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ABacc - a huge missed opportunity?

Stories in The Times and The Daily Telegraph suggest that the reformed GCE A-levels will remove January modules and resits, and that if students do a contrasting AS level subject (maths or a humanity), complete a 5000 word essay and do voluntary work as part of their portfolio, they will acquire an ABacc certificate which will help give them access to Russell Group universities.

It is clear that this idea borrows slightly from the International Baccalaureate and from the AQA EPQ. It is also a response to criticisms that too many students cannot write essays and that they are assessed too much on skills and knowledge acquired in the short term, rather than embedded, all round understanding of subjects. It also tries to deal with the criticism that our A-level students are too narrow in their choice of subjects. A broader curriculum would allow students to postpone key choices until later whilst providing them with a better understanding of the world.

It is a timid reform and, as usual, defers too much to vested interests. I'll explain why.

In 2000 an opportunity was missed when we moved from three A-levels to four AS-levels and three A2-levels. This barely broadened the curriculum at all. At the time many argued for something closer to the German Abitur, whereby students would study five or six subjects, thus ensuring some breadth of coverage - scientists would have to do some arts/languages/humanities and "arts" students would have to do some maths or science. This model was rejected and the lobby defending the "gold standard" A-level won the day.

This lobby consisted of, firstly, universities, whose interest was to receive well qualified specialists on their own subject areas; secondly, schools and teachers who also were happy to go along with a near status quo and thirdly conservative traditionalists in general who feared a watering down of traditional academic excellence.

What was forgotten was the students themselves who deserve an all round education. As a teacher I was well aware that some, usually less brilliant, students were happy to drop subjects and even had trouble putting together four AS level subjects. But there were also many students who reluctantly dropped subjects because their chosen university course meant they had to study a limited range of subjects (medicine is a good example).

There is an alternative which would be manageable by school, maintain a degree of depth and provide for greater breadth. Schools could offer five subjects over two years, with a terminal exam at the end of upper sixth (Y13). This would mean that students would study each subject for about 3-4 hours per week, instead of five. They would necessarily have to choose at least one contrasting subject. (It would be easy to insist on this in any case.) You could do away with "general studies" which is, in my experience, barely taken seriously by students and often considered a chore by teachers. I agree that inclusion of voluntary service is an excellent idea. A long, special topic essay could remain a possibility, but I doubt it would be necessary given the breadth a five subject programme would ensure.

Should maths and English be a compulsory part of a post 16 curriculum, as Labour suggests?

I think not. I have a bias against the hegemony of maths - the modern Latin -  since I believe that large parts of it are a waste of time for most young people and adults. But in any case, we do not have the means to offer maths to all post-16. (We barely have the means to offer it up to 16!) So there are sound pragmatic reasons for not forcing schools to offer maths and English to all at A-level. But there are principled reasons for rejecting compulsory maths and English. To do so could effectively exclude other worthy subjects, for example languages.

There may be a stronger case for including maths and English in some form of Tech Bacc along the lines of what Stephen Twigg has just suggested.

In sum, Gove's reform appears feeble, conservative and a sop to the universities. Let us be bolder, put students and their general education first.

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