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Sunak’s worthy A-level reforms held back by fantasies on tax

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Good morning. Scoop! Rishi Sunak is planning to implement an international baccalaureate-style system in England as part of his reboot, our team reveals. Some more thoughts on that below.

Inside Politics is edited by Georgina Quach. Follow Stephen on X @stephenkb and please send gossip, thoughts and feedback to insidepolitics@ft.com

Don’t look Bacc in anger

Rishi Sunak wants to replace A-levels with a broader, baccalaureate-style qualification, Peter Foster, George Parker, Chris Cook and Anna Gross reveal. According to an insider familiar with the plans, this would require all 16-year-olds to study core subjects, including maths and English, if they stay in school beyond GCSE level.

There’s a lot to get into here in policy terms. The proposal is an old one, and it has a lot of cross-party support, including in the past from Tony Blair. I think Sunak is absolutely right to say that A-levels are unnecessarily narrow and that everyone in the UK should study some form of maths until 18.

Miranda Green has produced an excellent documentary about the UK’s struggles with maths, and one solution that some politicians want in England is the spread of a “core maths”- type qualification, separate from a higher maths qualification. Both Scotland and Wales have a numeracy qualification that is distinct from maths and available as an NQ in Scotland and as a numeracy GCSE in Wales. Kenneth Baker, the Thatcher-era education secretary who was in many ways the most consequential holder of the post, also thinks that a separate core maths qualification is a good approach (Baker is one of the talking heads in Miranda’s film).

I see the rationale here but I’m instinctively against it, for the reasons given by Alf Coles, professor of mathematics education at Bristol university (also in Miranda’s film):

I would be worried that it would divide along class and socio-economic lines. And I think if you look at other countries — China, for example — almost everybody in China achieves a very high level in mathematics. So I just don’t think it’s the case that there’s a proportion of the population who will just never get maths and shouldn’t be taught it. To me, it seems like it’s one of children’s rights to be offered some of these cultural achievements in mathematics.

For me, the danger is that we give up on students early in their school career. We’ve got evidence of children who have not attained very highly in maths, being able to be successful on Pythagoras and trigonometry and things that are way ahead of what would have been expected of them in the curriculum. And I would be really sad if what went along with the sort of more functional qualification was the closing-down of possibilities.

One of my most conservative beliefs is that the most effective reforms work with the existing culture of an institution or a nation. And in UK culture, twin-path systems very rapidly become two-tier ones.

Every successful post-war education secretary, from Anthony Crosland to Baker to Michael Gove, has tended to take the view of: “Look, what can you expect? Some children just aren’t going to do very well.” As Coles rightly points out, examples from overseas show that this attitude is wrong. (England has been climbing up the rankings for Pisa, the OECD’s international assessment of educational attainment. So it’s not that we happen to have had a better class of child since the introduction of the Adonis-Gove reforms.)

I think a “core maths” qualification path very rapidly will become a second-tier qualification. I would argue that a quick look at which Scottish and Welsh pupils end up taking the numeracy NQ and GCSE shows this is already happening.

Moving to a baccalaureate is the best solution to the problem, which is why the Mike Tomlinson report ended up there in 2004. But it is also expensive, time-consuming and difficult to implement, which is why Blair never actually introduced a baccalaureate. It’s also why in the here and now, experts are sceptical that Sunak’s plans will happen anytime soon. As one academy chain leader tells our reporters:

“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.”

But the good news is that there is cross-party agreement here — making maths compulsory to age 18 was part of Ed Miliband’s 2015 general election manifesto — so you can see how the conditions exist for Rishi Sunak to get the ball rolling. A lot of big achievements build on what went before, whether it is Blair in Northern Ireland building on what John Major did, or Gove in education building on what Blair did.

That’s the good bit, here’s the bad bit. There is, I’m sorry to say, no evidence that Sunak is doing any of the stuff you’d need to get the ball rolling on a big national project to reform England’s qualifications system.

I mean, just as an example of that: Will the sharp real terms cuts to public spending — envisaged for after the election — allow for this education reform? Will funding it take precedence over the government’s tax-cutting ambition? To push through a cut, ministers are desperately searching for revenue behind the sofa, whether by pruning HS2 or exiting from the triple lock on pensions.

The first step towards a proper baccalaureate and maths at 18 is having enough maths teachers. As Sam Mitchell, head of maths at Shoreditch Park Academy, tells Miranda:

I can’t tell you how long we will have maths adverts out for jobs at this school. So the idea of being able to recruit double the amount of maths teachers or have people who can teach those skills and are trained to teach those things is pretty farfetched, looking at teacher recruitment at the moment.

Ultimately, you can’t have a serious plan for anything, however worthy your aim, if you continue to engage in fantasies about taxation, as both the UK’s major parties do. As Martin Wolf wrote at the start of the week:

Taxation is ultimately driven by spending. How much (and where) a country spends, and how it pays for it, is a political decision. It defines the sort of country it wants to be. That is the issue, not fantasies of cuts that pay for themselves or magically engender growth.

For Sunak this could be a worthy and important way to secure himself an enviable prime ministerial legacy. And the PM is asking the right questions if the plan is to use his next 16 months to move the UK towards a baccalaureate system, as well as making maths compulsory to the age of 18. But if he wants to do it, he needs to free himself and his party from its fantasies about cutting public spending and cutting taxes.

Now try this

As a parochial north Londoner, it takes a lot to get me to cross all the way to the other side of the city, but I am very much looking forward to talking to Trevor Phillips about his book Windrush (co-written with his brother Mike). Do come along if you can, and if you can’t, do give the book a whirl.

However you spend it, have a wonderful weekend!

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