- The idea that there should be a 14-19 ‘continuum’ developed in response to the increased number of students staying on in post-16 education from the 1980s. There was a growing consensus that a coherent integrated system of education could be established which incorporated academic and vocational learning within a single qualifications framework. A key development was the Tomlinson Report of 2004 which proposed that existing qualifications should be subsumed into a general diploma.1 New Labour’s Curriculum 2000 had not gone nearly as far, but it did modularise existing academic and vocational qualifications at post-16, increasing student choice. 2
- The Coalition and now the Conservative government have broken this consensus and moved in the other direction. They have emphasised the importance of particular academic qualifications - those that make up the English Baccalaureate. Since 2015/16, schools have had to concentrate on the EBacc subjects (which will become a curriculum requirement for 2020) in order to meet accountability requirements.3
- The Bacc for the Future campaign, supported by the NUT, brings together organisations across the spectrum, from arts to industry, to voice serious concerns about the EBacc.4
- In research commissioned by the NUT from Kings College London, 74% of survey respondents reported that the EBacc had led to a reduction in the number of GCSE subjects on offer in schools.5 This results in a narrowing of choice for students and disengagement on the part of those who are steered towards subjects that do not match their interests and aspirations.
- The EBacc has adversely affected students from a variety of groups.6 This includes those from low-income households, low-attaining students and those with special educational needs (who have been entered for fewer qualifications since the measure was introduced) as well as middle-attaining students who are likely to be overlooked because of the reduced provision of vocationally oriented courses.
- Following the Wolfe Report of 201171, the 2010 Coalition and 2015 Conservative governments have worked to reduce the number of vocational qualifications, and to make those that remain more like academic subjects. To be included with regards to accountability, they must meet strict requirements surrounding their content and the type of assessment they employ. As a result, the BTEC style qualifications, which have encouraged a style of learning enjoyed by students, no longer exist –at least in their traditional format.
- Ofsted’s former chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has criticised a ‘one size fits all’ secondary education.8 Like Lord (Kenneth) Baker, who continues to promote University Technology Colleges (UTCs)9, Wilshaw proposed vocational specialisation for those not able to succeed on the academic track. He argued that the existence of a strong vocational track in Germany was the reason why youth unemployment was lower. In Germany however, the youth labour market is also much stronger, so new economic policies would have to be introduced, if the UK were to emulate it.10 Without such policies, ‘reform’ would more likely represent a return to the tripartite divisions of the 1944 Education Act.
- In 2017, Chancellor Philip Hammond announced funding for the introduction of technical qualifications called ‘T-Levels’. These qualifications are aimed at addressing the skills shortage in the UK and raising the profile of technical and vocational qualifications so that they have a parity of esteem with academic qualifications such as A-Levels.
- Full details of the 15 ‘routes’ to be defined under T-Levels are yet to be confirmed. However concerns exist that the introduction of these qualifications will increase the separation of academic and vocational pathways, moving England further away from the integrated model of post-16 curriculum adopted in other countries, including Scotland.
- The NUT supports a reformed, unified system of 14-19 curriculum and qualifications which helps bring an end to the notion that academic and technical learning pathways are an ‘either/or’ option and eliminates the need for excessive specialisation at an early age.11 Having a varied, flexible learning experience is the best way to equip young people to confront the difficult social and economic uncertainties that they currentlyface and will continue to experience after they leave education.
- The CBI believes that schools have become ‘exam factories’12 and that high stakes assessment at 16 is an anachronism.
- The newly reformed GCSEs and A-levels, which are now being taught in schools, are based on a narrow examination system which emphasises linear end-of-course examinations rather than modular learning, with coursework opportunities no longer available. Many teachers regard this as an impoverishment of the curriculum, since the absence of coursework means that the opportunities to teach a curriculum that reflects the interests and experiences of students are reduced.13
1 Tomlinson Report (2004) 14-19 Curriculum and Qualifications Reform. London: DES. More here
2 Hodgson, A. and Spours, K. (2003) Beyond A Levels: Curriculum 2000 and the reform of 14-19 qualifications. London: Kogan Page
3 House of Commons Library (2016) English Baccalaureate Briefing Paper 06045 3rd March. London: House of Commons. More here.
4 Back for the Future (2017) [online]. Available here: http://www.baccforthefuture.com/letter-to-the-prime-minsiter.html
5 King’s College London (2016) [online]. Available here: http://www.kcl.ac.uk/newsevents/news/newsrecords/2016/11%20November-/NUT-and-King's-College-London-research-into-Key-Stage-4.aspx
6 Eszter Neumann, Emma Towers, Sharon Gewirtz and Meg Maguire – King’s College London (2016), A Curriculum for All? , London: National Union of Teachers, p. 13 Section 1.3.2. Available here: https://www.teachers.org.uk/sites/default/files2014/curriculum-for-all-64pp-10845.pdf
7 Review of Vocational Education. The Wolf Report (2011) London: BIS. More here.
8 Speech to Centre Forum January 2016 See here.
9 Baker, K. (2013) 14-18 A New Vision for Secondary Education Continuum
10 Solga,H. Protsch, P. Ebner,C. and Brzinsky-Fay, C. (2014) The German Vocational and Training System: its institutional configuration, strengths and challenges. Discussion Paper. Berlin: WZB Berlin Social Science Center. https://bibliothek.wzb.eu/pdf/2014/i14-502.pdf
11 NUT (2005) Bringing Down the Barriers London: National Union of Teachers. More here.
12 BBC (2012), ‘CBI complains of 'exam factory' schools’, [online], Available here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-20355664
13 Bethan Marshall (2017), The Politics of Testing, Available here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/eie.12110/pdf