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Digital exam readiness: think gas central heating, not smart meters.

In 1965, a discovery of North Sea gas reserves kick-started a 12-year conversion of 13M UK homes and 40M appliances to gas central heating and cooking by 1977. Moving from burning coal for 'town gas' to 'high speed gas' was hyperbolically called 'the biggest exercise since D Day’.

It was a planned, deliberate conversion. Requiring new infrastructure and adaptations, such as small bore pipes and pumps for small UK homes, connected to the national gas grid. ‘Wonderfuel’ gas for cooking and central heating was marketed as affordable, yet aspirational and evolutionary. Not cumbersome, inefficient, and environmentally troublesome, like coal fires and town gas.

There are eerie parallels to the challenge facing England’s schools with digital exam readiness and deployments: end-of-life infrastructure, nationwide deployment, incrementally replaced with new methods, better outcomes.

There are eerie similarities in England’s move to gas heating in the 1970s, and the move towards digital school exams.

So should big deployments be easier in 2024? In the school digital exam arena, this would be the deepest evolution since O Levels were introduced in 1951, and when exam authoring and marking were digitised in the 2000s. Should we follow a ‘modern gas’ playbook? Or take a tip from the more contemporary rollout of energy smart meters?

Starting in 2011, the roll-out of replacing UK home energy meters is a textbook example of weak project management - delayed, expensive, obsolescent tech rolled out at a snail’s pace, with a touch of operational chaos along the way.

Why? The energy sector struggled to engage consumers because the benefits were unclear. Nobody campaigned effectively for eliminating manual reading, more accurate billing, economic tariffs, real-time usage insights. Only when energy became eye-wateringly expensive did the benefits chime. Successful adoption relies on actively engaging users, encouraging their interaction. Sound familiar?

Energy providers could not articulate the benefits of smart meters to consumers. Campaigning was weak or non-existent. Sound familiar?

Yet most policy discussion on school digital exams has an incredibly narrow lens; a limited vista of small, incremental changes. Often blinkered by the policy makers' own (UK) education path. No plan, targets, comparisons, campaigning, or benefits articulated.

Employers, university admission officers, educators, regulators, and learners are all craving actionable assessment insights. To make better and quicker learning interventions. To match people to job opportunities. Apply to university with real results, not guesstimates. Get apprentices contributing to the workplace - adding value more quickly and effectively. Transforming teaching to take advantage of the digital present day.

England can get people interested, engaged, and motivated in large scale evolution. But you must tell them what the benefits are, and which problems it solves. And tell them again and again and again.

Clearly and succinctly state the benefits of digital exams and assessment. Then state them again. And again and again and again.

Some senior English citizens still remember the UK switching 13M homes to gas in 12 years. Many digital exam and assessment suppliers have spent the last quarter century delivering securely at scale. Let’s engage Exams Officers, Headteachers, Policy Folk, and others to ‘get cooking on gas’, not haul coal to keep a smouldering fire from going out.


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