Yes, and: Christmas cheers and four ideas for the Advanced British Standard


21st December 2023

When it came to the Advanced British Standard, I was initially guilty of judging a policy book by its cover. My first impression of the ABS was that it sounded too much like IBS to become a compelling brand. I then wondered about the ‘B’; given our devolved education system, what would be British about it?

However, having read the DfE documents, I’ve been surprised and disheartened by people’s general snootiness about the whole idea.  So many responses from across the political spectrum seemed to suggest that the government should focus only on more immediate issues, from teacher shortages to funding crises to mental health. The message was ‘fix the present problems before worrying about anything else’. This feels like a blinkered attitude to me. Any education leader, whether in a school or a government department, needs to adopt what Valerie Hannon describes as a ‘split screen’ approach – an eye to meeting immediate priorities and an eye to a future vision that might go beyond current realities. People have frequently argued that governments need a much longer-term vision for education, but the moment the DfE made one attempt at this, it was shot down from all sides.  

I’d suggest anyone who thinks that 16-19 education is anything but perfect ignores the cynicism and gets involved with the consultation. Get beyond some of the hubris (in the original document, they claim to have ‘levelled up school standards’ and talk about ‘ensuring the continued success of our EBacc reforms’, and you’ll find a compelling paper with a good degree of humility around the faults of the current system and an open approach to solving them. Some serious civil servants have done some deep and rapid thinking, perhaps less constrained by the ideological and evidence-light bias that has infected other recent policy papers (in particular those proposing a fully academised system).

Equity is the fundamental yardstick for judging this or any new policy. After a decade where any narrowing of attainment gaps was painfully slow, if present at all and set back further by the pandemic, at CfEY we believe that all new education policies, programmes and funding should aim to have what SEN leader Simon Knight called a ‘disproportionately positive impact’ on the least advantaged or lowest attaining. If the ABS simply offers greater breadth to the roughly 60% of young people who only do A levels, it will be worse than a missed opportunity. Equity-centred 16-19 curriculum and assessment reform must care more about those unlikely to go to university than those who will. This requires improvements to technical pathways and careful design and resourcing of the welcome ‘English and Maths to 18’ aspirations and new approaches to help students who may never get beyond Level 2 qualifications sustain a positive engagement with learning.

Parity of esteem (between academic and technical education) is a worthy goal - every government always claims to want this - but it is quite an ethereal thing. Parity of resources, however, is a more precise and realisable ambition. Share on X

Rather than do a complete analysis or get into the weeds of what I might agree or disagree with in the document, here are a few scattered thoughts – four possibility thinking ‘what ifs’ that we hope to develop further in 2024.

1. What if… the ABS enabled more teaching time over a more extended period of time? Share on X The proposals for additional teaching time for post-16 are fundamental to the success of the ABS (and concerns expressed by many about meeting this extra workforce challenge are justified). However, might the ABS also offer an opportunity to stress-test the idea of a three-year post-16 phase? We proposed this at CfEY a while back – not just as an ‘add-on’ year, but a more radical blended approach to learning, working, career experience and civic opportunities. It might even start with a term of ‘discovery’, ensuring that young people make the best possible choices about qualifications and institutions before fully committing. 

2. What if… one option for an English ‘minor’ focused on cultural studies? Share on X While the so-called ‘majors’ will, to some extent, mean business as usual for A levels and T levels (with perhaps slightly less content), it feels like it’s the ‘minors’ where the action is, innovation-wise. Let’s hope that curriculum and assessment developers have the lassitude to go beyond the old A-S orthodoxies, which were essentially watered-down versions of A levels. Some attractive interdisciplinary options could emerge, building on, for instance, the GCSE in natural history and including versions of the EPQ. However, given the requirement to continue both English and Maths, it is the development of these minors that demands the most attention.

Here is an idea for English. The current curriculum crunch leaves little time for students to engage with arts and culture. The significant, Ebacc-provoked decline in secondary school teaching hours and GCSE entries is well known. Cultural Learning Alliance data shows that entries in A-Level arts subjects declined 31% between 2010 and 2020, with a similar decline in arts-related BTECs and other technical qualifications. There are many causes for this – it is partly fueled by the STEM-related future earnings-obsessed messages from government. But the upshot is that an increasing number of young people give up on arts qualifications at both 14 and 16. Regardless of career choices, this denies them knowledge of the cultural reference points and the cultural capital that serve people so well as they enter adult life. CfEY has demonstrated the need for cultural enrichment in response to the pandemic and balancing inequalities of experience across the population in our recent work on school trips

An English ‘minor’  in cultural studies – using the arts as canvases and contexts through which young people can continue their English learning-  might help address this. With strong content – built around the idea of a ‘negotiated canon’ and pedagogies that, where possible, use the resources and expertise of cultural organisations, this course might help engage students who believe traditional English courses are not designed for them and would offer greater cultural enrichment for young people regardless of their background. 

3. What if… the development of the ABS happened through cross-party deliberation and consensus-building? Share on X If there is one area of education policy where a long-term view of change is needed, it’s 16-19 reform.  Too many previous attempts have floundered through short-termism or simply giving up when things got tough, demand or supply side-wise. The story of the 14-19 diplomas (told brilliantly in this Edge Foundation Webinar) is especially instructive. When the Tomlinson review that birthed the diplomas was happening, I remember the then Minister for Schools David Miliband, trying to build a cross-party consensus for reform. He failed, which probably resulted in the failure to convince Tony Blair to go with the proposals (which would have meant scrapping A levels) in full. 

Unsurprisingly, the Labour Party has so far been dismissive of the ABS – which is probably a key reason why so many people and organisations (with an eye to currying favour with what is probably going to be the next government) have been similarly sniffy. But how about it takes a more grown-up stance? As I argued in my article about possible joint education manifestos,a joint approach on one issue would signal that, unlike the fight-picking tactics we’ve had since 2010, a new administration would take a more consensus-led approach to decision making.’ Modelling the FED’s ambitions for longer-term, consensual education planning, the Labour Party could promise to work closely with the teams developing the ABS to build on any ABS work already carried out and work closely with all opposition parties (including the Conservative Party) to build a 16-19 pathway for all students that will be successful and sustainable for the long term. This does not rule out significant changes to proposals – and, importantly, possibly changes to GCSEs and the broader curriculum that might influence 16-19. But it does ensure that the next year or so of ABS development and consultation will be taken seriously by the sector, and time isn’t wasted. 

4. What if… the Department for Education reached beyond its standard ‘consultations’ to encourage more participatory, ‘open innovation’ approaches to policy design and implementation of the ABS? Share on X The consultation is open and will close in March. Although civil servants are also leading various private stakeholder engagement events, I wonder whether the standard government consultation process is adequate for this challenging task. How about the creation and implementation of the ABS happen through much more open approaches to policy making design, such as those brilliantly explained here by ex-permanent secretary Jonathan Slater? How about we use all the emerging tools around open innovation? How about, as the FED is suggesting, we create citizens assemblies to debate and agree on the ABS – both its fundamental principles and the nuts and bolts? When we think of employers, how about ensuring that SMEs’ voices are as important as those of large employers? How about, when we attempt to ensure that youth voice genuinely informs design, we also talk to older young people to access their reflections on sixth form or college now they have gone to university or a job? (CfEY is developing an approach called ‘Hindsight methodology’ to do just this.) How about, in our policy design, we think about place-led change so that initiatives such as the Manchester Bacc don’t just have to ‘fall in’ with whatever is decided in Whitehall but have genuine space to determine and deliver the outcomes for young people they think are essential in their localities? This is radical, messy stuff. It would take more resources and more time than the usual policymaking process and would take civil servants and politicians beyond their comfort zones. 


I still think the ABS needs a better name, and still wonder what our Scottish friends make of it. But my suggested sector-wide New Year's resolution is that we all 'assume good intentions'. Let's give ABS the oxygen it needs to maximise the chances of a credible, successful future. Share on X

Happy New Year everyone.