A British Baccalaureate?

by Chris Nash

What changes are being proposed to British education?

A number of policy changes are being proposed by English Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to higher education in British public schools, that is government schools, which by law must follow the National Curriculum. It’s worth clarifying right from the start that British independent or private schools are not bound by this National Curriculum. 

The proposed changes are:

  • To introduce a new curriculum for students in English schools aged 16-19. The proposal is to replace the current A Level with something called a ‘British Baccalaureate’ (even though it would only apply to schools in England). Under this baccalaureate, it would be compulsory to study at least 5 subjects, including some form of English and Maths to age 18.
  • To ensure equal value between academic and vocational qualifications during this phase of education. Since 2020 students above 16 years of age have been able to study a two-year course called a T Level. T Levels combine theoretical knowledge and understanding with vocational experience. T Levels carry UCAS points which means they can be used to enter university education. It is suggested T Levels are the equivalent of studying 3 A Level courses. How parity between A Levels and T Levels will be achieved has not been explained. Those of you familiar with the higher and further education sectors in the UK like me will know that unifying academic and vocational educational pathways has been an unresolved issue in the education system for decades. 

Why should international school leaders pay attention to these proposals?

  • Any changes to the A Level Curriculum will affect the examination boards such as Pearson and Cambridge International. International schools use these exam boards for the purposes of assessment, certification and admission to universities, not just in the UK but worldwide. It seems that some of the biggest effects could come in A-level mathematics, which is a critical examination for many international students targeting international universities. 
  • Currently, only around 5% of UK higher education students take more than 3 A Levels. This means that international students who take 3 or 4 A Level courses can comfortably compete for places at UK universities. If the standard requirement for entrance to a British university increases to 5 or 6 baccalaureate subjects this will set new and potentially more challenging targets for international students. A possible consequence is that bilingual students will face the prospect of studying linguistically based subjects such as Economics. 
  •  Another element of increased competition could be caused by improvements in the interest and ability of domestic English students in Mathematics. At the moment only 11% of all A Level grades in England are in Mathematics and less than 2 % in Further Mathematics. This creates opportunities for international students to compete for places in mathematically based majors. Any improvements in mathematics at the higher education level have the potential to reduce future university opportunities.
  • With change like this, there’s always the risk of unintentional consequences. For example, an unintended effect of moving from a 3 A Level to a 5-course curriculum could be a lowering of academic standards, simply to make time for additional content. This same lowering of standards could also be an unintended consequence of achieving parity with vocational qualifications. One of the principal attractions for the current A-level system is the perception amongst the world’s universities that it is the ‘gold standard’. American universities may drop their requirement for four years of study to three years for students holding A Level certificates. Will maintaining this ‘gold standard’ be a priority for the designers of the baccalaureate programme?
  • The final element I think we should look out for is system changes around the 16-19 phase. It is very unlikely that major changes to the A Level will not lead to corresponding modifications both in the GCSE 14-16 phase preparing for the baccalaureate and also in university courses for the further education phase. For example, a pivot towards vocational education may be considered highly necessary for the English economy but is unlikely to be attractive to international students or their parents. 

What should I do next?

In short, nothing. All of these changes exist only as proposals, not policy. They are the personal thoughts of Prime Minister Sunak. They have not been endorsed either by his own Education Minister, his Conservative Party, or the British people through a general election. Even the Prime Minister and his advisors when pressed say that these changes may take as long as ten years to implement. For now, as they say, keep watching this space. The UK is a major player in international education and every international school leader or aspirant leader needs to keep track of developments there.

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