Post-16 education in England is about to be transformed by a much-needed reform package or thrown into chaos by “unworkable gimmicks” introduced for short-term political gain. Delete according to taste. Or – a third alternative – nothing fundamental will end up changing at all. Words such as ‘could’ and ‘possibly’ pepper recent media reports of reforms that the prime minister may announce in the coming days or weeks, including the introduction of a new so-called ‘British baccalaureate’ for young people aged 16–18. There is a widespread view that the current post-16 curriculum is too narrow, with insufficient emphasis on technical and vocational qualifications that would enable young people to thrive in the modern workplace and turbo-charge sustainable economic growth in the coming decades. Life-Based Learning seeks to reimagine all sectors of education to ensure that young people are fully prepared to meet the life challenges of today and tomorrow.
It is possible, then, that proposals will emerge for a shakeup of A levels and other post-16 qualifications in England. About half of young people aged 16–18 in England currently take A levels, with most sitting exams in three subjects. Meanwhile, the new T level vocational qualification is currently being rolled out. Takeup has been lower than expected, however. There were 10,200 student starts across 16 T levels in 2022, compared with 5,210 across ten T levels in 2021 and just over 1,000 across the first three T levels in 2020, the inaugural year.
Rishi Sunak has previously floated the idea of all young people studying maths up to the age of 18, and during his unsuccessful leadership campaign against Liz Truss in the summer of 2022 he talked about a new baccalaureate qualification. In an interview with the Times, Sunak spoke of “a significant stride towards parity of esteem between vocational and academic education” and criticised the “overly narrow specialisation” of the current curriculum, which he said did not prepare young people for the “economy of tomorrow”.
The political context is a government far behind in the opinion polls just a year or so out from a general election and a prime minister keen to suggest that he is throwing off the shackles of the past and making decisions for the long term. Sunak’s opponents accuse him of recklessness, desperately trailing one ill-considered idea after another in a desperate bid to find something – anything – that shifts the political dials.
On the other hand, there are few who dispute the urgent need for reform or contest the broad principle of parity of esteem between different types of qualification. Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, for example, said that there was “merit in looking at increasing subject breadth in post-16 education but the idea of a ‘British baccalaureate’ is no more than a sketchy slogan, with the prime minister’s rehashed plan for compulsory maths until the age of 18 bolted on. Would the British baccalaureate replace A levels, T levels, BTECs and existing functional skills qualifications, incorporate them, or be layered on top of them?”
And as we have argued in blogs such as Fixing the school roof, funding is essential to turn rhetoric into reality. According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, further education colleges and sixth forms “saw larger cuts than other areas of education after 2010”. Even with additional funding announced in 2019 and 2021, college spending per pupil in 2024–25 “will still be around 5% below 2010–11 levels, while school sixth-form spending per sixth-form pupil will be 22% below 2010–11 levels”.
There is a growing consensus that the current education system is not fit for purpose – if by ‘purpose’ we mean preparing people to take their place in the modern, ever-changing world.
In 2022 the Times Education Commission delivered its report on the future of education. The year-long commission took evidence from more than 600 experts across fields including business, the arts and education. One of its recommendations was for a British baccalaureate, offering broader academic and vocational qualifications at 18 and less of a focus on exams at 16.
The commission heard that young people would leave education far better prepared if there was more focus on areas such as communication, creativity, problem solving and resilience. The businessperson Sir Charlie Mayfield, now a leading figure in the skills and apprenticeships sector, spoke of the disconnect between the world of education and the world of work:
Standards in education have always been measured by exams, assessments and grades, so it’s not surprising that this has been the focus. However, this is increasingly at the expense of what employers really value … resilience, communication and problem solving. How much time do young people spend developing those skills while studying for the mark scheme?Sir Charles Mayfield, quoted in the Times
Later the same year the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change published a report calling for “a radically different education system” in the UK. The report was part of its Future of Britain initiative, aiming to “meet the challenges the country faces in the decades ahead”.
Central to the report’s thinking was the need to “futureproof” education by focusing on developing skills to complement the technologies that will drive the next stage of economic development – “a world increasingly shaped by automation and artificial intelligence (AI)”. The workers of tomorrow, it said, will need the 4Cs – critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaborative problem-solving.
Many of the criticisms of the current education system in both reports resonate with the critique offered by Life-Based Learning, which is focused on reimagining education and on the idea that we need to be thinking and planning long-term, with the life challenges that we all face – now and in the future – front and centre.
Image at the head of this article by StockSnap from Pixabay.