What are Rishi Sunak’s A-level reforms and what does it mean for students?

English and maths could become compulsory in post-16 education under the planned overhaul

Athena Stavrou
Friday 22 September 2023 15:30 BST
Rishi Sunak is reportedly considering a British baccalaureate as part of education overhaul
Rishi Sunak is reportedly considering a British baccalaureate as part of education overhaul (PA)

The Prime Minister is reportedly planning to overhaul the A-level system by introducing a new ‘British baccalaureate’ which would see children study more subjects after the age of 16.

According to several media outlets, including The Times and The Telegraph, the substantial A-level reform would see English and maths become compulsory until the age of 18, while pupils would be required to study a wider array of subjects in post-16 education.

Around half of 18-year-olds in England take A-Levels, typically studying three subjects which do not currently have to include English and maths. Rishi Sunak has previously said all pupils in England should study some form of maths up to the age of 18.

A Department for Education spokesperson said in a statement: “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”.

Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson called the plan an “undeliverable gimmick”.

Speaking on BBC’s Newsnight, Ms Phillipson said: “This is just the latest undeliverable gimmick from a weak Prime Minister and a dying Conservative government with no serious plan for improving standards of education for young people.

“Rishi Sunak should be focusing on long term plans to improve literacy and numeracy in younger children, not pursuing short term headlines with this unworkable policy, which will do nothing to raise standards.”

As education reform proposals seem likely ahead of the next general election, The Independent takes a look at what a ‘British baccalaureate’ could mean for students.

What is a baccalaureate?

A baccalaureate is an exam in several subjects taken in the last year of school around the age of 18 in France and some other countries. It allows students to take a wider range of subjects rather than specialise at 16.

Currently in the UK, some students may be able to undertake an International Baccalaureate (IB), depending on the school they attend.

If doing an IB, students follow six academic courses over two years, choosing one course from each of six groups including mathematics, sciences, individuals and societies, studies in language and literature, language acquisition and the arts.

The Prime Minister is reportedly set to overhaul the current British A-level system with a new continental style system (PA Wire)

What is likely to change?

It’s uncertain what a British version of a baccalaureate would look like yet, but it will likely involve students studying more than the three subjects they are currently required to undertake.

The Department of Education did not deny the possibility of a British baccalaureate. A spokesperson said: “We have already taken steps to reform the post-16 qualifications landscape, including reforming technical education and delivering millions of new high-quality apprenticeships.

“Alongside this, 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.”

The Times report that no final decision has been made, and the plans are unlikely to take effect before the next election.

Why change the current system?

In 2021, the Education and Skills (EDSK) think tank found that A-levels were too narrow and proposed they should be replaced by a baccalaureate.

They proposed a new three-year system that saw students cover all academic, applied and technical courses. It also stated that pupils should be required to study English and maths until the age of 18.

Sunak has previously been a critic of the narrowness of the UK’s current A-level system, criticising a “cultural sense that it’s OK to be bad at maths”.

Teachers have raised concerns over staffing issues (PA Wire)

What do teachers say?

Reaction from teachers has been mixed so far. The Association of School and College Leaders said the idea has “merit” but added that there has been “no discussion with the education sector” as of yet.

Teachers on social media raised concerns over staffing issues, with one maths teacher writing: “Good luck in getting the teachers.”

Another music teacher said: “And yet there isn’t any funding to improve what we do now. Mental! Won’t happen anyway, they will be voted out before it happens! Why not just make teaching a profession more want to join. Why not fund schools.”

Other teachers seem more optimistic about the rumoured changes. Olly Metcalfe, a religious studies teacher from South London said: “I think it’s a good idea. The current A-level system is too narrow and is really specifically designed to send people to University when only about 40 per cent of students go.”

The 29-year-old added: “It’s impractical in many ways as it’s not preparing children for life after school. I think we should try to stay as broad and thematic as possoble rather than narrowing. Educating things as a skill rather than a subject.”

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