The curriculum we offer young people aged 14-18 in England is a divided patchwork of qualifications which is increasingly seen in hierarchical terms: “facilitating” A levels worth the most, non “facilitating” A-levels worth less and vocational qualifications least valued of all.
This hierarchy of qualifications is reflected in a hierarchy of institutions, with the most selective providers offering mainly “facilitating” A-levels and aiming to prepare young people for “top” ie: selective universities and most providers fighting over the rest.
Such a system can only lead to social immobility and division when what we want is social mobility and cohesion. We have no shared national aims or unifying principles for this phase of education. For young people who are entering adulthood and need a rich and stimulating induction to the best that human culture has to offer, our system tends to narrow opportunities rather than broaden them. 16 year olds, let alone 14 year olds, are too young to be labelled as either “vocational” or “academic” but instead of being encouraged to help them flourish as fully as possible, England’s schools and colleges often feel they are engaged in a rush to sort them into categories as early as possible.
It doesn’t need to be like this.
This week saw the publication of the third report of the Independent Skills Taskforce commissioned by the Labour Party and chaired by Professor Chris Husbands, Director of the Institute for Education. The report, called “Qualifications matter: improving the curriculum and assessment for all”, has at its centre the proposal to create a common overarching National Baccalaureate framework available as either a “technical” or “general” baccalaureate. This is a very significant contribution to the debate about 14-19 education and offers young people in England the prospect of a genuine “one-nation” curriculum which could provide challenge to everyone and value everyone’s achievements.
The proposed National Bacc. is designed to offer young people a far broader curriculum entitlement than most students have at the moment. It has four domains:
- Core learning: GCSEs, A levels and/or vocational qualifications
- Mathematics and English
- Personal Skills Development
- An extended study or project
Each of these elements would be profiled separately but a young person’s achievements would also be combined into a single overarching grade. The National Bacc. would be pitched at different levels with the aspiration that most young people would aim to achieve it at advanced level by the age of 18.
The personal skills development domain needs more work and the proposed skills should be more rigorously defined. The report suggests that this should include workplace learning, community service and physical activity; all very welcome. On the other hand “digital literacy” and “thinking skills” sound nebulous and decontextualised. The absence of any mention of education for democratic citizenship or cultural experiences is also regrettable. For this domain the report suggests that how it is offered should be a matter for each provider and this could be a really exciting area for collaborative curriculum development in schools and colleges.
The requirement for students to undertake extended study or produce a research project in an area of their choice is also very positive. It puts research and deep learning on the agenda for all students and gives them the opportunity to produce a substantial and useful piece of work as the culmination of their education by 18. Just imagine the impact on a local community of unleashing the creativity and practical ideas of all its young people through producing, presenting and implementing the best research projects, performances or artifacts they are capable of.
Overall, the proposal is a pragmatic response to where we are but is also more ambitious than the government’s own “Tech Bacc” and “A Bacc” although they’re not a million miles apart. Its greatest strength is its inclusivity in bringing general and vocational learning into the same framework. The structure of the National Bacc would allow students to follow both general and vocational elements and above all would include all learners; stretching them and valuing all their achievements.
This National Bacc proposal should be welcomed as a very significant step towards a “one-nation” curriculum for 14-18 year olds. Once the politicians can agree overall aims and design principles it will be up to the educators to consider how we might make this work for the next generation of young people. If done well, the National Bacc. could be part of the solution to England’s divided system and become the envy of many other countries.