Sunak plans to overhaul A-level system with ‘British baccalaureate’

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Rishi Sunak is exploring a radical reshaping of A-levels with a new “British baccalaureate” to modernise England’s education system, according to senior Whitehall insiders.

The UK prime minister’s plans to reform academic post-16 education in England are part of a suite of high-profile policy announcements being considered ahead of next month’s Conservative party conference.

“Rishi wants a British bacc,” said one insider with knowledge of the plans that would require all 16-year-olds to study core subjects, including maths and English, if they stay in school beyond GCSE level.

The government is rolling out a series of eye-catching proposals designed to rescue his election prospects, which kicked off this week with Sunak’s dramatic delay of key UK net zero targets.

Government insiders said the baccalaureate policy was a personal mission of the prime minister, who proposed the scheme during his Conservative leadership bid against Liz Truss in 2022 that ultimately ended in defeat. 

Currently around half of 18-year-olds in England take A-levels, meaning they typically sit exams in three subjects. The exams’ main purpose is to enable admission to undergraduate higher education.

Sunak’s proposals would be likely to mean that students take exams in more subjects than in the current system.

An ally of Sunak said “there has been some exploring” of post-16 education reforms. The Department for Education did not deny the proposals were being explored but said it had already reformed post-16 education, for example by improving technical education and delivering apprenticeships.

A DfE spokesman said: “We have set out bold plans to ensure that every young person studies some form of maths up to the age of 18 to give them the skills they need to succeed in the jobs of the future”.

Sunak has been a vocal critic of the narrowness of the existing A-level system and has called Britain an “international outlier”. Senior Downing Street aides last year described reforms including a British baccalaureate as a “silver bullet in public policy” that would improve lives. 

A broader, baccalaureate-type education system has garnered support from across the UK political spectrum in the past, including from the former Labour prime minister Sir Tony Blair.

The Sunak proposals are distinct from the International Baccalaureate, a qualification offered by some private schools in the UK and other countries.

However, education experts warned that radical changes to A-levels, a central academic qualification in England, Wales and Northern Ireland since 1951, would require root-and-branch reform of the education system.

Sir Chris Husbands, a leading education expert, said the current GCSE exams for 16-year-olds were not suitable preparation for a broader-based, baccalaureate-style exam system.

“You cannot have a subject-based National Curriculum for 5-16-year-olds and then graft a bacc on top of it. The reason a bacc works is that the entire system is geared around leading up to a baccalaureate-type exam,” he said. 

The changes would create upheaval in schools that are still recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic. One academy chain leader was sceptical. “The system has no energy for reform at the moment and the [education] department doesn’t begin to have the capacity to think about this,” they said. 

David Laws, executive chair of the Education Policy Institute, a research body, and a former Liberal Democrat education minister in the 2010-15 coalition government, said it was sensible to open a conversation about the post-16 curriculum, which is narrow by international standards. 

But he warned any proposals needed to be carefully thought out. “Implementation will not be easy. We already struggle to recruit sufficient maths teachers and have many students who fail maths at 16 and who feel the existing curriculum isn’t relevant to them,” he said.

One former senior education department official said proposals for a baccalaureate-style system were consistent with the government’s ambitions, set out in April, to ensure “every young person studies some form of maths up to the age of 18”. 

A current official said: “You could create a de facto baccalaureate structure — by mandating that everyone does at least a slimline maths and English course to 18.” 

Post-16 students currently have relatively light class loads but there could be serious implementation problems with staffing such a rise in teaching hours, they added. Teaching capacity has been the main impediment to Sunak’s ambitions for more students to learn maths.

There could also be new cross-border problems, as Wales and Northern Ireland might not follow England’s lead, leading to even sharper differences between the jurisdictions. Scotland has a separate qualification system.

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