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Advanced British Standard consultation: What you need to know

Ministers seek views on their plans for new 16 to 19 qualification dubbed 'headless chicken policymaking'

Ministers seek views on their plans for new 16 to 19 qualification dubbed 'headless chicken policymaking'

14 Dec 2023, 11:31

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The government has this morning published its consultation on the Advanced British Standard, which runs until mid-March.

It doesn’t seem to have loads more detail on how it would all work than what was published when the plans were first announced (you can read our previous round-up here).

The big reform, which would involve ditching A-levels and T-levels for new “major” and “minor” subjects, including compulsory English and maths, would take TEN YEARS to introduce. (And is also reliant on a political miracle for the Conservatives to win the next election).

Unions said it was “difficult to imagine a more pointless waste of energy and time”. Geoff Barton, leader of ASCL, added it was “headless chicken policymaking”.

Nonetheless, the government has published a 80-page consultation and is encouraging the sector to take part (plus it has set aside £600 million to lay the groundwork!).

So what do you need to know?

1. Remind us: what is the ABS again?

It’s worth reading our full explainer here as to the broad aims around the new qualification, which the government says will replace A-level and T-levels.

The ABS would “create a simpler menu of high-quality options and expectations, for the first time breaking down the divide between ‘academic’ and ‘technical’ study”.

The main aims are clearer post-16 options, more teaching time and a core of maths and English, but ensuring pupils study a wider range of subjects.  

2. Shift in tone on the end of A-levels

Previous proposals on the ABS were clear that it would mean the end of A-levels.

However, the new plans seem to have a shift in tone – saying the ABS will “supersede” A and T-levels, which will now “form the backbone” of the new qualification.

All 16 to 19-year-old pupils would take the ABS, studying a mixture of “major”, “minor” and employability, enrichment and pastoral (EEP) activities.

Students would have 1,475 guided learning hours, more than the current 1,280, over the two-year programme.

3. There will be two ABS qualifications…

There will be the ABS and the ABS (occupational). Confused yet?

The first will be for the majority of students working at level 3. It will entail a minimum of three “majors” (academic and technical subjects that directly support progression into employment or further study).

There will also be a minimum of two “minors”, with maths and English at either of these levels and some EEP activities (but not much more details on the latter).

The ABS (occupational) is for level 3 students who “are clear they want to specialist in one subject area”, but they may have to do 1,725 hours because of industry placements.

They would study one “major” and one “double major” – both of which are subjects likely to be covered by the current T-levels or alternative academic qualifications (AAQs) – and do two “minors” in maths and English.

4. …and a level 2 version (which doesn’t have a name yet)

A level 2 version of the ABS, which doesn’t have its own name yet, will have the same number of teaching hours as the level 3, but officials aren’t sure how to fill the time.

The consultation promises students an “appropriate breadth” of subjects, but they won’t be structured as ‘major’ and ‘minors’ like the level 3 equivalent.

Officials say it will be up to schools and colleges to decide how best to fill the 1,475 learning hours, such as by spending extra time on English and maths.

Students aiming for work or an apprenticeship can take the ‘level 2 occupational programme’ which would last 1-2 years. Or there will be a ‘one-year transition programme,’ similar to the T Level transition year, to progress to the full ABS.

Level 1 and entry level programmes will not be included.

5. But what would the subjects look like?

There’s not much more apart from broad principles here, but the government says there will be no more “different qualifications offering similar version of the same subject with overlapping content”, for example a subject being offered both as an A-level and AAQ.

Level 3 subjects should “provide stretch and challenge”, be “suitably knowledge-rich”, provide “levels of specialisation” appropriate for 16 to 19-year-olds and have “clearly distinct titles and content”.

Majors will cover at least 90 per cent of the content covered by A-levels with between 300 to 350 guided learning hours (A-levels have 360 hours). Minors will have between 150 to 175 learning hours. Students will also do “at least 150 hours” of EEPs.

Meanwhile, students would also get more time with a teacher “to improve outcomes”. Currently “we expect students to undertake a large amount of independent study, and also offer less time with a teacher”, the consultation adds.

6. ‘Difficult’ for providers to offer ‘full ABS suite’

A bigger breadth of 16 to 19 subjects means “it may be difficult for all providers to offer the full range of ABS subjects”, the consultation adds.

But it adds “as a minimum, our aim is for all young people to be able to access any of the ABS subjects at a provider within a reasonable travel distance of where they live.

“They should also be able to access a provider that offers the combination of subjects that will best support their chosen future pathway.”

However this will “pose greater challenges in rural areas and other areas with fewer accessible providers” – a problem that has beset the roll-out of T-levels, too.

The consultation only says they will “continue to engage the sector” on the “best ways to overcome these barriers”.

7. Students to get ABS ‘certificate of achievement’

There would still be specific grades for each major and minor.

But the current favoured option is to have a “certificate or statement of achievement recognising a student has completed their ABS programme and met the minimum attainment conditions to receive an overall award”.

This would “demonstrate to employers and post-18 providers student performance across the full programme.

“A certificate would note the marks or grade received in individual components, but there would not be an overall aggregate score or grade that sits above these marks.”

Alternative options include a certificate without any minimum conditions required to receive it, or an aggregate ABS score.

8. How to find more teachers? A question for another day…

Education secretary Gillian Keegan in her foreword admits “we will need to support the system to prepare for this change, taking time to build the workforce and provision essential to delivery”. Quite.

Reminder: DfE has just missed its secondary school recruitment target for the tenth time in 11 years.

More teaching hours and compulsory maths and English will have “significant workforce implications for providers of 16-19 education, who already face teacher shortages, particularly in STEM subjects”, the consultation states.

So what’s the plan? Alas, not a question for today it seems. Consultation responses “will help us refine the design of the ABS, and in parallel, we will consider how best to step up recruitment and retention of our workforce”.

“We will further develop our plans for the workforce through the ABS White Paper”, which is promised “next year”.

But as Steve Rollett, deputy chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts, pointed out: “To borrow a phrase from Top Gun, the government’s ABS plan is writing cheques its recruitment and retention strategy can’t cash.

“What the system urgently needs is a plan to tackle the resource pressures it faces right now.”

P.S. ‘Streamlined’ GCSEs ‘to be considered next year’

The previous ABS launch stated that GCSEs could be “streamlined”. Today’s consultation states officials will “begin to consider…next year” the “ways to reduce the burden of assessments” at GCSE, while “retaining the breadth and rigour of pre-16 education”.

“We are keen to hear your suggestions for the further adjustments that may be needed to pre-16 education to maximise the benefits of these reforms for all young people, especially those children facing the biggest challenges,” the consultation adds,

“This includes children with SEND or in alternative provision, children from disadvantaged backgrounds, children with caring responsibilities and children in care or care leaver.”

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