The future of 16+ education – time to say goodbye to A-Levels?

Students approaching their final years of school will be in the process of deciding not only which subjects to specialise in but also which curriculum to follow. A-Levels? The IB? BTECs? Is it better to focus on a few subjects to study in depth or continue developing knowledge and skills in a range of disciplines? What is the best preparation for university? For life?

People often refer to A Levels as the ‘gold standard’ of British education. But what does this actually mean and has the narrow academic focus of A-Levels outlived its usefulness in a world where it is usual for people to switch careers several times and where advanced technical skills combined with ‘soft’ skills such as creativity, teamwork and an interdisciplinary approach are highly valued?

A recent report from educational thinktank EDSK calls for the introduction of a new ‘baccalaureate’ style qualification to cover academic, applied and technical education for the final years of school. This would replace the current GCSEs and A levels and allow students to mix and match courses – available at different levels - over a three-year period. It would include vocational and technical options as well as requiring students to continue studying English and Maths.

A-Levels were introduced in 1951 and ever since have been the most common passport into top UK universities, as well as being widely accepted at elite institutions the world over. They are taken by over 80% of school leavers in the UK. A set of top A-Level grades is a mark of significant academic achievement, reflecting hours of in-depth study and the ability to assimilate and respond intelligently to a vast amount of specialist knowledge. However, the emphasis on this style of learning has meant that other educational pathways have tended to take a back seat, and practical and vocational courses such as BTECs have been regarded as ‘second best’. This is clearly absurd, when we consider the skills shortages we face in key areas of our economy and this report is a welcome addition to the debate about 6th form education. Moreover, the emphasis on so few subjects from the age of 16 has been one reason why the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma has grown in popularity as an alternative qualification, particularly in private schools, with its broad, global curriculum incorporating six academic subject areas as well as practical and research skills.

It remains to be seen whether the government will adopt this, or similar proposals, but the time is right for a rethinking of 6th form education to meet the needs of all young people. The unforeseen challenges that Covid has presented us with also offer an opportunity for policymakers to look with an open mind and fresh eyes at a system that has become too divisive and no longer serves its purpose.

If you or your child are considering your best options for 6th form you might like to attend our Live Information Session on 30th April when we will explore how to make the right choices at 16+.

Mary Murayama

Managing Director, Education Advisers

+44 1622 813870