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Education: Advanced British Standard

Volume 833: debated on Tuesday 17 October 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what are their plans to replace A-levels and T-levels with the Advanced British Standard.

My Lords, the advanced British standard will bring together the best of A-levels and T-levels, remove the artificial choice between academic and technical pathways, and raise the attainment floor for all students. Students will receive more high-quality teaching time, continue to build maths and English capability, and develop a wider knowledge base that will enhance their career opportunities. This is a long-term reform which will need careful development and consultation.

My Lords, at the Conservative Party conference the Prime Minister had the opportunity to announce real change for our schools. He could have spoken about fixing crumbling schools, recruiting and retaining teachers currently leaving en masse, and sorting out the widening attainment gap, soaring absence levels and missing mental health support. Nothing we heard will tackle these issues affecting pupils now or provide the staff we need to teach now, let alone in a decade’s time. What are the Government doing this financial year to provide the buildings, teaching and support this generation of children so desperately needs?

I cannot accept the assertion of the noble Baroness. The Government are doing a great deal on teacher recruitment, and these programmes, starting now, will also address the attainment gap. We will pay up to £6,000 a year tax free to teachers of key STEM and technical shortage subjects in the first five years of their career and to those working in disadvantaged schools, addressing recruitment and attainment. Critically, we will spend £150 million each year to support those who do not pass their maths GCSE at 16 to gain these qualifications by the time they get to 19.

My Lords, since this is the advanced British standard, can the Minister confirm that it will be available for schools in Scotland, as the A-level exam is at the moment? What discussions have there been with the Scottish Government?

As I said in my Answer, there will need to be extensive consultation, but we hope to work closely with the Scottish Parliament on this.

My Lords, A-levels and T-levels should never be the only options for 16 year-olds. There are many highly talented, creative and practical students with work-based skills which are essential for the economy. Can the Minister reassure us that BTEC vocational qualifications will continue to be available to ensure that these students get their work accredited?

I am afraid that I cannot reassure the noble Baroness of that. She will be aware that we have carried out extensive reform of our qualifications and will know that, as of August 2022, we had removed 5,500 qualifications with low or no enrolments. However, we still have the most complicated and duplicative landscape of qualifications in this area —at least 7,000 available qualifications—which we will address through our reform programme.

My Lords, as ever, I declare my interest as a secondary school teacher. The Minister said that the ABS will develop maths and English capabilities. For anybody who has just guided their son through the maths GCSE and maths A-level—as I have, rather badly—are we saying that the maths GCSE is not good enough? Surely that is enough maths for anybody.

I do not think that it is enough maths for everybody. As the House knows, we are an outlier in the G7 in not requiring maths to 18. We have made tremendous progress with our maths hubs and teaching for mastery pro approach. We can see that in Ofsted’s recent report on school maths, which described how a

“resounding, positive shift in mathematics education has taken place in primary schools”.

We are determined to invest more in maths and give every child the opportunity to succeed in maths.

My Lords, I very much welcome the Government’s interest in broadening the curriculum at age 18. Has the Minister had indications from universities that they are willing to broaden their admittance criteria too, so that students who follow a varied programme across the subjects are not disadvantaged relative to those who have followed a much narrower curriculum? Will she also ensure that, where children have to learn maths or English to 18, which they might naturally not wish to do, it is maths and English for which they will find a use in their lives and not maths and English which is directed towards getting into university?

The way we are thinking about this programme—I stress again that we need to consult extensively on the detail of it—is that it will offer children much more breadth and time, including a third more teaching time. That means that we can keep around 90% of the content of the current A-level for those going down an academic route and follow the occupational standards for those going down a technical or vocational route. The aim of the programme is to give children much greater choice so that they will still be able to access the same three-year degrees if university is their preferred option but also be well equipped for further technical education or the workplace.

My Lords, the Minister, in her initial Answer to my noble friend on the Front Bench, referred to the necessity for extensive consultation before the new qualifications can be properly embedded. I am sure she will agree that the burden of changing the arrangements for post-16 education will fall hugely on schools, and particularly on school leaders. Can she tell the House how extensively those people will be consulted? Without wishing to be disrespectful, how much notice will be taken of what they say?

I am slightly surprised by the noble Baroness’s last remark. This programme clearly cannot work without the buy-in, understanding and support of school leaderships, so it would be a short-sighted Government who did not pay attention to their reflections on this. I am also slightly surprised by the noble Baroness’s hesitancy, because this approach was in the Labour manifesto of 2010 and recommended by the Times Education Commission.

My Lords, I remind the House of my declared interests. Those with special educational needs, particularly dyslexia and dyscalculia, will clearly be put under a lot more pressure by this approach. When will the Government publish a plan to make sure that these people are not excluded from reaching an A-level standard or put under extra pressure? When can we relate it to the rest of the curriculum, or will we change the law so that you are allowed to exclude people and discriminate against them?

Clearly, we will not do the latter. It is incredibly important that we design this in such a way that we have the right offer for children with special educational needs and disabilities, those who have been in local authority care and those who have come from particularly disadvantaged homes. That is a clear commitment from the Government.

Perhaps the noble Baroness can help me. My wife is Polish, and she read in the newspapers recently that Polish is being offered at secondary school level, alongside Latin, as a second language. She was very surprised, and said, having been taught Latin as well as Polish at school, that Polish is more difficult to learn than Latin and just about as useful, which surprised me. Could the noble Baroness advise me on how I should respond?

Maybe it would make sense to talk to the school in question to understand its decision to offer Polish.