involved in the design, development and offering of qualifications and assessment (from teachers and lecturers to national agencies); and those who use qualifications, colleges, employers and universities. 

The report It’s Our Future is now with the Cabinet Secretary, who is seeking further views from teachers at the beginning of the new term before formally responding to the report. It is crucial that teachers’ expertise is at the heart of decisions about what change should look like, the pace of change and how change should best be taken forward. For now, we wait.

The Diploma offers the potential to provide learners in Scotland with a more valuable senior phase experience, teachers with the resources to do the job properly and colleges, employers and universities with better information about learners' achievements.

The Government in Scotland has shown it is taking the future of assessment and qualifications seriously by commissioning this review. The many similar reviews which have taken place in England – including New ERA – demonstrate the appetite and consensus for change there too and I hope that the UK Government will respond.  There was a great deal of support from members of all political parties in England to the work of the New ERA Review. It is very promising to see support beginning to turn into action, for example, the recent announcement from the Labour Party, committing to conducting a review of curriculum and assessment were they to form the next Westminster Government.

Countries shouldn’t attempt to learn directly from one another: the context for change in individual education systems is all important; but they can learn with one another as each strives to ensure that all learners achieve qualifications to give every learner the best possible life chance.

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New ERA report

See the full New ERA report, commissioned by the NEU, and its recommendations

Read the report

Quotes from members of the Scottish Independent Review Group:

Beinn Grant, Member of the Scottish Youth Parliament, Independent Review Group (IRG) member working with young people:

“We have spent a year working on the…new Scottish Diploma of Achievement; a model which I truly believe will keep the UNCRC (United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child) at its heart as it supports the young people of the future on their own learner journeys.”

Andrea Bradley, EIS, IRG member working with the profession:

“At last, we have an opportunity…to better reflect the broader purposes of education in positively shaping people and lives…not simply measuring or counting learners’ achievements but fully recognising and valuing them. We need to grasp this opportunity with both hands.”

Peter Bain, headteacher, Oban High, IRG member working with school leaders:

“A Scottish Diploma of Achievement, ensuring the acquisition of both academic and professional subject knowledge through the Study element;…learning in context through the Project element; and wider achievements no matter the environment though the Person element, will ensure our learners are prepared to take their place in society.”

Jonathan Powles, Professor, Pro Vice-Chancellor, University of the West of Scotland, IRG member working with universities:

“The proposed Scottish Diploma of Achievement will provide an excellent foundation for learners as they complete the university degrees of the future.”

Tracy Black, Director, CBI in Scotland, IRG member working with employers:

“Businesses understand that qualifications and subjects studied are just one piece of the jigsaw… Employers also want to see the candidate behind the grade.”

Chris Chapman, Professor, University of Glasgow, IRG member working with experts on change processes:
“The review of qualifications is a potential game changer for Scottish education. If the ideas and recommendations in the report can make their way through the system into schools and classrooms…”

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