Balancing Act: navigating the tensions in our schools system

In partnership with IPPR and Big Change


9th August 2023

CfEY has been delighted to support our wonderful founder and ex-CEO Loic Menzies with a new IPPR evidence review on tensions in our school system, supported by Big Change.

Balancing Act seeks to answer three connected questions:

  1. How can school systems fairly and effectively assess young people’s learning, recognise achievement beyond exams, and drive better school standards?
  2. What are the likely impacts and potential trade-offs involved in broadening the curriculum beyond just academic subjects for young people?
  3. What are the most effective ways school systems can support and improve young people’s wellbeing?

Each of the three chapters offers some suggested ways forward for policy and research, carefully navigating the tensions and trade-offs.

  • Assessment: the report explore the tensions between validity, reliability and real-world applicability. Reforming assessment involves risks, but improvements could be made by enhancing the assessment mix and reducing the high stakes nature of exams. Suggested ways forward include, but are not limited to:
    • a review of the balance between terminal exams and nonexamined components
    • a greater range of questions and task types in assessment
    • greater use of multi-year, rolling averages,
  • Curriculum: the report argues that the curriculum should maintain a focus on a core body of knowledge and skills – but leave room for a wider enrichment offer. Suggested ways forward include, but are not limited to:
    • A curriculum that guarantees all pupils an entitlement to a common body of knowledge and skills
    • Allowing schools the flexibility to shape a context-informed school curriculum
    • Increasing the breadth of subjects taken by A-level students; reconsidering changes to BTECs; and improving the offer to students resitting English and maths at key stage 5
  • Wellbeing: We are facing a profound mental health crisis among young people in England. The report calls for an urgent, substantive, cross-societal response. Suggests ways forward included, but are not limited to:
    • Schools can help ensure that more severe mental health challenges are identified and referrals to specialist services. However, we must acknowledge that many of the causes lie outside their control.
    • The school system is also often criticised for contributing to this crisis – but more evidence is needed to understand the possible links.
    • The experience of childhood in England needs to be transformed. Schools are part of an ecosystem of partners and services that can contribute to the cross-societal mission of giving young people a better start in life. Suggested approaches here include, but are not limited to:
      • Clearing bottlenecks that prevent access to specialist services
      • Equipping teachers with the knowledge and resources they need
      • Making the most of schools’ potential as hubs for specialist support and enrichment.

Download the report here.