2022 Spring Term 2

The know zone

  • Sounding out phonics
    Tiffnie Harris delves into the highly-debated issue on the use of phonics in teaching early reading. More
  • Is the Bacc back?
    As the government carries out an inquiry into the post-16 education landscape, Kevin Gilmartin examines whether there really is an appetite for a 16-19 baccalaureate. More
  • Resource management
    Hayley Dunn takes a closer look at the DfE's new tools for resource management and procurement More
  • Lifelong ambition
    Anne Murdoch explores what the Skills Bill means for colleges, employers and learners. More
  • Post-16 Bacc
    Should the government introduce a post-16 baccalaureate that allows students to take a variety of subjects, including both academic and vocational options? Here, ASCL members have their say... More
  • Going the distance
    Headteacher Russell Clarke says ASCL Council provides an excellent platform for sharing ideas and influencing policy. Here, he shares his passion for Council, carving and fell running. More
  • Never forget?
    If the human brain is wired for learning, it also appears programmed to forget. We all know how the acquisition of knowledge can enrich a life but forgetfulness can have value too, says Chris Pyle. More
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As the government carries out an inquiry into the post-16 education landscape, Kevin Gilmartin examines whether there really is an appetite for a 16-19 baccalaureate.

Is the Bacc back?

Readers of a certain age will remember the fanfare and excitement of nearly 20 years ago when the then chief inspector of schools, Mike Tomlinson, produced his report advocating a 14–19 diploma in England. This was truly revolutionary stuff – proposing scrapping GCSEs, A levels and vocational qualifications as standalone qualifications and getting all young people to take a 14–19 diploma instead. 

Employers were behind it, as were most parts of the educational sector. It also seemed as if the government was also behind it. 

At the last minute though the plans were pulled, and it was not to be. There has been little talk about it since. 

However, intriguingly, the government’s recent ‘inquiry into the future of post-16 qualifications’ was announced, and as well as the ‘expected’ areas being consulted on (T levels, BTECs, a PQA system and so forth), we were suddenly presented with a question seeking views on “The benefits and disadvantages of introducing a baccalaureate system in post-16 education that allows students to take a variety of subjects, including both academic and vocational options”. 

If this unexpected government interest in an over-arching diploma type framework is serious, it marks a fascinating departure from any recent policy direction. It is worth reminding ourselves of Tomlinson’s original proposals:

  • There would be a ten-year period of reform, replacing A levels and GCSEs and slashing the number of exams.
  • All coursework would be replaced with a single extended project, with ‘cheating’ being ‘weeded out’ through an oral exam.
  • The diploma would have four levels: entry (pre-GCSE), foundation (GCSE D–G), intermediate (GCSE A*–C) and advanced (A level).
  • Students would be able to progress at their own rate, paving the way for mixed-aged classes with extra hard questions to add extra ‘stretch’.
  • The diploma would be made up of modules, which would be adapted from existing A level and GCSE modules.
  • Students could pick their own combination (open diploma) or opt for one of the 20 pre-designed combinations (specialised diploma).
  • There would be a new ‘core’ for all pupils of maths, information and communications technology (ICT) and communication, an extended essay, and ‘wider activities’, such as work experience, paid jobs, voluntary work and family responsibilities.
  • Students would be given a transcript of their achievements, including a breakdown of individual module marks, which would be available to employers and universities online. 

How would a new baccalaureate go down? 

At the time, the Secondary Heads Association (SHA) – the old ASCL – came out broadly in favour of the proposals – although with a significant caveat of making the study of a foreign language compulsory. Private schools, as represented by the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), were not quite as supportive, being against any form of compulsory sixth form study. It has been a fascinating exercise to seek ASCL members’ views on any such proposal – see page 32

However, the very fact that the recent inquiry was taking any kind of soundings about a baccalaureate means that somewhere in the government somebody is asking questions about it. ASCL has contributed much to the debate about the forgotten third of young people at the age of 16. Our position is centred on the unfairness of a system that gives young people the opportunity to fail, but, for a third of them, no opportunity to ‘pass’ (because of ‘comparable outcomes’ in grading). ASCL also believes that it cannot be right that there are so many students moving into the post-16 phase officially branded as failures. ASCL’s blueprint (www.ascl.org.uk/blueprint) reinforces these messages of social justice. 

What next? 

We must remember that an inquiry is not an official consultation. It could just fade away again. In 2003, the Tomlinson Report was ultimately considered to be too radical – instead, a much watered-down version became the foundation for the 2005 Skills White Paper, which led to the introduction of the ill-fated 14–19 diplomas. 

T levels and the potential defunding of BTECs form the dominant narrative in 16–19 education at present. Many of us will wait with bated breath though to see if an even more radical agenda might just be emerging from Whitehall.

Kevin Gilmartin
ASCL Post-16 and Colleges Specialist