The future of assessment

Young boy studying at home
Date Published


Reading time

5 Min Read


Costi Karayannis

The policy and practice of formal assessment in the UK education system has been a heavily debated topic for many years.

Since exams across schools and colleges were cancelled in 2020 and 2021, this discussion has intensified, leaving educators, politicians, think-tanks and others considering where to go next. National lockdowns have led to a large-scale, unplanned experiment in new teaching and assessment methods in recent months, through the introduction of remote, online and blended learning. Meanwhile, as technology continues to revolutionise the workplace, some have questioned whether traditional forms of assessment remain relevant to the future skills needs of the UK economy. It may be timely to step back and reconsider the purpose and format of educational assessments, to ensure that we’re delivering a system that works for employers, teachers and most of all learners.

What is the purpose of assessments?

As we emerge from an unprecedented period in education, it makes sense to question the purpose of assessment, as part of a bigger conversation across the education system. Assessments are most often used to measure learners’ progress at a point in time and provide a more or less objective, comparable measure of attainment. However, the underlying purpose of such assessment varies widely, including monitoring accountability and standards of educational institutions, benchmarking learner progress, informing future learning needs and teaching interventions, and/ or as a criterion to determine the eligibility of learners for future education or employment.

Any debate about changes to the UK assessment system will need to start with a high degree of clarity about the purpose of assessment, before moving to a critique of the merits and challenges of the current system, as well as possible alternatives.

Summative versus formative assessment

There has been a strong emphasis in the UK in recent years, and particularly in England, on the role of examinations in supporting schools’ accountability and standards. In turn, this has led to a focus on ‘high stakes’, summative assessment, through Key Stages 1-4 and beyond. Whilst examinations like GCSEs and A Levels are an entrenched and internationally recognised benchmark, the past twelve months have also demonstrated the potential for us to consider the risks and benefits of different assessment models. The Devolved Administrations, particularly Scotland and Wales, are already supplementing assessments to place a stronger emphasis on formative assessment, enabled by technology that allows more flexible deployment of diagnostic assessment tools, at a time when the curriculum has been reduced.

As we consider system reform, there may be an opportunity to make greater use of formative assessment earlier on in a child’s development, to assist teachers in designing more tailored and personalised learning for individual students. This will not only support young people to advance in academic subjects, but also provide them with the chance to develop other essential skills that will set them up for life. This might also be useful in identifying additional support children may need, such as extra tuition or specialist teaching. For example, the Oak National academy embedded diagnostic tests as part of their online learning platform, allowing teachers to understand whether individuals had understood the topics. At a recent Education summit convened by Tortoise- the slow news organisation, Matt Hood OBE, Principal Oak National Academy reflected that formative assessment during the pandemic, had seen broader benefits, in areas such as teacher CPD and supply support.

This approach also prompts us to consider how, in addition to developing key skills in Maths, English and other ‘core’ subjects, we can support young people to build a well-rounded and energetic sense of curiosity. According to Michael Hastings CBE, Member of the House of Lords, Chancellor of Regents University and Vice President of Unicef, education should be about the kind of person that someone will become in the future, and the pursuit of awareness and imagination. Personal attributes such as communication, self-care, mindfulness, self-esteem and emotional intelligence are increasingly recognised not only as essential to individual success, but also as a crucial ingredient in human flourishing. Any reformed assessment system should seek to recognise this, alongside our existing focus on traditional ‘core subjects’.

Technology as an enabler… for some?

Digitisation is impacting every sector of society. Education is no different, and the application of technology to the administration of a paper-based exam system that has remained – at least in England – largely unchanged for decades, has been much-discussed in recent months. New technology undoubtedly has the potential to improve assessment, for example by reducing the administrative burden on teachers, enabling more tailored formative assessment to support learner development, and reduce the financial and environmental costs of a system that requires vast amounts of paper and people to administer.

However, robust data on the impact of digitisation on educational assessment remains at an early stage. To ensure technology is applied to the examination system most effectively, we will need to be clear on how and why we’ll be using digital assessment tools, and their intended benefits. A good start might be the testing and trialling of diagnostic, formative assessment tools that reduce teachers’ marking and reporting workload and enable them to offer more personalised feedback and support for students. This could be coupled with an increased use of tried and tested systems for streamlining paper-based administration, such as workflow and optical character recognition to automate the marking of multiple-choice and numerical exam responses.

Our vastly increased dependence on digital technology has also prompted a debate on the extent to which variations in access to technology risk exacerbating other forms of inequality. Much of the debate in education settings has focused on access to devices, with the Department for Education’s Get Help With Technology programme distributing 1.3 million laptops and tablets to students who need them. But it’s equally important to make sure that the network infrastructure is there to support effective use of these devices. Even if every child in the country was offered a free iPad, it wouldn’t help them to reach online learning resources in areas where network quality is poor. In May 2021, Ofcom reported that the average weighted efficiency in broadband nationally was 88%. In rural areas it was 20% lower, which is a key challenge that needs to be addressed. Nevertheless, many multi academy trust and maintained schools are moving towards providing students with remote devices.

Where to from here?

Identifying and evidencing new ways to optimise the efficacy of an examination system that is inextricably linked with curriculum design, teacher training and the broader education system, will take time and careful consideration. As we emerge from what we hope is the final lockdown, it’s vital we focus on building a strong system that places young people, their learning and wellbeing centre stage.

Written by

Costi Karayannis

Costi Karayannis

Since joining Capita in March 2020, Costi has transformed and integrated seven learning business to create Capita Learning. Investing in talent and partnering with innovative players in the industry, Costi has created and implemented a strategy to become a true Learning partner to clients. Costi supported the win of a 12 year £1bn Royal Navy learning transformation deal.
Costi joined Capita from V. Group a $1bn global leader in ship management and marine services. As Managing Director, Costi built the maritime training offering, led the restructure of the business and transformed the brand, customer proposition, commercial model and the sales organisation.
Prior to V. Group, Costi was a Director at Babcock for eight years where he was responsible for the commercial training business in the energy and engineering sectors. Costi started his career as a consultant for PMSI Consulting and Accenture.

More of our thinking

Read more

Thinking about your organisation?

Get in touch