Image of Government pledges to shake up post-16 education

Government pledges to shake up post-16 education

In this blog, Matt Bromley, education journalist, author, and advisor with twenty-five years’ experience in teaching and leadership, discusses the government’s recent announcement that it is planning to make big changes to assessment and teaching in post-16 education.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak used his party conference speech on 4 October 2023 to announce plans to revolutionise post-16 education. Sunak pledged to replace A levels and T levels with a new Advanced British Standard (ABS).

How will the ABS change post-16 education?

The ABS will mean 16- to 19-year-olds receive more teaching hours, study a broader range of subjects, study English and maths to age 18, are able to follow an academic, technical or mixed pathway, and have a simpler choice at 16.

In a paper later presented to parliament, entitled ‘A world-class education system’, the government set out its reasons for wanting to shake up post-16 education. The paper claimed that:

  • we still have academic and technical paths that were designed in silos, and do not offer parity of esteem. T levels and our simplification of technical qualifications are a big step forward in standards, but technical routes are still less well understood than traditional academic pathways
  • our 16- to 19-year-olds receive far fewer hours of teaching than those in other countries, which particularly hurts the most disadvantaged students who have fewer resources for independent study
  • too many students leave education and training without a good pass in English and maths GCSEs (or an equivalent), leaving them without the basic skills needed to succeed in life
  • our 16- to 19-year-olds study a much narrower range of subjects than their international counterparts, which does not prepare them as well for a world that demands breadth and agility
These final years of education shape aspiration and achievement for the rest of a young person’s educational life. Being able to see clear, high-quality post-16 options are a motivating force for pre-16 education too.

The government claims that the new ABS, which is a Baccalaureate-style qualification, that brings together the best of A levels and T levels, will:

  • remove the artificial separation between technical and academic qualifications, and create a single, unified structure for all 16- to 19-year-olds. It will replace all other non-apprenticeship qualifications at this level for this age group, building on the rigour of both A levels and T levels: the depth and knowledge-rich content of A levels; and the high-quality, employer-led occupational standards of T levels
  • increase the number of taught hours by an extra 15% for most 16-19 students, against the current average funded time, moving us closer to international norms and helping more children to succeed
  • ensure every young person studies some form of English and maths to age 18, raising the floor of attainment and bringing us into line with international peers
  • increase the number of subjects that students take, to provide greater breadth
  • Students will choose a combination of bigger and smaller subjects – called majors and minors – from both technical and academic options, and will typically study a minimum of five subjects
The government admits that the changes are part of a long-term reform that will take a decade to deliver in full. They say it will need careful development, and so have promised to commit to consulting extensively on the design of the new qualification, informing a White Paper next year.

Furthermore, the government pledges extra funding for the additional taught hours the ABS will involve. To prepare, they say they will begin recruiting and retaining teachers in shortage subjects, ensure better attainment in maths and English, and invest in resources for teachers and pupils.

Also, the government says that education is the best economic policy, the best social policy, and the best moral policy. Increasing educational attainment boosts wages, increases life chances, and gives young people the best chance to succeed in life. The government believes that this new approach to post-16 education is the right thing to do for young people today, and the right thing to do for the country in the long term.

What are the key features of the proposed ABS?

1. Genuine parity between technical and academic

The government suggests that the ABS will end the artificial separation between technical and academic routes, delivering genuine parity.

2. Increased quality teaching time

The government argues that 16- to 19-year-olds receive less contact time with a teacher than their peers in many other countries. On average, the government funds 16-19 providers for about 640 hours of structured time per year (1,280 hours over two years, which equates roughly to 17 hours per week). This means that students get approximately a third less teaching time than some other countries.

With the ABS, the government says it will increase students’ access to and time with great teachers, which is likely to have particular benefit for disadvantaged students.

3. A strong core of essential knowledge

The government believes that the ABS will help prioritise a strong, consistent core of knowledge that all individuals need to succeed in work and life, including maths and English. The government has already set out an ambition to introduce maths for all students up to the age of 18 in England, but now says English Language is also key.

4. Greater breadth of subjects

The government argues that the ABS will expand the range of study, so young people experience the power of broader knowledge with the right degree of depth to be able to excel in their path post 18.

Next steps

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan, in an address to the Confederation of School Trusts on 5 October 2023, set out some of the actions that the government will take to make the ABS a reality.

Keegan said the plan will take time to implement “but there are some things we need to start straight away to lay the groundwork for this plan”. Accordingly, she announced that the government would be:

  • investing over £600 million over the next two years, to improve the recruitment and retention of teachers of key shortage subjects in schools and colleges, strengthen support to those pupils who need to resit GCSE maths or English, and spread teaching excellence
  • improving the recruitment and retention of teachers in key shortage subjects, with a package which includes investing around £100 million each year to double the rates of the levelling up premium and expand this to include FE colleges. All teachers who are in the first five years of their career, teaching shortage subjects and working in disadvantaged schools, will be paid up to £6,000 per year tax free
  • investing £60 million over two years to improve maths education, including through expanding teaching for mastery approaches across the country, using maths hubs and increasing access to core maths
  • continuing to build upon the knowledge-rich focus of reforms by providing an additional £40 million for the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) so they can create and share high-quality evidence of what works at 16 to 19, particularly what works to close the gap for disadvantaged pupils at that age

Reactions to the ABS announcement

Responses to the announcement from across the sector have been mixed. Some pointed out the elephant in the room, namely that there will be a general election next year and the Conservative party are currently trailing in the polls.

Others noted the need for extra teachers to deliver the ABS and cited the fact that ITT targets have been repeatedly missed in recent years. In fact, in 2022/2023, the government under-recruited maths teachers by 10% and English teachers by 16%. 2023/24 looks set to be worse, raising questions about whether the sector will have the capacity to deliver the ABS if it does become a reality.

Sunak said that “education is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet” and yet Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that “while the principles of these proposals are good, the practicalities are daunting because of the severity of the teacher recruitment and retention crisis”.

The National Education Union was similarly sceptical. Daniel Kebede of NEU said, “There is no magic wand to create English and maths teachers in sufficient numbers to educate 11- to 16-year-olds, let alone at A level too.” Kebede concluded that “post-16 curriculum reform is worthy of debate, but simply increasing the number of hours taught would require an additional 5,300 teachers. This year the government missed their recruitment target for secondary teachers by 48%”.

Meanwhile, other commentators pointed out that T levels were only introduced three years ago at huge expense – both financially and in terms of the profession’s time and energy. Jack Worth of the National Foundation for Educational Research said, “Time is needed to allow these new qualifications to bed in and be evaluated in terms of their fitness for purpose.”

However, other quarters welcomed the proposals, with Sir Peter Lampl of the Sutton Trust saying that the ABS “is a major step which will significantly improve social mobility”.

Lampl claimed, “Under the current A levels system, young people are forced to specialise far too early. This impacts disadvantaged youngsters the most, as they are less likely to have access to good careers guidance or advice from family members. They are also much less likely to gain knowledge outside of their A level courses. For those who aspire to university, it means they are making choices that can limit their options at age 15, and many also leave school lacking functional maths and English skills. While there is much still to be worked out, (this) is a very positive step for improving social mobility.”

The CEO of the Association of Colleges, David Hughes, was also positive, if sceptical. Hughes said that, while consultation and long-term thinking was needed, the fact that the prime minister was “talking openly about the need to fund FE colleges fairly and put money in to support their staff on pay and the students who need more investment” was to be welcomed, saying the Education Secretary Gillian Keegan had done a “great job” to make this happen.

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