A high-profile education commission has added its voice to calls for a new baccalaureate that mixes academic and vocational qualifications – estimated to cost the government an extra £1.2 billion a year.
Ministers are also being called on to open more “satellite” university wings in colleges in deprived parts of the country, as well as to launch the technical equivalent to “elite” academic sixth forms outlined in the levelling up white paper.
The recommendations are part of a 12-point plan from the Times Education Commission following a year-long inquiry, which has been backed by ten former education secretaries and two former prime ministers.
The commission, chaired by Times columnist Rachel Sylvester, said it found that the British education system is “failing on every measure” from early years to lifelong learning and is in dire need of overhaul.
First on the commission’s 12-point plan to “fix” the system is a “British Baccalaureate”, which would offer “broader academic and vocational qualifications at 18”. This would include “parity in funding” per pupil in both routes, and a “slimmed-down” set of exams at 16.
The idea of introducing a baccalaureate-style system in place of or alongside A-levels and T Levels has gathered pace in recent years. Various types of baccalaureates have been suggested by education select committee chair Robert Halfon, think-tank EDSK and the National Baccalaureate Trust.
Kirsti Lord, deputy chief executive at the Association of Colleges, said the idea for a British Baccalaureate is worth exploring “so students are not pushed into a binary choice between technical training and academic study at 16”.
Under the Times Education Commission’s proposal, the British Baccalaureate would be a customised version of the “tried and tested” International Baccalaureate, which is which has almost two million students around the world including about 4,500 in this country.
Students studying for the academic diploma programme would take six subjects — three major, three minor — covering both humanities and sciences as well as units on critical thinking, communication and creativity. Those on the career-related programme would combine learning, which could include BTECs or a T Level, with work experience, the commission proposed.
There would be the option for students to “mix and match” elements of both programmes to “create the qualification that best suited them”. All students would do an extended project, community service and some literacy and numeracy through to 18. Digital skills would be woven through the whole curriculum.
At 16, the commission suggests that pupils would take a slimmed-down set of exams in five core subjects, with continuous assessment as well as online tests contributing to their grade.
This would “allow children to progress to the next level and provide accountability for schools, but lower the stakes and reduce the amount of time spent on preparing for and taking exams”, according to today’s report.
The commission claimed that their proposed British Baccalaureate would introduce greater breadth and flexibility to the post-16 curriculum while also ending the “sheep and goats” division between academic and vocational education.
There would be a cost attached because the number of teaching hours would have to go up, however the commission has been advised by Whitehall sources that this could be met by equalising the per-student funding of 16 to 19-year-old education with the budgets for 11 to 16 education.
This would cost about £1.2 billion a year, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and would also “remove a historic anomaly in the funding mechanism that dates to the time when the school leaving age was 16”.
‘Career academies’, satellite uni wings in colleges, and better FE staff pay also recommended
The commission also wants a new cadre of “career academies” to be introduced — elite technical and vocational sixth forms with close links to industry, mirroring the academic sixth forms that are being established under the government’s levelling up plans.
Career academies would have a focus on creativity and entrepreneurialism.
The AoC opposed this idea however, saying that the focus should be on providing better funding for colleges which “already deliver cutting edge skills for 1.7 million students day in, day out”.
New university campuses have also been called for in fifty higher education “cold spots”, including satellite wings in further education colleges.
The commission gave the example of how Nottingham Trent University has opened a campus in West Nottinghamshire College, offering courses in nursing, sports science and business.
“It is already recruiting students who would not otherwise have considered going to university and the local hospital is also grateful for the supply of qualified nurses who live in the area and so are more likely to stay,” according to the report.
“The government is setting up a false choice between higher and further education and there should be more collaboration rather than competition between the sectors,” commissioners said.
But Lord said there are already strong links between colleges and universities so rather than reinventing the wheel, the AoC would “urge government to work with colleges which already have an established reach into their communities to promote lifelong learning”.
The commission also called for improved pay and conditions in the FE sector and a transferrable credit system like the upcoming lifelong loan entitlement.
After the commission pointed out that lecturers in colleges are paid more than £9,000 less on average than teachers in schools, former Conservative education secretary and chancellor Lord Ken Clarke of Nottingham said FE colleges have always been the Cinderella of the education service.
“The teachers do an equally important job,” he said. “Their status and pay and conditions should roughly match that of people of the same quality in the school system.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We thank the Times Education Commission for its report and always welcome new ideas and views from the sector and education experts.”