Reforming post-16 right now Sunak? You’re joking, say school leaders

Government criticised as schools struggle with recruitment and attendance woes, collapsing support services and Covid recovery

Government criticised as schools struggle with recruitment and attendance woes, collapsing support services and Covid recovery

Education leaders say Rishi Sunak’s proposals for a 10-year reform of post-16 education are “a joke” at a time when schools are besieged by recruitment and attendance woes, collapsing support services and Covid recovery. 

The prime minister unveiled plans on Wednesday to replace A-levels and T-levels with the Advanced British Standard, a baccalaureate-style qualification for sixth-formers.

While leaders mostly welcomed the push to broaden what pupils study after GCSEs, they were incredulous that ministers are prioritising qualification reform. 

The only other education announcement at the Conservative conference this week was to update guidance advising schools to ban mobile phones.

Leaders at the annual conference of the Confederation of School Trusts (CST) in Birmingham did not hold back in their criticism. 

Dave Baker, the chief executive of The Olympus Academy Trust, called it “politicking”, and said there was “absolutely no guarantee that it’ll ever make it into legislation and reality”.  

While a consultation on the plans – which propose pupils study typically five “major” and “minor” subjects – will be launched this autumn, they are reliant on the Conservatives winning next year’s election.

Baker said funding squeezes had forced his trust to strip its structures and teaching hours “back to the absolute minimum”, adding: “We have no capacity to increase without additional funding.” 

‘It’s a joke’

A survey of CST members found just 46 per cent were “very” or “quite” confident about the financial sustainability of their trust, down from 77 per cent last year.

Andy Brown, the chief executive of the Ad Astra Academy Trust, said: “It’s a joke. When we’re providing beds for children, this is what they’re thinking of. There’s no need for it.” 

Steve Rollett, CST’s deputy chief executive, said “many in the sector will wonder, in the face of significant current challenges for the workforce, in support services and the legacy of Covid, whether this policy delivers on government’s immediate responsibilities.”

In her first speech to the sector, Catherine McKinnell, the new shadow schools minister, said: “What alternative world must our prime minister be living to announce a back-of-the-envelope 16 to 19 maths policy, which he did again yesterday?

“[Mean] while roofs up and down the country are literally having to be propped up? Not to mention the shortage of qualified maths teachers.” 

‘Next chapter of our reforms’

But Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, yesterday said a child starting school today would “be joining a labour market that will be unrecognisable to us. Their jobs will be shaped by artificial intelligence and quantum. 

“Around the world students need to keep their options open, not narrowed. We must harness everything that we know that drives high-quality education for every young person up to the age of 18 and beyond. There is strength not just in depth, but also in breadth.”

An Education Policy Institute study found the proportion of pupils with A or AS-levels covering at least three of the five main subject groups had halved since 2010 – when the Conservatives came into power.

Reforms by Michael Gove, the then education secretary, focused on studying fewer subjects, but in more depth.

However Keegan claimed the new plans were the “next chapter for our reforms. And it builds on the journey that we started together.”

“The world is changing faster than we’ve ever known. We have to lift our sights. We have to be bold, and be even more ambitious about what our young people need, what will help them succeed.”

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