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British 'Bac' urged at 14-plus

Education is the key to national renewal the Social Justice Commission said this week. Susan Young analyses its report. The structure of qualifications on offer to English and Welsh pupils is inappropriate for the 21st century, says the commission. "Beyond the age of 17, less than half our young people are in full-time education. The talent is there, the demand is there, but both run up against the buffers of a system designed to select an elite rather than educate a majority," it says, blaming the damaging division between academic and vocational education.

It favours a unified education and training system, in the long term leading towards a "British Baccalaureate" awarded on graduation from secondary education. This would, say the commissioners, broaden the A-level experience and provide general educational rigour for those currently in specialised vocational options. Since Tony Blair has promised to reform rather than scrap A-levels, it is unclear whether this scheme would meet with his approval, but his chief adviser David Miliband is known to be in favour.

The idea appears to draw heavily on an earlier Institute of Public Policy Research production - partly authored by Miliband - which suggested a modular curriculum comprising a common core and specialised choices. It included practical and work elements, with study encompassing existing GCSE and pre-vocational courses.

The commission also wants to see the development of a credit-based system of learning, giving students a wide choice of courses, and a review of the status of the GCSE exam at 16. "England and Wales are now the only industrialised countries except Russia with a 'school-leaving' exam at 16," it says.

The report also suggests a combination of continuing assessment through coursework with final assessment by examination, and a commitment to high status and quality work-based learning.

Those who do leave school at 16 and 17 should have compulsory part-time training at a standard equivalent to A-level provided by employers or through a college. "There is a strong case for a national income-related grant to support the poorest 16 and 17 year-olds who stay on in full-time education and training," says the report.

The concept of lifelong learning continues, with the suggestion that companies should put a proportion of each worker's earnings into training. If they could not provide the training themselves, it should be channelled into collective provision at the local TEC or put into employees' Individual Learning Accounts for their own use.

Skills training would also be provided for long-term unemployed people through a Jobs, Education and Training programme.

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