In a large hall are 200 people, all sat behind small desks arranged into a grid. For three hours, they engage in a curious ritual. These people will attempt to answer a series of questions in a way that they think will net them the highest score. They cannot talk to one another, or to anyone outside the hall. They cannot view any information beyond a few authorised books or sources — and yet the result of these three hours could quite literally determine the rest of their lives.
I could be describing a scene from Imperial China a thousand years ago, back when exams served as a way to test and select candidates for government positions, but I'm actually talking about the British A-Level exams in 2019. Oddly, the creators of these exams acted as if study and work were solitary pursuits that depended largely on rote memorisation. Clearly this has never been the case, but in the age of the internet and the dawn of ubiquitous connectivity it had become a dangerous falsehood.
Yet while these exams were taking place, an entirely different model of learning and assessment was being recognised for the first time, and I actually have a token of it here: a digital 'record of achievement’ from 2019 belonging to Ellie Vinge, a 17-year-old from Newcastle who'd just completed her third personal project and had just been accepted to study at the University of Cambridge.
According to this record, Ellie had co-written and produced an original play about the Arab Spring, attracting about 200 people during its three performances and another 7,000 views online. She hadn't done it on her own — Ellie had collaborated with playwrights in the US, authors in Scotland, and lighting technicians from her local theatre during its four months of planning, and she'd received a small amount of funding and support from the Braid. In the opinion of the community that reviewed her work and correspondence, Ellie had demonstrated a solid understanding of logistics and organisation, along with an admirable perseverance at improving her online collaboration skills. With the addition of her previous engineering and biology-focused projects, she was viewed as an ideal student for Trinity College.
Ellie Vinge was among more than a thousand British 15- and 16-year-olds who chose independent study instead of the traditional A-Level exams. Some were unhappy that the existing schooling system wouldn't allow them to use modern tools in their study; why, they wondered, should they be forced to memorise reams of information when it was equally important to be able to find information and collaborate online? Others wanted to learn from and mix with adults, and produce work that would make a useful contribution towards society.
All were united in the belief that school was needlessly constraining, suited more towards an arcane industrial model of work. It's hardly surprising that this was their reaction — it was only in the 19th and 20th centuries that societies began thinking of 16-year-olds as anything other than responsible adults. As Dr. James Maitland of Glasgow University noted in 2018, "Standardised testing means standardised thought — and that's not what anyone wants or needs any more."
The 'independent' system wasn’t very organised, being an outgrowth of the existing homeschooling movement, although some guidelines and rules did emerge. Many parents would contribute towards shared lab and computing facilities, and teenagers usually posted daily updates of their progress online — partly to share expertise, and partly as a record of their work for their mentors. Education historian Marcus Newell explains the first 'independents':
"They took a risk by opting out of formal education. That meant they were either upper-middle class students with enough financial security to fail, or students who lived in areas with poor schooling and had few other options. Often they were ambitious, preferring to pursue their own interests — but at the same time, they still understood the importance of mentorship."
In the early years, there was a great deal of confusion about the role of the volunteer mentors, who came from across the academic, business, and creative worlds. Were they actually assessing the work, and if so, what were their qualifications? How could they prevent cheating? Was cheating even possible in such an open system?
The most common solution was to use trust networks to establish the validity of students' work and certify their records of achievement; Ellie used the Eduhub network (a branch of Github, the software project host). These networks didn't provide any kind of quantified mark or grade; instead, the quality of the work and the student was left for individual organisations to decide. This caused problems for the amusingly named 'human resource' departments of big businesses that preferred to filter candidates based on basic and easily gameable qualifications, but proved to be a genuine boon for organisations that appreciated being able to see relevant work in detail.
The adoption of records of achievement settled a long-standing argument in the UK between those who felt that the purpose of formal education was vocational — in other words, as training for work — and those who adhered to the liberal arts view that it should help produce rounded and intelligent citizens. Neither view had wholly won out in the 20th century, particularly within the overstructured environment of schools. Certified records of achievement, however, harkened back to the days of apprenticeships, with their focus on mentors and students. To this relationship they added a large measure of flexibility, with students such as Ellie given the support to find their own way in their own time.
With intrinsic structural changes taking place in the economy, the government's tacit encouragement of records of achievement in the 2021 Budget showed great foresight; in the coming decades, expert systems and automation were to become increasingly powerful, consuming more of the low and medium-skilled jobs that students in earlier generations could have walked into. The only way out was up, and that meant learning how to learn.
And what about our student, Ellie Vinge? She studied Engineering at Cambridge for a year and then promptly dropped out, unhappy at not being able to work on her own projects. She studied at home for another year and created her own electronic products. Eventually she moved to Gujurat in 2022 to co-found Roproduction, one of India's largest consumer robotics companies.