‘Clunky’ Advanced British Standard risks ‘blunt choice’ for students, leaders warn

Ministers accused of 'putting the cart before the horse' with 16-19 reform plans

Ministers accused of 'putting the cart before the horse' with 16-19 reform plans

Government plans for a new Advanced British Standard qualification will create a “blunt choice” between academic and vocational routes for students and add to uncertainty over post-16 options, leaders have warned.

College membership bodies and school leaders’ unions have released responses to the government’s consultation on the proposal, which closes for submissions today.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak announced last year that the ABS will replace A-levels and T­ Levels in around 10 years, though an anticipated Labour election win means the policy is unlikely to ever come to fruition.

The government initially announced it would create a single qualification for post-16 study. But the consultation, published last December, set out plans for two – the ABS and the ABS (occupational).

In the National Association of Headteachers’ (NAHT) response, head of policy Sarah Hannafin warned the proposals hold “tightly to the traditional system in place now – a repackaging of the current A-level and T Level content, blunt choices for 16-year-olds, a focus on knowledge and assessment by examination”.

The creation of two routes at the outset “undermines” the parity of esteem between academic and technical education, she added. 

Hannafin said without “significant investment in the recruitment and retention of education staff these proposals are unworkable and undeliverable”.

The Association of Employment and Learning Providers added: “Although we agree with the ambition to remove the perceived ‘false divides’ between academic and technical education we question whether the ABS is the right vehicle in which to achieve this.”

Menu of options ‘already exists’

Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) post-16 specialist Kevin Gilmartin said the principle of a “high-quality menu” of options for young people “already exists in the 16-19 landscape in the form of over 60,000 students who mix and match A-levels with applied general qualifications”.

Gilmartin said it also “seems clear that, under these proposals, a majority of students would continue to take three majors, with some additional English and maths”.

“This does not, despite claims to the contrary, appear to represent a significant broadening of their curriculum.”

Under the government’s plans, students would study a set of subject majors and minors, and all would be required to study English and maths to 18.

But unions warned against considering 16 to 19 reform in isolation.

Hannafin said reform must be “considered as a coherent whole, from early years to key stage 5, and not in isolated silos of key stages or year groups”.

Gilmartin added the starting point for reform “should be a consultation on the underlying principles of what we want our students to study at the age of 16 to 19”.

By not taking this approach first, and “trying to make a clunky qualification ‘wrapper’ serve several purposes”, the government is “putting the cart before the horse”.

The Association of Colleges added that starting a major reform for all of the 16 to 18 learning phase by describing the qualifications “gets in the way of the wider set of design and implementation issues we believe are the main drivers for success”.

AoC chief executive David Hughes said: “Qualifications are simply measures of success used for progression; they should not define curriculum purpose or limit the educational experiences we want to provide for every young person.”

‘Driven by electoral considerations’

The Sixth Form Colleges Association warned the consultation “seeks views on how to reach the government’s preferred destination, but not on the destination itself”.

A “genuine consultation” would seek views on the “wisdom of scrapping A-levels (first sat in 1951) and T-levels (the government’s “gold standard” technical qualifications, first sat in 2022) and replacing them with a single qualification framework”.

“Instead, we are presented with a detailed consultation that seeks views on the principles that should underpin the design of ABS, but not on the fundamental principle of sweeping away all existing qualifications to make way for ‘a single menu of options’.”

They also warned the ABS was “widely perceived to be driven by electoral rather than educational considerations and to have been imposed on the Department for Education by the prime minister”.

The consultation’s proposal for two programmes “suggests that ministers have already reversed the original plan set out in October to introduce a ‘single qualification’. Successive U-turns on such fundamental issues do not inspire confidence”.

T Level planning ‘has suffered’

The plan to replace T Levels, which have only recently been introduced and have been fraught with problems, has prompted widespread concern.

The SFCA said schools and colleges had been pressed to sign up to the “once in a generation” reform of the qualifications system, but “now find T Levels will suffer the same fate as the BTEC qualifications they were supposed to replace”.

“Recruitment, morale and planning has suffered as a result,” they added.

Hannfin said she also feared some young people “will be forced to make a choice which will have a lasting impact on their futures, and yet they may not be ready to make that choice”.

It is not “clear how much flexibility there will be in enabling young people who make the ‘wrong’ choice at 16 to be able to change their route”.

The NAHT suggested creating a two-year programme “which students could ‘step off’ after one year and progress onto the level 3 qualification, move into work or work-based training if appropriate, or stay on to complete the ABS at level 2 with a further year of studies”.

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  1. When we asked CBI members what the ABS would ideally achieve, the most cited answer was parity of esteem and exposing a wider range of students to the benefits of technical study. But it was broadly felt that proposals for a two-tracked approach worked against this objective and the lack of breadth, for the ABS (occupational) pathway in particular, was a missed opportunity to explore how students can be encouraged to participate in technical study without forcing students to prematurely specialise into a particular occupational area.

    • Neil Richardson

      Do those who specialised early in a particular occupational area –
      welders, hairdressers, maths tutors – encounter less job
      satisfaction and lower remuneration than those who did
      not? Would an eagerness for courses with a broad theme
      be typical among most adolescents after secondary

      Neil Richardson
      West Yorks