From a distance - changing the way we think about pupil assessment

School pupils taking exam
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4 mins read


Joanna Brown & Damian Riley

On March 23rd 2020, children in the UK went home.

A few would return to school – the children of key workers, some of the most vulnerable, but by the start of the summer term more than 10.5 million school age children were being educated at home.

The summer term is notable for many things – sports day, the occasional lesson outside the classroom, a series of graduation events for those moving on from this stage of their education. And of course in most schools the summer term is all about assessment, whether Key Stage 1 and 2, GCSE, A level and in many cases, higher education exams.

This year, with little time to prepare, the exams were simply cancelled. Assessment would take place via a combination of course work, mock results and teacher evaluation. But as with so much else with the Covid-19 pandemic, a crisis response has given rise to a wider question. Like remote learning, working from home, online GP’s consultation – the question arises…what if this is the new normal?

While no one wants the current lockdown scenario to be a permanent situation, some of the changes that it has driven will inevitably stick – to a greater or lesser extent. And building in more robust thinking and design of remote assessment is a natural transition as part of a wider system of remote teaching and learning. And linking this process of review to how we train and assess people in occupational environments would stop the rather strange disconnect between school and work – that we teach knowledge, but require competencies and skills.

Anyone with a child currently in lockdown will probably testify that remote learning is not for everyone. But as the examples of economies like Estonia have proved, combining an element of online education in students' later years has huge social and economic advantages. It enables pupils to combine work and education, it reduces the costs associated with having to travel to specific locations and/or live away from home, it allows globally renowned institutions to provide access to their courses to far more pupils than could physically attend their classes. And it also creates a clear link between the world of education and that of work – and therefore maintain a culture of perpetual learning, much of it acquired digitally.

“When students are completing all their formative work digitally it’s rather bizarre to be expecting them to sit under examination conditions for three hours or more doing handwritten examinations.” Richard Walker, Head of Programme Design and Learning Technology, University of York.

While many are agonising over the delivery of online teaching and learning, as much focus has to be given to remote assessment.

Much emphasis has been given to the possibilities created by technology - live online invigilation using webcam and microphones, testing kiosks that include an ID scanner, HD cameras and software that connects the test taker securely. Or record and review where pupils download the secure browser and go through the same ID authentication process in order to access the exam and an examiner reviews the recording after the test has taken place.

But there is an opportunity here to ask a much more compelling question – linked to back to the central challenge at the heart of education and training – is it creating the skills we need and how do we assess them effectively? If remote education is an opportunity to do things differently, and recreate a system that at can feel outdated at times, then perhaps we should rethink assessment.

At the heart of this debate is trust; how can we be sure that the candidate doesn’t “game” the system? That only applies when what we are measuring is knowledge and not skills – knowledge can be cribbed, or copied, but skills can’t. Online or virtual assessment that measures what can be done, rather than just what is known, would be a far more useful predictor of future performance and abilities. It might eradicate at last the equality gap between those with who have been drilled for the test, and those with real ability. At its heart if the assessment isn’t accessible to everyone, it isn’t a real assessment. It’s a barrier.

And while the arguments for remote assessment could be made purely from the perspective of the student – accessibility, cost, applicability – there are significant benefits to the institution too.  If you elevate remote assessment from a practical solution to an intelligent one – using AI, voice recognition, monitoring software etc – the potential to reduce the workload of teaching staff is huge. It also allows the system to inform the process – the outcomes of the assessment of pupils to inform both how and what they are taught next rather than using a one curriculum fits all model – a pupil centric model of education as opposed to a one fits all approach.

In short the system of assessment in the UK is ripe for change. In large parts of Europe, for example, assessment is close to 100% digital and in India digital exams are taking place at scale, assessing 5.5 million candidates in one year using biometric data, digital security and real-time analytics to detect fraud.

There are pockets of good practice and innovation. Newcastle University’s move to digital exams and the project to explore automated marking using natural language processing and classification at Bolton College are both excellent examples.

But the overall pace of change has been too slow. This is the moment to change that. “Change before you have to” - Jack Welch.

Written by


Joanna Brown

Divisional Marketing Director, Capita Consulting

Joanna joined Capita in 2019 after spending over 20 years in both Consulting and then Marketing at Accenture. She is now leading the marketing for Capita Consulting. Joanna combines the skills she acquired working as a consultant with core strategic marketing experience.


Damian Riley

Managing Director, Capita Education

Damian is Capita's client partner and managing director for education services. Previously he held a variety of senior leadership roles, including managing director of our Personal Independence Payments service, and chief operating officer of Capita Transformation. Damian has a 20 year career background in the delivery of complex transformation programmes.

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