Is the ABS what the British public want next for education reform?

New polling reveals voters have more appetite for fundamental 16-19 reform than political parties are catering for

New polling reveals voters have more appetite for fundamental 16-19 reform than political parties are catering for

22 Apr 2024, 15:49

We know an election’s getting closer when the political parties start getting all reflective. In the chamber, MPs’ claims about their parties’ records on education – raising standards, closing gaps, their love for apprenticeships – are amping up.

In our new poll of more than 2,000 adults up and down the country, conducted with Public First, we got a bit pensive too. (It is our twentieth anniversary this year, after all.) So we sought to explore just how far attitudes on education – specifically technical and vocational – have come, and whether policy has caught up.

So, how do these claims really square up?

As our report – Advancing British Standards?reveals today, more than one-third of the public believe that those leaving education today are no better prepared for life or work than they were twenty years ago.

Edge have been calling for change to make education relevant to the realities of life and the world of work for some time now. And large majorities of the public agree: 88 per cent think education should focus more on teaching young people skills that will be useful for the workplace and 90 per cent want a curriculum that better prepares them for everyday life.

This proves promising for Labour, with their commitment to a more applied curriculum – as our Deeper Learning Network of schools and colleges already deliver to a high standard. But the public go a step further: 82 per cent want schools to encourage more young people to explore technical or vocational options as the means to equipping students with those all-important essential skills.

Choice for young people over what they study is absolutely paramount to voters. This would indicate that Labour’s pledge to pause and review the defunding of BTECs might win out over the Conservatives’ efforts to simplify the complicated post-16 landscape to A Levels and T Levels.

Having said that, we also find significant appetite among all voters for policymakers to undertake substantial 16-18 reform, resembling something of a broader baccalaureate, which we have been exploring at Edge through our ‘Bacc to the drawing board’ series. The Prime Minister clearly heard us, announcing the Advanced British Standard (ABS) in December.

Choice for young people over what they study is absolutely paramount to voters

In the poll, we took care to explain the ABS proposals in detail. What we find is that the policy is popular in principle and in practice. More than three-quarters (78 per cent) say they would support a reform in line with the ABS, compared to just 10 per cent who oppose it.

In fact, a massive 61 per cent said they thought the ABS would represent an improvement on the current system of 16-18 education. Even maths to 18 proves highly popular (as long as this is about numeracy skills), though there’s a lot of work needed to bring younger voters on board.

Crucially, however, what drives respondents’ support for the ABS is the opportunity for young people to study a true blend of academic, technical and vocational subjects at 16. Nearly three-quarters think young people should be able to mix and match. That’s because 61 per cent see this would prepare young people better for the workforce, and 58 per cent believe the economy would benefit from having more people with a mix of technical and academic skills.

At Edge, we aren’t satisfied that the current proposal to offer ‘the ABS’ and ‘the ABS occupational’ sufficiently does away with the twin-track approach of academic and vocational pathways. Evidently, there is a strong public opinion case to revise this – something a Labour administration would do well to build on.

There are plenty of education polls, but what was quite remarkable in these findings was the consensus among different voter and demographic groups with regards to the current state and future of 16-19 education.

The public want all students to have the opportunity to study a blend of general, technical and vocational subjects, with an underpinning of applied numeracy and literacy skills, greater emphasis on life skills and work placements or projects with employers.

So voters’ appetite is there. It’s up to the parties now to catch on.

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