English Bac – solution for crisis in 14–19 education?

29 June 2008

An English baccalaureate incorporating academic and vocational subjects could overcome the crisis of a general education system that has alienated many 14- to 19-year-olds, say leading experts.

This is the conclusion of the latest issues paper from the Nuffield Review of 14–19 Education in England and Wales, which draws on evidence gathered by the review over the last five years.

The paper, by Dr Ann Hodgson and Dr Ken Spours from the Institute of Education, London, criticises education for 14- to 19-year-olds as dominated by GCSEs and A-levels and schools' subsequent standing in league tables. The authors, who are co-directors of the Nuffield Review, argue that this cannot provide the education young people need to face the challenges of the future.

The government sees vocational qualifications as the main problem for 14–19 education, but the authors say the problem is more widespread and results from a "systemic crisis of general education". A-levels and GCSEs alienate those who do not do not achieve five A*-C GCSE grades. They also fail to provide sufficient challenge for higher ability learners and cast a shadow over "alternative" vocational provision. General education in England is narrow in comparison with other countries.

Baccalaureates are broad-based advanced-level qualifications widely used in Europe. Wales has its own version at three levels, and a baccalaureate in languages and science will be available in Scotland from September this year.

The paper outlines the government's proposed reforms of GCSEs and A-levels, which the authors think will lead to a deeper academic/vocational divide. Dr Spours says: "Vocational education has to absorb 'refugees' fleeing from GCSEs and A-levels and is unable to establish a high-status reputation. This could be the fate that awaits the new 14–19 diploma qualifications."

The authors also express concern at the development of a separate Foundation Learning Tier for learners deemed unable to take GCSEs or diplomas. "There is a danger that this will cast these learners adrift from the mainstream because they are not part of the three main qualification routes – GCSEs/A-levels; diplomas and apprenticeships," warns Dr Hodgson.

The authors propose the development of an English bac system which would incorporate all 14–19 qualifications, including GCSEs and A-levels, and encompass both academic and vocational learning. They see this as a way of including all learners and fostering what the review calls "a rounded and educated 19-year-old". They believe the Welsh bac provides a useful starting point for a debate on how to reform English general education.

"General Education in the 14–19 Phase" is available from http://www.nuffield14-19review.org.uk/.

Notes for editors

Further information from Helen Green, press officer, +44 (0)20 7612 6459, h.green@ioe.ac.uk

The Nuffield Review is an independent review of all aspects of 14–19 education and training: aims; quality of learning; curriculum; assessment; qualifications; progression to employment, training and higher education; providers; governance; policy. It has been funded for six years by the Nuffield Foundation and began in October 2003. "General Education in the 14–19 Phase" is the 10th paper in the series. The Review is directed by Professor Richard Pring and Dr Geoff Hayward, University of Oxford, Dr Ann Hodgson and Dr Ken Spours, Institute of Education, London; Professor Ewart Keep and Professor Gareth Rees, University of Cardiff and Jill Johnson, UCAS.

The first five diplomas will be taught from September 2008, with another five to be launched in September 2009.

Dr Ann Hodgson and Dr Ken Spours are Readers of Education in the Department of Continuing and Professional Education at the Institute of Education.

The Institute of Education is a college of the University of London, specialising in teaching, research and consultancy in education and related areas of social science and professional practice.