Rishi Sunak scraps A-levels and reveals ‘Advanced British Standard’ replacement

PM promises teachers £30,000 bonuses to help deliver changes – but unions dismiss plan as ‘pie in the sky’

Adam Forrest
Political Correspondent
Thursday 05 October 2023 06:25 BST
Sunak announces plans to scrap A-levels in new education policy

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Rishi Sunak has announced his plan to scrap A-levels and replace it with a new qualification called the Advanced British Standard (ABS) aimed at creating the “best education system in the western world”.

The prime minister told the Conservative party conference in Manchester he would merge A levels and technical T-levels into the brand new ABS to create “parity of esteem” between academic and technical subjects.

But Mr Sunak’s plan was immediately dismissed as “pie in the sky” by teaching unions – after Downing Street admitted that it may take 10 years to introduce.

The PM was accused of being “out of touch” with more pressing problems, from crumbling buildings to a staff shortages. The PM tried to head off the criticism about teachers numbers, after he insisted that he wanted pupils to do more subjects and more hours.

Teachers in “key subjects” will receive special bonuses of up to £30,000, tax free, over the first five years of their careers to “attract and retain” more people. “Our teachers do one of the most valuable jobs ... and we should reward them for that,” Mr Sunak said.

Sixth formers will now be required to study five subjects rather than three under the new ABS qualification, said the PM – explaining that he wanted students to spend at least 195 hours more with a teacher.

“A-level students generally only do three subjects compared to the seven studied by our economic competitors,” he said. “Our 16 to 19-year-olds spend around a third less time in the classroom than some of our competitors.”

“The Advanced British Standard will change that too, with students typically studying five subjects and thanks to the extra teaching time we are introducing, the great breadth won’t come at the expense of depth which is such a strength of our system.”

Rishi Sunak and his wife at Tory conference Akshata Murthy
Rishi Sunak and his wife at Tory conference Akshata Murthy (Reuters)

But criticism for Mr Sunak’s changes was swift. Schools expert Sam Freedman – a former top adviser to Michael Gove at the Department for Education – said Mr Sunak was unwise to meddle.

“The Advanced British Standard is David Miliband’s Diploma reborn. The one that Michael Gove killed off because it didn’t work,” he tweeted.

No 10 emphasised that it was a long-term reform project, and could take at least 10 years to bring in. It menas pupils starting primary school this year could be the first to take the new ABS.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said it showed the government was “out of touch” with immediate problems in the system – from recruitment and retention to crumbling school buildings.

“The government should be focusing on fixing those, not announcing yet another round of seismic changes to exams and qualifications,” said the union chief.

Daniel Kebede, general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), added: “Rishi Sunak is doubling down on pie-in-the-sky education policies. He is completely out of touch with reality. There is no magic wand to create English and maths teachers in sufficient numbers to educate 11-16 year olds – let alone at A-Level too.”

The government will launch a consultation this autumn before publishing a white paper on how it will come into force.

The announcement came as Mr Sunak also vowed to stop universities from enrolling students on courses that “do nothing for their life chances” – the latest Tory attack on so-called Mickey Mouse degrees – as he talked up Tory efforts to increase apprenticeships.

The PM told party members that Labour had “pursued the false dream” of 50 per cent of children going to university. “This assumption that the only route to success was the university route was one of the great mistakes of the last 30 years.”

He added: “It led to thousands of young people being ripped off by degrees that did nothing to increase their employability or earnings potential. So we are stopping universities from enrolling students on courses that do nothing for their life chances – under us no more rip-off degrees.”

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