Rishi Sunak gave his pitch to the country at Conservative Party Conference, in a speech that showed he has no intention of letting the polls deter him from putting up a fight at the next general election. He used this moment to try and change the narrative and frame his leadership as a bold break from the past. To demonstrate this point, he announced some landmark health policies and some unpopular, if indeed bold, infrastructure decisions.
Interestingly, during a speech in which he criticised the “30-year political status quo”, he was full of praise for the Conservative record on education, stating “of what we have done in government since 2010, what I am proudest of is our record on education.” His pride in the government’s education reform record translated into an ambitious approach for the future, as he set out plans for the Advanced British Standard, which he himself has admitted would take a decade to implement.
What will it entail?
The announcement of the Advanced British Standard is in some ways not very surprising. It has been known that Sunak has been exploring introducing reforms to school qualifications that would move away from our current A Level system towards a baccalaureate system, and he has previously announced the ‘Maths to 18’ policy. With the Advanced British Standard, Sunak wants to introduce parity between academic and technical education, whilst improving English and maths achievement, and broadening the curriculum 16-to-18-year-olds learn from.
The changes will bring together A Levels and T Levels, allowing students to study a mixture of academic and technical subjects. Whereas currently A Level students study three academic subjects, the ABS will mean they study five subjects and will allow them the opportunity to choose both academic and technical subjects. Each student’s five subjects will be split between ‘major’ subjects, studied in more depth, and ‘minor’ subjects. The ABS also mean that every student studies a form of maths and English up to 18. Students who require extra support in these subjects will be provided with it. The government claims, through the ABS, students will spend more time in the classroom, increasing taught hours to a minimum of 1,475 hours over two years.
In order to achieve this broader curriculum with a huge increase in the teaching of maths and English, Sunak has said that there will be an increase in the number of teaching hours by 195 per year per student, on average. To achieve all of this, the Prime Minister has announced an extra £600 million to be invested in teacher recruitment and retention. Importantly, however, and as expanded upon in a policy paper shared by the Department for Education shortly after the speech, pupils starting primary school this term are expected to be the first cohort to take the new qualification. In short, this means the ABS is unlikely to go live until at least the early 2030s.
How has the sector responded?
The response to the announcement of the ASB has been sceptical at best, scathing at worst. Geoff Barton, the General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders has written that the foundation of a workable plan to implement the ABS, namely teachers, is weak and therefore undercuts any potential positive outcomes these reforms could have. He criticised the government’s attempts to address the recruitment and retention crisis is ‘piecemeal’. However, Barton does give credit to the attempt at creating parity between academic and technical education, and he welcomes the broadening of the curriculum, citing the Education Policy Institute’s conclusion that England’s curriculum is too narrow.
School leaders have been particularly critical of the announcements. Just days after the Prime Minister’s speech, the Confederation of School Trusts had its annual conference, at which grievances were fully aired. Trust leaders highlighted that funding squeezes they were facing meant their schools were already working at full capacity, and that teaching hours had to be stripped back. With Trust CEOs, headteachers, and teachers all facing significant challenges in their schools, far-reaching reforms have not been particularly welcomed.
Meanwhile, Labour’s Shadow School Minister, Catherine McKinnell, has described the policy as being created on the “back-of-the-envelope”, mirroring the sentiment of some school leaders that the Government is not addressing the current challenges schools face and these reforms do nothing to help them now.
Ten years from now
Predictions in politics are a fool’s game. However, parliamentary timetabling dictates that there must be a general election by the very latest January 2025, and it is expected to be held before that, in the Autumn of 2024. With one guaranteed year of governing, the Government is going to launch a consultation on the “approach and design of our new qualification, and the accompanying work to strengthen the system to deliver it in the coming months”, which will inform a White Paper published next year. Beyond this nothing is certain. For a politician who arguably needs quick wins before a general election, introducing reforms that won’t be felt for ten years is certainly a bold move. Whether or not these reforms will radically change education in England, they do signal a Prime Minister who wants to set out his vision for the country and make his mark beyond the next general election.