Has Labour ditched its commitment to a National Baccalaureate for 14-19 year olds?
According to the party’s Education and Children statement, Labour will ‘establish an overarching National Baccalaureate framework for all post-16 students which would include high quality academic and vocational courses’. This commitment follows the recommendation of the third report of the Independent Skills Taskforce chaired by Professor Chris Husbands of the Institute of Education. This report made the case for a broader curriculum framework for all young people based on 4 domains: core learning (GCSE, A level and vocational), maths and English, extended study or research and personal skills.
However, this key commitment doesn’t appear at all in Changing Britain Together, Labour’s latest summary of its main policy commitments in advance of the general election manifesto. The policies are drawn from the same Education and Children document but it seems that not all have made the final cut.
Instead, the section Creating opportunity for all young people only says: ‘Labour will introduce a new gold standard Technical Baccalaureate for 16-18 year olds’
The Husbands report supported the Tech Bacc but recommended that ‘the Tech Bacc should be part of a wider framework of skills, knowledge and experience; a new National Baccalaureate which all young people should undertake and which recognises learning and progression across the 14-19 phase.’ Husbands is recommending that the Tech Bacc should be contained within the broader and more inclusive National Bacc.
But, unless this is an accidental omission, it seems we are to get the part but not the whole. And we already have a Tech Bacc which is pretty good, so what’s new? If Labour’s Tech Bacc is anything like the government’s own version currently being piloted it is a welcome initiative which increases challenge and coherence in vocational programmes. But it is not the overarching one-nation framework we need and it does not really bridge the gulf between general and vocational programmes which forces students to make choices at 16 which are then difficult to un-make.
In Changing Britain Together, the Tech Bacc proposal is accompanied by a blistering attack on current vocational qualifications: ‘Our education system … has failed to provide alternatives for those who do not choose that [A level] path. As a result, many talented young people, for whom a quality vocational qualification would have been a better option, have been let down by a system that offers no clear route to a successful career’.
At best, this is gross hyperbole. The vocational qualifications being offered in post-16 colleges up and down the country are successfully providing very clear routes to professional careers. Just from my own college, 364 advanced vocational students progressed to university in 2014. They are studying for STEM, Business, Law, Art, Design, Media, Education and many other degrees, often on the same degree level courses as their A level peers. In that same year, how many of our students were able to find apprenticeships or full time training? A grand total of 18. The fact that there are so few employment vacancies for well qualified young people, including graduates, is an economic failure not an educational one. It’s simply not sustainable to blame vocational education for this.
So, how to explain the mystery of the disappearing Nat Bacc? Is Labour worried that it’s not a vote-winner? Or that it will divert from all the technical / vocational rhetoric? The reality is that such a development could command wide cross-party support and offer a popular way to symbolise what a one-nation 14-19 education means: a common framework for all, to stretch everyone beyond what is currently expected, to value different kinds of learning without segregating the ‘applied’ and the ‘theoretical’ and to celebrate the progress of all learners.
So, by all means let’s have the investment in apprenticeships and real jobs that young people so desperately need. But let’s also have the comprehensive framework which can bring all their learning together into a meaningful national award.