Why ministers' commitment to school diversity is a sham

The idea that the government might be willing to kill the IB to save T levels betrays school freedom, writes JL Dutaut

JL Dutaut

The government looks like it is willing to kill off the International Baccalaureate to save T levels, warns JL Dutaut

For a government whose ideology is premised on individualism and competition, it isn’t half partial to stacking the game in its favour when the market doesn’t do what it wants it to. When schools weren’t academising fast enough, it proposed forced academisation. When that didn’t get through, it created the academisation order and turned Ofsted into its coercive weapon to achieve its goal. Fearful of unions organising around alternatives, it changed the law to make strikes all-but-impossible to achieve. This week, fearful that its pet project, T levels, isn’t generating enough demand to make them viable, it is floating the idea that funding for International Baccalaureate courses could be scrapped.

Talk about a captive audience. Sixth forms that currently run the IB will face the choice of joining the steady flow of those that are already closing their doors, or adopting a suite of qualifications that ought rightly to go straight to the Museum of Government Incompetence, if only such a place existed. Other sixth forms will lose the option of switching to IB to avoid the impending car crash.

The IB has had a presence in the UK since 1971. Currently, 103 schools offer an IB programme, and in those schools are running 10 primary years programmes, 14 middle years programmes, 99 diploma programmes and 42 career-related programmes. The latter are the ones facing the axe, as they "overlap" with T levels.

But this policy idea overlooks an important aspect, and the oversight says something very important about our politicians’ grasp of education. The IB is an alternative conception of curriculum from start to finish. Each programme is conceived as part of an all-through ethos that our education system can only dream of. To remove its final qualification is to remove its head, and, as night follows day, this will kill the body, too. And lo! It will be proclaimed as another "unintended consequence".

International Baccalaureate at risk

Schools that offer the IB career-related programme in their sixth forms don’t, by and large, offer the middle years programme. This is explained in great part by the British tradition of high-stakes examinations at 16 and 18, distinct from the continental tradition of a lesser-stakes middle-school certification at 15, followed by final examination three years later. GCSEs, in this regard, are a hang-up from a system with a compulsory-education leaving age of 16.

Today, parents still expect their children to finish Year 11 with GCSEs, though they have long since stopped being a relevant qualification for almost anything. Witness the CBI’s and the Chambers of Commerce’s constant griping about children leaving school without the necessary skills to thrive in the workforce. With young people now legally required to be in education or training until the age of 18, it is no surprise that policymakers get tangled in excruciating contortions to make the system work, or fall into bear traps as soon as scrapping the current system is suggested.

In IB schools, however, the sixth form offer deeply influences the key stage 3 and key stage 4 offer. That is the type of curriculum thinking that the new Ofsted framework can only dream of engendering. You can’t just pick up an IB in Year 12 after years of schooling influenced by Progress 8 and EBacc performance measures. To go from a narrowed, performative curriculum to an expansive, ethos-driven one would set students and their teachers up to fail. Schools that have chosen the IB route know this.

By the same token, to expect schools to become more expansive in their curriculum design while narrowing their choices when it comes to rationales and qualifications is a nonsense, and one that will also have consequences for the lives of schools, teachers and young people.

Competition in all the wrong places

A good number of my colleagues, beaten by the daily grind of teaching in what passes for comprehensive schools, found their love of teaching and professional pride again when they joined an IB school. They still teach GCSE, but the entire ethos of their new schools celebrates breadth and depth over targets and flight paths. Whatever Ofsted says, this will not be the case in England’s schools – at least not equally or equitably – as long as our qualifications framework remains untouched.

The trouble is that for all the talk of marketisation, what we’ve ended up with is competition in all the wrong places, and no competition where having it would be healthy. Schools compete with each other for ratings and league-table top spots on a sloped pitch that disfavours the disadvantaged, while politicians try to keep audiences buying season tickets by tweaking the rules of the game.

Everything that’s wrong with education echoes loudly the travesty that is modern football. Supporting your local school is like supporting Accrington Stanley in the FA Cup. The opposing team’s CEO earns more in a week than your club has done in the past decade, they have better training facilities, easier recruitment and wealthier fans, while you have hope, glee at an unexpected giant-slaying or Cinderella run, and always the promise of next year. The FA talks about levelling things out, but the viewing figures don’t lie, and the big clubs always get their way under threat of pulling away and setting up their own league.

What could be gained instead by fostering collaboration between schools, and competition between qualification frameworks? Are GCSEs, A levels and T levels really the only things employers and universities can understand? Are AQA, Pearson, OCR and WJEC really as competitive as they might be? Are our communities really getting the best deal from their poorly informed choice in this limited market?

T levels might be a good idea. They might even become the qualification of choice, but if that can only be achieved through coercion, by sacrificing parents’ and children’s choices, then not only will it be a shallow victory, but it will also be a hollow one. The problem for us little guys is that the change will never come at the behest of the big multi-academy trust the system favours. We’re going to have to make a stand for, and with, our communities. Perhaps we professionals have more to learn from rugby league than we ever did from football.

JL Dutaut is co-editor of Flip the System UK: a teachers' manifesto (Routledge). He is currently on a career break from teaching to research school accountability systems around the world. He hasn't found one he likes yet, and he doesn't think you would either

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