Calls for broader studies post-16 are not new. Two decades ago a group of idealistic young academics and policy wonks, including David Miliband, called for the development of a British Baccalaureate. Yet all the years since have seen only one relatively modest change in this direction: the introduction in 2000 of the AS level. A decade later, this piece of classic Anglo-Saxon incrementalism is to be partially reversed.
Meanwhile, further attempts at increasing breadth have foundered, most notably during 2003-04 when the lumberingly over-engineered Diploma constructed by the Tomlinson review group fell to earth. Widely touted in education circles as a design beyond criticism, its rejection left modernisers with a bitter taste. Why wasn't it obvious to all that historic ways of doing things in England should be swept aside?
Since the 2010 election, the more conspiratorial of TES's readers may feel well placed to detect a new plot. With a Conservative-led coalition in office, it seemed expedient that Ofqual should conduct an international research study showing that, in the words of the chief regulator, A levels "generally stack up well". This debate has important implications for schools that are considering what kind of curriculum framework will best serve higher-achieving pupils at 16-plus.
Among the most innovative independent schools are those that have switched entirely to the International Baccalaureate. The IB is a philosophy, which has to be adopted in its entirety and pursued with passion by teachers and students alike. As some ambitious FE colleges and maintained schools have also found, when that happens the results can be spectacular. But the motivation to adopt the IB is based on cultural and educational ideals rather than economic imperatives. So does this leave A levels a poor relation, somehow educationally debased by "early specialisation" and with a lingering taint of "safety first"?
On balance, the evidence points the other way. In descriptive terms, Ofqual has noted the combined "breadth of content" and depth of study in A levels that make them "amongst the most demanding" of international qualifications.
Then there is the role of universities. It was in the 1560s that the universities of Oxford and Cambridge began to respond decisively to a new clientele of undergraduates - a "middling sort" in the language of the time - looking for useful forms of subject knowledge in order to gain an employment edge. Remarkably, the undergraduate curriculum based on an evolving set of discrete subjects has determined the structure of the advanced school curriculum ever since. This connection was reinforced in the 1850s with the creation by the two ancient universities of national tests (the "middle-class exams"). A century later this development had grown to seven exam boards, six of which, collectively, were controlled by 11 universities.
Subjects must evolve
Recent decades have seen a relative loss of nerve in higher education, a dangerous development if a successful balance within traditional arrangements is to be maintained. Compared with earlier generations, the leaders of prominent universities have played coy recently when courted by education secretary Michael Gove to take the lead in reforming A levels.
Does all this leave A levels a second-best historical relic? Prominent graduate recruiters do not think so (although they want recruits with both high grades and effective skills). Many universities retain predominantly single-honours degree programmes in traditional subjects, but no one argues seriously that this impedes the creation of a UK knowledge economy.
Moreover, there are cultural and human arguments for the status quo, ones that are consistently underestimated by those baccalaureate proponents suspicious of A levels as somehow elitist and a barrier to inclusion.
Achievement at A level boosts the self-confidence of students across the social spectrum. It is reliant on good teaching, rather than being accessible only to a minority social caste. Labour market studies show that success in subject learning is rewarded in the job market. More importantly, disciplinary training in a subject that a student has already come to love aged 17 remains a wellspring of personal fulfilment. For these reasons it is regrettable that Gove's reforms are highly likely to reduce the intake and retard achievement.
The mix on offer, however, must not be static or anachronistic. As in the past, the set of valued subjects needs to evolve. Latin may remain available but, in contemporary digital Britain, why should media studies be disdained by the dons? And, as Gove understands, inter-subject breadth and modularity has its hazards and holds no intrinsic educational merit. Courses need coherence, and a generation ago it was the most able undergraduates who were selected for joint-honours programmes, these being seen, like today's IB, as the most demanding.
Finally, we have no track record of breadth. We experimented for three decades from 1918 with a mandatory baccalaureate: the school certificate (at 16-plus) and the higher school certificate (at 18-plus). But they were fatally undermined by the problem of breadth, as complaints mounted that highly capable students, talented in specific subjects, were failing to matriculate or gain employment due to the requirement that all subjects be passed.
National history and locus, it turns out, really do matter. As Alexander Pope urged in another context, to imagine the future one must first "consult the genius of the place in all".
William Richardson is general secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference and visiting professor at the University of Exeter. He writes here in a personal capacity.