When politicians run out of ideas they tend to announce more of them. This is not surprising because politics is generally considered to be the business of implementing change. A general election is looming and few politicians will hope to excel at the polls if they demonstrate a steadfast commitment to inaction. However, I would argue that the art of doing nothing (politically speaking at least) is somewhat underestimated. It was telling that many Conservative MPs elected to stay away from their own party conference.
Politicians should be forgiven for championing their own pet projects. I am told that the wily centrist Tony Blair once quipped to a rival something along the lines of, ‘the really scary part for you is that I actually believe this stuff’. We should expect a flurry of new initiatives during the dying months of the current parliament. Some of these ideas will have merit and others will be a little wacky and probably never see the light of day again; for they are nothing more than kites to be flown in an attempt to win over swing voters. The urge to be relevant and to come up with new ideas must feel like a real burden for a party that has been in government since 2010. Still the idea of ditching fags, mobile phones and A levels certainly took me by surprise.
A few weeks ago we were told that Rishi Sunak was considering a ‘radical shake-up’ of A-levels. Well placed sources suggested that the study of Maths and English will be compulsory up to the age of 18. Driving back from the HMC Conference on Wednesday morning I heard Rishi breathlessly announce the launch of the Advanced British Standard.
Dismissed by the Labour Party as yet another gimmick, it is difficult to see that this proposal will find much traction with anyone. Nevertheless, Andrew Mitchell (he of the Downing Street Gates debacle) stated on BBC Radio 4 that, ‘We will be guided by the best expertise on how we ratchet up standards and give children the best possible chance of getting the graduate jobs of the future’. Of course, the idea that we are educating children for roles that have yet to be invented is somewhat overplayed.
For a party that has spent thirteen years in power, the admission that educational standards need to be driven up is a stunning admission of failure. Are things really so bad? Do we need to ditch A levels?
Certainly, we are tired of new initiatives and a chronic instability of leadership at the Department of Education. Since completing my PGCE in 2007, I am on my twelfth minister of state for education. My six year old daughter is on her eighth! No wonder that initiatives come and go at an alarming rate of knots. One seasoned old hand in my first school remarked that he had seen many headmasters off the premises in his time. I feel the same way about ministers of state for education.
It is hard to keep track. First we had the English baccalaureate which amounted to little more than a crude measure of performance across a range of subjects at GCSE, and now we have the prospect of a ‘British Baccalaureate’ or the ABS – not to be confused with the anti-lock braking system. At best the proposal is sketchy and the timescale is glacial. Apparently, implementation will take ten to twelve years, so do not panic!
In fairness, the need for greater breadth in the Sixth Form is undeniable. In 2021 the EDSK Education think tank criticised the dominance of A levels and pointed out that, by international standards, the standard diet of three A levels is extremely narrow and potentially limiting. At the current moment in time, the government is part way through rolling out T levels and a third of BTEC qualifications will be axed over the forthcoming months, though not, thankfully, the hugely successful BTEC in Sports and Exercise Science which we run here at Rossall.
Of course, the ABS has potential merit. There are very few countries in the world where you can jettison most of the curriculum at the age of just sixteen. Personally, I was delighted to bid farewell to maths and modern foreign languages. However, in retrospect, I think that my A level choices (Music, History, Classical Civilisation and General Studies) probably served to limit my options. There is no doubt in my mind that my wife was better served by studying for the Irish Leaving Certificate – although my knowledge of Thucydides ‘Peloponnesian War’ is undeniably strong.
Here at Rossall, we recognise that A levels are a strong fit for many of our students but that others prefer the breadth and challenge of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme. Above all else, we believe that young people deserve and value choice. Some of our students find that the BTEC provides an excellent pathway to higher education or the world of work and I am delighted that we are able to offer three distinctive routes through the Sixth Form.
Prescriptiveness rarely resonates well with young people and whilst the Tory party tends to solicit votes from an older demographic, it should think very carefully before announcing an initiative that would, in practice, be extremely difficult to deliver; not least because of the national shortage of teachers in maths. Nationally, almost one in eight maths lessons is taught by someone without a maths qualification. The government has failed to train enough maths teachers to reach its own modest target – despite cutting the target by almost 40%. As the Foundation for Educational Research points out, the impact of poor recruitment is compounded by the fact that maths teachers are much more likely to leave the profession than those who train to teach other subjects. Perhaps this is because they have more readily transferable skills than us historians who are ten a penny.
Deliverability is a key concern but, from an ideological perspective, Rishi is probably right to identify the need for greater breadth. The vast majority of jurisdictions do insist that young people should study maths until they are eighteen and we constitute a slightly embarrassing outlier in this regard.
I would urge all Year 11 pupils to give serious consideration to the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme and to talk through their options with Mrs Laird and Mr Crombie. A levels are a great facilitator in terms of university entrance but I would argue that the IBDP offers a much better preparation for life beyond university. Its interdisciplinary nature, focus upon the development of ‘soft skills’ and clear commitment to a liberal arts philosophy provides an overarching sense of curricular coherence that discrete A level subjects simply lack. Universities love the IBDP but so do future employers, for the IBDP really is more than the sum of subjects studied. It has a loftier purpose insomuch as it is designed to support the development of outstanding citizenship. The IBO Learner Profile with its emphasis upon Creativity, Action and Service is an important aspect of the IBDP. To achieve top marks (45 points) in the IBDP, you need to possess much more than the ability to ace exams – though that undoubtedly helps.
I think that the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme will become more popular as time progresses. Inadvertently. Rishi’s announcement might just have given it a colossal boost. After all, why bother taking the ABS when the IBDP is already considered to be a real gold standard globally?
Indeed, if you were to design the perfect curriculum structure for Sixth Form students then the IBDP would score very highly indeed. However, I do believe that A levels do still have an important role to play for those who are intent upon specialising in particular subjects from a young age. Of course, we should recognise the very real difference between the pragmatic choices we make when we are sixteen and the more philosophical notions that we adopt with regards to education as we advance through life. As an educationalist, I am an enthusiastic, almost evangelical, advocate of the IBDP. As a sixteen year old who was a shaky mathematician and spoke French with as much finesse as Del Trotter, I would probably not have been swayed towards the IBDP, which is a real shame. Rather than reinventing the wheel and coming up with a ‘Home Bargains’ alternative to the IBDP, I would urge Rishi to embrace the IBDP and promote its adoption in schools and Sixth Form Colleges up and down the country. Embracing the IBDP would do more to drive up educational standards than spending millions of pounds and years of time developing an also-ran version in the bowels of Whitehall.
Headmaster of Rossall School