I was delighted to attend the National Baccalaureate summit on 28th November held at Highbury Grove School and hosted by Tom Sherrington, the headteacher. This was an opportunity for a range of people to take stock of the various baccalaureate-like frameworks which are currently available or in development and to consider the way forward following the report of the Independent Task Force chaired by professor Chris Husbands of the Institute of Education which proposed a National Baccalaureate (NB) for England. The summit was attended by educationalists and school leaders as well as representatives from the Department for Education and all the major awarding bodies.
We heard presentations about a number of different Baccs:
- the Welsh Bacc which has recently be revised
- The International Bacc, specifically the Middle Years and Diploma programmes
- The AQA Bacc with its emphasis on broadening subjects and enrichment
- The Mod Bacc at the Archbishop Sentamu Academy, Hull
- The Headteachers Roundtable model
Liam Collins has posted a good summary of the presentations on the Headteachers’ Roundtable site here. I also circulated a briefing about the Sixth Form Bacc (SF Bacc) developed by the Sixth Form Colleges Association (SFCA) which is running successfully in 12 sixth form colleges and is awarded annually to around 2,000 students.
There has been strong support the idea of an inclusive national baccalaureate for all young people among practitioners for some time. It’s just that governments of either party have not had the political courage to follow though and create such a framework for England. The nearest we came to this in recent history was as a result of the Tomlinson report on 14-19 reform whose recommendation in 2004 of a common overarching diploma was rejected by the Blair government.
Tomlinson proposed a diploma framework at different levels which was made up of:
- Main learning: specialist subjects which reflected young people’s strengths, interests and aspirations.
- Core learning: compulsory English, maths and computing, taught and assessed in a way which related to their practical use.
- An extended project: to replace coursework
- The development of wider personal skills and citizenship and enrichment
Professor Ken Spours from the Institute of Education, a long standing advocate of baccalaureate frameworks, reminded us that there is nothing new in the call for a single inclusive and overarching framework based around what constitutes an educated young person. As Ken pointed out, every subsequent attempt will be seen as Tomlinson mark 2 and we need to learn from the failure to persuade government to adopt Tomlinson’s recommendations. One lesson stands out above all; the need to build a political consensus before any national launch, preferably based on successful practice on the ground.
Ken recommends 3 broad and overlapping stages for successful NB implementation:
- Preparation, consultation, design and capacity-building: to create a favourable context which sees bottom-up developments as concurrent with lobbying and persuading politicians.
- Using existing qualifications within an overarching National Baccalaureate: building on well-established general qualifications (A levels) and improved vocational qualifications within the new post-16 Programmes of Study and with a strong focus on skills for progression.
- Evaluation, refinement and more advanced design: looking years ahead towards more strongly collaborative local learning systems geared to providing the full range of opportunities to all young people.
Rather than relying mainly on persuading politicians to reform from above and waiting for them to act, those present agreed to adopt what Ken described as a civil society approach. In other words to act together as an independent network of institutions and awarding bodies to develop a voluntary new framework which could ultimately have the potential to work for the whole system. This bottom-up approach to curriculum change would require considerable collective maturity and compromise.
On the evidence of this summit, there is the will to try to make such an approach work and this is what was agreed. There will be further meetings and the project will seek to engage with politicians without being bound to electoral cycles or becoming dependent on political patronage.
In my view, such a development needs to:
- Be based on clear, agreed values and make sense to parents and young people by offering something that is clearly better than what is available now. We need to create a consensus from the bottom and attract support from across the political spectrum.
- Celebrate what young people know and can do and be able to generate new kinds of student achievement such as the ‘graduation masterpiece’. The benefits to all should be clear to all and it should be simple and compelling enough to be explainable persuasively by politicians when they are campaigning in elections.
- Be inclusive and capable of containing the full range of current qualifications and existing Bacc frameworks without requiring them to change radically but without being so minimalist that it has no clear additional value or distinctive identity.
- Be capable of being delivered at little or no additional cost. Post-16 learning in particular is desperately underfunded in England and there is a very strong case for additional resources. However, the case for curriculum change is too important to be seen as conditional on a demand for greatly increased funding. The Bacc argument may need to be won first before “now make sure it’s properly resourced” can become compelling.
- Open up a longer term debate about the need for greater curricular breadth post-16 and be capable of evolving into a national framework which could work for all 14-19 year olds.
If we think all young people in England deserve a broader, more challenging and more inclusive upper secondary education we need to be ready to commit to the necessary constructive curriculum reform ourselves. So, let’s get to work and build our Bacc from the bottom up.