Those political metaphors are great aren’t they? When he was an opposition spokesperson on education, Boris Johnson used to speak about the importance of ‘crunchy’ subjects, by which he meant Science and Maths, presumably in contrast to the soggy gruel of English Lit or Philosophy.
Last week, Tristram Hunt told us he wanted to initiate a ‘big hairy conversation’ about the possibility of a single national baccalaureate. I’m not sure what is ‘hairy’ about this conversation but is is a very welcome development. Inevitably, the media reported the proposal in terms of ‘ditching GCSE’ just as a decade ago claim was that the Tomlinson report would be ‘ditching A levels’. This was probably what led prime minister Tony Blair to get cold feet about a 14-19 reform, which could actually have been very popular.
Whether crunchy or hairy, this is a conversation that doesn’t need to be about ditching things. The point of an overarching qualification framework is that it can contain different qualifications within it. The baccalaureate should be an expression of what we think a good curriculum should be. The qualifications inside it can change or disappear as the overarching award evolves. So the ‘hairiest’ issue is actually the least important one.
There is strong support for the idea of an overarching curriculum framework for all young people. The Husbands report commissioned by the Labour Party offered a realistic way forward, a number of successful alternative models already exist, for example in Wales, and the work being done by the Headteachers’ Roundtable demonstrates the appetite for a baccalaureate approach in England.
Tristram Hunt is taking the view that people are fed up with imposed curriculum reform and that there needs to be a national conversation on 14-19 education followed by a period of consensus-building before any major change to the system. He is absolutely right and that conversation needs to include teachers, parents, students and everyone concerned with the future of education.
What he is doing is making it possible to for that conversation to take place and telling us that he understands that politicians don’t have all the answers. This approach is refreshing – as long as it comes with some guiding principles. Politicians in government should be mindful of government’s role in shaping the education system rather than micromanaging it.
I would offer just two very clean-shaven principles as a starting point for our conversation:
- The conversation should start from first principles and should ask some fundamental questions: What do we think 14-19 education is for? What should an educated 19 year old have experienced, learnt and achieved?
- The conversation should take a ‘one-nation’ perspective. This means imagining a single framework which is capable of including all learners in this age group. Instead of starting with the creation of a Tech Bacc and envisaging different pathways for different ‘types’ of learner and then working towards equal value, it should start from a single National Bacc and then consider what different options and routes could be included within it. This is the only way to ensure equal value and equal challenge for all learners.
So, Tristram Hunt’s ‘big hairy conversation’ offers us the chance to grow a genuinely popular National Bacc from the bottom up.
Before that, of course, there is the small matter of a general election…
More on the National Bacc:
Bacc on the agenda (March 2015)
Labour’s disappearing National Bacc (December 2014)
Building the Bacc from below (December 2014)