Pearson Written evidence (EDU0093)


Pearson is the world’s largest education business, supporting over 160 million learners of all ages across 200 different countries. As both a leading digital media learning company and a regulated awarding body, we sit at the nexus of schools, colleges, employers and providers.

In the UK, Pearson Qualifications offers GCSEs, A Levels, BTECs, T Levels, Apprenticeships and Higher Nationals to learners of all ages. This gives us a unique perspective on education in the UK covering both General Qualifications, and Vocational Qualifications - with expertise in the 11-16 educational phase.


Pearson’s response to the committee

We are pleased to have the opportunity to submit written evidence to this important inquiry, further to the oral testimony of Thursday 30th March 2023 from Sharon Hague, Managing Director of School Qualifications and Assessment at Pearson.

In this submission, we share insights into the ways in which all actors in the system can affect change. In particular, Pearson recently undertook an inquiry into the Future of Qualifications and Assessment, based upon a survey of 6000 individuals – learners, parents, teachers, employers, policymakers, and politicians. Our consultation response is underpinned by this research, as well as from evidence gathered from the thousands of 11-16 learners who undertook Pearson qualifications last year.

We would be delighted to expand on any of the answers or data points given, where helpful for the committee’s endeavours.

Key Points

  • Students, teachers and parents all see the merits of taking GCSEs.  According to our recent inquiry, 75% of parents and students valued qualifications, including GCSEs, because they provide an externally validated, independent assessment of students’ performance.
  • Summative assessments act as an indicator that underpins destination pathways. GCSEs and other vocational qualifications such as BTECs are important markers of what young people can do and know. With over 50% of students moving institutions at 16, these qualifications are important in supporting students and families to make the right choices for their progression pathway – and for institutions in their selection processes.
  • However, there is room for improvement in the current system. Around 100,000 learners each year fail to make the grade at 16 for English and Maths, with disadvantaged learners disproportionately impacted. There is a clear need to solve this problem.  
  • Change must be delivered through evolution, not revolution. Given the existing pressures on the school system, it is evident that teachers, learners, parents and employers would prefer incremental improvements implemented at a sustainable pace.

We suggest that improvements should be focussed on the following areas:

  • The 11-16 curriculum and associated qualifications must inspire a love of learning. We want to give young people the knowledge and the skills that will prepare them for a rapidly evolving digital and green economy and give them the confidence and tools to continue to learn throughout their lives.
  • Updating and modernising content within existing frameworks: As an example, Pearson has initiated a new, future-focused design and technology curriculum. Learning from this, we might further explore where there are opportunities to revisit the content of existing courses - for example, introducing data science and informatics into GCSE maths.
  • We need greater flexibility and choice between academic and vocational pathways. Six in ten teachers say schools should offer more vocational qualifications, while 50% of secondary teachers say teachers need more freedom to enrich pupils’ skills beyond academics.
  • We should reconsider assessment formats, beyond end-of-course, written exams. Our stakeholders have articulated a strong preference for regular assessments throughout the year – many GCSEs already contain coursework, fieldwork, observations and internal assessment and we should encourage a range of assessment formats beyond end of course, written exams.
  • We must better integrate technology across the school system. The technology for personalised learning and onscreen assessment already exists. We now need a strategy that makes rapid improvements to digital infrastructure and the digital curriculum.


1.     How effective is 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?

1.1 The 11-16 curriculum and any associated qualifications must inspire a love of learning in young people. Providing the knowledge and skills that will prepare them for a rapidly evolving digital and green economy is crucial. We have recently undertaken research to better understand the perceptions of the current curriculum and the opportunities for improvement. 


Existing perceptions of the 11-16 curriculum: 

1.2   Employers that participated in Pearson’s inquiry into the Future of Qualifications and Assessment felt students lacked the necessary skills to thrive at work.[1] Our research found:

1.3   This is corroborated by teachers. The 2022 Pearson Schools Report found that over half of teachers believe a “better digital curriculum” is needed to prepare pupils for an online world and 77% believe digital literacy should be formally incorporated into the curriculum. 


Opportunities for improvement: 

1.4   As a first step, an improved digital curriculum will require the necessary devices, digital infrastructure and agreed standards for high quality digital learning across our school system[2]. This will support students from all socio-economic backgrounds to develop the necessary digital literacy for the modern workplace. 

1.5   Efforts to then modernise the curriculum for individual subjects must be delivered through evolution, not revolution. Given the existing pressures on the school system, it is evident that teachers, learners, parents and employers would prefer incremental improvements implemented at a sustainable pace. 

1.6   The rules and guidelines around general qualifications, particularly about what should be contained within a particular subject, sit with DfE - and the high-level decisions about assessment structure sit with DfE and Ofqual. However, there are opportunities for individual exam boards - or exam boards collectively - to identify opportunities to modernise content, and build skills or change the format of an assessment. 

1.7   As an example, Pearson has initiated a new, future-focused design and technology curriculum. This has been developed with cross-sector organisations, including Google and Microsoft, and challenges learners to design solutions that address key global issues. More details here.

1.8   Learning from this new D&T curriculum, we might further explore where there are opportunities within the existing framework to look at the content of some particular subjects.  For example, introducing data science and informatics into GCSE and A-level maths.


  1. What technical and vocational options are available to young people in the 11-16 phase, and how attractive are these?

2.1   Pearson is a significant advocate of technical and vocational education, and we offer a range of vocational qualifications (including BTECs, T-Levels, Higher Nationals and Apprenticeships) alongside general qualifications (such as GCSEs and A-levels).

2.2   Focusing on the 11-16 phase, Pearson’s BTEC Level 1 and 2 qualifications offer young people the opportunity to sample different industries, whilst developing the skills and knowledge needed to progress in their chosen specialism.


Existing perceptions of technical and vocational options:

2.3   Teachers are supportive of technical and vocational options. Pearson’s School Report found that six in ten teachers say schools should offer more vocational qualifications, while 50% of secondary teachers say teachers need more freedom to enrich pupils’ skills beyond academics.[3]

2.4   According to our Future of Qualifications and Assessment polling, a sizeable proportion of parents (21%) and learners (26%) felt there is not enough choice for students in the range of subjects available to study or the qualifications available - while a quarter of young people aged 14 to 19 see their choices as limited in these areas.  

2.5   The same research revealed that young people and their parents place equal value on academic and vocational qualifications in employment outcomes.  44% of students and 62% of parents strongly agree that all qualifications taken at school are equal in helping you achieve a successful career. 


Opportunities for improvement: 

2.6   As it stands, learners are currently expected to make decisions about vocational or technical options at KS5, despite having – for the most part – no exposure to them during the 11-16 phase.

2.7   There is a real opportunity to promote a broader curriculum for this educational phase, with a renewed focus on vocational and technical options, and to introduce new disciplines that more closely reflect what students will be required to do later in their career.

2.8   For example, Pearson has developed a Technical Award in Sustainability and we look forward to submitting at the next submission window later this year. The qualification will provide the knowledge and skills required to develop a practical understanding of the role of sustainability.

2.9   Ultimately, if we are serious about encouraging people to consider different routes through education – and showcasing vocational and technical options – we need to think more carefully about the secondary curriculum. 


  1. What is the impact of the 11-16 system on the motivation and confidence of pupils of all abilities?

3.1   Our Future of Qualifications and Assessment inquiry found that, for the most part, objective assessment of a student’s learning helps motivation and also provides a useful external benchmark of their development. However, efforts must be taken to ensure that the 11-16 system works for pupils regardless of their prior attainment.

3.2   It is particularly important to recognise that one in three people currently fail to achieve Grade 4 at 16 for English and maths – around 100,000 each year – and around two thirds of that group still do not hit the mark upon resitting. This means a significant proportion of young people cannot demonstrate the literacy and numeracy skills that they need to progress. Ultimately, this risks losing valuable talent from education and the workforce at the age of 16.

3.3   While GCSEs work for the majority, a small but important minority are unable to reach the standard needed and require an alternative. It is wrong to prematurely narrow their options, denying them choice and putting barriers in the way of success.

3.4   We would therefore suggest that the policy of retaking GCSE Mathematics and English until 18 requires an urgent rethink. There are several examples of Level 2 Mathematics qualifications which are designed to offer alternatives to GCSEs, but without the stigma of resitting and that are more age appropriate. Smaller sized qualifications may also help motivate learners and support the building of confidence.

3.5   In addition, developing higher order literacy and numeracy set within vocational contexts can be motivating for students in the post 16 phase.

3.6   For some learners a smaller core of subjects may enable them to access more creative or practical subjects, which may inspire and support their own progression into work or further study.


  1. How effective are GCSEs as a means of assessing the achievements of all pupils at the end of the 11-16 phase?

4.1   A young person’s education experience is significantly shaped by the qualifications and assessments they encounter. It is therefore hugely important that GCSEs offer a valuable and effective touchpoint for pupils at 16.

4.2   A good system must equip individuals with the tools they need to thrive, facilitating access to work and engaging in life beyond school. It should be progressive, promoting choice, and contain a broad and inclusive curriculum that exposes students to a variety of experiences to support their development of knowledge and skills.

4.3   Our research – and particularly our recent Future of Qualifications and Assessment inquiry –shows that GCSEs are versatile and valued qualifications. However, there is a clear opportunity to improve the system further. 


The role of GCSEs:

4.4   Students, teachers and parents all see the merits of taking GCSEs.  According to our inquiry, 75% of parents and students valued qualifications including GCSEs because they provide an externally validated, independent assessment of students’ performance. 

4.5   GCSEs ensure that students receive recognition and a qualification in a wide range of disciplines that they might never study again. Pearson offers 75 different GCSE specifications and, as just one example, 600 students a year take our Astronomy GCSE.   

4.6   Moreover, with over 50% of students moving institutions at 16, these qualifications are important in supporting students and families to make the right choices for their progression pathway – and for institutions in their selection processes.

4.7   We also found that employers recognise the value of GCSEs, with 78% saying that they are important. In fact, 1 in 5 employers felt that GCSEs were “critical”.


Reliability of GCSE grades: 

4.8   Pearson takes its responsibility for delivering accurate and reliable grades very seriously. We therefore make significant investments to ensure the reliability of our marking process. 

4.9   Ofqual research in 2018 found that marking consistency in England is comparable to other key jurisdictions around the world. Consistency and reliability of marking does vary by subject, and therefore the probability of receiving a definitive grade.

4.10      For example, subjects such as History and English which are assessed largely by essay questions have a lower reliability than a subject such as maths, where less expert judgement is required to accurately apply a mark scheme.  

4.11      We lead the industry in ensuring that all of our qualifications are marked to the highest standard. We recruit over 24,000 experts every year. These experts have on average 10 years of examining experience. They are trained on real candidate responses and monitored throughout their marking by a supervising expert and by our seeded items which are pre-marked candidate responses so we can compare in real time the ‘true score’ of an item with a mark awarded by an examiner. This process ensures that we have reliable metrics by which we can have confidence in the marks and grades we issue.  

4.12      The probability of receiving a definitive grade varies depending on which mark you have (and how close you are to another grade boundary) and between subjects. We know that for subjects with essay questions, History and English, for example, it is reasonable for two experts to award two different marks to the same essay (25 or 26 out of 40).  

4.13      This view is shared by Jo Saxton, the Chief Regulator, and articulated in an Ofqual podcast[4], in which she confirms that this does not mean that 1 in 4 grades are wrong, but that method of assessing these subjects means that there is some expert judgement required. Assessing subjects such as English in a way to ensure complete reliability, by including MCQs and short answer questions only, would be of detriment to the learner experience of the subject and would not allow them to express their analysis or conclusions in long form.  

4.14      There are also processes in place for schools to challenge grades if necessary. 4% of GCSE grades were challenged in 2022 - and, of these, less than 1% were changed as a result of that challenge process suggesting that students accept the grades awarded.


International approaches to high-stakes assessment

4.15      In many ways, England’s approach to high-stakes assessment at 16 and 18 are in line with international practices. 

4.16      Two thirds of high performing jurisdictions use external assessment at the end of basic secondary education, either exclusively or in addition to internal assessment. This includes the Republic of Ireland, Poland, Estonia, and Belgium’s French-speaking community.   

4.17      However, England is arguably an outlier when it comes to the number of hours involved per assessment. Whilst the exact total will differ depending on the subject mix chosen by the student and school, there is room for improvement when it comes to reducing the cumulative hours of assessment for mandatory subjects. 


Opportunities for improvement: 

4.18      Pearson would advocate for certain, incremental improvements to make the system more effective. Our full suggestions will be explored in greater detail across different answers of this submission, with a focus on: 

4.19      Change must be based on good evidence and introduced at a sustainable place. We absolutely must not underestimate the pressure that dramatic reform can place on teachers, students and parents. All stakeholders must have sufficient time to implement any changes successfully.


  1. What alternative methods of assessment for measuring progress could be considered either alongside or instead of GCSEs?

5.1   Pearson is confident that GCSEs are important and valued qualifications - but there is definitely scope to evolve the methods of assessment incorporated into existing GCSE qualifications or that sit alongside GCSEs. 

5.2   Any changes would predominantly need to be driven by Ofqual and the Department for Education, in consultation with key stakeholders such as schools, colleges and awarding bodies. 

5.3   As an awarding organisation, a key priority would be to ensure that any form of assessment is reliable in terms of outcomes; with standardised task-setting that is fairly delivered, in controlled conditions. We would also want to be confident that any methods are implementable at scale – being mindful of teachers’ time and the volume of teaching hours required to implement different assessment methods. 


Opportunities to evolve existing GCSE model: 

5.4   The current system currently favours terminal, end-of-course, written examinations. However, across our Future of Qualifications and Assessment inquiry, respondents articulated a strong preference for regular assessments throughout the year - with more coursework, fieldwork, observations and internal assessment.

5.5   Across all groups – learners, parents, teachers, school/college leaders, and employers - 73% of those surveyed favoured some form of continuous assessment or coursework over exams. 

5.6   Furthermore, 70% of teachers said that regular assessments throughout the year marked by teachers is “very effective”, compared to 33% who said the same for a final high-stakes exam. 

5.7   In a separate survey of a thousand secondary and FE teachers, over 80% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that "it is better to award qualifications based on continuous student assessment throughout KS4 and KS5 rather than rely on final high stakes exams alone"[5]. 


Possible alternatives alongside GCSEs:

5.8   Our research is clear that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to GCSE maths and English fails too many learners. As it stands, a third of 16-year-olds each year fail to secure a standard pass (Grade 4) in English and/or maths - and these individuals are typically from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is a “cliff edge” for many and research suggests young people find perceived failure at this stage in their academic career to be difficult to recover from academically and more holistically. 

5.9   Learners need to acquire the numeracy and literacy skills required to access higher technical education, and beyond that, into work. Relevant, alternative qualifications should therefore be made available and clearly understood by further and higher education institutions and employers. 


  1. How does the school accountability system affect the 11-16 curriculum?

6.1   In Pearson’s view, accountability measures should follow, not lead, good curriculum and assessment policy. There needs to be a degree of adaptability to allow schools to deliver the curriculum their pupils need.  


6.2   However, our “Future of Assessment and Qualifications” inquiry found that almost all of what is taught in the 14-19 phase is too often dictated by what is assessed at both the end of KS4 and KS5 and this has a narrowing effect on what students are exposed to.

6.3   As demonstrated by our Future of Qualifications and Assessment research, most teachers feel that using grades to judge performance of either schools or teachers is valid - but only to “some extent”. Even when considering more learner-centred purposes of providing feedback or supporting progression, most felt that grades should not dominate.

6.4   Meanwhile, students, parents, employers, and teachers want a 14-19 education system that opens opportunities for young people for success in their adult lives. Many of those taking part in our consultation were keen to point out that qualifications form an important part of a broader, balanced curriculum offer.

6.5   We suggest that a coherent curriculum framework should set out first what should be taught and learned, and then appropriate assessment can follow. A single framework that shows a clear curriculum journey through the 14–19 phase of education – making links between the purpose of education, learning at the various stages, and expected outcomes – would be beneficial to all.

6.6   A good example of where a single framework could have a positive impact is in considering the policy that currently requires learners to continue to work towards Grade 4 GCSE Mathematics and English beyond Key Stage 4, where evidence suggests it may be failing to address the problem it aims to solve.


  1. What role can technology play in education in this phase, including in assessment, the personalisation of learning and reducing teachers' workload?

7.1   Expectations are changing across the UK’s increasingly digital education system. 77% of teachers we surveyed agreed that teaching and assessment should reflect the technology that students engage with elsewhere in their lives. 

7.2   There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to technology, but there is ample opportunity to boost the validity of assessment, further personalise learning and reduce teachers’ workload.


Onscreen Assessment: 

7.3   Onscreen assessment can facilitate a far more modern, flexible, and inclusive examination model for young people. According to Pearson’s research, 70% of teachers feel onscreen assessment will provide faster, better insights about students’ performance, helping to improve teaching and learning.   

7.4   To a large extent, the technology for onscreen assessment is already here – and is being deployed across different qualifications and different markets.  By way of an international comparison:


7.5   Pearson is leading the way when it comes to delivering high-stakes assessment, and particularly with regards to GCSEs:

7.6   Moreover, onscreen assessment is already being used successfully across a broad range of qualification types and assessment models – including vocational and professional testing:


The Pathway to Onscreen Assessment: 

7.7   Change will not, and should not, happen overnight. We need to build a sustainable roadmap – supported with appropriate funding – which takes incremental steps towards a more digital future and manages any risks associated with the transition. 

7.8   While the technology exists, practical barriers still need to be tackled. These include providing digital infrastructure such as access to devices and reliable internet. As it stands, only 2% of schools in England offer a 1:1 device to student ratio.  

7.9   In contrast, schools in the US have a much higher ratio of devices per child, and the children typically can take these devices home. Children from households that do not have access to the internet in the US are given digital cards so they can access data as needed.

7.10      It will also take time to provide students with the digital skills for onscreen assessment. When surveyed, 59% of secondary teachers feel the current curriculum does not provide learners with the necessary digital skills to take onscreen exams. We need to ensure there is a level playing field for children from different backgrounds with different degrees of digital literacy.

7.11      Increasing digital literacy is a priority for teachers too. We found that 95% of teachers need more support such as regular CPD to make the most of onscreen solutions and increase their confidence in its use.   

7.12      We therefore advocate for a coordinated strategy and associated funding package that can tackle the barriers preventing wider adoption of onscreen assessment. Technology in assessment is important for developing skills for the world we live in: the assessment system needs to better reflect this, including the government’s wider digital skills agenda.


Automated Marking:

7.13      The use of technology in the system goes beyond the actual test taking. In the US, automated marking is used extensively. For example, scripts may be marked once by a human marker and then further verified using artificial intelligence – or twice marked by AI, with anomalies flagged and checked by a real person.

7.14      This technology will allow us to make steady improvements to the marking process. The artificial intelligence used in the US helps to improve the quality of marking and speeds up formerly manual processes. 

7.15      The technology can also identify potential malpractice, plagiarism and safeguarding issues in candidates’ work, which will likely become all the more relevant with the rise of generative AI platforms such as ChatGPT.


Personalised Learning: 

7.16      Technology can also facilitate a much more personalised approach to learning - whilst simultaneously reducing teacher workloads. 

7.17      To offer a case study, Pearson’s ActiveHub is the next step in digital teaching, bringing together assessment, rich data insights and next generation independent intervention practice. The ActiveHub platform gives teachers a clear view of students' performance and progress. As students complete their tasks, the results automatically feed an Insights Dashboard so teachers can easily identify any learning gaps that need addressing.

7.18      With a deeper understanding of student needs, teachers can assign tailored learning activities, from Pearson’s diverse and inclusive content, which can be accessed by students using a connected device in school or at home. These might include videos, ready-made PowerPoints, worksheets and auto-marked activities.

7.19      Technology also plays a role in helping to scale good practice, provide integrated synchronous and asynchronous learning to encourage independent learning and enable the use of excellent teaching in shortage subjects across multiple sites. 


10 May 2023



[1] Future of Qualifications and Assessment, March 2022             

[2] Data from the British Education Suppliers Association shows that in 2019 the average primary school had 75.4 computers and the average secondary school had 386.6.

[3] Pearson School Report, June 2022

[4] Ofqual Podcast: Reliability of exam marking August 2022

[5] Pearson - Qualified to Succeed: Building a 14-19 education system of choice, diversity and opportunity (March 2022)