A ‘British Baccalaureate’? What you need to know

New PM Rishi Sunak wants to reform post-16 education, but there are two big hurdles: time and the returning schools minister

New PM Rishi Sunak wants to reform post-16 education, but there are two big hurdles: time and the returning schools minister

27 Oct 2022, 11:09

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New prime minister Rishi Sunak reportedly wants to reform post-16 education with a new ‘British Baccalaureate’.

So, what do we know about the policy, and how likely is it to come to fruition?

FE Week has all you need to know…

1. Compulsory English and maths to 18, but 🤷 on the rest

Calls for some sort of Baccalaureate to replace GCSEs or A-levels have been around for some time.

The National Baccalaureate Trust published detailed plans earlier this year which would see pupils study English and maths up to 18, but also personal development and research projects, such as the Duke of Edinburgh.

The EDSK think tank proposed a new three-year baccalaureate to replace A-levels, BTECs and T-levels. EDSK director Tom Richmond said if government was “serious about boosting technical education, it must end the political obsession with A-levels”.

Returning DfE minister Robert Halfon has also previously called for GCSEs and A-levels to be scrapped and replaced with one “holistic baccalaureate” for 18-year-olds which recognises academic and technical skills and personal development.

There isn’t much meat yet to the proposed Sunak policy. It was one of the policies he put forward during his failed leadership bid earlier this year.

Sunak said a new “British Baccalaureate” would require all pupils to continue to study core subjects like English and maths in sixth form.

When asked at the time, his campaign would not provide a full list of subjects.

Two problems: the government is already struggling to recruit enough maths teachers, so would have to come up with a plan to recruit more.

The second is cash: post-16 education has seen the largest funding cuts of all education areas.

The British Baccalaureate policy was one of the key proposals in the recent Times Education Commission, which called for a “broader academic and vocational qualifications at 18, with parity in funding per pupil in both routes, and a slimmed-down set of exams at 16 to bring out the best in every child”.

2. Plans part of vocational education push

The Times reported a Downing Street source saying Sunak believed if there were “one silver bullet in public policy” that would improve lives, it would be investment in education and skills. “This is an absolute priority for the prime minister,” the paper reported.

Rather than pumping more funding into existing and well established colleges and providers, Sunak supposedly wants a new network of ‘elite’ technical institutes to transform vocational training. This was an idea also favoured by Liz Truss.

But the focus is very much on putting vocational schooling at the forefront of policy, The Times added.

Former skills minister Gillian Keegan, who left school at 16 to do an apprenticeship, has been made education secretary to oversee the drive.

Before it was announced he would be returning as skills minister, Halfon told the Times the new baccalaureate would see students “have a much wider curriculum so they get the skills that they need and employers want”.

He said Sunak was “supportive of vocational education because he understands to improve productivity we have to improve skills”. Halfon has long called for a baccalaureate system to “ensure pupils can access skills and vocational education as well as academic learning”.

3. But there are big barriers: time, and Nick Gibb

A big stumbling block to introducing any new major education reforms is time – the current government essentially has two years tops to drive through changes before a general election.

The current students starting A-levels last month won’t finish their courses until the summer of 2024, so such reforms would almost certainly need longer.

This could potentially mean the next two years are used to scope out the plans, with them becoming one of the Conservative government’s key education election pledges in 2024.

But, there’s still a likely blockage: returning schools minister Nick Gibb – a strong traditional education advocate who has driven education reform, based on those principles, for the best part of the last ten years.

A move from academic study at post-16 to a more vocational focus is unlikely to get his backing.

As one policy expert said: “I can’t see Gibb signing off the end of A-levels before an election.”

For a change, the Conservative government proposal would likely get support from unions.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the government must also be “more flexible in allowing and supporting a choice of subjects that students can study pre-16 which embraces technical and vocational education”.

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