Spotlight on Greater Manchester, as over 200 educationalists gather for the Next Generation Assessment Conference 2024 at Manchester University  

Over 200 educators and sector experts from all corners of the UK gathered on Monday 18 March, at the Alliance Manchester Business School to debate the future of assessment in education, as the sold-out Next Generation Assessment Conference kicked off for its second year.

Convened by HMC, Edge Foundation, Rethinking Assessment and the University of Manchester, the conference reached a consensus around the need to transform how we measure young people through exams. This follows intensifying calls from politicians, employers, educators, parents and young people that the assessment system needs radical reform. 

HMC has been a constant in fostering debate and discussion about the future of education, curriculum and assessment. In November 2021 HMC published the Time To Talk report, based on the responses of 800 teachers in schools across England which found that the majority believed current models of curriculum and assessment not to be fit for purpose. HMC and Edge hosted a conference in January 2023 which explored new ideas, themes and interesting pilots, held in central London. 

Jeffrey Boakye, a former teacher-turned-writer, speaker and broadcaster, opened the conference with a bang, questioning the fundamental premise of the “essential knowledge” on which students are assessed: “who is to say what is the best that has been thought and said?”  

Throughout the day, attendees were invited to hear from a stellar line-up of international speakers working in education, business, the arts, culture, data and technology. The message was clear: urgent reform to the assessment system is needed. We should allow young people to evidence a broad range of knowledge and skills to employers, and to ensure that we have a truly inclusive and equitable system for all learners.  

During the ‘Preparing young people to thrive’ panel, Sara Prowse, CEO of UA92, “a deliberately different university founded by the legends of Manchester United – the class of ‘92”, told the conference that “no matter your background, you shouldn’t be defined by postcode” and our assessment system must reflect that.  

And Jennifer Riding, Director of Learning & Engagement at The Lowry in Salford told attendees that we are “missing opportunities to discover strengths and talent” through the current high-stakes approach at GCSE and A Level. She called for more funding right the way through the education stages to end the squeeze on arts and creative opportunities for young people.  

Cambridge University student and member of Edge’s Youth Network, Lucia Quadrini, told attendees: “When I think about the future of education, I don’t want to just think about patching holes… change needs to happen. But we should never lose focus on who has access to that change.”  

The Edge Foundation has advocated for a “multimodal assessment system” – one that could include a combination of summative exams, on-screen assessment, projects, presentations, teacher assessed grades, whereby the nature of the subject being assessed drives the method of assessment.  

Cassy Taylor, Director of Qualifications Policy and Reform at Qualifications Wales explained that many of the new GCSEs in Wales will use on-screen assessment rather than pen and paper, and students will be able to combine units from “skills for life” and “skills for work” suites, to tailor their own qualifications. She defended their recent PISA scores, saying “Wales prides itself on recognising wider skills and competencies that aren’t necessarily captured” by PISA.  

Marie Hamilton, the Greater Manchester Lead for Microsoft – a major employer in one of the fastest growing sectors in the region – told the conference to expect “massive changes coming in”, with the dawn of Artificial Intelligence set to transform the nature of digital assessment, having been involved in the early stages of putting the very first PCs into schools.  

Kate Howell, Director of Education at HMC, said:

“This conference is the next phase of HMC’s ongoing work looking at the future of the curriculum and new types of assessment. It was wonderful to debate and discuss different approaches from around the world with colleagues working in all aspects of education.

“There is real innovation occurring across HMC schools in this space, and so it was encouraging to hear from experienced speakers about what more schools can be doing to prepare children for their lives beyond the classroom. HMC will continue to be the bridge between teachers and key decision makers – those working at the frontline of education must be trusted to deliver the ideas to push forward this debate about the future of education.” 

Olly Newton, Executive Director at the Edge Foundation said:

“We were absolutely thrilled to bring the Next Generation Assessment Conference to Manchester this year. That this conference was a sold-out event really is a testament to the strength of feeling, up and down the country and across the UK, that our assessment system is not delivering for young people, further and higher education or employers. 

“Today, we have heard from speakers who have made us excited by the future of assessment, given us possibilities to transform the way we measure and evidence young people’s attainment of knowledge, skills and attributes. We have a blueprint for change that is mindful of the disadvantage gap, the need to bring the sector with us, and the turbulent political and funding landscape, and we can’t wait to take this forward.” 


21 March 2024