British baccalaureate ‘unworkable and unlikely’, say academics

Reports suggest the government is considering reforming A levels so that children study a wider range of subjects in post-16 education

September 29, 2023
An empty exam room from behind
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UK prime minister Rishi Sunak’s plans to reform A levels into a “British baccalaureate” would be supported by many within higher education, according to academics – but they warn it is very unlikely to happen.

The proposed reforms would make English and maths compulsory for all students up to the age of 18, alongside a requirement that children study a wider range of subjects in post-16 education, according to reports.

Most academics agree that students specialise too much, too soon after taking their GCSEs, and the International Baccalaureate is an obvious and easily adoptable model to replicate, said Stuart Wilks-Heeg, professor of politics at the University of Liverpool.

But he said it was very unlikely to happen, would be very difficult to implement in practice and would also pose challenges for university admissions and add to the volatility seen at that end of the process in recent years.

The plans appear to be a revival of Mr Sunak’s proposals during the Conservative leadership election last year, along with his previous suggestion that he wants all young people to study maths to 18.

Mary Richardson, professor of educational assessment at UCL, said an IB-style system would not necessarily be a big reform for universities because most accepted these qualifications already.

However, she said much would depend on how the curriculum content taught in schools was aligned with the content of first-year undergraduate classes, which might mean universities having to ensure all students could meet the standards.

And she said the reforms were still very unlikely – and just another distraction by the government from the “disasters unfolding in the NHS and other public sector areas”.

Reforming qualifications was high risk and needed a strong evidence base and wide stakeholder support, said Michelle Meadows, associate professor in educational assessment at the University of Oxford.

“It takes many years and a massive investment of resource, including that of teachers,” she said.

“Given the challenges faced by schools and colleges, this resource might be better spent on earlier phases of education and on closing the attainment gap.”

Matt Finn, senior lecturer in human geography at the University of Exeter, said reforming A levels in this way might mean students would have to study for longer at university and would mean England could have a completely different exam system from that of the rest of the UK.

“It’s not necessarily a bad idea, but at least with the detail there is at the moment it would almost certainly be the wrong time, and it seems very unlikely that it would work because there just wouldn’t be the staff to do that unless they can massively increase recruitment and retention,” he added.

Dr Finn added that the idea probably amounted to nothing more than “kite-flying” ahead of the general election.

Professor Wilks-Heeg said the proposals might form part of a general agenda for educational reform, but had no “obvious electoral appeal” on their own.

“If anything, it risks pushing education up the issues agenda in a way that's electorally unhelpful to the current government,” he said.

“It would be terribly easy for opposition parties to retort with: ‘Why are you talking about replacing A levels when school buildings are crumbling?’”

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