The UK government has now published details about its proposed new 16–19 qualification, and if we are to believe the spin, it is going to be fantastic. The Advanced British Standard – a new single qualification to replace existing A levels and T levels – will “put technical and academic education on an equal footing” and “address the challenges in post-16 education which have persisted for generations”. The education secretary says that it will “break down the barriers” between academic and technical routes and “transform post-16 education”. The schools minister talks of a “new, rigorous post-16 system”, offering greater breadth while maintaining depth and rigour. The minister for skills says it will “raise the floor and extend the ladder of opportunity”. There is nothing like setting a high bar.
Details of the proposed new qualification – first mooted during the Conservative leadership election last summer and discussed in our blog Transforming post-16 education – were announced by the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, in his leader’s speech at the Conservative Party’s annual conference in Manchester. A statement was issued by 10 Downing Street on the same day, and the Department for Education published a 39-page document called A world-class education system: The Advanced British Standard that provides additional detail and background.
There is a promise of extensive consultation over the coming months and a white paper next year (2024). The document also refers to a ten-year delivery timescale – meaning that the qualification, if it actually becomes reality, will be introduced in around 2033 or 2034 which is when children who are just beginning primary school now will be reaching the age of 16.
Details are somewhat sketchy at this stage but, as trailed prior to the official announcement, the headlines are that:
Students will take a larger number of subjects, at ‘major’ and ‘minor’ level, with most studying a minimum of five subjects at different levels, such as three majors and two minors. Students will have the freedom to take a mix of technical and academic subjects. And every student will for the first time be required to study “some form of maths and English” – note the vagueness of the wording.
It is, of course, impossible to separate this proposal from the political context – a point we discussed in more detail in Transforming post-16 education. It is also hard to escape the sense that this is politics on the hoof: one commentator noted that the Department for Education was posting effusively on X (formerly Twitter) about T levels on the very day that the prime minister was in effect signalling the qualification’s demise.
A 2033–34 start date is at least two general elections away, and as events of recent weeks have reminded us, there is no guarantee that proposals, firm plans or even cast-iron commitments will turn into reality – even if spade has already met ground. This is not to make a partisan point: as a Guardian editorial reminded us on Tuesday, the Labour Party in government also ducked the opportunity for root-and-branch reform when it in effect rejected the 2004 Tomlinson Report, which became a casualty of squabbling between the political parties ahead of a general election. To repeat: 2034 is at least two general elections – and who knows how many prime ministers – away.
Mike Tomlinson was specifically asked by the government to recommend – this sounds oddly familiar – “a unified framework of qualifications” to cover all types of learning. He did exactly as asked, proposing a 14–19 diploma to replace GCSEs, A and AS levels, and vocational qualifications like BTECs. However, by the time he delivered his report a general election was on the horizon and the then Conservative opposition promised to defend ‘gold standard’ A levels. (This was a period when it was widely claimed that standards in education were being ‘dumbed down’.)
It is perhaps no surprise then that the recent announcement by the Conservative government talks not of ‘replacing’ but of ‘building on the best’ and ‘bringing together the best’ of A levels and T levels. “Our intention,” to choose a random example, “is that majors will have comparable depth and rigour to A levels (with at least 90% of the content) so that they support progression, including to university.”
Even the name – Advanced British Standard – is curious. For starters, there is the use of the word ‘British’ when education is a devolved responsibility in the UK, meaning that – unless the education authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland choose to get involved – it will in fact be an England-only qualification.
There is also something jarring about the use of the words ‘advanced’ and ‘standard’ in the qualification’s name. Though the Department for Education’s discussion document refers to “a baccalaureate-style programme”, the precise term British Baccalaureate, which Sunak himself used on the campaign trail in 2022, seems to have been ditched.
As the term ‘EBacc’ – short for English Baccalaureate – is used to refer to a suite of GCSE qualifications, perhaps there was concern about possible confusion. Cynics might also suggest that the word ‘baccalaureate’ sounds altogether too continental for an administration that trumpets the idea of Global Britain and is allergic to even the suggestion of being under the sway of European thinking.
The image at this head of this article shows a section of a campaign poster issued by the Conservative Party.