The Advanced British Standard could be the making of T Levels

Far from a death knell for T Levels, the Advanced British Standard could be the bold reform we need (but perhaps with a different name)

Far from a death knell for T Levels, the Advanced British Standard could be the bold reform we need (but perhaps with a different name)

9 Oct 2023, 12:30

skills white paper

The reactions were, perhaps, all too predictable. When the Prime Minister announced bringing together A and T Levels into a single framework to create the Advanced British Standard, sector leaders responded with either glee or dismay at this supposed early end of the T level journey. The fact that the announcement was made in national T Levels Week (of all weeks) only added to the chorus of derision.

However, contrary to the sector rhetoric, the Advanced British Standard does not appear to constitute the scrapping of T Levels (or A-levels for that matter). The plan is to merge them, building on the best of both to provide greater flexibility and choice for young people. The stand-alone qualifications may disappear, as would the current either/or binary choice between technical and academic education; but the main components look like they would remain. There would still be technical cores, occupational specialisms and industry placements (Sounds like a T Level to me.) but in this framework you’d also be able to take an academic option alongside. Or vice versa.

It looks suspiciously like what they’ve been doing so well in Germany for a long time – and about time too. Now, before anyone thinks I’ve become a government spokesperson for the awfully named Advanced British Standard, I won’t get too excited until we have more detail. A lot can happen in a decade, which is how long the government has warned this would take to fully implement.

However, it is hard to argue against the principles driving these proposals. Young people should benefit from greater breadth and flexibility in 16-19 education; they should receive more teaching time; and we should ensure more of them leave education and training with a good standard of maths and English. Tick. Tick. Tick.

Further, it is right to address the divide between academic and technical education and the continued lack of parity of esteem if our aim is to develop a truly transformational education for 16– to 19-year-olds and to solve some of the country’s long-term problems. This will only happen through a bold vision and ambitious solutions.

This government is clearly learning from the mistakes of the 2000s

The last time there was the potential for this was back in the days of New Labour and the recommendations from the Tomlinson Report. The government of the day decided not to grasp the opportunity of an all-encompassing baccalaureate and instead opted for a confused, watered-down approach that resulted in the debacle of 14-19 diplomas.

Which leads me to the conclusion that this latest proposal is also rather clever. This government is clearly learning from the mistakes of the 2000s. When the 14-19 diplomas were introduced, one of the main barriers to uptake was the failure to “switch off” the vocational alternatives. The current approach to defunding will help ensure T Levels gain traction.

However, the other challenge to T Levels is of course A levels. Most of us in the sector have taken the view that the entry requirements for T Levels should be in line with A levels, given they are of similar demand and rigour. But a young person with such a GCSE grade profile is most likely to take A-levels – encouraged and influenced by parents and schools. A levels are as big a threat to T Level uptake as the BTECs. Arguably, the Advanced British Standard is a case of “if you can’t beat them, join them together”.

Perhaps the greatest threat to these proposals (other than a looming general election) is that the sector responds with reform fatigue and cynicism. That would be a mistake. A huge opportunity was missed in the mid-2000s that we should grasp now. The problems identified and the principles behind the Advanced British Standard are absolutely the right ones.

Yes, it is hugely ambitious. (Incidentally, Andy Burnham’s equally ambitious vision of the Manchester Baccalaureate was roundly welcomed and would make great sense alongside this.) Yes, lots of questions will need answering. And yes, some parts of the education system will see it as a huge threat to the status quo.

But the status quo isn’t working – and it will only be solved by something bold.

Let’s lobby to get that name changed, though.

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