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Rishi Sunak’s plans to overhaul A-levels with a new “British Baccalaureate” would create a uniform education system that only rewards all-rounders, experts have said.
The Prime Minister is understood to be considering ditching the current education system for 16 to 18-year-olds and replacing it with a new certificate where children would study a broader range of subjects until they leave school.
It would incorporate Mr Sunak’s plans to make all students study maths until 18, with English and maths mandatory subjects under the proposed baccalaureate system.
The plans are still lacking in details including how many subjects pupils would take or when the scheme would be rolled out, with Government sources insisting no final decision has been taken.
But education experts have warned that the proposals are doomed to break down, since previous attempts to introduce a baccalaureate system in the UK have failed to catch on.
Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment, told i that “Sunak is completely out of touch on this – I’m surprised that he’s pursuing it”.
He said most schools in the UK that adopted the International Baccalaureate (IB), introduced in the 1960s to offer a greater breadth of topics for post-16 students, have since dropped it after realising it only rewards pupils who are good at everything.
“Schools realised it was a very good qualification for all-rounders, but by the age of 16 people are becoming a lot clearer about the things they like doing and the things that they’re good at. And people don’t necessarily want to be taking English or maths to the age of 18,” he told i.
“I like to think of education as a great British oak tree, where there are many many branches of people doing different things – Sunak is seeing it as a conifer, where everybody goes up the same long trunk.”
Just 137 schools in the UK currently offer the IB, according to the International Baccalaureate Organisation – almost half the figure in 2008, when 230 schools offered it.
Professor Smithers said the system also failed to stick in the UK because it meant students who excelled in one or two particular subjects often missed out on their first-choice universities.
Typical university offers usually require IB scores between 40 and 42 points out of 45 across most subjects, rather than top scores in particular subjects that students want to pursue at undergraduate level.
He said that while this complements university courses in other countries, which are typically longer and allow students to specialise later on, the IB does not suit the British university system, where students are already expected to have specialised upon entry.
“If you’re going to take somebody up to the higher reaches of physics in three years at university, they’ve got to have a very high jumping off point. That works well with the A-level system, where you can show that you’ve done subjects like physics, maths, further maths and computing, but not the International Baccalaureate,” said Professor Smithers.
“There are all sorts of problems. And we know about these problems – it’s not just speculation.”
A recent report by the Centre for Education and Employment, authored by Professor Smithers, also found that the Government’s plans to roll out an English Baccalaureate at GCSE level have also failed to stick.
The system, known as the EBacc and introduced by Michael Gove in 2010, offers a core curriculum of five subjects – English, maths, science, a humanity, and a foreign language.
The Government set a target for 75 per cent of pupils to be taking the EBacc combination by 2022 and 90 per cent by 2025. But just 38.7 per cent of state-funded schools offered in 2022, largely due to poor take-up of modern or ancient foreign languages.
Mr Sunak initially touted the idea of a British Baccalaureate during his unsuccessful leadership campaign against Liz Truss last year, but was forced to put it on hold to concentrate on stabilising the economy.
He is now expected to focus on a wider package of education reforms ahead of the general election, though any overhaul would likely take several years to implement.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that while there was “merit” in looking at a wider range of subjects in post-16 education, “the idea of a ‘British Baccalaureate’ is no more than a sketchy slogan, with the Prime Minister’s rehashed plan for compulsory maths until the age of 18 bolted on”.
“Would the British Baccalaureate replace A-levels, T-levels, BTECs, and existing functional skills qualifications, incorporate them, or be layered on top of them?” he wondered.
“There has been no discussion with the education sector about this idea and without any detail of what is being proposed it is a policy which is largely meaningless.”
Daniel Kebede, general secretary of the National Education Union, said there were not enough teachers to implement Mr Sunak’s bold plans for reform.
“The Prime Minister’s sketchy proposal to introduce a British Baccalaureate shows that this is a Government completely out of touch with the realities on the ground. Once again, he has failed to recognise that we have a deep teacher recruitment and retention crisis,” he said.
Mr Kebede claimed it marked the latest example of “back-of-the-envelope” policy proposals by the Government, adding: “Any reforms need to be done in consultation with the education sector to avoid yet more unworkable or inadequate policy being dreamt up as a result of no input from the profession.”