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'It's time for a proper baccalaureate, not English and maths bolted on to A-levels'

Dr Kevin Stannard, director of innovation and learning at The Girls’ Day School Trust, writes: 

Labour’s proposal that English and maths be made compulsory to the age of 18 seems set to create a rare consensus, consonant as it is with the present government’s “core maths” initiative, intended to encourage even those who pass GCSE to continue with the subject in Year 12.

It raises some interesting questions, not the least of which is why, if a student has achieved a creditable pass in maths (or indeed in English) at GCSE, he or she should need to continue with those subjects. It’s one thing to encourage those who haven’t cleared the GCSE “hurdle” to persevere a bit longer to reach that level; it’s quite another to load capable students (whose academic interests and post-school aspirations may lie elsewhere) with compulsory further study of certain subjects in the sixth form.

If this is the intention, what, precisely, is the purpose of GCSE? Why insist on a battery of tests that distort and distract in the years leading to age 16, which in any case is no longer the age of compulsory education, and which would now no longer earn students the right to drop “core” subjects? Baccalaureate systems elsewhere in the world tend not to impose high-volume high-stakes testing a couple of years ahead of the main exams.

The other question relates to the spirit and purpose of the sixth-form stage. There is nothing wrong, in principle, with insisting on a compulsory core pre-university – it underlies the “baccalaureate” concept in other countries, and there’s no a priori reason why we shouldn’t have a successful bacc-style qualification in this country. Except that it runs directly counter to the way that the English sixth-form curriculum has developed over many years.

Rather than persisting with the very English propensity for politicians to tinker with short-term cosmetic changes – in this case grafting on compulsory core subjects to an otherwise unchanged structure – might this not be an opportunity to take a holistic view and affirm what we are really trying to achieve in the sixth form?

The A-level “curriculum” in its current shape has been reverse-engineered over many decades largely to suit the peculiar needs of English higher education. Our undergraduate programmes are typically three years, and highly specialised from the word go. New undergraduates are therefore expected to be committed to particular subjects (or parts of a subject) even before they start. This is very different from, for example, the US system, with its four-year liberal-arts degree model.

In England, as a consequence, it is the norm for sixth formers to specialise in just a few cognate subjects – three sciences and maths, for instance, or English literature, history plus a modern foreign languages (Curriculum 2000 didn’t really succeed in enticing students to broaden their base in Year 12, largely because so few universities made any such stipulation in their admissions requirements).

A student wanting to study chemistry at university is still expected to have invested a great deal in that subject already, and this can only be achieved by the narrowing of student programmes in the last two years at school.

Remember that A-levels were not originally developed as school-leaving certificates for the whole, or even a plurality of the cohort. They were intended as a filter, to “qualify” some students for entry to highly specific degree programmes. The exams were designed and developed by examination boards that were themselves once embedded in the oldest-established universities – Cambridge, Oxford and London (Cambridge Assessment, of which OCR is a part, remains a non-teaching department of the University of Cambridge, run by a "syndicate" of dons).

While the direct link whereby university academics were personally involved in A-levels as syllabus writers, examiners and awarders has largely been broken, the influence of HE persists through their admission requirements and their leverage with government. More direct influence may yet be restored through the newly created A-level Content Advisory Board.

So the mainstream exams in the sixth form were designed to “qualify” students to progress to specialist undergraduate study, not to promote a broad and balanced curriculum for all school-leavers.

The large “size” and challenging “demand” of A-levels remains calibrated not just to the expectation that students are heading for higher education, but to the requirement that students already be highly-specialised even before arrival at the base of the ivory tower. This requirement is met in the English system by facing that battery of high-stakes tests across a broad range of subjects at 16, success in which essentially earns students the right to specialise in just a few subjects post-16, the corollary of which is the dropping of a lot of previously core subjects.

If we want to raise the bar in terms of core subjects for everyone aged 16 to 18, fine (actually, not fine, but let’s go with it for the sake of argument). But why do it by increasing the load on already overstretched students? Bolting more stuff on to Year 12 student schedules (which now often include extended project qualifications as well four or five A-levels) is highly unlikely to win waverers over to calculus or Keats.

Universities are entitled to expect their prospective students to be specialised in their chosen subjects, and to be sure the three-year degree model serves a lot of people very well. But the framework that was designed for a subset of the cohort has become the imposed model for a majority, and has had massive backwash effects on the shape of sixth-form schedules. It has in the past prevented the development of a home-grown baccalaureate or diploma-style qualification.

It is, of course, asking too much for higher education, which in many ways is one of Britain’s glories and much of which is genuinely world-class, to change fundamentally just to make life for 17-year-olds easier. There are an awful lot of academically able students who relish the chance to drop everything else and focus only on a few favoured subjects in the last two years at school.

What we need is a framework that allows for specialisation, and which serves the needs of our universities, while recognising that for many other students, a broad, baccalaureate-style programme might be preferable. One size clearly doesn’t fit all.

Meanwhile, why do politicians, of all stripes, insist on imposing “reforms” that fail to ask fundamental questions about the purpose of the system or interrogate the problem in the round, but which simply pile more and more pressure on pupils and schools?

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