Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham recently unveiled plans to introduce a Manchester Baccalaureate (MBacc). Its aim is to shift the city’s educational focus towards more technical subjects. Where the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) sets learners up to progress onto A-levels and from there typically on to university, the MBacc is intended to dovetail with a more vocational route in post-16 learning, including T-levels and progressing through the skills sector.
The MBacc is a good example of what can be done by local authorities like Greater Manchester using the new powers granted to them through devolution deals. It promises to better match the skills demanded by jobs to the supply of relevant qualifications, and not just nationally but in a way that reflects local idiosyncrasies. Burnham’s seven proposed ‘career gateways’ are calibrated to the strongest areas of the Greater Manchester economy.
With its focus on the 14–19 age bracket, the MBacc also breaks somewhat away from the ‘state of play’ in policy discussions around technical skills. It recognises that the path to higher technical qualifications is laid early in our educational trajectories. It also represents the best-developed positive alternative so far to the EBacc framework, long criticised for its academic skew.
By tying together 14–16 secondary education provision with the early stages of post-16 tertiary learning, the MBacc creates a smoother pathway through the complex ‘climbing frame’ of qualifications. This joined-up way of thinking about vocational learning pathways means learners can more easily navigate the step up into training and upskilling after school. Apprenticeships or vocational certificates and diplomas are no longer add-ons or afterthoughts to school-age learning, but a natural and pre-planned continuation.
Yet despite these clear areas of promise, the MBacc does not really touch some of the most fundamental problems of our education system.
Writing in these pages, Burnham was quick to say that he did not envisage EBacc and MBacc as ‘two rigid, parallel routes but an approach with as much commonality as possible’, with plenty of opportunities ‘to switch between the two’.
He is right: our system needs deeper integration and it is crucial to elevate technical training to the same status as academic study. But the MBacc’s presentation as an alternative to the EBacc looks set to perpetuate the false rivalry between these two learning ‘tracks’. The proposals are open for consultation, but it is unclear whether enough groundwork has been laid to set up a genuine alternative. And besides, schools will continue to be held accountable for EBacc results.
Meanwhile, what is missing from the proposals is any consideration of what happens after learners leave the 14–19 age bracket. Many of the skills they need are precisely those offered by the MBacc qualifications. It is vital to combine growing the workforce of the future with refreshing, updating, or expanding technical skills among the workforce of today. The MBacc, in other words, must fit into a much larger programme of lifelong pathways in technical learning and skills training.
A final missing piece in the MBacc proposal is the voice of learners. It is hugely promising to see such strong support for the scheme from businesses, colleges, and the combined authority. Yet the scepticism among learners towards the ‘Welsh Bacc’ hangs over the MBacc like a shadow. Stakeholders will have their work cut out to ensure the MBacc has the visibility and take-up appeal it needs to succeed and that careers advisers can avoid presenting it as a poor relation.
If Westminster can learn anything from the MBacc proposal, it is that its EBacc calculation (and with it Achievement 8 and Progress 8) is increasingly out of step. It should include more technical options, giving learners more choices between and across academic and vocational subjects for longer.
And for local authorities with devolution deals, fostering local education partnerships that allow learners to ‘mix and match’ academic and technical learning could be just as productive as the MBacc, without the fanfare.
Greater Manchester can justly claim to be leading the way towards a new approach to technical learning. But for all its innovations, it does not obviate the need for much larger structural changes.