Our assessment system is elaborate, extensive and expensive. The sheer number of tests and examination papers the system has to handle for pupils up to the age of 19 now exceeds 40 million annually. It was not designed as a coherent system of assessment.
During recent decades, a relatively simple system has been added to in a piecemeal way and, perhaps not surprisingly, has produced weaknesses that have made it a target of widespread criticism. At the same time it has undoubtedly played an important role in raising standards, including providing teachers and students with targets and measures of progress.
For 20 years or so there has been a continuing debate about the relative importance and weight that should be given to external assessment as against teacher assessment. This debate gathered pace at the time of the introduction of the national curriculum and key stage testing from 1988.
At that time only a minority of secondary teachers, and an even smaller minority of primary teachers, possessed the high level skills in assessment that would be essential to placing heavy reliance on teacher assessment. Today, however, it is different. The national curriculum and the associated assessment regime, together with the GCSE, have provided both primary and secondary teachers with a much clearer understanding of the standards involved. From a professional point of view, I would suggest that this could be the most significant consequence of the national curriculum and testing.
These have transformed teachers' understanding of what is to be taught and learned and their competence to assess what pupils or students achieve. This is at the heart of how and why there has been a rise in student achievement.
The most important development in assessment is undoubtedly what is now called "assessment for learning". This term has replaced the older term "formative assessment" to cover the means by which teachers gather and use evidence about teaching and learning to decide where students are in their learning and what changes are needed to help them take the next steps. It is about the teacher and pupil having: a clear understanding of the desired standard the student is seeking to reach; a recognition of the gap between the student's current performance and the desired standard; and a readiness of either or both of them to adjust what they do to help the student to close that gap.
It is becoming evident from research that assessment for learning has huge potential, as yet largely unexploited, to raise student achievement. For this reason, the Qualifications and Assessment Authority advised David Blunkett and Estelle Morris to invest in this field as a key means of improving teachers' assessment skills and they have encouraged us to develop this work.
It will take some time to discover the best practice in assessment for learning and disseminate it through the profession, but I cannot think of a better investment at the present time. By making a further contribution to teachers' assessment skills, it will enable us to place more reliance on their assessments and reduce the burden of external testing.
Some have argued we should abolish the GCSE immediately. In my view that would be a grave mistake. Suddenly to create a hole between key stage 3 tests and the AS and A-level examinations for 17 and 18-year-olds would, I believe, hinder rather than support continuity and progression in teaching and learning. All concerned with education and training - especially the learners and their teachers, parents and employers - should have a clear mental map of the national framework of qualifications.
Look at the framework of qualifications in its present form. Have we got it right? Part of the problem is the use of numbers as well as names. We should use one or the other, but not both. I would opt for names. The first three are very simple:
* Foundation. Here is where most people get a foothold in the qualifications framework (with an entry level before it).
* Intermediate. This is clearly a mid-point and would be a far better name for the GCSE, signalling unmistakably to all that they are meant to progress beyond it. The GCSE covers two levels, of course, but the grades D-G could usefully be called the Foundation level, since this would report what candidates have achieved rather than indicating what they have not achieved. And for those with a level 2 NVQ, this should normally be seen as the stepping stone to the next level.
* Advanced. This is already the best known name in the whole system and one that, as far as I know, no one wants to change or even to call Level 3. And why should not a level 3 NVQ be called an advanced NVQ to signal to employers that this qualification is at the same level as an academic or vocational A level?
Providing a clear and simple national framework of qualifications is surely an essential element of turning the 14-19 maze into a coherent 14-19 phase.
David Hargreaves is chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. This article is an extract from his speech to the QCA's annual conference on Tuesday. For the full text go to www.qca.org.uk