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EDSK: A-levels, BTECs and T-levels should be replaced by a ‘Baccalaureate’

Tom Richmond


@EDSKthinktank – A-levels, BTECs and T-levels should be replaced by a ‘Baccalaureate’ 

The dominance of A-levels has relegated applied and technical education to second-class status, according to a new report from education think tank EDSK. The report recommends that A-levels, Applied General qualifications (such as BTECs), T-levels and apprenticeships should be combined into a single ‘Baccalaureate’ that spans the final years of secondary education.

The report shows that, despite being labelled as the ‘gold standard’ by many politicians, A-levels suffer from numerous flaws. When they were created in 1951, A-levels were meant to eliminate ‘premature specialisation’ by ensuring there was only a gradual tapering-off in the number of subjects studied from the ages of 14 to 18. Far from achieving this aim, just 4.4 per cent of A-level students took more than three subjects in 2020 – a drop of almost half over the last four years alone. There is now a cliff-edge reduction in subject breadth from Year 11 (GCSEs) to Year 12 (first year of Sixth Form), even though A-levels were supposed to prevent such a ‘bottleneck curriculum’.

The report also shows that the worrying lack of breadth in our A-level system makes England an international outlier. The new ‘Baccalauréat’ in France contains six compulsory subjects alongside two or three optional courses; students in Germany take four or five subjects from a range of disciplines; the International Baccalaureate requires students to study up to six subjects; and students taking the most common Leaving Certificate in Ireland usually take seven subjects. The absence of compulsory subjects such as English and maths alongside A-levels also compares unfavourably with almost all developed countries.

In addition, this report finds that the dominance of A-levels has a detrimental effect on the prestige of other options available to young people. 83 per cent of students who left school or college last year had taken A-levels, meaning that vital courses such as health and social care and digital media are increasingly at risk of being squeezed out of the curriculum. The on-going lack of visibility of the recently launched ‘T-levels’ as well as the government’s current plans to remove funding for many applied courses such as BTECs are likely to further entrench the unwarranted dominance of A-levels. 

The EDSK report makes the following recommendations:

  • A-levels, BTECs, T-levels and apprenticeships should be replaced by a three-year ‘Baccalaureate’ that includes all academic, applied and technical courses.
  • The Baccalaureate will allow students to gradually specialise in their preferred subject(s) over the course of the three-year programme, with students also being able to mix-and-match academic, applied and technical courses depending on their interests.
  • All students will be required to study English and maths until the age of 18, bringing our secondary education system into line with many other developed nations.
  • The Baccalaureate will use a single grading system for all courses (Distinction-Merit-Pass-Fail) as well as a single accountability system that measures every student’s progress in the same way irrespective of their course choices. 

Tom Richmond, Director of EDSK and a former advisor to ministers at the Department for Education, said:

   “Given that A-levels were originally created to prevent students from specialising too early and only studying a narrow range of subjects, it is ironic that this famous qualification brand has never fulfilled this mission and might have made the situation even worse.

“No other developed country would describe studying just three subjects for two years as a ‘gold standard’. On the contrary, other major economies typically insist that students take around six to eight subjects in their final years at school or college to ensure they receive a broad and balanced education.

“Previous Conservative and Labour governments have also both recognised that the dominance of A-levels has undermined the prestige of applied and technical courses. If the current government is serious about boosting technical education, it must end the political obsession with A-levels by introducing a ‘Baccalaureate’ that creates a level playing field for a broad range of rigorous academic, applied and technical courses.” 

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