The dominance of A-levels in the final years of secondary education is inescapable. Of the 328,000 students who finished studying in 2020, 83 per cent of them had studied at least one A-level. Countless other qualifications have come and gone since A-levels were created 70 years ago, but it would be wrong to assume that just because a qualification has been successful in the past that there is no reason to discuss its future.
In January 2021, EDSK published a major report calling for GCSEs to be replaced by online assessments over the next few years because these exams have remained largely untouched since 1988, yet the education system around them has changed dramatically in that time. A high-stakes and hugely expensive set of school-leaving qualifications for 16-year-olds no longer makes sense when young people are required to remain in education or training until age 18. It is therefore important to ask whether A-levels still deserve their cherished status within secondary education, and what implications the dominance of A-levels has for other qualifications available to young people in their last years at school or college.
This new report is the second of two publications from EDSK that aim to plot a new course for state-funded secondary education in England. Consequently, this report – like its predecessor in January this year – starts from the premise that, for any set of reforms to succeed in 11-18 education, it must deliver the following four principles:
- RIGOUR: all qualifications and training routes available in secondary schools and colleges must represent a high-quality programme of learning that prepares them for the next stage in their educational journey.
- COHERENCE: the system of qualifications and associated assessments must be easy to understand and easy to navigate because it is based on a single coherent narrative and a single set of terminology.
- VALUE: all the programmes on offer to young people must be valued by all stakeholders, even if they serve different purposes for different learners.
- ASPIRATION: the secondary education system must encourage young people to progress in their learning and be aspirational about what they can achieve.
As the first report from EDSK in January 2021 reconfigured the early years of secondary education (ages 11-15) as well as replacing GCSEs with online assessments at age 15, this new report investigates the final years of secondary education that currently includes A-levels, Applied General qualifications, T-levels and apprenticeships. After assessing the strengths and weaknesses of these existing options, this report sets out a new model for ‘Upper Secondary’ education from age 15 to 18 that delivers all four principles described above.
The Government that introduced A-levels in 1951 wanted this qualification to address the “problem of premature specialisation” by closing the “great gulf” between the fifth form (age 16) and sixth forms (ages 17-18). A-levels were thus intended to promote the study of a broad range of subjects because “no magic break occurs at 15 or 16 which would justify a complete alteration in […] studies at that point.” Instead, A-levels were supposed to encourage “a gradual tapering off” in the number of subjects taken by students to prevent “the bottleneck curriculum so prevalent in recent years, in which the number of subjects being studied during the fourth and fifth years stays fairly high, but is suddenly much reduced …whenever the sixth form is entered”. In other words, “pupils cannot do justice to either their main or their subordinate subjects if they have to leap at one bound from too many to too few.”
Fast forward to the present day, and only 4.4 per cent of A-level students now study more than three subjects. At the same time, the ‘cliff edge’ reduction in subject choice and breadth from Year 11 (fifth form) to Year 12 (first year of Sixth Form) is more prominent than ever, while the notion of pupils embarking on a continuous programme of study in their final years of secondary education to avoid a ‘magic break’ at age 16 has simply vanished. A-levels are often described by politicians and commentators as the ‘gold standard’, yet their longevity cannot hide the fact that this famous qualification brand has never fulfilled its original mission and might have inadvertently made the situation considerably worse.
Subsequent efforts to address this lack of breadth have been timid. A report commissioned by the then Conservative Government in 1988 recognised that studying three subjects was “insufficient” and noted the “overwhelming support for increased breadth in the programmes of A level students”, only for the report’s proposal of studying five subjects to be ignored. The creation of the AS-level was intended to lead to students taking up to four or five subjects in their penultimate year at school or college, but this ambition and AS-levels themselves have both faded from view. Moreover, the limited breadth offered by A-levels makes England an outlier by international standards, as most other developed nations such as France, Germany and Ireland insist on a broad curriculum right up to the end of secondary education and often make their first language, maths, science and other subjects compulsory for all students.
The closest that England has come to demanding compulsory subjects at the end of secondary education is the controversial ‘GCSE Resits’ policy, but just one in three students who do not pass English and maths at age 16 do so by age 18/19. Ofsted has previously stated that “the impact of repeated ‘failure’ on students should not be underestimated”, not least because the resits policy creates “the perception that [resitting] English and mathematics …is a punishment”. The importance of young people (and adults) achieving a good standard of literacy and numeracy is accepted by all stakeholders, but the evidence indicates that making thousands of students repeatedly fail GCSEs is not achieving a great deal.
Applied General qualifications
Despite their numerous failings, A-levels have managed to stand the test of time. The same cannot be said for the various vocational qualifications that have sat alongside them over the last 70 years. The two most prominent attempts to introduce new vocational qualifications in recent decades – first, GNVQs and NVQs in the early 1990s; and second, ‘Diplomas’ in 2007 – both failed despite considerable political and financial investment. If one were to add Applied A-levels, AVCEs, the TVEI, YTS and CPVE to the list of failures, the history of vocational qualifications quickly turns into an acronym graveyard. Numerous attempts have been made to clarify the role and purpose of qualifications that sit between A-levels and apprenticeships, such as Sir Ron Dearing’s review of qualifications for 16 to 19-year-olds in 1996, but their recommendations are seldom implemented.
The latest initiative came in the form of ‘Applied General’ qualifications (AGQs). These were devised in 2013, yet their future is already in doubt due to the Government’s apparent insistence that the only two options available to 16-year-olds should be A-levels (if a student wants to attend university) or a new ‘T-level’ (if a student wants to enter a specific occupation). The opposition to this proposal is widespread, with college representatives, exam boards and universities warning that it could have profound consequences for learners. To justify their plans, the Government has drawn attention to the duplication between qualification routes (e.g. A-level Business versus an AGQ in Business). What’s more, the astonishing array of labels used for different versions of vocational qualifications in each subject – Awards, Certificates, Diplomas and Extended Diplomas, to name but a few – makes the system much harder for learners to navigate successfully.
Aside from these reasonable criticisms of the current system, the evidence suggests that AGQs remain popular and valuable to many learners and employers, particularly in sectors such as Health and Social Care. As Ron Dearing’s review pointed out almost thirty years ago, accommodating more ‘applied’ classroom-based courses is a sensible goal in the context of promoting quality, coherence, value and aspiration. On that basis, the Government does not appear to be pursuing the right course of action by seeking to eradicate almost all AGQs. In the absence of AGQs, the wisdom of requiring learners to make a momentous decision about their entire future by choosing either A-levels or T-levels at age 15/16 is also open to debate.
T-levels and apprenticeships
The new ‘T-levels’, which began in September 2020 in a small number of schools and colleges, consist of a technical qualification, a mandatory work placement, minimum requirements for English and maths and some occupation-specific elements. One of the most striking features of T-levels is their enormous size – equivalent to three A-levels. Given the existing concerns about the minimal breadth offered by studying three A-levels, allowing students to study nothing but a single T-level for two years at the end of secondary education looks highly questionable. Furthermore, the requirement for students to pass English and maths at GCSE-standard by the end of their two-year T-level means that many institutions have started shunning potential T-level students by not even letting them onto the course in case they do not reach the required standard in English and maths by age 18. Instead, these students are forced onto a ‘transition programme’, even though there is no guarantee that they will ever be let onto a T-level afterwards. Leaving students in a holding pattern with little or no assurance that they can eventually train towards their chosen occupation is unlikely to promote aspiration and engagement. In those institutions that have begun offering T-levels this year, almost as many students were put onto the ‘transition programme’ as were allowed to start a T-level, illustrating the potential scale of disappointed (and dejected) learners.
Even before COVID-19 emerged, there were also serious concerns about the availability of sufficient work placements for every T-level student in their chosen occupation. The logistical issues inherent in providing a large volume of work placements for as-yet-unqualified students should not be underestimated. These include safeguarding, IT access and security, providing equipment both in and out of the office, pastoral care and support with travel to and from work. The persistently low levels of awareness of T-levels presents a further challenge. A survey of employers in 2019 found that just 3 per cent felt they had a ‘real understanding’ of T-levels, while another survey in the same year found that three in five parents with children aged 11 to 18 had not even heard of T-levels and only 11 per cent felt they knew a lot about them. Meanwhile, only 41 per cent of teachers have heard of T-levels. This is the inevitable consequence of introducing T-levels with little or no consideration for how they might fit into the wider secondary education system; a problem that is compounded by the decision to set up T-levels and apprenticeships as competitors to each other.
Apprenticeships are not often discussed as an option for secondary pupils in England, which might explain why the number of 16 to 18-year-olds starting an apprenticeship is the same now as it was in 2002 and has fallen by almost half in the last four years to just 76,000. That said, apprenticeships tend to be more popular among older secondary students. At the end of 2019, a mere 3 per cent of 16-year-olds were on an apprenticeship compared with about 8 per cent of 18-year-olds. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is some evidence that employers are hesitant to hire such young apprentices. For example, the most recent ‘Employer Skills Survey’ by the Department for Education showed that 38 per cent of organisations that had recruited 16-year-olds in the last 2-3 years felt these young people were ‘poorly prepared’ or ‘very poorly prepared’ for work (17 to 18-year-olds were only viewed slightly more favourably). Unless employers are given considerably more support than they are now to train, supervise and mentor these young learners in the workplace, it is hard to see this situation improving.
The lack of a ‘level playing field’ between academic and vocational courses has been plainly apparent for decades. In 1991, the then Conservative Government wanted to establish a framework that would “promote equal esteem for academic and vocational qualifications, and clearer and more accessible paths between them” because “vocational qualifications in this country have been undervalued and underused”. They added that young people “should not be limited by out-of-date distinctions between qualifications”. Sir Ron Dearing’s subsequent review of 16-19 qualifications in 1996 also proposed a single national framework that would “make explicit the equal standing of academic, applied and vocational qualifications.” His review noted that “both schools and colleges are concerned about the dominance of A-levels in the minds of parents, students and universities, and the extent to which this can affect decisions on courses to the detriment of the long-term interest of students.” To counter this, the review highlighted “the need for [applied and vocational education] to be accorded the respect and esteem historically given to achievement in academic qualifications.”
Soon afterwards, the ‘Tomlinson Review’ in 2004 called for the entire set of qualifications for 14 to 19-year-olds to be replaced by ‘diplomas’ to, among other things, “strengthen vocational routes [by] improving the quality and status of vocational programmes”. More recently, the ‘Sainsbury Review’ in 2016, which led to the creation of T-levels, recognised that technical education has long-suffered from a ‘lack of prestige’ compared to A-levels. In short, the goal of an overarching framework that incorporates all types of qualifications is a common theme over the past thirty years spanning both Conservative and Labour governments.
One consequence of the absence of a level playing field is that institutions prioritising technical qualifications are often penalised by the accountability system, which openly prioritises attainment and progress in academic courses. For example, University Technical Colleges perform fairly poorly for A-level provision but are one of the highest-performing types of institutions for AGQs as well as helping students secure jobs and apprenticeships. The use of different grading systems for academic (e.g. A*-E) and vocational (e.g. Distinction-Merit-Pass) courses drives yet another wedge between them and is likely to undermine any attempt to build a coherent qualification framework.
As if disparities between qualifications were not concerning enough, the enormous discrepancy between annual funding for 11-16 education (£5,000 per pupil and the Pupil Premium) and 16-18 education (£4,188) continues to this day. Last year, EDSK recommended that 16-18 funding should be increased over this Parliament to reach £5,000 by 2024-25 to ensure schools and colleges receive the funds they need to deliver a wide range of high-quality courses. While EDSK’s proposed increase would begin to close the gap between pre-16 and post-16 funding, more investment will be needed in future to eliminate the gap altogether.
Before A-levels were introduced in 1951, students who remained in school until age 18/19 took the ‘Secondary School Higher Certificate Examination’. When it was proposed that A-levels should replace this final assessment, the then Government freely accepted that “schools and pupils alike owe much to these examinations; they have given good service for over one-third of a century”, yet “perhaps the presuppositions on which they were built up no longer hold good.” Now, just as in 1951, there is little doubt that existing qualifications such as A-levels have made an important contribution to our education system, but the time has come for a new approach.
The proposals in this report are intended to generate a new consensus that recognises the benefits of many aspects of the current system – including the importance of rigorous curricula and demanding assessments – while also acknowledging its most significant flaws. The way that secondary education is configured in England makes it unnecessarily difficult for pupils, parents and employers to navigate the available qualifications. At the same time, certain courses and subjects are explicitly consigned to second-class status due to the political obsession with A-levels, while the main qualification pathways are almost always debated and reformed in isolation from one another. Ironically, A-levels were intended to prevent learners specialising too early and being forced down incredibly narrow paths after reaching the ‘cliff edge’ at age 16, yet A-level students now typically study just three subjects and vocational students can study a single subject for two years. No other developed country would countenance such an absurdly limited view of what counts as a high-quality education.
The dominance of academic over vocational courses is not an inherent feature of our education system, but rather the result of political choices. The apparent refusal among supporters of GCSEs and A-levels to even consider including them within any overarching qualification reforms is regrettable, not least because no one has proposed that academic courses should be in any way ‘dumbed down’ or diminished in the pursuit of greater prestige for other programmes. Unless the imbalance between academic and vocational courses is addressed, it is highly unlikely that secondary education in England will ever reach its full potential.
The breakdown of the assessment and accountability system due to COVID-19 has presented a rare opportunity to pause and consider how we can ‘build back better’. Instead of allowing A-levels to overshadow every other option available to young people, students should be able to pursue whichever academic, applied or technical courses suit their own interests and abilities within a challenging and aspirational ‘Baccalaureate’ that promotes progression and gradual specialisation. In doing so, this report and its predecessor show how, in the coming years, we can build a truly world-leading secondary education system from the ages of 11 to 18 that underpins our society and economy for years to come.
The new Upper Secondary ‘Baccalaureate’
- RECOMMENDATION 1: Upper Secondary education from the ages of 15 to 18 will consist of a ‘Baccalaureate’ for all learners in state-funded schools and colleges in England. The Baccalaureate will provide a rigorous and flexible framework in which learners can select courses from a wide range of disciplines to suit their interests, abilities and aspirations.
- RECOMMENDATION 2: The new Baccalaureate will consist of three ‘pathways’: Academic (courses on academic subjects and disciplines); Applied (courses related to broad areas of employment); and Technical (courses related to specific trades / occupations). Although these pathways will each have a distinctive purpose, learners will be able to mix-and-match courses as they progress through the Baccalaureate.
- RECOMMENDATION 3: The full range of academic, applied and technical subjects should be rationalised so that they only appear in one of the three pathways e.g. Mathematics should be classed as ‘Academic’, Business should be classed as ‘Applied’ and training to be a Plumbing Technician should be classed as ‘Technical’.
Progression and specialisation within the Baccalaureate
- RECOMMENDATION 4: To promote progression for all learners throughout the Upper Secondary system, the Baccalaureate will consist of courses that are available at three levels: Foundation (equivalent to GCSEs); Standard (equivalent to AS-levels); and Higher (equivalent to A-levels). Students will progress through these levels from age 15 onwards, although they do not have to complete each level at the same speed. The courses available at each level will be based on the content of existing qualifications to ensure that rigour is maintained.
- RECOMMENDATION 5: The new Baccalaureate will require all 15 to 18-year-olds to study two compulsory subjects: ‘Core English’ and ‘Core Maths’. Students must continue studying these subjects until they achieve at least a Pass in either subject’s exam at the ‘Higher’ level of the Baccalaureate.
- RECOMMENDATION 6: The Baccalaureate will be based around a ‘credit’ system, in which students must pass any combination of courses from across the three pathways that total a minimum of 60 credits to complete each level (Foundation, Standard and Higher). Students will be required to start with a broader range of subjects at the Foundation level and can gradually specialise in their preferred subjects as they move up to the Standard and then Higher level.
- RECOMMENDATION 7: Across the three levels of the Baccalaureate, Academic, Applied and Technical subjects as well as Core English and Core Maths will use the same grading scale: Distinction–Merit–Pass–Fail. Consideration should also be given to adding a further level of grade differentiation (e.g. Distinction*) where appropriate.
- RECOMMENDATION 8: When they finish school or college, students will be given their Record of Educational Achievement (REA) to demonstrate their level of achievement within the Baccalaureate. The REA will document the grades that each student achieved at Foundation, Standard and Higher level in all their courses.
A new accountability system for Upper Secondary education
- RECOMMENDATION 9: The new accountability system will be a points-based model encompassing the whole Baccalaureate, with higher grades as well as courses at higher levels attracting the most points. Additional points will also be awarded for courses worth the most credits at each level. Core English and Core Maths will receive extra ‘weighting’ in terms of points.
- RECOMMENDATION 10: The new Upper Secondary accountability system will consist of two main measures, calculated as a three-year rolling average: Progress – the average progress made by learners from age 15 to age 18/19 relative to the progress made by other students with similar entry scores at age 15; and Attainment – the average scores achieved by learners in their final exams at age 18/19.
Reconfiguring the funding and institutional landscape
- RECOMMENDATION 11: The three types of Upper Secondary providers for students aged 15 to 18 will be: Secondary schools; Upper Secondary colleges (currently Sixth Form Colleges and 16-19 Academies); and Technical colleges (currently UTCs, Studio Schools and FE Colleges). The Government should also consider restricting certain pathways (e.g. Technical courses) to particular types of provider.
- RECOMMENDATION 12: Annual funding for students aged 11-16 and those aged 16+ should be equalised at £6,000 per student by the end of this decade. This will ensure that the Government invests the same amount in learners throughout their time in secondary education up to age 18/19.
- RECOMMENDATION 13: Employers should receive government funding to provide work-based opportunities for final-year students on Technical courses, as this will help cover the costs of the mentoring, supervision and training that these students require. £5,000 should be offered to employers for providing an apprenticeship or £2,500 for providing an extended work experience placement.
This report is the second publication from EDSK that considers the future of assessment and accountability in secondary education in England. The first report – published in January 2021 – configured the new Lower Secondary system up to the age of 15, including the replacement of GCSEs with low-stakes online assessments in National Curriculum subjects at age 15. You can read this first report by clicking here.