Labour’s National Baccalaureate: Strong on Principles and Pragmatism

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Labour Skills Task Force paper reported on the BBC this week. (Click to Download)

Over the last year, I’ve been working with IoE Director, Chris Husbands, as a member of the Labour Skills Task Force; it has been a fascinating process. This week the third and final report from the group was published, outlining some recommendations for 14-19 curriculum and qualifications reform.  I recommend reading the report in detail because the rationale for each policy proposal is given, based on an analysis of a wide range of challenges that our country is facing.

The fifteen recommendations are summarised at the end of the report:

The fifteen recommendations.
The fifteen recommendations.

The process of arriving at these recommendations was extremely interesting. There are numerous forces at work and lots of different voices: employer groups, the FE sector, schools, academics and politicians and party officials with experience of working in government.  The ideas that made it into the final document as recommendations have been on quite a journey, passing various tests of analysis within the task force:

  • Do they offer a solution to the problems identified in our analysis of the current system?
  • Are they realistic and deliverable and at what pace?
  • Are there significant costs and, if so, would they be regarded as enough of a priority for public spending in the current economic circumstances?
  • Can we give enough detail to explain the ideas without constraining the consultations and detailed cost modelling that would be needed prior to implementation?
  • Collectively, do they add up to a coherent package of measures compatible with wider policy objectives in education and beyond?
  • Are they likely to contribute to a manifesto that could support a successful election campaign?  Some ideas can appear to offer a great deal but risk appearing too radical, too soft, too draconian or too expensive – even if they’re not; they can cause political problems even if they are technically sound.

Some of the starting assumptions for this paper included the following:

  • An acceptance that there is no money to splash around; ultra-prudence is needed and we need to work with what we’ve already got in many respects.
  • A recognition that the people across the system are weary and wary of further change so some consolidation is needed. We need to grow policy around existing good practice; not throw everything out and start again.
  • A view that the proposals need to bring coherence to a fragmented institutional and qualifications landscape without creating major layers of centralised  bureaucracy or seeking to take up energy reversing policies that have already taken root.
  • An acceptance that previous models have not succeeded in gaining traction: The Tomlinson Report, though brilliant in many ways,  relied on changing A levels into something else; it’s not the time to consider that again. Diplomas had many merits but were introduced burdened by unrealistic demands for entitlements across local areas, immersing schools and colleges in discussions about transport and timetabling rather than learning and standards; the implementation wasn’t organic enough.

The final Task Force report is the product of deliberations on all of these factors coupled with a belief that there is an urgent need to do more and that there is plenty that can be done within all of the constraints. Without repeating the case made in the document, it’s worth sharing a bit more of the thinking on the headline areas:

A National Baccalaurate:

  • an exit qualification for all learners, with Technical and General pathways and Level 3 and Level 2 alternatives
  • four main learning domains for all:  Core learning ( eg A levels and BTECs), An Extended Project, A Personal Development Programme, Maths and English to 18

Personally, I’m delighted that this has come as to the fore as a headline policy issue.  As described in this post, the Headteachers’ Roundtable has been one of several groups promoting and developing the Baccalaureate idea into something real.  A turning point on the Task Force was recognising that a National Bacc could be built around emerging models and existing qualifications, allowing the Tech Bacc that Ed Miliband had already promoted to be built into a wider framework.

We looked at all of these models:

The proposal is to take the best of all of these ideas to create a set of National Bacc criteria that bring coherence, clarity and common standards to the emerging Bacc developments. Clear criteria will need to be met in order to gain the umbrella National Bacc, using existing qualifications as the central elements. Lots of people have said that Labour’s Bacc looks like the IBCC, like Tomlinson, like the HTRT Bacc or the Welsh Bacc etc.. Well, that’s what we wanted; it should look familiar and doable; a real baccalaureate like the IB.   It should embrace learning in a way that ensures students of all kinds receive a holistic education with embedded rigour and high standards.

As a first stage development, schools, colleges and training providers will need to ensure that they can deliver a Bacc offer, using one of any number of approved Bacc products or frameworks available in the system.  These will converge in terms of structure, to satisfy the national criteria, but could diverge in terms of emphasis according to the providers’ specialisms.  The IB would exceed the criteria comfortably.  A specialist Technical college may offer a National Bacc focusing on a specific path to industry.  A typical mixed Sixth Form will want a flexible National Bacc offer that allows A level and BTEC students to co-exist with many shared expectations and experiences.

National Bacc providers will need to deliver on all four key areas, each of which will have their own criteria in terms of volume, breadth and standards:

  • The Core Learning.  At Level 3 this is to be pitched at the equivalent of three A levels or single volume BTECs. The Bacc structure allows students to mix technical and academic subjects and allows schools to celebrate their School or College Bacc as being universally available to all.  We discussed whether Foundation and Entry level models should be floated but felt that we’d need to get the L3 and L2 versions off the ground first, building confidence in the concept before adding more layers.
  • Personal Development Programme.  This is the element that gives breadth of experience and opportunities for skill development to all.  There will be a range of ways to define the parameters of this programme. Lots more work is needed to create a set of consistent criteria but existing programmes like DofE and Sports Leaders Awards, for example, will all play a part in helping students build up their portfolio of experiences that develop their personal skills.  The HTRT PDP is one possible model;  the work that AQA has done in this area is excellent as is the ModBac Honours programme.  The CAS element of the IB/IBCC is another. It’s an exciting part of the whole Bacc concept.
  • An Extended Project . This will be a unifying feature of the learning experience across academic and technical pathways, allowing all learners to engage in a personal depth-study relevant to their context. The EPQ and Pre-U GPR courses are excellent models for this aspect; more will develop.
  • Math and English.  This is the most ambitious aspect of the proposal.  We felt that to exclude this would represent poverty of ambition and there is growing cross-party consensus that this is a next step for our system even if there are some challenges to overcome.  As it says in the paper, England is one of the only countries where Maths and the national language are not studied throughout secondary education. The proposal is to work towards universal access to L3 Maths and English components of the National Bacc.  To begin with, this will include working with exam boards to identify where existing qualifications cover sufficient Maths and English content to enable students to pass thin-volume L3 assessments as part of their course. Where students do not take courses that cover the Maths and English, new stand-alone courses would need to be developed. There are various groups developing these courses now.  Within five years, it will be common practice for a typical A level student to be taking L3 assessments in English and/or Maths alongside their core subjects. The Bacc will provide the incentive to accelerate developments in this area.

Tracking; Information, Advice and Guidance; Collaboration

  • a responsibility for schools to track students from school to training, education or employment at 16 to reduce NEETs, backed up by financial incentives
  • improved IAG with stronger input from employers so that students have access to current information on the opportunities in their area including apprenticeships
  • collaboration to provide a TechBacc structure for all learners
  • collaboration to provide specialist provision on larger-volume programmes for high achievers.

The need to reinvigorate IAG across the system is obvious; virtually everyone agrees that there is a massive hole in the current system and we need to take action.  Similarly, there is a clear need to compel providers to collaborate in order to create efficient and diverse provision including large-volume programmes (like the IB or 5 A level programmes).

The idea to track leavers post-16 came out of a discussion where we explored the origin of students becoming NEET.  We felt it was simply unacceptable that students leave school and then do not turn up somewhere else without anyone knowing or having responsibility for them. Our whole philosophy needs to change so that our students remain our students until they are someone else’s. That’s the thinking.  Using funding as mechanism to affect changes in institutional behaviour is not popular but there are not many other better ways to do it.  Fortunately the government already has some pretty sophisticated tracking tools; we simply need to make sure schools access them and do more to broker hand-overs to FE colleges and other training providers as part and parcel of their regular work.  Clearly more work needs to be done to deal with every scenario – such as when a student is offered a college place but fails to attend.  Who takes responsibility then? However, the next Labour government would look at modelling the detail of this policy so that we get a better rate of progression and retention on appropriate courses for young people.

To conclude, it’s much harder than it may seem to develop solutions that can be scaled up to a national level. The Task Force paper does a pretty good job; it remains to be seen how far these ideas develop before the election. And if Labour win… who knows, the National Baccalaureate may actually happen.  It gets my vote.

(If you would like to join the Heads’ Roundtable/Whole Education Bacc trial, please let me know.)


  1. Hi Tom. I feel I owe you a comment since I haven’t provided one for a while. More importantly, as you know, I’ve been tracking your work in the bacc area. I agree that we need to move on from Tomlinson, while learning lessons from what happened (and didn’t) a decade ago. If a genuine English Baccalaureate umbrella matriculation can be achieved then this could well be a reasonable compromise. Let’s see what the pilots do. I was actually most interested in the CEIAG related content of the report and the proposal to involve LEPs more, as well as the prospect of fining secondary schools that drag their heels in this area and so don’t ensure suitable post16 destinations for all their students. This is a critical area, which combines with the curriculum/qualifications side, but even Andreas Schleicher, the PISA guru, told the Education Committee yesterday that he favoured destinations outcomes above attainment ones as proof of what an education system has actually achieved for its young people. The only aspect I’m not fully clear about currently us how this all fits with current Coalition Education and Skills Policy – DBIS published a report yesterday summarising actions it is taking on vocational qualifications and the connect with new National Occupational Standards and Apprenticeships. It also mentioned the trialling of new destinations measures in July of this year which will provide a better picture of what Schleicher is seeking from education systems globally. Any thoughts?


  2. Thanks Nick. The IAG/Apprenticeships/Destinations tracking area is very important, especially to the 50% of students who are not well served by the current system. It’s fair to say that the Task Force didn’t really have the opportunity to get to grips with the most current changes in policy on this area. However, we did note that destinations measures are being trialled. That means there is cross-party consensus on the need to tackle this issue. I’ll need to study that DBIS report….the picture is changing continually. Thanks for the tip-off.


  3. Thank you for this, Tom. I think the enquiry has done a good job and the National Bacc proposal has the potential to improve 14-18 education for all young people. I have written more about this here:
    I think the domain which will need the most development work is the Personal Development programme which I think will need to be an entitlement based on clear values and principles, have considerable flexibility around content and method and avoid the wooliness which we sometimes get around such ideas as “thinking skills”, “grit”, “character” etc. I think this domain above all else should try to address the Nuffield enquiry question “what do we mean by an educated 19 year old?” Work related learning is essential but I think we need to frame this domain wider to encompass culture and citizenship too, in ways which are appropriate for this age group and their diverse needs and interests.
    I’m looking forward to seeing how Labour responds to these proposals.


    • Thanks for comment. I agree. We’ve been working on the PDP with Heads’ Roundtable; it’s got some rigour to it. We’ll share the documents when we have them. The AQA PDP aspect is quite well defined too. It’s an exciting area because it can fill in lots of gaps between qualifications and provide important vital learning experiences in different contexts. Let’s see how we go!


    • I agree about the need to frame the domain wider. All in all, the Husband’s report add up to a well thought through package that is a great improvement on Miliband’s original tech bacc idea. It will require high levels of collaboration between schools and colleges plus a strong commitment from employers to workplace learning. In addition, there will need to be local monitoring to ensure that NEETs and others don’t disappear from view, and local planning to ensure that the overall educational offer meets local needs.


    • I agree – the report will carry a lot of weight and is a big improvement on the Miliband tec bacc. To work it will require effective collaboration between schools and colleges, stronger buy in from employers on workplace learning, and a local capacity to ensure that the educational offer meets local needs and to ensure that NEETs and others aren’t neglected.


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