Standards and Assessment


Since the 1980s and the introduction of the National Curriculum (see Commentary on Curriculum) a national system of tests and assessments has been developed. Results are published. The testing system is monitored by the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulator (Ofqual) which regulates qualifications, exams and tests in England and accredits and monitors qualifications in colleges and at work. Ofqual also has a remit to assess standards over time and issues regular reports. The Standards and Testing Agency sets the tests to assess children in education from early years to the end of key stage 2.

The Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) was set up in 1992 to provide a regular inspection system for schools. The Annual Report of the Chief Inspector of Schools gives a national picture of standards across English schools inspected during the previous year.

The National framework of assessment

The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) sets standards for the learning, development and care of children from birth to 5 years old. All schools and Ofsted-registered early years providers must follow the EYFS, including childminders, preschools, nurseries and school reception classes.

For ages 6 to 14 there is a system of subject based national tests (Standard Assessment Tests or SATs) taken by all pupils at the end of key stages 1 and 2 (around the ages of 7 and 11) based on the National Curriculum. Key stage 1 tests are not formal tests but teacher assessments. 6 year olds also now have a phonics test. At key stage 2 in Year 6, aged around 11, written tests are set and externally marked. The results are known before children leave primary school in July. The requirement for national testing at 14 was dropped in 2009 and replaced with teacher assessments. Up until now level descriptions from 1 to 8 have been used to make judgements about student performance up until age 14. Level 5 is the expected attainment of the majority of students at 14.

GCSE is still usually taken at the end of key stage 4, at age 16, and the number of boards setting these examinations has been reduced. AQA, OCR and Edexcel are the largest. The exams are subject based and students can be awarded one of nine grades. Grades A* to C represent what is called a Level 2 qualification. Grades D to G represent a Level 1 qualification. Those who fail are given a U grade. At key stage 5, there are AS (Advanced Subsidiary) exams taken in Year 12 and A Levels (A2) completed in Year 13. They are graded A* to E.

Floor Standards

The Secretary of State has set targets for primary and secondary schools. These have been raised regularly and currently intervention is triggered at primary level when at the end of KS2 fewer than 65 per cent of pupils reach Level 4+ in English and Maths and pupils make below average progress in English and Maths. At secondary level the target is that at KS4 fewer than 40 per cent of pupils gain 5+ GCSEs at grades A*-C including English and Maths and pupils make below average progress in English and Maths.

Performance Tables

The SATs, GCSEs and A Levels results are published in the DfE performance tables. The tables (usually referred to as League Tables) are intended to inform parental choice of school and to make judgements about how well the education system is working. They have been published since 1992. At GCSE, the rankings show the percentages of pupils gaining each grade. The main emphasis is on the percentage gaining 5 A*-C grades including English and Maths but much more data is now in the tables, for example including progress for low, middle and high attaining pupils and the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals.

In 2010, because of concern that too few pupils were studying a foreign language and History or Geography to GCSE, the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) was created. The EBacc recognises pupils who gained A*-C grades in specified subjects: English, Maths, two Sciences, a Foreign Language and either History or Geography. The number of vocational qualifications recognised as equivalent to GCSEs in the KS4 Performance Tables was drastically reduced and courses which had been counted as equivalent to several GCSE now count only as one. This has had an effect on the performance tables.

However there are extensive changes on the way as outlined below.


Ofsted was set up in 1992, although there was a national publicly funded inspection system before then (Her Majesty’s Inspectorate - HMI). Inspection reports are published. Mini-inspections of particular subjects are also undertaken. The framework for inspections has been adjusted over the years. Currently schools are judged as outstanding, good, requiring improvement or inadequate. All schools whose overall effectiveness is judged to be inadequate (those that have serious weaknesses or require special measures) will be deemed to be in a formal category of “schools causing concern”. Schools judged as requires improvement are not deemed to be causing concern. Recently Ofsted has started to publish more informal information about what schools can expect during inspections. Parent View on the Ofsted website allows parents to make comments on their child’s school.

There is an annual report from the Chief Inspector based on the inspections done in the previous year. For example the latest report expressed concerns including about leadership, the need for high quality teachers to meet the needs of disadvantaged areas and secondary schools’ provision for the most able. However it said that two thirds of those schools re-inspected this year that were previously judged as requires improvement got to good or outstanding following a tailored programme of challenge and support from Her Majesty’s Inspectors.


Results for KS2 in 2014 published in December 2014 reported that 79 per cent of pupils achieved level 4 or above in all of reading, writing and mathematics, compared to 75 per cent in 2013, and 24 per cent of pupils achieved Level 5 or above in all of reading, writing and mathematics compared to 21 per cent in 2013.

KS4 students receive their results in August when there is extensive media coverage but official results do not come out until later after confirmation with the schools. The revised GCSE results for the year 2014 were published in January 2015 and showed that 56.6 per cent of pupils achieved 5 or more GCSEs or equivalent at grade A*-C (including English and mathematics) and 24.2 per cent of pupils at the end of KS4 achieved the English Baccalaureate in 2013/14.

For some time there has been a focus on the comparison between the attainment of disadvantaged pupils and others. A recent analysis indicates some improvement but changes to GCSEs make year on year comparisons unreliable.

Current issues

How schools are assessed both by examination and by inspection is the area which has seen the most fundamental changes in recent years. The revision of the National Curriculum in any case means that KS4 examinations would have had to change. New examinations at the end of KS4 are to be introduced in stages. AS levels will be a stand alone qualification not essentially part one of the A level. The Ofsted framework for inspection has undergone several revisions.

Key stage 2 assessments will be reported in terms of levels for the last time in 2015. After that there will be a move to a new “scaled score” which the schools will devise for themselves. A new Commission has been announced to help this change for primary schools.

From 2016, 5 A*-C including GCSE English and mathematics will no longer be the headline accountability measure or floor standard and from 2017 new GCSE qualifications will be awarded and grades A*-C will be replaced by a new grading system from 9-1.

KS4 performance tables will change completely from the 2015/16 academic year. Progress 8 will be a calculation of the progress made in eight subjects compared to pupils of similar prior attainment. Attainment 8 will be the average of points across the eight subjects. English and Maths will be required to be included and be weighted more in these measures. The tables will also record the percentage of pupils achieving the equivalent of level C and above in English and Maths and the percentage of pupils achieving level C or above in the EBacc subjects. A fifth measure based on the destination of pupils may be introduced.

From 2016 the floor standards will be based on the Progress 8. The floor standard will be missed if schools make an average of half a grade less progress than expected across the eight subjects. To meet concerns about grade inflation Ofqual intends to test a sample of the cohort taking GCSE in a national reference test. Details of this test are yet to be confirmed but the National Foundation for Education Research (NFER) is expected to produce these.

Performance tables for 16-19 year olds will also take into account progress (including for English and Maths which will be required) but will have to be different for different qualifications which may be taken at this stage. Drop out rates will also be involved and the destination of students after 19.

In 2014 the Education Select Committee studied the achievement of white working class children, making several recommendations including reference to early years and the work of the Education Endowment Foundation. The Government responded.

March 2015

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