HMC survey finds curriculum and assessment is no longer fit for purpose

Following a survey of teachers and senior leaders in both the state and independent sector, a new report published today finds the current educational system is perceived to be failing to prepare young people to thrive in the 21st century, current assessments are too narrowly focussed and used for the wrong ends and the majority of respondents favour urgent reform of GCSEs. 

The author of the report, Sarah Fletcher, High Mistress of St Paul’s Girls’ School and Chair of HMC ‘Reform of Assessment’ Working Group, has called on the Government to appoint an independent and impartial individual or organisation to swiftly lead a wide consultation with educators, academics, wellbeing experts, employers and students, to help inform the design of a new model of assessment. 

The full report can be read here. 

Respondents to the survey, carried out earlier this summer, believe; 

  • The current education system is too focussed on qualifications at the expense of broader aims, and thereby is falling significantly short in preparing young people to thrive in the 21st century. 
  • There are concerns about how well the education system develops wellbeing, both mental and physical.  It is also seen as falling short in promoting the values, creativity, and critical thinking & problem-solving skills young people need for personal agency and to play an active role in creating a respectful, tolerant and sustainable world.   
  • The education system fails to motivate students by responding effectively to their needs. 
  • The educational system does not adequately meet the needs of diverse learners, including those with disabilities. 
  • Assessment is too narrowly focused and is being used for the wrong ends.  Exams are more successful in serving the purposes of university selection and employers than in encouraging learner development or in motivating engagement in education. 
  • There is appetite for further research into the use of technology to improve access to learning and assessment. 
  • 94% of respondents believe GCSEs either need complete or partial reform, 54% wish to see that process commence immediately, whilst 35% would like to see it take place after a period of consolidation post pandemic. 

The report suggests; 

  • Government should appoint an apolitical individual or organisation to lead a comprehensive and independent consultation looking at widespread reform of the curriculum and current assessment models. 
  • This consultation process should examine multi-modal assessment, consider the role of creative, technical and vocational qualifications, engage with neuroscientists, look at the potential ed-tech can play in education, and focus on mental and physical health and wellbeing. 
  • Further investigation is needed into the ways the current education system contributes to the exclusion of different demographic groups. 
  • Teachers and educators should be central to any reform and a mechanism to allow for ongoing conversations about the future of the education system should be established. 

Author of the report and High Mistress of St Paul’s Girls’ School, Sarah Fletcher said;  

“Nearly 800 people replied to our survey, including 450 senior leaders and teachers, over half from the state sector. Their responses provide a fascinating insight into the state of education in this country. The passion and idealism of the teaching profession shines through. Respondents support student centred and future facing outcomes. They are excited by the advantages technology could offer in improving standards, bringing learning communities together, and in developing more personalised approaches to assessment. They are clear, however, that the current educational system is falling short.   

In their view, the curriculum is not sufficiently relevant or motivating. Assessment appears to focus more on benchmarking and the needs of university selection than on student progression, and there is real worry about inclusion. The scores relating to the needs of students with physical and mental ill-health are very low, while economic status is still viewed as the biggest barrier to success. Social mobility, curriculum and assessment are closely intertwined and there is no doubting the need for a proper review of our provision if we are to offer the inclusive, equitable system to which we aspire. Wellbeing scores very poorly by every measure, which is a significant concern. 

The world has changed since the curriculum was devised. While the acquisition of knowledge and qualifications are understood to be important, these are currently limiting broader learning. There needs to be more emphasis on curiosity and a love of learning, so young people develop the flexible, adaptable mindsets they need to upskill and reskill in later life. Cultural and social awareness are essential if they are to engage positively in an interconnected world, while skills in digital literacy and engagement with new technologies are at a premium. Crucially, creativity and critical thinking lie at the heart of problem solving and innovation, and are essential if young people are to feel empowered in a changed and changing world. In none of these respects is our curriculum perceived as successful. We need to find new ways of developing and nurturing the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values young people need to take control of their own futures and to play their part in creating an ethical, sustainable, and respectful world.   

There is real appetite amongst the teaching community to look at these issues and soon. The overwhelming belief is that politicians should cede place to professionals, allowing review and reform to be driven by those at the forefront of education – educators, academics, researchers, wellbeing experts and students. 

The challenges we face in the 21st century and the framework within which we work have changed beyond all recognition and we now need to reset the dial.” 

General Secretary of HMC, Dr Simon Hyde, said; 

“Teachers and educators, as this research reveals, must be trusted to come up with the ideas to push forward the debate around reform of assessment and curriculum. 

Their expertise and experience are crucial to ensuring any improvements are delivered effectively, for the benefit of all stakeholders.” 

Chair of HMC and Principal of Berkhamsted School, Richard Backhouse said; 

“After what has been a tumultuous 18 months, teachers in both state and independent schools now want to focus on delivering the very best education they can to children who have experienced immense disruption to their schooling. This report outlines the clamour in the education sector to shape an education system which reflects the needs of 21st century Britain and I’d urge those in Government to read it.” 

Chair of HMC Academic Policy Committee and Master of Haileybury, Martin Collier said; 

“It is of central importance that the national assessment system is relevant and fit for purpose. Above all else, it needs to best serve the interests of all students. This report will help inform the on-going debate about the national assessment system and how it might be reformed.” 



Editors’ notes 

  1. HMC (the Headmasters’ & Headmistresses’ Conference) is a professional association of heads of the world’s leading independent schools. HMC has 298 members in the British Isles educating more than 200,000 children, plus international members. Our members lead schools that are distinguished by their excellence in pastoral care, co-curricular provision and classroom teaching. Members of HMC have met annually in conference virtually every year since the first meeting in 1869.
  2. In total 790 individuals from across a range of educational settings were surveyed, with 450 responses received directly from school Senior Leadership Teams (SLTs) and teachers more widely. The majority of those 450 responses were received from those working in the state sector.
  3. The full report can be read here.
  4. A slide deck with the full range of charts can be read here.
  5. An excel document with the full data tables can be read here.
  6. For the media office, please contact Chris Fairbank on 07787 294 808 


16 November 2021