From education to employment

Introducing: Advanced British Standard – a new qualification to replace A Levels and T Levels

students learning together

A new qualification for 16-19 year olds will put technical and academic education on an equal footing and ensure that all young people leave school knowing the basics in maths and English, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has announced. 

The new Advanced British Standard will bring together the best of A Levels and T Levels into a single new qualification. Students will take a larger number of subjects at both ‘major’ and ‘minor’ level, with most studying a minimum of five subjects at different levels – for example, three majors alongside two minors. Importantly, students will have the freedom to take a mix of technical and academic subjects, giving them more flexibility over their future career options. 

Currently, most A Level students study only three subjects between the ages of 16 and 19 compared to the OECD average of seven. This is despite evidence showing that employers increasingly value students with a wider knowledge base.   

The Government has already made huge progress since 2010 to raise standards in schools and support high-quality teaching. Our 9 and 10-year-olds are now the best in the West at reading, ahead of other major developed economies like France, Germany and Spain. Over 88% of schools are good or outstanding, up from just 68% when this government came into office. This is all underpinned by record investment – the highest ever by any government in real terms – funding more teachers than at any other point in our history. Today’s announcement will ensure that we build on this success and address the challenges in post-16 education which have persisted for generations.  

Under the new plans, every student will for the first time be required to study some form of maths and English to age 18. This will help reverse the long-term trend whereby too many students – particularly the most disadvantaged – leave school without achieving the minimum standard in literacy and numeracy. This change will bring England into line with other major western economies such as France, Germany, Japan and the USA. 

Students will also spend more time in the classroom, increasing taught hours to a minimum of 1,475 hours over two years. Currently, a typical A Level student in England studying three subjects is taught for 1,280 hours over two years, and a typical technical student for 1,000 hours. This is significantly lower than Denmark, the Netherlands, and Norway, all of whom deliver over 1,600 hours. Children in Italy are taught for over 1,700 hours, and in France and many US states they get over 2,000 hours in the classroom.

Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, said:

“Education is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet – it is the best economic policy, the best social policy and the best moral policy. That is why I am proud this government has made huge progress raising standards in our schools and supporting high-quality teaching.  

“We now need to build on this record by transforming post-16 education. The plan we have set out today – backed by an initial £600 million of new support – represents real, meaningful reform that will put technical and academic education on an equal footing and ensure that all young people leave school or college knowing the basics in maths and English.  

“The new Advanced British Standard will help spread opportunity and benefit students for generations to come, demonstrating our clear commitment to make the right decisions for the long-term future of our country”. 

The Prime Minister has been clear that the Advanced British Standard is a long-term reform that will take time to get right and extra funding to deliver effectively. The change will be introduced in close consultation with parents, pupils and teachers. Pupils starting primary school this term are expected to be the first cohort to take the new qualification. Once fully rolled out, the Advanced British Standard will replace A Levels and T Levels but retain their rigorous content and quality.

The Prime Minister has today announced an initial investment of £600 million over two years to lay the groundwork for delivering the Advanced British Standard. This will include funding for a tax-free bonus of up to £30,000 over the first five years of their career for teachers in key shortage subjects, with FE colleges set to the benefit the most, and new investment to promote the highly successful teaching for mastery in maths methods.

As part of this funding boost and reflecting the fact that one in four students do not get the minimum standard in both English and maths GCSE by 19 – a figure which rises to two in five for disadvantaged pupils – we are also significantly increasing funding for 16-19 year olds who haven’t yet met the standard. To support all pupils in maths, pioneering Maths Hubs and the digital platform for tutoring in Core Maths will also be extended.

A consultation will open this autumn and it will seek to determine how best to design and implement the Advanced British Standard. The Government is committed to working closely with stakeholders across the sector to deliver this important reform in the most effective way possible.  

Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Keegan, said:

“The Advanced British Standard will transform post-16 education so that every child, wherever they live, wherever they come from, receives an education that sets them up for success.

“I know from my own experience how important it is to break down the barriers between academic and technical routes. These reforms will provide pupils with a broad and world class education, drawing on the best of our existing qualifications.

“Today’s investment will bring more teachers in to key subjects and I now want to work closely with teachers, parents and the profession to deliver change in the best way possible. The prize on offer is too great to miss out on; a country where every young person is equipped with the skills and knowledge they need to reach their potential and live a happy and fulfilling life”.

Minister of State for Schools, Nick Gibb, said:

“Driving up standards in our schools has been this Government’s long-term priority. From phonics to free schools, we have followed the evidence and challenged the progressive teaching methods that were failing too many children. Now we are seeing the results: we have the best primary-age readers in the Western world and performance in science, maths and writing is improving.

“The Advanced British Standard will build on our successful reforms by harnessing the best of our knowledge-rich A Levels and skills-based T Levels to create our new, rigorous post-16 system. It will offer increased breadth while maintaining depth and rigour and ensuring everyone is supported to achieve the basics in English and maths.”

Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, Robert Halfon, said:

“This Government has championed technical education and driven up standards in schools. We have delivered 5.5 million apprenticeships, are rolling out the Lifelong Learning Entitlement and have pioneered our high-quality T Levels. Now we must take the next step to deliver the long-term reform that is needed in our 16-19 system.

“Our new Advanced British Standard will raise the floor and extend the ladder of opportunity for everyone, backed up by an initial £600 million, providing more breadth, more technical education, and more teaching time so that all our children are given the brighter future they deserve”.

Sir Michael Barber, Chancellor of Exeter University and Education Expert, said:

“This sets us on a path to match the best in the world on technical and vocational education over the next decade. The emphasis on English and Maths and the substantial down payment are welcome steps forward.” 

Sir Peter Lampl, Founder and Chairman of the Sutton Trust and Chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:

“The proposed English baccalaureate is a major step which will significantly improve social mobility. Under the current A Levels system, young people are forced to specialise far too early. This impacts disadvantaged youngsters the most, as they are less likely to have access to good careers guidance or advice from family members. 

“They are also much less likely to gain knowledge outside of their A level courses. For those who aspire to university, it means they are making choices that can limit their options at age 15, and many also leave school lacking functional maths and English skills. While there is much still to be worked out, the English baccalaureate is a very positive step for improving social mobility.”

Professor Becky Francis CBE, Chief Executive of the EEF, said:

“We know that post-16 education is our ‘last chance’ to minimise socio-economic attainment gaps before most young people leave the education system. We also know how important it is for future life chances to achieve a good level of Maths and English.

“For us, finding better ways to support teaching and learning in the post-16 space is a crucial part of this.

“So it’s great the government has recognised this by investing £40m to grow the evidence base. Through this funding, we’ll be able to build our work in this area by finding new evidence of effective practice, and putting that to work in the sector.”

Sector Response

David Hughes, chief executive, Association of Colleges, said:

“I’ve rarely heard previous prime ministers talk about FE colleges, let alone announce more funding to attract and retain college lecturers. It feels like a step change, coming only three months after the education secretary announced a funding boost for pay in colleges.

“I am delighted to see technical education and colleges form a focal point of Rishi Sunak’s plans for a more prosperous future. The announcement on the Advanced British Standard could have a significant impact on colleges, and I am particularly pleased that our push for young people to have more teaching time has been heeded. An extra 195 hours of contact time will help young people learn a broader set of subjects, preparing them better for their lives and the changing world of work.

“If the funding is really there for colleges to help to realise this vision, and make technical education as prestigious as academic, then this is a significant and very welcome announcement.

“£30,000 in tax-free bonuses over five years for new further education teachers is a win for colleges, and these announcements are recognition of the vital role colleges play in boosting the economy, strengthening communities and transforming lives.

“We eagerly await the finer details of this announcement, and look forward to engaging with the government, and supporting colleges on these plans.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said:

“Today’s announcement shows just how out of touch this government has become with the teaching profession. There are so many immediate crises that schools are currently dealing with, from recruitment and retention, to crumbling school buildings and the lack of support for pupils with SEND. The government should be focusing on fixing those, not announcing yet another round of seismic changes to exams and qualifications.

“To date, there has been no meaningful engagement with the profession on any part of this announcement. Whilst the government may suggest that this is just the start of a process towards further reform, it would appear they have already decided on the destination without talking to school leaders. Once again, there is a sense that ministers in Whitehall think they know better than the teachers and leaders working with pupils on a daily basis.

“The announcement raises so many questions, most importantly where all the additional teachers needed to deliver these reforms will come from. There are also huge questions around what this means for the curriculum and for higher education. 

“Looking at post 16 qualifications in isolation from the rest of our education system shows a complete lack of understanding – we need a coherent system from early years to the end of key stage 5 where each step supports the next to enable our young people to achieve their ambitions, to be prepared for their lives outside of school and to take their next steps in education, training or employment.

“The prime minister’s announcement that education will now be the key strategic priority for all future spending rounds is of course welcome. After 13 years of imposed austerity, we are pleased that the government now finally agrees with us that spending on education is an investment in the future of the country.”

Teach First CEO Russell Hobby said:

“The Prime Minister’s announcement of substantial bonuses to attract and retain teachers in shortage subjects would go a long way to supporting the ambition for all young people to have access to a rigorous academic education.”

Daniel Kebede, General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:

“Rishi Sunak is doubling down on pie-in-the-sky education policies. He is completely out of touch with reality.

“The Government’s long-standing failure to hit its own training targets, compounded by the haemorrhaging of teachers due to high workload and below inflation pay, made the Prime Minister’s call in January for more maths teaching an impossible dream. His Government’s reduced training targets were again missed this summer. The Advanced British Standard, briefed out last month and confirmed today, is even more misconceived and extends his detachment from 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.

“We already have a shortage of secondary teachers. One in six English teachers and one in five mathematics teachers do not have a post A-Level qualification in the subject. We need an additional 4,300 mathematics teachers and 2,600 English teachers to cover current needs.

“Post-16 curriculum reform is worthy of debate, but simply increasing the number of hours taught would require an additional 5,300 teachers. This year the Government missed their recruitment target for secondary teachers by 48%.

“School leaders are telling us they are struggling to recruit and retain across all subjects. The recruitment and retention crisis is caused in the main by excessive workload and below inflation pay. This is a root and branch problem not solved by bursaries, ‘golden hellos’ and other Whitehall gimmicks. They cannot have alasting impact on subject shortages, which have been badly behind year on year, when the fundamental causes of teachers leaving remain in place.

“The casual headline-seeking announcements of the Prime Minister are no substitute for serious planning to address the needs of all our 16-year-olds, whatever courses they take.

“Rishi Sunak missed an opportunity today to reset an education system in crisis. The Prime Minister said that he would prioritise education funding, but this is after 13 years of real-terms cuts. When David Cameron became Prime Minister in 2010, Britain spent 5.7% of national income on education. Today it stands at 4.2% – among the lowest rates in the OECD. We believe that rate should be raised to 5%.

“Education unions have called for at least £4.4bn+ extra per year for school buildings, following the RAAC disaster on this Government’s watch. We also need answers on workload. The narrow obsession from the PM means also that the Department for Education has taken its eye off the ball on the failure of T-Levels and the need to retain funding for General Applied.

“The Prime Minister is unwilling to do the hard work on fixing the major challenges facing education. Any education reform needs to deal with and confront the crises facing our schools and colleges, and this must be done in consultation with the profession to avoid yet more unworkable ideas.”

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said:

“There is a great deal of merit in the idea of bringing technical and academic qualifications into a single qualification of an Advanced British Standard. We have long called for parity of esteem between technical and academic pathways and we are pleased that this is reflected in this announcement.

“We also support the principle of greater curriculum breadth in post-16 education as the current system is too narrow – at least partly because of previous government reforms which downgraded the status of AS-levels.

“However, while the principles of these proposals are good, the practicalities are daunting because of the severity of the teacher recruitment and retention crisis.

“There aren’t enough teachers to teach existing subjects never mind extend teaching on this scale.

“We’re not convinced that the Prime Minister’s plan for an early career bonus payment for teachers in key shortage subjects in schools and colleges will be anywhere near enough. Teacher shortages are widespread and very problematic in many subjects. This problem requires a much broader strategy to improve pay, conditions and education funding.

“Without this commitment the Prime Minister’s plans for an Advanced British Standard are likely to prove a pipedream.”

University and College Union (UCU) general secretary Jo Grady said:

‘The Prime Minister’s announcement of reforms to post-16 education are a further example of a government out of touch that is tinkering around the edges rather than offering genuine support to students or staff.  School and college teachers need inflation-matching pay uplifts, not bonuses, but over the past year Sunak has gone to war with education staff, who have had to go out on strike for fair pay.

‘A Levels are tried and tested and already successfully being blended with BTECs, whereas T levels are failing. Ministers should be listening to teachers, not pulling ideas out of the hat as a desperate way to shore up support for a failing government.’

Jennifer Coupland, chief executive of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, said: “IfATE welcomes the PM’s announcement of the new Advanced British Standard (ABS) qualification.  Since our establishment 6 years ago, IfATE has worked tirelessly to improve the quality of technical education, applying employer set standards to T levels and helping grow the programme.  It is great to hear that employers’ occupational standards will underpin the technical options within the ABS and that the technical route to achieving ABS will build on the T level design. 

“Preserving a high quality technical route for young people who are focused on work, apprenticeships or higher levels of vocational study will be key to realising the PMs vision for parity of esteem. 

“As this is long term reform programme, we must ensure that students have access to high quality T levels in the intervening years.  We will continue to work closely with employers, education providers, awarding bodies and DfE to grow and extend the T level offer – including launching our procurement for the next generation of T levels very shortly.”

Kate Shoesmith, Deputy Chief Executive at the Recruitment & Employment Confederation (REC), said:

“Agencies provide dedicated and qualified staff around-the-clock to plug urgent gaps in the NHS, in large part because of the failure of successive governments to produce the right workforce plan to retain enough permanent staff and attract the next generation of NHS workers. We know from our data that there has been a sharp increase in demand for temporary healthcare workers in recent weeks which is likely to continue as we head into the winter.

“Temporary healthcare workers care deeply about the NHS but only ask for a greater work/life balance – and so choose to work though agencies. Agency workers are still health workers and the cost of their shifts is mainly made up of the worker’s salary because an agency fee on framework is capped at around 10 per cent of the hourly rate for a nurse.

“Much of the increase in temporary workforce spend since the pandemic is down to NHS staffing banks and off-framework providers who are not restricted by pay caps. That is why we have asked the Public Accounts Committee to investigate value for money for all the different staffing arrangements in the NHS so we can move from blame to end game. We need to put patient care front and centre, where it belongs.”

David Robinson, Director for Post 16 and Skills at the Education Policy Institute (EPI), said:

“We welcome the government’s aspiration for a broader post-16 curriculum. The education that sixth form and college students receive in England is narrower than in most developed countries. EPI research has shown that curriculum breadth narrowed further during the last decade, despite there being career benefits for those students who study a broader range of subjects.

“However, much more detail is needed and the government must work closely with the sector before rushing through any new reforms.

“In particular, we are concerned that yet another overhaul of post-16 qualifications will cause further uncertainty and disruption for a Further Education sector only just adapting to the introduction of T Levels, now set to be largely mothballed before even being fully implemented. Since 1999, the Further Education sector has been beset by almost constant policy reform. The government must ensure any changes enshrine long-term stability for the FE sector.

“While efforts to improve numeracy and literacy for 16-19 year olds are welcome, we will also need to see a much greater focus on improving outcomes in primary and secondary education for students who struggle with these subjects.

“Furthermore, it is unclear what these proposals will mean for the many 16–19-year-old students who currently study qualifications below A levels. Two in five students do not achieve the equivalent of two A levels by the age of 19. It is vital that they are not forgotten during the implementation of any reformed post-16 curriculum.

“To realise the ambition for at least 195 hours more teaching a year per pupil, significant progress in teacher recruitment and retention will be needed. The proposal to introduce financial incentives for early career teachers in the FE sector is welcome and this is something that EPI has previously recommended. Further detail is needed on who will receive these, and how “key shortage subjects” will be defined. With colleges suffering from a vacancy rate of over 5%, the workforce pressures facing the sector will continue to pose a huge challenge.”

Agata Nowakowska, AVP EMEA, Skillsoft said:

“With the announcement of the new Advanced British Standard in place of A-Levels, it’s encouraging to see the government emphasise the importance of technical education. Students can now take a mix of technical and academic subjects post-16, which is fantastic news for employers increasingly seeking a broader range of skills from their employees.  

However, as the details of these new qualifications are worked out, it’s vital that digital skills education is at the heart of the plan. With the IT skills gap remaining one of the most significant challenges faced by the UK’s technology industry, action is required to help young people gain the education they need for employment in the digital era.

In addition, businesses should continue to do their part by offering training programmes and collaborating with schools to further enhance digital literacy. Furthermore, alternative routes such as apprenticeships, returnships and the Government’s Upskill in Cyber initiative must continue to be invested in if the UK is to close the skills gap and keep up with the evolving global economy.”

Baker Dearing Educational Trust chief executive Simon Connell commented:

“We are intrigued by today’s announcement, surely the most significant post-16 education reform in the 13 years of Conservative-led government. It will also be the most enthusiastic effort to date at creating parity of esteem between academic and technical education.

“Delivering maths and English up to age 18 would improve young peoples’ confidence and aptitude in both those subjects. Many of the University Technical Colleges that we support already deliver some maths tuition past the age of 16 as it is vital for technical courses such as T Levels.

“The new Standard should not dilute the distinctive features of T Levels. It is vital that we do not lose the industry placement, which is the part of the T Level valued above all else by students and employers.

“This new qualification would require a complete sea change in education thinking. But it will also rely on the Treasury being generous enough to fund a brand-new qualification for the thousands of young people who would otherwise study A-levels, T Levels, and Applied General qualifications.

“The Standard’s success will also require ministers encouraging the delivery of technical subjects at pre-16. The government has cited the education models of many European countries as proof we need this Standard. However, a key feature of those countries’ models is technical education from the ages of 13 or 14, which has become a rarity in the UK.

“That form of high-quality, employer-led technical education from an early age is best delivered by UTCs and UTC Sleeves. 

“We look forward to working constructively with the government on the Advanced British Standard.”

Dr Patrick Roach, General Secretary of NASUWT – the Teacher’s Union said:

“Today’s announcement by the Prime Minister is an admission of 13 years of failure.

“The qualifications system that the Prime Minister now wants to reform looks the way it does because that is how this Government wanted it to look. All the issues the Prime Minister has raised in his speech today result directly from reforms that this Government introduced during the last decade.

“The plan to scrap T-levels before they have been rolled out fully is just one in a long line of broken promises from this government and yet another costly and damaging policy U-turn.

“The Prime Minister’s ambitions for a world-class education system are not reflected in the plans he has announced today.”

Luke Sibieta, Research Fellow at the IFS said:

“Increasing total teaching time by 195 hours will require more teachers and more funding to pay for them. The Prime Minister has said that post-16 education will big a big priority at future spending reviews. However, there is more than a bit of catching up to do. Colleges and sixth forms saw large real-terms cuts in funding per pupil between 2010 and 2019. Despite recent increases, spending per student aged 16-18 in colleges is still expected to be 5% lower in real-terms in 2024 than in 2010, and spending per student in sixth forms is expected to be 22% lower.

The Prime Minister has also set himself a hard problem to solve in recruiting the teachers to deliver these qualifications. Most school teacher salaries in England this year are about 10% lower in real terms than they were in 2010. College teachers have seen an even faster decline in real-terms pay of 18% since 2010. A bonus worth up to £6,000 a year would boost the salaries of the newest teachers by about 20%, but this would only apply to the newest teachers in shortage subjects in deprived areas (probably about 1-2% of all teachers). Recruiting large numbers of extra teachers for a wider and more intensive post-16 curriculum might require more ambitious policy changes. Extending the teaching bonuses to college teachers is a small step in this direction.”

Christine Farquharson, Associate Director at the IFS said:

“Delivery such a huge reform to the education system will inevitably require huge commitment and attention from policymakers and educators, as well as funding. But these changes will also affect other stages of education, including the expectations of and support for pupils who do not achieve five good GCSEs at 16. The Prime Minister should also be wary of focusing only on secondary schools; more than one in four pupils was already not reaching the expected standard in maths at age 11. Preventing children from falling behind in the first place would represent real long-term thinking on improving educational attainment.” 

Jack Worth, School Workforce Lead at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) said:

“Further intervention to increase teacher supply in shortage subjects is desperately needed as recruitment and retention is a huge challenge for schools. Evidence suggests that early career payments are a cost-effective way to improve supply in shortage subjects.

“NFER has previously recommended that the Government should redesign levelling up early career payments by widening eligibility to all schools nationally and increasing payment generosity. The current scheme has a maximum value of £15,000 for teachers during their first five years, so a proposed £30,000 could have a real impact on teacher recruitment and retention. Although the Government needs to clarify which teachers would be eligible to receive this increased payment.

“This plan to end the denigration of technical education, while welcome in principle, is concerning, as T Levels were only launched as the new ‘flagship’ alternative to A Levels three years ago. Time is needed to allow these new qualifications to bed in and be evaluated in terms of their fitness for purpose. This announcement, during T Levels Week, must be demoralising not only for providers but on the young people who have already completed or are completing their T Levels. With the looming defunding of BTECs and other applied generals from 2024 onwards, this hardly presents a period of stability for post-16 education over the next 10 years.” 

  • This package of £600 million over two years will prioritise money in ways that will benefit disadvantaged pupils most of all. It will:
  • Include funding for a tax-free bonus of up to £30,000 over the first five years of their career for teachers in key shortage subjects, with staff in FE colleges set to the benefit the most. This will see a doubling of the rates of the existing Levelling Up Premium and extending it to those teaching key shortage subjects in all FE colleges, wherever they are in the country. It will disproportionately benefit disadvantaged pupils, who are more likely to be studying in FE colleges.
  • Boost funding by £150 million annually to those who do not pass maths and English GCSE at 16 to gain these qualifications. This investment will mean that if a student is retaking English and maths GCSE while studying at Level 2 or below on their 16-19 course, they will now attract the same funding as those studying at Level 3. We will also invest in English and maths for all post-16 apprentices who have not gained their Level 2 qualification – uplifting the funding rates to match the Adult Education Budget.
  • Provide an additional £40 million in the Education Endowment Foundation, so that they can expand their current efforts, which at present focus more on the under-16s. EEF will act as the independent authority on creating and sharing evidence for teachers and leaders on what works to support outcomes for 16-19 year-olds, with a particular focus on approaches that work best to narrow gaps in attainment.
  • Turbo-charge the best, evidence-based techniques for maths teaching ahead of the introduction of the Advanced British Standard: teaching for mastery in maths. Mastery approaches are built on international best practice and are showing success in primary school, and we are now expanding them further, particularly in secondary and 16-19 education. 
  • Train more teachers in these techniques by expanding the reach of Maths Hubs with more specialists overall and a targeted offer for Key Stage 3. And we will increase funding to colleges and schools so they can deliver maths to more students aged over 16, increasing the Core Maths and Advanced Maths Premium and investing in a digital platform for tutoring in core maths.

Related Articles