New qualification to replace A levels and T levels?

So Rishi Sunak wants to replace A and T levels with a new qualification at 18. My first reaction was one of cautious approval – I have long argued that the post 16 curriculum needs to be broadened for all students. I also welcome any move to integrate so-called “academic” and “vocational” studies. Having taught, and written text books for, a subject that crosses those boundaries (Computing) I know how artificial that binary approach is.

There has been some opposition – allegedly – to broader studies from the Universities, who, it is claimed, expect students to have already reached a certain level of proficiency in their chosen subject before starting on a degree course. They claim that they can offer shorter degrees than in other countries because schools will have already provided foundation degree teaching.

That argument rather falls down in many subjects when looked at in detail. For example, a student starting on a history degree will not be expected to have studied every period of British and world history at A level – they will have studied specific periods and themes in detail. Instead they should arrive with an understanding of historical research and perspectives.

Even in my own subject, Computing, there were quite wide variations between the syllabuses of the A Level Exam Boards, and in any case, students are not required to have studied it before embarking on a degree. In fact, many degrees have no specific requirements but are looking for generic competences such as problem solving, research skills and creativity, which are exactly what a broader curriculum should equip them with.

Of course, just such a programme already exists in the UK in the form of the International Baccalaureate, although it is largely offered in independent schools. On top of that many Universities accept the International Baccalaureate as an entry qualification.

Sunak is also claiming that a British style Baccalaureate would require students to be taught for a extra 195 hours per year, roughly 1 hour more per day. It is not at all clear why that should be necessary. Many Sixth Form students have 20 or more contact hours per week; private study is also expected outside contact time. A broader curriculum inevitably means fewer hours spent on some specialist subjects but in the context of a more enriching experience.

Sixth form students are encouraged to develop study skills and independent reading and research. It is possible to over-teach a course, so that students are fed a lot of information but don’t learn to be independent thinkers.

So, as I said, a cautious welcome. BUT – a big but – no decisions should be made without deep consultations with the professionals. At the moment the teachers’ unions are bewildered by plans which seem to require more teachers capable of teaching at a pre-University level, at a time when there is already a shortage. And everyone in Education is irritated by politicians (I’m looking at you, Michael Gove) who think they know what works pedagogically because they went to school once.


* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • Steve Trevethan 5th Oct '23 - 4:35pm

    Might a “What” statement without a relevant “How”, be a seriously deficient statement?

  • I always struggled with maths and physics at school and despite my parents best endeavours never found out why. I failed all my O levels first time at grade U except History but fought my way to university and got a degree. If Sunak and co force students to do maths at current A level standard I would have been on the scrap heap. So I did not like what he said about radical reform to A levels.

  • >” There has been some opposition – allegedly – to broader studies from the Universities, who, it is claimed, expect students to have already reached a certain level of proficiency in their chosen subject before starting on a degree course.”
    Yet as result of the disruption of school studies caused by CoViD many more universities (including Oxbridge) are offering 4 year foundation degrees, where the first year focuses on bringing everyone up to the required standard (ie. A-level) in relevant subjects, before embarking on the degree proper…

    From talking with friends, I am pleased Computing degree courses are still looking for general competence; but given the breadth of computing: from electronics through programming to soft systems engineering and change management, it is going to be difficult to put a requirement beyond a basic maths A-level on entry; yet the majority of UK universities are offering an accredited degree programme that will facilitate graduates going on to achieve chartered professional status (when I did my degree the British Computer Society course accreditation programme was getting off the ground – as was the idea of Chartered IT Professional, and hence only a handful of forward looking universities had been accredited).

  • I did O-level maths, O-level additional maths and Maths A-level. I have long been retired but in my (fairly) successful career nothing I learnt beyond the first of these was ever of much use to me. Basic arithmetic, trigonometry and an understanding of the various forms of averaging have been useful and at times essential. Differential calculus never once cropped up. I do think 3 subjects is too constricting so 4 might be better and 4 were on offer to some of my grandchildren in recent years.

  • Sandy Smith 5th Oct '23 - 5:23pm

    There is a certain arrogance in a Prime Minister announcing a qualification for England that has the title ‘British’ Baccalaureate.

  • So – the merry-go-round of change in schools gets spun again despite well-founded doubts about basic deliverability given teacher shortages (not to mention the cost implications).

    All this churn makes me suspect we (the all-party UK establishment) are starting with the wrong assumptions. It looks like a bad case of ‘producer-push’ where the producer (in this case, government) dictates what every teenager must do irrespective of their circumstances, e.g. how is it reasonable or cost-effective to force the nearly +15% (?) of 14 year-old kids who are functionally illiterate to continue to go to school when they can’t access much of the syllabus?

    ‘Producer-push’ is an approach that rarely if ever works well plus it’s the antithesis of my understanding of ‘liberal’.

    The alternative is ‘consumer pull’ where users (in this case, teenagers) take what they want when they want it from a system designed to support that. It would be relaxed about kids leaving school early or repeating a year (there can be all sorts of valid reasons including illness, bereavement etc.) but would then offer cost-free options to cover the missed ground later with no age restriction.

    A ‘consumer pull’ approach would allow (mainly young) people to make their own choices from a range of possibilites that aren’t foreclosed by cost, age restrictions or the like. And because they had made choices to suit their circumstances and aptitudes, they would likely end up much happier and more productive.

  • Peter Watson 5th Oct '23 - 7:37pm

    “My first reaction was one of cautious approval – I have long argued that the post 16 curriculum needs to be broadened for all students”
    Hear, hear! 🙂
    I’ve made similar arguments on this site in the dim and distant past, and I was disappointed that a regressive change to A-levels, narrowing the choices for children at 16, happened on the Lib Dems’ watch in Coalition. It was one of the reasons I gave up on the party (though not this site!).
    The devil’s in the detail, and implementing such radical changes requires planning and investment, but I welcome this move in principle. I believe that broader study to 18 combined with foundation years for university study as required is much better than forcing children to make limiting choices at 16 when they may be less aware of their talents, interests, options and opportunities, especially those who do not come from backgrounds where they are exposed by friends and family to the same variety of aspirational careers as their more affluent peers.
    (Apologies if this suggests a bias towards “academic” graduate careers that reflects my background and aspirations for my children; I would not want to downplay the importance of “vocational” qualifications.)

  • Nonconformistradical 5th Oct '23 - 8:00pm

    “The devil’s in the detail, and implementing such radical changes requires planning……”

    Indeed – and I hadn’t noticed much planning going on within this government….

  • I have two doubts about this. Firstly, is this a case of change for the sake of change, or is something actually seriously broken about A levels? Mary’s article doesn’t as far as I can see say that there’s anything really wrong about A levels. If there isn’t, why replace them?

    Secondly, the great thing about A levels is the flexibility: When I was at college in the 80s, most students did three A levels. But if you were really committed, you could ask to do four. On the other hand, if you were less academic, it was fine to do one or two, along with some other studies. And the fact that each subject was independent meant any combination was possible. If what floated your boat was physics, Latin, and drama, then you could do that. And if 10 years later, as an adult, you decided you wanted to study A level Geography at evening classes, that was fine too. So the system was really customizable to what each individual student wanted to do as well as to each student’s capacity for study. Can something like a Baccalaureate (or whatever alternative system is proposed) really match that flexibility?

  • Surely this is a return to the Diploma scheme which was taken to an advanced stage by Ed Balls under the Brown government but which really fell foul of very limited uptake and was axed by the coalition.

  • Nice to see someone on LDV actually not just knee jerking a negative reaction to this (which is too common), but to the point where I feel more hostile than the article.

    It is not the vague proposals that I have a fundamental issue with, but that this would be brought in via a leaders speech with apparently so little surrounding work. These sorts of changes can be very destabilising in education so it needs to be something that a good proportion of people are on board with and not getting to tied to specific points because the leader proposing it has attached too much capital to the idea.

    Fundamentally the idea could be ok, but it should have been started with a different mechanism. It really matters of the young who will go through this system, so we need to be careful to do it as well as can be done.

  • @ Simon R
    The Maths and English to 18 is an issue that has been flagged as an issue in the past. Mainly that too many young people lack critical language, arithmetic and statistical skills post school. However, what is missing is what this will look like.

    I would hope that is at 16 a young person has achieved a level of proficiency that they don’t have to continue for the sake of it. A pupil with competent language skills having to do 2 years of yet more literacy criticism (which is what the A level really is) will not benefit one who is wanting to take lots of sciences and would benefit little from this. Just as a highly numerate young person who has reached a standard that is required being expected to undertake the A level maths syllabus seems ridiculous.

    I suspect this is trying to pick up the failings from earlier in the system but it could end up with some perverse outcomes.

    I recognise the benefit of being able to pick up subjects later too. I have a relative who need to pick up an extra science A-level to do a medical career change later in life, that is something that should not be lost.

  • Nonconformistradical 6th Oct '23 - 11:49am

    “Mainly that too many young people lack critical language, arithmetic and statistical skills post school.”
    I’m glad you focussed on arithmetic and stats rather than maths in general. Because many of us have little need in adulthood of the other aspects of maths. One needs arithmetic at least to help understand one’s everyday finances and one needs stats to be able to understand – and maybe debunk – stats spouted by politicians and the media.

  • The big question is what this “maths and English to 18” do to GCSE maths and English.
    To me it seems this focus would seem to be saying a GCSE pass in maths and English is worthless.

    I would also caution against simplistic notions that we should simply increase the workload from 3 A-levels (or equivalent) to 4 A-levels, that is a recipe for failure; there is a vast different in ability between a child born on 1-Sep and the 31-Aug in the same year group (even if they have the same Mensa IQ score). Also part of growing up is doing stuff outside of the classroom.

  • Paul Holmes 6th Oct '23 - 6:53pm

    @Roland – Which brings us to yet another lack of joined up thinking by Rishi. He notes that many comparable countries insist on continuing to study Maths up to age 18. He doesn’t note that many do not have pupils sit external exams at 16+ (GCSE) -or indeed to start narrowing their subject selection at 13+

    So, for example, would someone with a good GCSE pass in Maths have to continue doing the same thing for another 2 years? To what purpose?

    As a former Teacher and former Head of Sixth Form I’m all in favour of a broader education. Indeed I argued for the adoption of the Tomlinson Report in Parliament circa 2004 when Blair ducked the issue. But please let’s have some joined up thinking rather than desperate General Election slogans.

  • Nonconformistradical 7th Oct '23 - 1:32pm

    “I rather doubt that Sunak, nor those close to him, have thought this through”

    Are they actually capable of thinking through any proposal which might affect large numbers of people?

  • Nigel Jones 8th Oct '23 - 9:31pm

    I think Martin and Paul Holmes have made the comments I most agree with on this. Reform of the curriculum and qualifications system is long overdue and our motion at conference said so, suggesting an all-party review. Rishi is picking up on a huge number of calls for such change which has been going on in recent years from educationists, politicians, employers, and certain eminent people. There were major reports during 2022 which I have read and commented on to a few Lib-Dems. In Wales, our own Kirsty Williams kickstarted change in the right direction several years ago and even though she retired from government there, that is still progessing, leaving England behind.
    I intend soon to write an article about this for LDV. It goes beyond A levels and needs to consider the whole school system, not just those who at present study for A levels.

  • @Nigel – ” I intend soon to write an article about this for LDV. It goes beyond A levels and needs to consider the whole school system”

    I hope it is well researched. In selecting a (state) school for my children 8+ years back, I was impressed by the school that subsequently offered places to my children. In their pitch they made extensive reference to post 1980 education and child development research, none of which was rocket science. Through the application of this they achieved 25% more contact time and zero homework (although GCSE and A-Level students were encouraged to do additional revision) and as a non-selective school consistently achieved a 1~2 grade improvement over schools with more traditional teaching (ie. Convert a fail into a pass and at the top end B~A into A*), thereby earning its top 30 placing for improvement. Additionally, they did not expect their staff to normally work outside of school hours unless it was for after school clubs and associated activities ie. They adopted normal working conventions and focused on delivering education.

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