Reforming the upper secondary curriculum

Until relatively recently,   discussion  about an alternative curriculum for 14-19, the upper secondary years bloomed, with a variety of initiatives promoting either ‘over-arching’ certificates to link and equate academic and vocational learning, or even their full integration in a general diploma.

Yet  maybe a certain weariness was already creeping in, not helped by the fact that when progress appeared to be made, disappointment quickly set in  – for example when Tony Blair  largely ignored Tomlinson’s proposals (commissioned by his own government) refused to ditch A-levels, and instead established  the disastrous Special Diplomas. Then, Michael Gove’s ransacking of the secondary curriculum took us back years, with a very  different sort of English Baccalaureate introduced for 16-year-olds.  Campaigners were also  forced onto the back foot –defending  current levels of provision became  the main priority.

But with education thrown into disarray by the pandemic and where exams have been cancelled for the second year, being replaced by teacher assessment, it’s disappointing that some of education’s  bigger players, like teacher unions for example, have not made more of the crisis to seriously challenge the current curriculum. It’s been left to the  relatively unknown EDSK think tank  to call for a new Upper Secondary Baccalaureate.

Following on from its earlier  proposals that GCSEs should be scrapped,  EDSK  cites the narrowness of the curriculum  and closing off of learning options at Level 3 -it’s critical of both A-levels and particularly the new T-levels. In its proposed baccalaureate, courses would be grouped into ‘academic’, ‘technical’ and  ‘applied’ pathways, but  learners would be able to mix-and match courses as they progress.  There’d be three levels: a Foundation (equivalent to GCSE) Standard (equivalent to AS-levels) and  Higher (equivalent to A-levels). Students would be required to start with a broad range of subjects at Foundation level, increasingly specialising when they progress through the later stages. 

All would be required  to study two compulsory subjects: ‘Core English’ and ‘Core Maths’ and would  continue with these until they achieve at least a Pass level. The Baccalaureate would be based around a ‘credit’ system, in which students can pass any combination of courses to complete each level.   Across the three levels of the Baccalaureate, Academic, Applied and Technical options as well as Core English and Core Maths would use the same grading scale: Distinction–Merit–Pass–Fail.   When they finish school or college, students would be given a  Record of Educational Achievement (REA) documenting the grades achieved at Foundation, Standard and Higher level. EDSK also calls for equal funding across the pathways and funding for employers to provide work-based opportunities for final -year students on technical courses.

EDSK  provides a detailed account of the issues surrounding  curriculum reform –going back to Ron Dearing’s initiatives in the 1990s.  But the continued use of the term ‘pathways’ in its report shows EDSK, like others before, haven’t broken from Dearing’s  idea that different sorts of courses are suitable for the aspirations of different types of learners. From this perspective, the main problem for  reformers is that  vocational and technical routes have not enjoyed equal status with the academic pathway and that those who have wanted to, have not been able to move from one pathway to another.

But these problems are historical and political, not  ones of curriculum design. Even if  vocational courses are officially supposed to help students acquire  new workplace knowledge and skills,  their introduction during the 1970s and 1980s was in response to more young people  staying in full-time education because of  rising unemployment  -in otherwords due to the absence of work.  The new students were not considered suitable for higher status academic courses and therefore it isn’t surprising that these new qualifications  and subsequent vocational certificates have been considered inferior.

Therefore the relationship between vocation qualifications and employment opportunities has largely been inverse.  Because they are mostly classroom based, it is difficult to see how  vocational courses really make students ‘work ready.’ Employers know little about them and tend to recruit young people with proven academic qualifications, that’s if they recruit them at all!  Also, the occupational structure continues  to polarise and many ‘ middling’ jobs ( the type of employment that vocational qualifications were generally linked to) have disappeared. Where they do exist, employers are able to recruit from a surplus of graduates.

 We should continue to promote an alternative curriculum entitlement. Different types of learning should be integrated initially through an ‘overarching’ certificate, but it is  by moving towards a wider ‘common core’,  that  the ridged ‘vocational’ and ‘academic’ tracks  will be abolished. This will make it easier for stand-alone qualifications to dissolve into a wider baccalaureate award, allowing a ‘good general education for everybody’. 

But in the meantime where  specific vocational routes continue to exist, especially those popular with both students and staff,  (like for example, the ‘tried and trusted’ BTEC qualifications, which the GNVQs, Special Diplomas and now the T -levels were designed to supersede !)  these courses should include more general education (as is the case in Germany) with opportunities to study social and political issues – for example, how to achieve a better balance between work and leisure, learning about the role of trade unions, and examining the benefits, and dangers of increased workplace automation  would all be essential parts of the good general education referred to above. In addition, all students should have access to opportunities for personal and self-development.

We also need to reform the content and style of ‘academic’ learning.   Gove  not only set out a more subject, more contents-based style of learning, but also one where teaching returned to a ‘from the front of the class’ activity. In this respect, an alternative curriculum could draw on some of the original strengths of vocationalism with its emphasis on a more generic, collaborative, and student-centred pedagogy.

One thought on “Reforming the upper secondary curriculum

  1. This all used to be done in Scotland where at 17 many more go on to 2 years in FE or 4 years in HE (ie. with a foundation year) – and not only because there are no college/ uni fees. Maybe too some of these new courses (with your reservations re pathways included) should take place in (6th form) colleges/ FE, like in US Secondary High Schools.

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