29 June 2022
In a speech later this morning to leaders across business, industry, academia, charities and major arts institutes Sir Adrian Smith, President of the Royal Society, will call for a broader post-16 curriculum in England to address the nation’s growing inequality and stagnating productivity.
Smith will say a broader baccalaureate style qualification, encompassing wider skills and academic disciplines, should replace the traditional A-level route, typically seen as the default pathway to the high skilled jobs the economy needs.
He will comment on the opportunities that technical qualifications, including T-levels, can offer young people and will say “unless we can break the stranglehold of academic snobbery, the moment may pass”.
He will criticise the A-level system which “forces young people to abandon a broad range of skills at the age of 16”, narrows students’ perspectives, and limits their abilities to transition into a wider set of jobs throughout their lives.
He will say, “For too long, there has been no progress in closing the disadvantage gap within our education system. With the disruption caused to learning during the pandemic, there has never been a more opportune moment to make changes to improve outcomes for all.
“Educational reform could lead to a significant and positive impact on social mobility and helping to meet the government’s ‘levelling up’ ambitions. If we are serious about ‘levelling up’ we also need to be looking at the further and technical education sectors and recalibrating the relationship between technical and academic routes into careers.”
While Smith will highlight that some people are currently well served, with some schools taking a more baccalaureate style approach, he will say that pockets of excellence are not enough and that “we must expect the government to deliver excellence for everyone, regardless of who they are and where they live.
“If we want industry to thrive, productivity to increase and to create a more equal society, we need to be smarter and better prepared for the future. The only way to do that is to get education right. At present we have a 20th century educational system limping along in the 21st century. It is time for an upgrade.”
As an early step in a transition to a broader education, Smith advocates for all young people to receive mathematics training post-16 through the Core Maths qualification which equips students with the mathematical, statistical and data skills essential for future study, employment, and life.
“In our daily lives, we are continually faced with an avalanche of figures, numbers and statistics. Too few people have been taught the skills to process all this data, preventing millions from pursuing the kind of fulfilling jobs that our economy needs to thrive and disenfranchising too many from participating confidently in informed national conversation.”
Smith will state that while more teachers need to be recruited to the profession; skilled, confident, and motivated teachers must also be retained to support the delivery of ambitious reforms to the nation’s education system.
He will acknowledge that the Government’s recent education White Paper touches on the issues of teacher recruitment and retention, but that “deeper, more systemic support is needed to retain good teachers”.
Smith will call for all secondary and further education teachers to be able to access a minimum of 35 hours, subject specific continuing professional development training each year to update their skills and knowledge.
The speech will be given at the Royal Society’s Future of Education conference, a one-day gathering of leaders across business, industry, academia, charities and major arts institutes to discuss recommendations for change ahead of the next general election.
Speakers joining Sir Adrian Smith at the conference include Rachel Sylvester, political journalist at The Times and Chair of the Times Education Commission and Rt Hon David Laws, Executive Chairman of the Education Policy Institute.
Rt Hon David Laws, Executive Chairman of the Education Policy Institute said, “There is clear evidence that England’s post 16 curriculum is rather narrow by international standards, and this may not be ideal for students’ longer-term prospects. The curriculum narrowing has been reinforced by a particularly sharp squeeze on 16/18 funding for much of the last decade, and the funding of this phase urgently needs reconsidering."
Speaking ahead of the conference and supporting the debate is Dr Patrick Roach, General Secretary of the teaching union, the NASUWT.
He said, “Securing opportunity and realising ambition for children and young people and delivering world-class opportunities for pupils means we need to protect the status of teachers and secure the future of the teaching profession.
“High quality education for all must start with addressing the deep teacher recruitment and retention crisis and tackling the underlying causes of that crisis.
“Teachers have risen to the challenge, but schools cannot deliver the best for pupils when working conditions continue to impact adversely on the workload, health and wellbeing of teachers in the classroom.
“World-class working conditions are key to securing world-class learning conditions for pupils and ensuring that no child is left behind.”
Half of businesses say they would be more productive if the education system were better tailored to future employment and nearly 9 in 10 say that it is important for young people to be assessed on more than academic skills. A third say their workforce is lacking basic literacy and numeracy skills.
That was the striking message from a survey carried out by PwC and The Times Education Commission.
While preparing for the workplace is not the sole aim of the education system, if it is failing to do this it is failing our young people.
The A level examination was introduced in 1951 and it dominates thinking on our entire education system, with a fixation on a journey from A levels to University and on to work.
The Royal Society has been as guilty of focusing on A levels as anyone. So long as this country has continued to produce outstanding scientists there has been a temptation to think everything is fine.
But the world is very different now to what it was in the 1950s. In our daily lives, we are continually faced with an avalanche of figures, numbers and statistics. Too few people have been taught the skills to process all this data, preventing millions from pursuing the kind of fulfilling jobs that our economy needs to thrive and disenfranchising too many from participating confidently in informed national conversation.
Our education system should also focus on developing the creative arts, humanities and other subjects that enable us to understand each other better and foster essential skills such as communication and emotional intelligence, to improve all our lives.
The current system forces young people to abandon a broad range of skills at the age of 16 – it is one of the narrowest systems in the world with students in England taking an average of only 2.7 A levels. With a broader and more balanced education system post-16 we could have a workforce equipped with a more rounded set of skills and perspectives, and the ability to transition into a wider set of jobs throughout their lives.
So how do we fix this problem? Rachel Sylvester will shortly be setting out the excellent work of the Times Education Commission to address some of these questions.
A sensible first step may be to carry out a major and long-overdue review of the secondary and post-16 education systems in England. I do not wish to pre-empt the outcome of a review, but I see some form of broader baccalaureate style qualification as a step in the right direction. I look forward to hearing the outcomes of the discussions today on this question in particular.
Technology is transforming the future of jobs, in finance, engineering and many more areas besides. If we don’t make changes to education, today’s young people are not going to be prepared for the future, and the inequalities that advantage some and disadvantage others will persist..
For too long, there has been no progress in closing the disadvantage gap within our education system. With the disruption caused to learning during the pandemic, there has never been a more opportune moment to make changes to improve outcomes for all.
Educational reform could lead to a significant and positive impact on social mobility and helping to meet the government’s ‘levelling up’ ambitions. If we are serious about ‘levelling up’ we also need to be looking at the further and technical education sectors and recalibrating the relationship between technical and academic routes into careers.
The newly introduced T-levels do present an opportunity, but unless we can break the stranglehold of academic snobbery, the moment may pass and T-levels could come to be seen as the poor relation, instead of a hugely important part of the educational jigsaw. The Tomlinson Review – now nearly two decades old – suggested a simplification of the system and the introduction of a 14-19 diploma. Its recommendations were, however, largely ignored. Another missed opportunity to drive change.
Greater involvement from industry and other employers in shaping the education system will be key to ensuring that schools and colleges are providing the right skills, and showcasing what having those skills means for young people’s careers.
Radical reform will be essential but will take some time. In the meantime, we can build on some of the progress that has started to be made.
Core Maths is a good example, providing an alternative to A Level maths. It gives students the mathematical, statistical and data skills they will need for study in most subjects, for future employment and for life. Around 80% of students in England with a grade 4 or better in GCSE maths don’t take any maths qualification post-16. Providing funding to ensure all schools and colleges can offer a Core Maths qualification is essential.
We can also turn our attention to one of the perennial problems and one on which any reform will founder unless it is fixed.
How do we best support teachers?
Many subjects are experiencing shortages of specialist teaching staff, including the sciences, modern foreign languages, and music, facing the dual challenge of recruiting new teachers and then keeping them in the profession. Although the recent education White Paper does touch on this issue, looking at providing tax-free financial incentives in shortage areas, we at the Royal Society believe that deeper, more systemic support is needed to retain good teachers.
We wish to see a highly skilled, confident and motivated science teaching workforce. As well as recruiting more teachers we also need to look after them. Every secondary and FE teacher should be able to access a minimum of 35 hours, subject specific, Continuing Professional Development per year.
As the data and technology which can spread information grows, so too does the need for students across disciplines to be able to understand data, use IT safely, prevent online harm and improve their quantitative awareness.
And so we come back to the need for a broader education, a baccalaureate style system, where we teach skills not just facts.
Scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians are hugely sought after in the employment market. That is not because they know the third law of thermodynamics, it is because of the skills they develop doing science such as problem-solving, teamwork, analysing evidence and the ability to learn from mistakes.
Of course, those who currently might take only science and maths A levels would benefit from the skills and knowledge that come from the arts and humanities. An interconnected approach to education that allows students to study a wider range of subjects for longer may prove a solution to the skills gaps we are seeing across the UK.
And the whole population would benefit from more vocational and technical skills. It is vital that our young people are made fully aware of the options that are available to them post-16, and that A Levels and GCSEs are not seen as the only pathway to employment and success.
The issues we are going to tackle today are key to delivering change in our education system: how do we broaden education; how do we make the system work for everyone; how do we measure success; and what does the future teaching workforce look like. These should be at the heart of the debate on education at the next election.
Some people are currently well served but pockets of excellence serving the few are not enough. We must expect the government to deliver excellence for everyone, regardless of who they are and where they live. Today we have the chance to collectively discuss the best course of action to influence party manifestos.
If we want industry to thrive, productivity to increase and to create a more equal society, we need to be smarter and better prepared for the future. The only way to do that is to get education right. At present we have a 20th Century educational system limping along in the 21st Century. It is time for an upgrade.