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 NatBaccTrust@gmail.com
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