Colleges should cautiously embrace the Advanced British Standard

Rishi Sunak’s long-term plan to merge A-levels and T Levels can only succeed with a plan for funding, staffing and capital, writes Jackie Grubb

Rishi Sunak’s long-term plan to merge A-levels and T Levels can only succeed with a plan for funding, staffing and capital, writes Jackie Grubb

5 Oct 2023, 15:53

Yesterday’s announcement regarding the Advanced British Standard presented a bold vision for the future of post-16 education. 

In light of the ever-shifting political landscape, it is clear that these proposals may undergo modifications or even bear a different name when transformed into official policy. Therefore uncertainty remains, notwithstanding potential consultations and the publication of a white paper. 

Nonetheless, these proposals challenge the existing status quo in post-16 education and open the door to substantial discussions on reforming the educational landscape for this age group.

Over the past five years, there has been a noticeable policy shift towards emphasising technical education reform including the T Level consultation in 2018 and the skills for jobs white paper in 2021. 

However, these initiatives still retained the concept of separate paths for technical and academic education. 

The current announcement seeks to eliminate these distinctions by merging both streams under the umbrella of the Advanced British Standard, allowing students to blend technical and academic routes. From the perspective of further education colleges, this reimagining is a welcome development, and it’s heartening to see the sector integrated into these proposals.

Nevertheless, the success of these proposals will hinge on their funding and practicality. 

The proposal to increase students’ study time to align with international standards (1,475 hours over two years) comes with a substantial cost. 

For further education colleges, this means a 315-hour increase in the standard full-time curriculum, far surpassing the 195 hours mentioned in yesterday’s policy document. 

This adjustment would require the equivalent of at least 25 new teachers per college for a medium-sized general further education college with 2,500 full-time 16-18-year-old students. The recruitment challenge alone poses a significant hurdle. 

The proposed £30,000 tax-free incentive over five years to address new teacher attrition is indeed a positive step and will aid in retaining newer staff. 

However, retaining experienced staff remains just as crucial for colleges and is not addressed by this incentive. A broader increase in the base funding rates is the only viable long-term solution to this issue, enabling colleges to offer competitive salaries that encourage the long-term retention of staff.

The recommendation to mandate the continuation of maths and English education until age 18 is also complex. 

While there is no doubt about the value of these subjects to learners and their future career prospects, it must be acknowledged that there is already a high demand for maths teachers. This could pose a significant challenge for colleges that are already coping with a surge in students requiring these subjects post-pandemic and a shortage of teachers.

Furthermore, increasing teaching time by 15-20 per cent necessitates equivalent space. 

Current avenues for capital investment in colleges are insufficient to bring about the necessary changes, particularly given re-classification limiting alternative options. Addressing this investment gap is imperative; otherwise, many of these efforts will be stymied by a simple lack of physical capacity.

Putting aside these funding challenges momentarily, these proposals demonstrate a readiness to reshape the educational landscape. 

They offer any incoming government the opportunity to boldly address the country’s skills needs through more comprehensive reform, with further education colleges at its core, than might have been possible previously. 

As a sector, we should cautiously embrace this potential.

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