The most interesting education election idea - a National Baccalaureate

Fiona Millar's picture
It is fair to say the education hasn’t been one of the issues to set this election campaign alight. There was a flurry of attention about school funding earlier this month, which I wrote about in the Guardian here, but it was drawn to the public’s attention in the context of possible strikes and cuts to come, rather than promises about which the party leaders might want to boast.

It may be that the reality of a real term reduction in school spending is inhibiting the politicians. Possibly not a great idea to talk too much about schools if that immediately leads onto the issue of how cuts might effect voters’ children in the next parliament?

Elsewhere the politicians’ hands are tied in other ways. The Gove reforms to curriculum and qualifications are well underway. Teachers are knee deep in managing those changes and any further pressure would be almost as politically risky as advertising future redundancies. So it was interesting to see the Labour Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt float the idea of a possible National Baccalaureate qualification in the next decade.

The immediate impression created by the “GCSEs to go” headline on the article in which this idea was flagged was unfortunate. Judging by the reaction on Twitter it was interpreted by some as a return to Michael Gove style English Baccalaureate examinations as a replacement for GCSEs. Others wondered why we needed our own baccalaureate since the International Baccalaureate (IB) already exists.

So let me explain why I think this proposal is significant. Even though the detail from Hunt is still vague, what he is suggesting is nothing like the narrow collection of subjects that grace our current league tables under the ludicrously named “EBacc”.

In most countries that use a “baccalaureate”, the term refers to a final wrap around qualification, or a “grouped” award. This means it has potential to represents a broader vision for education than simply a clutch of exam passes.

The International Baccalaureate diploma was founded after the Second World War with a view to using education as a route to permanent international peace. It includes academic study, project work and an accredited personal development programme based on “creativity, action and service”.

The IB’s “learner profile” goes way beyond the simple acquisition of 8 or more GCSEs and a handful of A levels and includes attributes like caring, risk-taking, open mindedness, reflection and communication.

An English, or National, Baccalaureate could be used to value and measure wider learning, and include a personal development programme alongside traditional subjects. There would of course be funding implications of a more ambitious curriculum but it is exciting to think of sport, the creative arts, civic or citizenship activities routinely accompanying academic or vocational routes to form a final award.

The second reason we need a real baccalaureate type qualification is that it would go some way towards ending the academic/vocational divide that has blighted the English school system for so long.

The final diploma would be made up of different component parts - academic, technical or vocational qualifications, with a common core of key skills. The significance of this is that the current labels, which inevitably carry different status and baggage with them, would be also wrapped up in the final award. Everyone would just get a Baccalaureate certificate within which different programmes of study could be followed to different levels.

Then there is the advantage of it being a final qualification at 18, reducing the exam load and bringing England in to line with many of the other most successful education systems in the world, which only have national exams at 18. As Janet Downs observed here most young people will now remain in education and training until 18 so exams at 16 may not be relevant in the future.

Finally the Bacc proposal is a great example of grass –roots reform, and evidence that the professionals may now be leading the politicians. Just over two years ago I was lucky enough to sit in on, and subsequently report here, discussions held by a small group of heads from the maintained, academy and special school sector.

They had formed themselves into a fledging pressure group out of sheer frustration with the changes to qualifications and assessment being forced on schools.

They had the then education secretary Michael Gove’s ill-fated English Baccalaureate Certificates in their sights. But their frustration also bubbled over into anger with what they perceived as ineffective opposition to the coalition’s reforms and the absence of a viable alternative vision. They wanted to see if innovative, bottom up thinking could make an impact on national policy-making.

To cut a long story short the Headteachers’ Roundtable, as they subsequently became known, has gone from strength to strength. Building support through Twitter they started to organize conferences, held consultations on policy ideas and began to formulate policies of their own. They were quickly offered access to both DFE and shadow ministers who are gradually recognising the power of social media to mobilise grass roots opinion.

They now have a manifesto, a wider core group and have helped to lead the way in a wider national conversation about whether we should broaden our exam based assessment system in the way Tristram Hunt is now proposing.

In the last six months London head teacher Tom Sherrington, blogger, tweeter and architect of the Heads Roundtable own Bacc style qualifications framework, has organized two summits, attended by representatives of all the different Bacc models being trialed in the UK (see links below) along with the Whole Education movement and three of the leading exam boards, to try and thrash out a way forward.

I also attended the first meeting, which was covered in detail by the new education paper Schools Week including an article by Sherrington  about why he believes this reform is necessary

“Our driving motivation has always been to create a framework that a) gives value to all learning and personal development that happens outside the confines of examinations; b) is challenging and aspirational at every level and c) is fully inclusive, offering paths to success for all learners in our schools,” he explained.

The challenges facing the English heads are not insubstantial; how to create something that includes and gives equal status to both academic and vocational qualifications; how to measure a personal development programme service; how to fund a broader curriculum and extra curricular activities and how to get widespread support for this sort of reform without risking the sort of political interference that has now become commonplace in English exam system. The beauty of the IB is that no individual government can interfere with it.

One of the delegates at the conference, Professor Ken Spours from the Institute of Education, has been involved with earlier attempts to introduce a wrap around diploma in England, such as the review led by Sir Mike Tomlinson in 2004. He told delegates that that current level of disillusion with narrow exam based accountability means that there will probably never be a better time to build a political and professional consensus around the idea of a real National Baccalaureate qualification.

I think that is right. The whole endeavor seems even more inspiring if you think, as the HTRT do, that it could be extended to primary schools The group is now looking at developing a national primary Baccalaureate which, as Sherrington explains, could “give value to the learning beyond SATS at KS2”.

Their next step is to establish a National Baccalaureate Trust to try and get this idea off the ground, irrespective of who is in power in ten days time. They are interested in getting new members - you can contact Tom Sherrington at and register to attend the next National Baccalaureate conference at Highbury Grove School on June 25.

Whether ultimately supported by the politicians or not, this is a stimulating and important development in education policy making which  we should all support.

The AQA Baccalaureate

The Tech Bacc

The Welsh Baccalaureate

The Mod Bacc

The International Baccalaureate








Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 30/04/2015 - 15:09

Fiona - I have posted at length about this on LSN and on my own website at

For me the main issue is the danger of creating an academic/vocational divide in terms of curriculum pathways at 14.

The issue of comparability of esteem is also important. It is no good just stating that it will happen. My posts in relation to the Leicester Modular Framework (LMF) set out a sound theoretical basis by means of which comparable attainment in all subject areas can be validly recognised and certified.

Don't forget that New Labour was responsible for the GNVQ/BTEC vocational equivalent debacle. This was a disgraceful political fix designed to produce the illusion that New Labour marketisation based education policies (Academisation - high stakes testing, zero tolerance of failure etc) were working.

Equivalent qualifications have to have equivalent rigour/demand/demonstration of capability. This needs considerable professional and academic thought. LMF showed that it is possible to achieve.

Unless 14 - 18 plans support genuinely comprehensive curriculum for all students and the curriculum/assessment framework is sound then there are very serious potential pitfalls.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 01/05/2015 - 08:21

Hunt's Baccalaureate suggestion is a step in the right direction - towards graduation at 18. His Bacc appears to embrace the multiple route favoured by many other countries.

Schools Week published a supplement entitled 'Build a Better Baccalaureate'. It's well worth reading.

That said, it's important (as Roger implies) that a broad, balanced curriculum be offered to all children to age 16 and there should be no academic/vocational divide at 14. The proposed Bacc could then incorporate existing GCSEs/IGCSEs (but fewer, no more than 5, since their prime use would be to measure pupil achievement and decide 16+ pathways). They could contribute to the final Bacc.

As teachers are already punch-drunk with exam reform, it's important the proposed Bacc doesn't tear up what's already there. Existing exams (and any new ones) can be incorporated into the Bacc framework together with the wider learning Fiona describes above.

Michele -Lowe's picture
Fri, 01/05/2015 - 11:02

Having read the article in the Guardian referred to in you article, Fiona, I was especially struck by the admission that a long-term approach is needed. I think Tristram Hunt is right to emphasise this. I do hope the idea gains traction. Wider political support is needed.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 03/05/2015 - 08:57

Michele - the education reforms in Finland took place over many years of careful consensus building. That's clearly the best approach. Unfortunately, too many politicians here think education is a useful policy on which to build a political career by demonstrating how 'rigorous', 'tough-minded', 'no excuses' the minister is.

Exam reform takes time - it needs careful implementation, trialing, evaluation etc. Gove's reforms are rushed, haven't been trialed and teachers have had little time to prepare. A recipe for disaster, in other words.

Hunt's idea is more interesting although it shouldn't focus on just a one-size-fits all leaving certificate. It could incorporate many existing exams (thereby avoiding more deep changes) as well as extra elements such as extended writing projects, participation in drama, sport, mini-enterprises etc.

Trevor Fisher's picture
Fri, 01/05/2015 - 12:02

It is not going to happen. The proposal for a 10 year development plan is designed to kick it into the long grass.

Those who run after this non proposal (which would need Labour to win two elections and then some) are ignoring the real issues facing exam, which is the current likelihood that the Public Schools are abandoning GCSE for IGCSE, which is now almost inevitable.

The result would be educational apartheid. As with the collapse of their vote in Scotland, New Labour is simply unable to understand reality, and if anyone wants a real proposal to rally round, RIchard Pring's proposal for a Royal Commission on exams is the one to go for.

A grassroots organization has zero chance of success

Trevor Fisher.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 03/05/2015 - 08:48

Trevor - state schools can still take IGCSEs - they just won't count in League Tables. As these are becoming increasingly meaningless - constant changes mean it's impossible to track 'improvement' from year to year, there's no reason why schools shouldn't enter pupils for the exams which are best for their pupils (and the teachers who have to teach them - having to cope with ever-changing exam curricula isn't conducive to good teaching - too much experimentation and not enough bedding-down).

Trevor Fisher's picture
Sun, 03/05/2015 - 10:05

dear janet

every head I have contact with knows they can do IGCSE. But the media will not report this and the January league tables are picked up by the papers and those schools that don't have good results are slated.

If LSN wants to change this - and I know it is a blog site not an organization - it has to convince the media that zero scores in league tables are indeed meaningless.

You say that there is no reason for schools not to do what is best? Really? Are you not aware that head teachers are sacked for poor results, and that the government performance tables are what OFSTED use for grading schools?

Its a real underlying problem of this blog site that contributors offer advice to teachers that could get them sacked. If the site is to have credibility with teachers an awareness of the real politics of how performance tables have proved the most effective control mechanism in the government armoury is the first essential. it is the missing dimension and just offering rhetoric doesn't wash with teachers who, rightly, fear for their jobs.

Trevor Fisher.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 03/05/2015 - 11:00

Trevor - you're right that it would be difficult for heads to do IGCSEs if in doing so they thought the results would mean they'd get the sack. But Ofsted, for all its faults, isn't so stupid not to realise that 0% in league tables equals catastrophic failure when that school has entered pupils for IGCSEs. If the head can say, for example, that results are above the benchmark with IGCSEs and 0% without then this can't be classed by Ofsted as a failure.

And league tables are contradictory. For example, the worst-performing state secondary school in Lincolnshire is Bourne Grammar School with 0% reaching the benchmark in 2014.

But if you look in a different part of the tables (Key Stage 4 Results - average grade), you'll find the average grade for Bourne Grammar pupils in 2014 was B+.

It would be perverse of an inspector to say Bourne Grammar was 'failing' because it achieved 0% when the average GCSE grade was B+.

You're right the media go to town on league tables (fills up a lot of column inches) but even the dumbest paper realised something was amiss this year when most of the private schools they admire returned results of 0%.

Trevor Fisher's picture
Sun, 03/05/2015 - 19:09

sadly the contradictions in league tables make not the slightest difference. In Birmingham, the local paper was publishing stats on the great OFSTED and exam results of a number of schools in the East of the city for six months after the schools had been reinspected and dropped into special measures. They were of course the "Trojan Horse" schools and I would urge people reading this site to look at the article in the current edition of London REview of Books on Trojan Horse and the politics of schooling. Not perfect but very much to the point.

How inspectors would use the new system is open to debate. When IGCSE was banned I don't think state schools could touch it. The latest situation is for the government to fund the IGCSE but ban it from league tables. How this is playing out I have no idea, since the decision only happened last autumn, so how schools are deciding exam entries is not known

The simple solution is for a new secretary of state to overrule Gibb. I have written to Tristtram Hunt suggesting this, pressure is needed.... if Labour is elected. ANd contrary to what one of my critics has said on this site, it does matter that Labour be elected on Thursday. I have argued the whole Westminster bubble is addicted to the current paradigm, and that this has affected the profile on education in the election. There simply is nothing much for media to report.

But that does not mean the election of Labour is unimportant. On the contrary, between Miliband and Cameron there is no argument, particularly if Cameron is propped up by UKIP. Expect the grammar school lobby to break through if that happens.

So there is a choice to be made. The fact that the selective schools score nothing on the performance tables as you rightly say made a slight impact in the media. It lasted about 24 hours.

The task ahead is to put this and a whole mass of issues onto the media agenda. This election there has been a virtual wipe out of education because of the dominance of the neo liberal consensus.

trevor Fisher.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.