Bacs are bustin’ out all over!

To the casual observer, it might seem that the baccalaureate is an idea whose time has come in the English education system. The word is used everywhere you look; what is less clear is whether there is anything new behind all of these schemes.

The most high profile use of the word is of course the government’s English Baccalaureate (or EBac) focussing exclusively on the traditional academic subjects. The new kid on the block is now the Tech Bac. This was first proposed by Ed Miliband in his last conference speech and has since been taken up by government ministers and by Lord Baker and Mike Tomlinson. The latter have moved quickly to identify the building blocks of a Tech Bac at both 16 and 18 mixing established technical qualifications, some academic subjects and areas such as an extended project and thinking and employability skills. Qualfications are to be a mix of GCSE’s, A levels and vocational qualifications.

Meanwhile in other parts of the qualifications jungle, a wide range of both new and established programmes can be found including the International Baccalaureate, the “Better Bac” (being developed by the Curriculum Foundation and Whole Education), the Cambridge Pre U, the Welsh Bac and the AQA Bac.

The most obvious conclusion we can draw from this is that we are witnessing a market in qualifications gone mad. One small example of the madness is the fact, quoted in the TES (17th December) that City and Guilds actually own the trademark for the term “Technical Baccalaureate”!

We are currently seeing no attempt from the government at creating a national consensus about 14 to 19 curriculum and qualifications. It is to be hoped that Chris Husbands’ work for Labour will begin to fill that gap.

There is now no entitlement for young people and in reality no real personal choice – they get to do whatever their school or college has decided to offer. They are then faced with trying to work out how much value individual universities and employers will place on all the different bits of qualifications that they might end up with.

A further fundamental source of confusion is that some so called baccalaureates (most notably the EBac) are simply a collection of free-standing qualifications all of which can be passed or failed individually. It seems likely that this is also how the government will see any Tech Bac that they come up with. Whereas in a true Bac – such as the IB – to succeed requires achievement in all the elements.

The other key difference between EBac and virtually all the rest is that true baccalaureates contain elements designed to integrate a students’ learning and usually contain elements such as individual projects, community service and work related programmes.

Before all of this gets completely out of hand, there is an urgent need to go back to first principles. That means first deciding what we want young people to learn up to 16 and then up to 18. Then, and only then, should we be looking at qualification design. Young people should then be able to expect their school or college to offer all the elements of an agreed national entitlement. They should also be able to expect that universities and employers recognise and value in a transparent way that whole entitlement.

It is also important to recognise the difference between what is needed 14 to 16 and 16 to 19. Up to 16, young people should continue to access all the key areas of knowledge and activity – including both academic and practical with all areas of learning placed on an equal footing. Alongside this there should be some scope for specialisation – maybe 75-25 core as against specialised programmes.

We should not assume that all learning has to be organised through GCSE’s or equivalents nor that it all has to be externally assessed at 16. But some recognition of the end of the phase of broad general education would seem to be appropriate – at least until we can really guarantee all 16 to 19 year olds are properly involved in high quality education or training. The NEET figures suggest that that is still a long way off.

From 16 to 19 the scope for specialisation will be much greater and will include work based learning as apprentices as well as school and college based learning. But there is still a case for core elements including not just English and maths but continued exposure to areas of learning and activity outside the students’ principal specialism.

There is no need for the proliferation of different baccalaureate schemes. It particular we should question the polarisation of EBac and Tech Bac. Unless we do so there is a risk that Alison Wolf’s description of Tech Bac as a “consolation prize for less academically able teenagers” could come true. We need good opportunities for technical and practical learning but within a One Bac framework.

There is huge common ground between many of the current initiatives – except of course for those of the government. It would not be difficult to establish, in partnership with employers and universities, a single national core curriculum framework with scope for different kinds of specialisms and for awarding bodies to develop particular programmes within it.

The irony of course is that Mike Tomlinson gave us a blueprint for this ten years ago and was ignored. Time to roll the clock back?

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2 Comments on “Bacs are bustin’ out all over!”

  1. trevor fisher says:

    you have missed the Birmingham Baccalaureate. I am not joking. A Bac is now a word to describe something that looks trendy but is not a solution to anything.

    The Birmingham Bac is apparently a system designed, in conjunction with a local MP, to deal with inner city schools.

    It defies belief.

    Trevor FIsher.

  2. Kevin Avison says:

    Tomlinson’s ideas were killed off because Blair panicked, when with an election in the offing, Michael Howard was readying a speech that claimed ” the gold standard” of A-Levels was under attack (see Bangs, Macbeath & Galton, “Reinventing Schools…”). Adonis seems to believe (still) that getting governance “right” solves most , if not all problems. He does talk about the importance of teaching, but his main measure of success is exam results (to be fair, he also recognises energy & engagement, but not the false the transaction his main measure entails).
    I see absolutely no intention anywhere to reform the exam system to make it more fit for the century we live in, plenty of attempts, including Gove’s, to suit it to the social norms of he 1950s. The UK isn’t the only country facing that bind, but no- one after Tomlinson seems willing to envisage a 14-19 curriculum geared towards lifelong learning (remember that slogan?) with sufficient depth & sufficient inter-disciplinary content to foster creative flexibility & competence. The IB seems to me to come closest to the sort of agenda Howard Gardner has lately set out in his “Five Minds for the Future”.