Andrew Martin Speight, Will Jay Hamilton, Sarah Madeline Smith Written evidence (EDU0040)



1.1 In March 2021, the UK Youth Parliament launched its “Transforming Education” campaign in response to the results of their November 2020 “Make Your Mark” consultation, which saw 45,246 11-18 year olds across the UK vote to declare the topic as their top priority. Members of Youth Parliament and their corresponding Youth Councils were asked to host “Transforming Education Assemblies” with their constituents to compose their ideas into a “Transforming Education Manifesto.”

1.2 In June 2021, Big Change launched the Big Education Conversation campaign was launched in England engaging 25,000 people.  In 2022 it launched as a global campaign aiming to support one million conversations on the purpose of education. The initiative aims to encourage intergenerational conversations between young people teachers, parents and employers to consider the future purpose of education. The findings from the initial run were published in the “Subject to Change” report.

1.3 On 14th July, 2021, Blackpool Youth Council hosted its local Transforming Education Assembly over Zoom with 22 local young people. The responses were compiled into the Blackpool Transforming Education Manifesto.

1.4 Later in July 2021, Blackpool Council recruited six Youth Advisors to help co-produce its new Employment & Skills strategy for young people, which sits within the broader 10-Year Education Strategy. The Youth Advisors were all aged 16-21 and had lived experience of being out of education, employment or training (NEET).

1.5 In July 2022, Blackpool was selected as a ‘Youth Futures Foundation’ ‘Connected Futures Partnership’.  Blackpool Council, Right to Succeed, Blackpool Football Club Community Trust, Business in the Community and Blackpool and the Fylde College are working in partnership to develop a ‘system change’ delivery plan to reduce youth unemployment.  As part of this work over 1,000 people in Blackpool have been surveyed about education and employment opportunities in the town. 

1.6 On 29th November, 2022, the Youth Advisors, along with Blackpool Youth Council, helped to co-facilitate a Big Education Conversation at The Fifth Floor venue in the Blackpool Tower. Over 200 young people, parents/carers, teachers, employers and local politicians from a variety of different backgrounds attended and gave their thoughts.
1.7 The insights expressed at both those events and in the survey results, in addition to miscellaneous supporting evidence, are compiled in this document.

On the range and breadth of subjects covered in the 11-16 curriculum:

2.1 The overwhelming sentiment at both events was that the 11-16 curriculum is too narrowly centered around traditional, academic subjects to be effective in equipping young people with the skills they need to progress into employment in a future digital green economy (which, at both events, was made out to be the core purpose of education.)

2.2 In a broad survey conducted with 712 young people across Blackpool on the topic of education & employment, problems with the curriculum was the third most commonly cited concern, with relationships & practices within schools having the most mentions and an interest in more careers education often being highlighted.

2.3 At the Transforming Education Assembly, young people expressed the feeling that there was a fundamental and drastic detach between the 11-16 curriculum and the wider world with regards to both content covered and skills nurtured. The knowledge and skills they acquire in school are not relevant or of use in the real world. There is too much of an emphasis on knowledge recall with the GCSE as opposed to the meaningful development of key transferable skills (E.G. creativity, communication, teamwork ETC.) Much of the knowledge is also trivial/academic in nature and not applicable to the real world.

2.4 Young people at the Assembly also expressed their frustration when applying for jobs as they learn what they dedicated so much to learning in school is of little use here.

2.5 At the Big Education Conversation, there was a strong sentiment from a variety of different participants that “there is too much focus on the three main subjects (Maths, English and Science) and not enough time spent on the others.” Participants wanted more choice for young people so they could study different subjects.

2.6 Participants at the Big Education Conversation also repeatedly suggested that young people should take their options at a later point than they presently do. This is in order to avoid “narrowing options and knowledge too early.”

2.7 This sentiment links to what some Big Education Conversation participants saw as the core purpose of education; to nurture young people’s passions, to help them find their raison d’etre, their “ikigai.”

2.8 The Transforming Education Assembly saw an extremely strong emphasis placed on the importance of mental health education. Young people wanted to be taught how to spot the signs of poor mental health and how they can take action to improve their own mental health, such as through coping strategies (E.G. meditation).

2.9 It was commented at the Big Education Conversation that the texts young people study in GCSE English Literature lack relevance for young people today, and that they should be updated.

2.10 Specifically on the topic of Modern Foreign Languages, the Transforming Education Assembly highlighted the need for a greater diversity of languages to be available as GCSE options – covering languages that originate from outside Western Europe.

2.11 Linking to how participants felt a key purpose of education was to help young people understand the World from other’s perspectives, there was a strong desire at the Transforming Education Assembly for greater diversity in the curriculum. More education on LGBTQ+ issues was highlighted as a particular example in order to promote tolerance and decrease hatred towards members of this community. The history curriculum should also consider the history of cultures beyond the West and how minority groups have contributed to the development of society.

2.12 More education on healthy relationships was raised as a key priority at the Transforming Education Assembly. They did not feel as though they learnt enough about domestic abuse & consent.

2.13 The Transforming Education Assembly also suggested e-safety should also be its own subject.

On the effectiveness of the 11-16 curriculum in equipping young people with the skills they need to progress into post-16 education and employment in a future digital and green economy:

3.1 Both events saw participants communicate a sentiment that the 11-16 curriculum fails to nurture the skills required to progress into employment in a future digital and green economy. The narrow focus on academic subjects & traditional lesson delivery styles (which focus on independent work to aid knowledge recall) does not align with the nature of employment in the contemporary economy.

3.2 Both events saw participants emphasise the need for more creative subjects & options in education. Creativity is a key skill that is increasingly important in the contemporary economy (Nesta, 2018).

3.3 The Blackpool Transforming Education Manifesto illustrates how the imposition and increased focus on the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) has undermined creativity – as the EBacc focuses disproportionately on a traditional, academic curriculum and overlooks creative subjects. This has led to resources being divested from creative subjects in an attempt to boost results in academic ones.

3.4 The Transforming Education Manifesto also cites research evidence from Heyes et al (2020), who found that creative education has a positive impact on young people’s mental health.

3.5 Both events also highlighted a deficit of life skills education. The Transforming Education Manifesto draws on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to illustrate how 11-16 education focuses on “thriving” by teaching high-level, abstract skills, whilst overlooking more basic survival needs, such as teaching young people how to safely prepare their own food or how to practice self-care. Without supporting young people to nurture these skills, the pursuit of qualifications of any sort is futile as they will lack the basis upon which to build a successful career.

3.6 A Big Education Conversation participant raised how young people should learn more in school about recycling – a practice that will increasingly underpin a green economy. At present, young people do not feel they learn enough about this. Another participant asked for “more eco-work in schools.”

3.7 Another Big Education Conversation participant commented that the 11-16 curriculum is currently too focused on knowledge as opposed to skills. Young people are taught to recall facts, but seldom are these facts relevant to the real world and practical applications are limited.

3.8 Both events saw participants express a lack of adequate careers support & guidance.

On the availability and attractiveness of technical and vocational options in the 11-16 phase:

4.1 At the Big Education Conversation in particular, participants communicated that the
availability of technical and vocational options was too scarce.

4.2 Participants said that they did not feel as though they had a choice whether or not to pursue technical and vocational options in the 11-16 phase as most state secondary schools do not offer them and the procedures for accessing them in different places is difficult.

4.3 Participants said that they wanted to do “more functional and vocational skills, not just GCSEs.”

4.4 Both events highlighted a deficit in the availability of work experience, yet simultaneously great value was placed on them as a means of preparing young people for employment.

4.5 The Transforming Education Manifesto included a policy on establishing Careers Colleges in deprived areas where schools could book half-days for students to experience sessions where they could develop skills in the following key industries: farming, hospitality, engineering, construction & beauty. This should lead to a placement.

On the impact of the 11-16 system on the motivation and confidence of pupils of all abilities:

5.1 Participants at both events painted the picture of a high-pressure system that puts excessive amounts of pressure to pupils – so much so, that it becomes maladaptive and interferes with their ability to learn & achieve.

5.2 Mental health was a prominent theme at the Transforming Education Assembly (July 2021), but less so at the Big Education Conversation (November 2022). This aligns with Blackpool’s local “Make Your Mark” results, which illustrated mental health becoming less of a priority for local young people from February 2022 after having been their top priority on every run of the ballot since 2017.

5.3 The Transforming Education Assembly (and, to a lesser extent, the Big Education Conversation) saw participants articulate how education harms their mental health by pressuring them to pursue grades and occupying their supposed “free time” with homework, failing to teach them about how to maintain a healthy work-life balance. The Transforming Education Manifesto echoes the suggestion of leading youth mental health charity YoungMinds for schools to put positive mental health & well-being at the heart of their ethos and for less pressure to be applied to pupils with regards to exams. This could be done, at a school level, through changing the manner in which young people are spoken to about exams, avoiding filling their minds with catastrophized scenarios (E.G. the Transforming Education Manifesto highlights one case where a young person was repeatedly told that, if they did not pass their GCSEs, they would be “on Tesco brand bread & beans”, on “benefits” and that their family & friends would abandon them as they would be a “failure”.)

5.4 Participants felt that the amount of homework is excessive and that it “blurs the lines of when to relax.” Another commented that “I have to wake up, do my school work, then go to the mosque, do my mosque work, then my homework, then also have my tea, then go to bed, then wake up and do it again.” This young person felt like they had too much and couldn’t keep up with it all. They were also only in Year 7 and had these concerns already. Participants felt that “homework should be reduced for mental health reasons.” Participants also felt that homework was ineffective as a means of supporting learning. Although there is some evidence to support the effectiveness of homework, this evidence is weak as there are methodological concerns & a small number of supporting studies. Concerns are also raised around the impact on disadvantaged pupils who have nowhere at home to undertake the work. (Educational Endowment Foundation, 2021.)

5.5 A Big Education Conversation participant commented that there should be more “student choice/voice with regards to their teachers and pastoral staff.”

5.6 A Blackpool teacher consulted as part of the Transforming Education campaign said that school trips and learning in different environmentshad a beneficial impact on young peoples’ mental health.

5.7 The Big Education Conversation also saw a great deal of emphasis placed on how the school day is inconsistent with the natural circadian rhythms of teenagers. There was a desire for “later opening times”. One participant proposed “Start the school day an hour later and finish an hour later.”

On the effectiveness of GCSEs as a means of assessing the achievements of all pupils at the end of the 11-16 phase:

6.1 Participants at both events largely felt that the GCSE was too narrow to be a holistic and relevant measure of a young person’s achievements. This is because the skills required to pass a GCSE exam are limited – with a bias towards [or over emphasis on] knowledge recall – and, since the 11-16 curriculum is increasingly developed around the GCSE (young people are “taught to the test”), this consequently narrows the skills young people learn during their 11-16 education.

6.2 The exam-centric nature of assessment at GCSE also causes those young people who do not perform best with exams to be put at a disadvantage. It also makes them feel “worthless” – according to one Transforming Education Assembly participant.

6.3 The high-stakes nature of the GCSE, particularly apparent since the 2017 reforms, undermine young people’s mental health and, in turn, their ability to perform due to the high pressure experience by putting everything down to one day and having everything rely on grades. The Association of School & College Leaders (2018) demonstrate how headteachers feel the reformed GCSE is having a directly detrimental impact on the mental health of young people & teaching staff. The National Centre for Social Research (2021) suggests that, if a young person experiences poor mental health at any point during their GCSE course, they are up to three time less likely to pass with five GCSEs graded 9-4 than if they did not. This suggests that the GCSE is self-defeating as it undermines young people’s mental health, which in turn reduces their likelihood of passing.

6.4 One participant commented that “Education should provide different experiences, not just ‘how to answer GCSE questions.” Someone else mentioned that “GCSEs are put as the only way of being educated.”

6.5 The classification of students as having “passed” or “failed” is also unhelpful. It undermines confidence & mental health and subtracts from time that could be used to focus on more meaningful learning.

On alternative methods of assessment for measuring progress that could be considered either alongside or instead of GCSEs:

              7.1 Both events saw a great appetite for the return of coursework as a means of assessment.

7.2 Both events also saw a sentiment conveyed that using a greater diversity of assessment methods would help increase fairness in our assessment system. Different assessment types suit different people better. By taking a unitary, consistent approach to assessment, we give an unfair advantage to those who are best suited to exams and disadvantage all the others. This is somewhat ironic given that the rationale behind the one-size-fits-all system is often that consistency ensures fairness.

7.3 The Transforming Education Manifesto proposed a tripartite assessment system which consisted of 1/3 exam, 1/3 coursework and 1/3 teacher assessment. This would test a broader range of skills than mere knowledge recall and have something in it for everyone, so that everyone got a chance to succeed regardless of which assessment type suited them best whilst still taking a consistent approach. (Teacher assessment would be based on marked classwork.)

7.4 The Big Education Conversation also saw a strong sentiment in favour of scrapping exams altogether. One participant commented that they believed “All GCSEs should be optional.” This would reflect the practice in schools such as Summerhill School in Suffolk or Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts – where nothing is compulsory & young people are given full responsibility for their own education. Research suggests that this entirely consent-based, democratic, self-directed model of education is sufficient & effective in preparing young people to thrive in the modern world, and is more consistent with young people’s psychology than conventional models of education. (Gray, 2013; Gray & Chanoff, 1986; Greenberg & Sadofsky, 1992.)

7.5 It was highlighted at the Transforming Education Assembly that a young person can excel throughout the course, but by determining grades based entirely on an exam sat on a small number of particular days, they can be undermined if their temporary circumstances on that day mean they are not in a position to perform at their best. Modular assessment could be a remedy to this.

On how the school accountability system affects the 11-16 curriculum:

8.1 The Big Education Conversation highlighted that the accountability system fuels a results-driven culture. “Schools are held to account based on results”, said one participant, “which squeezes the enthusiasm.”

8.2 The Transforming Education Manifesto goes into more detail about how the accountability system drives cultures which undermine young people’s mental health. It is this pressure to achieve grades that often leads to the high amounts of pressure being applied to young people, which in turn undermines their ability to learn & achieve.

8.3 The Transforming Education Manifesto also raises the concern of how the current Ofsted framework prevents schools from providing more life skills education, in accordance with the wishes expressed at the Assembly.

28 April 2023