The Government is proposing a radical reform of secondary education. A-levels are to be “reformed” (in reality abolished) and replaced by a Baccalaureate system in which students over 16 will study a range of subjects in the two Sixth Form years, with both mathematics and English language and composition compulsory. It is not clear if this will be a full baccalaureate, in which you have to pass in all of the subjects to get the certificate, but it is still a radical and bold reform.
If adopted, this will bring England and Wales into line with most other European countries, where the Baccalaureate is the norm. Those of us who are products of the Scottish system will note the similarities to the long-standing system of Scottish Highers (one of my amusements is to confuse English people by revealing that while a graduate I do not have any A-levels and have never taken them). This will also be very similar to the Higher School Certificate (or “matriculation” as it was commonly called) taken by those who stayed on at school after 16 until it was abolished and replaced by A-levels in 1951.
Should we welcome this? Undoubtedly yes, on both pedagogical and economic grounds. A levels lead to specialisation at a ridiculously early age and remove much choice about the post school trajectory, whether at university or elsewhere. The idea of a broad-based education, found in Scotland and on the Continent, is surely better. The insistence on the study of mathematics and English will, if followed though, equip school leavers with a much wider and more useful range of capacities for their subsequent careers.
We should recognise however that this would be a massive and structural reform, reversing seventy years of policy. It would require a complete shakeup of secondary education and a major increase in the number of teachers overall but particularly in certain subjects, notably mathematics. This is not a simple project and one has to doubt that the Government has really thought through what the implications are, much less has a worked out plan of what it wants to achieve. Criticisms to this effect are therefore well taken. It is also true that this reform would lead to major changes in the way higher education works and is taught.
The real significance of such a change would be in terms of the content and general goal of secondary education and its later stage in particular. Since 1951, the main purpose of the final two years has been to prepare a minority of pupils for a specific and specialised kind of university education. The education of the majority has been largely ignored post-GCSE, with Further Education chronically underfunded and ignored.
A shift to a Baccalaureate would mean a move to a focus on a wider and more varied general education for a larger number of pupils and less emphasis on organising secondary education around access to university. This would be even more the case if this reform was combined with curricular change elsewhere, in particular greater emphasis on both technical and vocational education, on the German model (in that case a return to the original ideals of the 1944 Butler Education Act).
There are reasonable grounds for criticising these proposals as not fully thought through and their implementation not properly planned.
Why, though, is there so much opposition on (apparently) principle? Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson has described them as an “undeliverable gimmick”, an “unworkable policy, which will do nothing to raise standards”. The National Education Union said the “sketchy proposal” shows the Government “has failed to recognise that we have a deep teacher recruitment and retention crisis”.
The answer is depressing because it tells us something about how difficult it is to do any kind of policy reform today, for any government. The people who gain from the existing system have self-interested reasons to reject it. This leads to storms on social media and is too much of a temptation for opposition politicians. Just as two worked-out and practical solutions to the challenge of social care (by Andy Burnham and Theresa May) were sunk by disingenuous and opportunistic opposition from the other Party, so we may fear that this proposal, which should command wide support in principle, will suffer the same fate. This tells us something about the difficulty of addressing serious policy challenges today, and it is not good.