National Education Union Written evidence (EDU0071)


The National Education Union brings together more than 450,000 teachers, lecturers, support staff and leaders working in maintained and independent schools, early years settings and colleges across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, to form the largest education union in Europe. We welcome the opportunity to present our thinking to the Committee.

Preliminary remarks

1.2 There is widespread support for change in secondary education, as in other phases of our education system. The problems of secondary education in many ways resemble those experienced in other phases, and their solution requires a comprehensive approach to the purposes, processes and resourcing of education as a whole. There is a growing international consensus that the success of education should be evaluated in terms of what it can do for the whole learner. As the OECD puts it, ‘Education has a vital role to play in developing the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values that enable people to contribute to and benefit from an inclusive and sustainable future’ as workers and as citizens. For this to happen, education systems must ‘support each person’s learning (including academic knowledge and skills) with mental and physical health and social and emotional learning.’ [i] In this perspective the well-being and all-round development of students are seen as a precondition of educational improvement.

1.3 Whereas education systems in Scotland and Wales have evolved towards the international consensus, England, particularly in matters of curriculum, qualifications and assessment, is accelerating in another direction. The emphasis placed on preparing pupils for high-stakes tests and exams has narrowed what is taught and learned throughout the system. The narrowness of A Levels, noted the President of the Royal Society, means that England ‘risks falling behind its global competitors as a result of maintaining an outdated model of post-16 education’. The Progress 8 system for evaluating schools’ GCSE success forces them to focus on a narrow range of subjects. Primary SATs, because of their high stakes status, incentivise schools to ‘teach to the test’, focusing disproportionate effort on Maths and English. [ii]

1.4 Outside government, and across a wide spectrum, there is support for change: the Royal Society, the CBI, Edge Foundation, a section of Conservative opinion and a large number of educationists have called – in various reports – for wide-ranging reform. Polls of parents on some of the key problems of the current system suggest a deep discontent and an openness to change. [iii]

1.5 We would suggest that the Committee reflects on the reasons for the disparity, on matters of curriculum change, between educational opinion and the thinking of policy-makers. It may be that political thinking holds on to a simplified idea of educational ‘standards’ that requires considerable adjustment if it is to identify what educational quality should look like in the contemporary world. In this context, engagement with the experience of curriculum change in Wales and in Scotland would benefit English policy-makers. It is not necessary to agree with every aspect of policy in these countries in order to appreciate the detailed and holistic approach which they have taken towards reform. 


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

2.1 The 11-16 curriculum is shaped not just by educational requirements but by those of accountability. The headline measure of secondary accountability is Progress 8, which is calculated at the end of year 11. Progress 8 and the English Baccalaureate (EBacc), which forms a part of it, have narrowed the range of qualifications students take at 16. This trend is one Ofqual acknowledged in its release of entry data for 2019: 

‘The decline [of entries in non-EBacc subjects] indicates that schools/colleges are continuing to focus more on EBacc subjects than those subjects which do not count towards the EBacc. Progress 8 and Attainment 8 measures are also likely to be influencing these patterns as their calculation can only include a maximum of three non-EBacc GCSEs.”  The 2016-2020 figures for GCSE entries confirm that non-EBacc subjects, which include, creative and technical subjects, the arts and physical education, are declining year-on-year, despite overall entries increasing.’ [iv]

The DfE states that the performance measures ‘are designed to encourage schools to offer a broad and balanced curriculum with a focus on an academic core at key stage 4’.  The Ofqual entry data demonstrate that, while it could be argued that more students are indeed focusing on an ‘academic core’, fewer are participating in those subjects that provide breadth and balance in the curriculum.  There are other negative consequences, set out by Goldstein and Leckie: the tests fail to measure many important aspects of teaching (e.g. pupil engagement, curiosity, an eagerness to learn), lead to a narrowing of the curriculum (e.g. they typically ignore arts, music, drama, and other non-traditional academic subjects), result in teaching to the test, induce excessive pupil and teacher stress, create a culture of fear, tend to drive teachers out of the profession, and lead to various gaming behaviours (e.g. excluding pupils from tests and cheating).  [v]

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 Thus we have a system that rewards a school’s performance in a narrow range of exams. Not surprisingly, teachers and students have become proficient in meeting the demands of such examinations. These achievements carry a cost. As currently constituted, GCSE examinations do not credit qualities such as collaboration, creativity, problem-solving and oral communication, even though these are skills that are likely to help young people in their personal lives and in their future employment. There is also very little interdisciplinary assessment and students are not encouraged to develop skills across subject areas. Digital skills are underdeveloped.

3.2. Schleicher for the OECD (2012) identifies a global shift in educational thinking, away from the idea that education is about ‘stacking up’ knowledge.[vi] However, the system in England does not seem to be following this shift. A recent survey of educators by the Heads’ Conference reported that the current system encourages the acquisition of knowledge over other attributes such as critical thinking and the capacity for lifelong learning.[vii] This contributed towards the Heads’ conclusion that curriculum and assessment in England are no longer fit for purpose.

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

4.1. We argue for a broad, balanced and relevant curriculum for all students. This requires a combination of skills and knowledge across a range of curricular areas. Traditional distinctions between ‘academic’ and ‘technical & vocational’ subjects are not completely helpful in designing a new 11-16 curriculum, in which technical skills and academic knowledge combine closely.

4.2. That said, there is much to learn from the ways in which some countries vocational courses are incorporated in their national qualifications framework – Scotland being a good example. There are National 5 courses and qualifications in some vocational discipline. National 3 and 4 qualifications include an even broader range of vocational and technical courses within this national framework. As such they carry the same banner and recognition at the respective level as their more traditional, academically focussed equivalents.

4.3. It should be stressed that this approach to vocational qualification is not additive: vocational qualifications are not inserted into a pre-established academic framework. They have been developed in a holistic context of curriculum redesign.

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

5.1. In 2015, our predecessor union the NUT published research on ‘Exam Factories’ which found that in a high-stakes system:

‘Children and young people are suffering from increasingly high levels of school-related anxiety and stress, disaffection and mental health problems. This is caused by increased pressure from tests/exams; greater awareness at younger ages of their own ‘failure’; and the increased rigour and academic demands of the curriculum. The increase in diagnosis of ADHD has been shown to be linked to the increase in high stakes testing.’[viii]

5.2. In this context we noted with interest recent research from Kings College London (KCL) and the Edge Foundation whose findings depict similar, distressing, experiences. For almost half of young people aged 15-16 school ‘is not an enjoyable or meaningful experience … Many secondary schools have adopted teaching methods that many young people experience as alienating and stressful, particularly those with creative and practical interests and those who have special educational needs and disabilities.’ [ix]

5.3. We share the belief of KCL/Edge researchers that this aspect of the condition of schooling calls for new approaches to the design of school curricula based on a broader conception of the purposes of - and what it means to be successful in - education.

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

5.4. We have indicated above our sense that the GCSE framework is not effective in responding to the needs of sections of the school population and serves to demotivated them.  We would add that these problems are particularly acute in respect of Maths and English, where failure to gain a Grade 4 results in an insistence on a repetition of the experience of failure. Nearly 20% of students find themselves in this situation.

5.5. We agree with Major & Parsons that this situation is linked to poverty and must be dealt with by measures that address social issues – better early years support, financial and other forms of support for parents. [x]There are also curriculum and qualifications dimensions: there must be a qualifications pathway which enables students to move at varying paces from one qualification level to another.

How the school accountability system affects the 11-16 curriculum

6.1. The accountability system serves to reinforce the present curriculum. As the campaign group ‘Save our Subjects’ has pointed out, the narrowing of the curriculum induced by Progress 8 and Ebacc is restricting student choice and preventing young people from developing essential skills. [xi] It is particularly affecting disadvantaged pupils and those in disadvantaged areas. While the drop in arts and technology subjects in state secondary schools affects all pupils, it affects disadvantaged pupils more. In the private (fee paying) system there has been an increase in investment and provision. Independent schools tend to ascribe value to arts and cultural education.  State school teachers increasingly report that basic resources for the teaching of arts subject are not available.  This divergence between public and private leads to increased inequalities in terms of access to a broad educational experience. In a much-noticed article, Ashton and Ashton have written that the difference in the approach toward arts education in England ‘is such that we can realistically describe the system as one of educational apartheid’. [xii]The Committee has an opportunity to draw further attention to this situation.

The role technology can play in education in this phase, including in assessment, the personalisation of learning and reducing teachers’ workload

7.1 While technology has a role to play in addressing some aspects of workload, we caution against seeing it as a key part of the solution to the problems discussed above. As the researcher Neil Selwyn has written ‘considerable doubts remain over the extent to which learning analytics systems can ever appropriate what is going on in the “real world” contexts within which specific learning episodes are situated.’ The appeal to AI tends to underestimate the  social  complexity  of  classrooms and schools. Developing this point, Selwyn expresses a concern that there are not enough data points in the world to ‘adequately capture the complexities and nuances of who a student is, or how a school functions’. [xiii]Education, as teachers emphasised during the pandemic, is a social and collective process. The problems of alienation, stress and ‘ill-being’ that secondary students report require for their solution new kinds of social relationship and pedagogy. Creativity, inter-dependence and collaboration may sometimes be mediated through technology, but they possess an irreducible element of person-to-person communication which policy-makers should not imperil.

How the 11-16 system could be adapted to improve the attractiveness of the teaching profession, and the recruitment, training and retention of teachers

8.1 The Government has missed its target for recruitment of new secondary school teachers by 41 per cent this year. One in four teachers leave the profession within three years of qualification: a third within five. Even when there is a teacher in the classroom, increasingly they are not qualified in the subject they are teaching.  One in eight maths lessons is taught by a teacher not qualified in the subject. Teachers are leaving the profession because of a toxic mix of excessive workload and poor pay. There is an urgent need to correct the real terms decline in pay, on a fully funded basis.

8.2 Problems of recruitment and retention are also linked to workload – both its extent and its intensity. Most respondents to the DfE’s workload survey reported that they could not complete their workload within their contracted hours, that they did not have an acceptable workload, and that they did not achieve a good work-life balance. [xiv]There has been a rise in the intensity of their work and a decline in its quality. [xv] DfE research found that almost half of primary and almost one-quarter of secondary teachers did not feel they were being trusted to do their job and that levels of scrutiny into lessons and teaching styles were too high. [xvi] Schools do not exist primarily for the benefit of teachers but securing their commitment and capability is essential. The command-and-control model adopted by recent governments worsens this problem: central control over the teacher education curriculum, Ofsted’s inspection framework and its pronouncements on curriculum content and the launching of the Oak national academy as the curriculum arm of government work against the sense of autonomy which is crucial to teachers’ job satisfaction. [xvii] 

8.3 In the first instance, the government should respond to these problems by correcting the real terms decline in pay and lessening accountability pressures (e.g. by changing Ofsted’s grading system).

How spending for this phase of education should be prioritised, in the context of the current fiscal climate

9.1. Underfunding afflicts every sector of education and every sector has needs that require addressing. According to UNESCO, high-income countries spend an average of 5% of GDP on education. In the UK, education spending is 4.6% of GDP, well below the 5.6% of 2009-2010.  [xviii]This gap can only be addressed by investment in our economic infrastructure and in our skills base. The government, which expresses support for economic growth, must plan educational investment accordingly. 


30 April 2023



[i]OECD, The Future of Education and Skills 2030, published in 2018. E2030 Position Paper (05.04.2018).pdf (

[ii] British Educational Research Association (2021), High Standards not High Stakes.

[iii] Parentkind (2022); Mumsnet (2019)


[iv] Quoted in New Era Commission (2021) Qualifications for a New Era: equitable, reliable assessment. National Education Union.

[v] Leckie, G. , & Goldstein, H. (2019). The importance of adjusting for pupil background in school value added models: A study of Progress 8 and school accountability in England. British Educational Research Journal, 45(3), 518-537.

[vi] Schleicher, A. (ed) Preparing Teachers and Developing School Leaders for the 21st Century: Lessons from around the World, OECD Publishing.

[vii] Heads Conference (2021) HMC Survey finds curriculum and assessment no longer fit for purpose.

[viii] Hutchings, M. (2015) Exam Factories. National Union of Teachers.

[ix] McPherson, C. et al (2023) Schools for All: young people’s experience of alienation in the English secondary school system. KCL/Edge Foundation.

[x] Elliot Major, L., Parsons, S. (2022) The forgotten fifth: examining the early education trajectories of teenagers who fall below the expected standards in GCSE English language and maths examinations at age 16. UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies

[xi] Save our Subjects (2023)

[xii] Heidi Ashton & David Ashton (2022) Creativity and the curriculum: educational apartheid in 21st Century England, a European outlier?, International Journal of Cultural Policy

[xiii] Selwyn, N. (2019) What’s the problem with Learning Analytics? Journal of Learning Analytics Vol 6(3), 11–19

[xiv] DfE (2019) Teacher Workload Survey, Research Report

[xv] Francis Green (2020) Teachers under Pressure

[xvi] DfE/CooperGibson (2018) Factors affecting teacher retention

[xvii] NFER Teacher autonomy: how does it relate to job satisfaction and retention? (2020)

[xviii] Institute for Fiscal Studies (2023) Analysis of Education Spending in England 2022.