What is Sunak’s “British baccalaureate”?

Harriet Price

Account Executive

Last week, it was reported that the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak MP, is exploring plans to replace A Levels with a new “British baccalaureate”, which would require students to study core subjects, such as maths and English, until 18.

It is a policy idea which builds on Sunak’s previous announcement on ‘Maths to 18’ and has also been floated by others in the sector. However, with a litany of issues currently facing the education sector, its resurfacing has raised many questions across those in education and in politics.

 

Where has the “British baccalaureate” come from and what would it look like? 

Sunak has frequently critiqued the current A-Level system, having called Britain an “international outlier” for requiring A-Level students to specialise in three subjects post-16. The reports have suggested that introducing a broader set of subjects was a personal mission for the prime minister, as he looks to ensure young people have the skills they need to succeed in the jobs of the future.

Although we have not seen details on how the changes may look, Sunak’s proposals would likely see students take exams in more subjects than in the current system. With around half of 18-year-olds in England currently taking A-Levels, introducing a new-style baccalaureate would require substantial reform.

It follows the same theme as the prime minister’s vision to see all students study maths until the age of 18, which was first announced in January and kickstarted in April with an expert advisory group established to explore the possibility.

However, this news goes back further, with Sunak initially pledging a broad British baccalaureate during the 2022 summer leadership contest. Before this, in 2021, the EDSK education thinktank suggested that A-levels should be replaced with a three-year “baccalaureate”, criticising the current system for being too narrow and downgrading applied and technical courses.

A broader education system has also previously seen support from across the UK political spectrum, including Sir Tony Blair, after it was first suggested by former schools minister David Miliband in 1990, whilst he was working at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).

 

What is the sector’s reaction?

So far, the policy has received a mixed response, with education specialists wary of the impact such change would have in the current climate.

Labour has criticised the suggestion, with Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson calling it an “undeliverable gimmick” from a government with no serious plan for improving standards of education for young people. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has also said the plans are another example of the Government offering “uncertainty and no stability”, suggesting parents will be asking the prime minister to “concentrate on the day job.”

The report has also seen disapproval from leaders across the sector, with the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders calling it a “sketchy slogan.” The union said that without specific details and discussion with the education sector, the policy is “largely meaningless.” Sir Chris Husbands, Chair of the Teaching Excellence Framework, has also suggested it would require reform within GCSEs, which are not a suitable preparation for a broader-based baccalaureate-style exam system.

With the current recruitment, financial, and structural difficulties facing the sector, some leaders believe that Sunak’s focus is on the wrong reforms. Reponses have questioned how the proposal would aid recruitment of subject specialist teachers for the increased teaching hours, or the cross-border problems it could create if Wales and Northern Ireland did not follow England’s lead, alongside the potential impact on those students taking applied or vocational alternatives.

However, some have been positive about the suggestion of a broader system. David Laws, executive chair of the Education Policy Institute and former Education Minister, said it was sensible to open a conversation about the post-16 curriculum, but warned proposals needed to be carefully thought out and implementation is likely to be difficult. Robert Halfon MP, former chairman of the education select committee, and current Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, has also previously supported the initiative, suggesting it will give students “the skills they need and employers want.”

 

Will we see it before the election?

Currently the policy is only being floated, and although the Department for Education has not denied that the proposal is being explored, with only one year until the election, it is unlikely that Sunak will have enough time to make anything substantial happen.

Perhaps more interestingly, the prime minister’s interest in reforming post-16 education forms part of a selection of high-profile proposals that are intended to lay the groundwork for next month’s Conservative party conference.  Sunak reportedly “hopes the move will open up a clear dividing line with Labour on education policy”, suggesting that for the prime minster, the election campaign is now underway, with education at the forefront of his focus.

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