A National Baccalaureate for all. There is another way!

During lockdown, when exams were cancelled and remote learning was forced upon us en masse, people started blogging and tweeting about the possibility of doing things differently on a permanent basis. More recently, as part of the exam grades fiasco, people have been discussing the flaws in our exam-dominated system and the accountability machinery that goes with it.

We have seen rallying calls ranging from rebalancing exams to include more coursework and teacher assessment up to GCSEs being scrapped altogether. In contrast, plenty of others have seen the challenges of remote learning and CAGs as evidence that a return to full in-person teaching and examinations is essential as soon as possible. As, ever, a lot of people seem to feel that the crisis has provided evidence to support their pre-existing. biases and values. (I’m no different!)

All of this has added some currency to the ongoing debate about the nature of our national curriculum and qualifications, now and in the future. My view of this is that anything like ‘scrap GCSEs’ is deeply unhelpful unless you are proposing an alternative. Similarly saying things like ‘we should trust teachers to assess students’ or introduce criterion referenced assessment – as part of some crude anti-exam rhetoric, to me, often reveals rather poor understanding of how our ideas of standards are set and maintained. In truth, both teacher assessment and exams are very useful assessment tools in different circumstances; both lead to gross distortions under excessive accountability pressure. It’s nothing to do with trust per se.

However, I do think that the current situation gives us an opportunity to pause to consider what an alternative system might look like. Is there a system we could adopt that would provide a better framework of curriculum, assessment, qualifications and accountability than what we have now?

Along with others involved in the National Baccalaureate Trust – which has been lying low for a couple of years but is starting to gear up again – I firmly believe that a full-on Bacc model would yield numerous benefits:

  • A more holistic, wrap-around set of assessments capturing examined and non-examined elements, representing students’ achievements in a more rounded manner – which is better for them and more useful for employers and universities.
  • A framework for all young people that softens the intensity of assessment at 16, placing greater emphasis on the end point at 18 or 19, allowing credit to be accumulated in a more diverse, flexible manner, not in a giant intense high pressure final round of exams – twice in every student’s life.
  • An inclusive framework that blends academic and technical pathways with more common elements and choices, reducing the sheep and goats effect whilst maintaining specialist routes.

Essentially it could be like an English IB – a bacc designed around curriculum and assessment traditions that are well established, but taking a broader, more flexible approach. But what might this look like in practice? We are still discussing this – with plans to share ideas over the coming year; our main focus is so promote the Bacc principle. However, I like details! My personal interpretation would be that a National Bacc for England could look something like the worked example set out below.

Essentially, this example model is based on there being a nominal 10 slots per year from Year 10 -Y13. These represent units of curriculum volume – which loosely equate to time allocations.

Our current system – with say 10-GCSE plus 3 A levels, looks a bit like this:- the grey boxes are empty because nothing happens in them!

The problem with this is that we have enormous assessment weight at Y11 and again at Y13 – largely based on terminal exams. It’s very very exam heavy. We have very little space for non-examined elements- and the three A level model is remarkably narrow in curriculum terms. Even at KS4, there’s a sense that every curriculum element only has value if we examine it at the end. Each element has value separately – students get large numbers of individual grades – but there is no sense of the overall curriculum being more than the sum of its parts. It lacks overall coherence. It’s a patchwork of bits; not a whole. It’s also possible not to study any history or any arts after Y8 in our system – which is nuts.

Is there a better way? Well, yes. Here’s what a Bacc model might look like:

Here – a model I sketched out as an example this morning – the key concept is that there are 40 curriculum units ( 4 x 10), each of which contributes to the final Baccalaureate. By completing all 40, a students would achieve the National Bacc award. However, completing a unit can take many forms:

Some are traditional subjects with traditional exams; some are courses that are teacher assessed; some elements are simply counted as completed. Some elements are academic subjects – others could be personal development electives or projects. The mix and balance of curriculum content and modes of assessment is all up for discussion. However, we simply do not need to think of doing 10 examined GCSEs in Year 11 as a sacrosanct feature of a great education. It just isn’t.

Across the four years, courses can vary in length – one or two years – and in volume. The example above has three advanced courses that look like A levels (each making up 4 units); the examples below have different traditional equivalents; the idea would be for students to select courses from a school or college menu – filling up their 10 slots per year, making up 40 overall. Across four years, it could be that a student takes just one unit in a music course – rather than not doing any arts at all. It could be that they do the maximum allowable number of science units or social science units. There are lots and lots of permutations.

Part of this model is that English and Maths are compulsory elements of the curriculum throughout. That’s my personal preference – something to debate. In Maths, I envisage something akin to piano exams where students take ‘when ready’ assessments online at various points in a year, moving to the highest level they can achieve. In English, there’s a different approach – depending on the level students reach; it’s not about everyone taking identical exams on the same day in order to gain their credit.

11-16 schools would provide opportunities for students to complete the first part of their Bacc before they passported all their banked achievements to their colleges. Schools could still be held to account – just in a different way.

In all of these models, it might be possible to give more weight to certain elements within the overall Bacc at the same time as placing an emphasis on completing the whole 40 unit programme. You don’t need to pass an exam in ethics or PSHE – but you do need to complete the course. You might need to complete your personal project and include a certain number of arts units – but you might not need scores and grades for these elements. Not everything needs to be examined to have value. We could debate whether to give unit point scores and argue over how they would be allocated and combined into a total Bacc score – but the key is to emphasise the value of the whole Bacc over the value of each of the little bits on their own. All the details could be captured in a common transcript – much richer information than a set of grades.

The point of this blog and this particular 40-unit example is to show that it is possible to conceive of specific alternatives to what we do now. I would encourage everyone interested in this debate to think in this way. For sure, start with a critique of what we do now – but don’t stop there. Think of something that would be better. I think a four-year Bacc model is much better on many fronts compared to what we do now. It’s challenging, broad, ambitious, varied and flexible, inclusive… and not entirely reliant on an unwieldy public exam system. What’s not to like??? I’m sure there’s plenty – but if you have suggestions, make the case for your alternative.

The ideas here are just one of many possibilities that I’ve used for illustrative purposes. Over the coming months the National Baccalaureate Trust will be discussing a range of ideas and mechanisms for getting this debate moving again at the level of policy and practice, publishing some documents and hosting webinars. Watch out for further info… .


  1. Love this idea, similar to New Zealand and modules carry so many points fir example Computing AI might count 20 ots towards the Maths element etc.. I am looking at a new curriculum model for my school. Can we talk about this more.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A long time since I taught the IB but I liked the breadth of the curriculum the students took. It occurs to me that you could have called this post ‘back to the future’. At the turn of the century, many such models were discussed, but in England the assessment system (although not necessarily the curriculum) seems to have moved to look back to the past, rather than ahead to the future. I hope this generates a debate that moves us forward.


  3. There’s no vocational pathway, where would our future plumbers, chefs, beauticians etc divert from this, would it be at 14? Which seems early. OR do they have to continue an academic route which keeps them out of employment until maybe 21?


  4. Why reinvent the wheel? IB itself is doing much of this and with the Career-related programme it also offers courses for a wide-range of pupils from the most academic to more vocational needs.


      • At least it exists and is not in the thrall of any government and has developed the Career Related Programme, which is happening to great effect in Kent schools. Nothing is perfect but it’s better than everything else that has been tried. I’d really like to make direct contact to continue the dialogue.


  5. I have read this and several other of your posts Tom. I like the look of anything that offers a more holistic structure. I have taught the British curriculum and IB. As other comments note, your examples do reflect the IB model ‘broadly’. Hard to see how the pieces interrelate or what the strategy behind that will be until more granular detail comes, though that must be a mammoth task Tom! (assume your TOK will be a convenient vehicle to knit that together, though I would like to see something on alternative epistemologies and their practical incarnations, not just a history of knowledge with definitions etc…if you are doing requests lol) – or perhaps this is already out there? (please link me in I’d be grateful).

    The IB is an obvious parallel, but as you know, it can be notoriously proprietorial over curriculum versions and adaptations, sort of the ‘apple’ of educational content, so, it is time for something else certainly and you’re right to say that no half measures will do. I wonder if your model of governance will also capture the same entrepreneurialism? a direct democratic approach perhaps? which doesn’t end up with too many cooks spoiling the proverbial broth! that would be refreshing. For me, the Finnish ‘phenomenal model’ offers interesting perspective on interdisciplinarity, and we are only talking about this at Tertiary level in this country right now. But of course, they have parity of esteem in Finland between vocational and academic pathways and they aren’t bogged down by this ‘terminal assessment mentality’ that we have here. So, it won’t be comparable even if it is ‘devoutly to be wished’. We can still learn much from them though, as we continue to be linear and unambitious in our approach. As either you or a schoolsweek colleague pointed out recently, what are qualifications for? It’s not a question we are asking, because asking that question means asking what education is for in the same breath, and the drivers behind that, run deep and are massively contested. But, any attempt to bring in a new way of doing the curriculum must bring us a step closer to that kind of conversation and I applaud it for its political currency as much as anything else. I agree that CAG’s are not the way to go. Evidence on teacher over-assessment through the years is incontrovertible. I’m a teacher and tutor and I’ve seen it first-hand in high attaining schools as well as schools with widespread low attainment. Gove pulling the plug on coursework was the best thing he did while in harness as education sec. So, I wish you well with it. Of course there are a contingent who would replace GCSE with nothing … not sure I have a view on that. I need to do more research certainly. Peter Wilby’s article in the Guardian (2014) ‘GCSEs are obsolete and have been for years. Let’s scrap them’ offers some illumination on this. I don’t agree with everything he says, but he is right about grade inflation which I have researched quite thoroughly. ‘2014’ though, just shows how this argument has been rumbling on and on and on, doesn’t it? It would be great to focus on a new, holistic curriculum which privileges critical knowledge, where we can eliminate future inflation (what we have just witnessed has been hillarious – if you go in for gallows humour), through the implementation of something less cyncial than the reform culture governments of all persuasions have used to cover up past corruptions and mistakes. Unlike you, I’m more of a Naomi Klein shock doctrinist and of the opinion that the more ‘cock-up’ there is, the more opportunity there is for ‘conspiracy’ :))))….


  6. Tom,

    Thanks for this contribution. I saw your presentation at the FED event today and I see the logic in thinking about curriculum in this way. The ‘blocks’ is a useful visual tool to get people on the same page in the discussion.

    I argued at the APPG on Digital Skills(back in January that even 5% practical education at secondary mixed in with academics would make a huge difference to preparedness of young people for the future workplace. I would speculate that it may make such as difference as to be visible as an increase in national productivity and GDP figures. My ‘5%’ figure received mixed reactions – from Robert Halfon, who liked it, to someone else (who I also greatly respect) saying that it places me in ‘dangerous fantasist’ territory. He recommended that I tone it down. There’s more info on my blog at: https://www.jaffafoundation.org/post/copy-of-don-t-panic-the-bright-future-of-workplace-skills, if you’re interested.

    Best wishes, and again, thanks

    Liked by 1 person

  7. As a maths teacher of 17 years, I can remember the OCR graded papers, where students sat a paper according to the current attainment.

    Maybe this is an idea for maths. Students could sit 1 standardised paper per year, (1 hour or max 90 minutes), at an appropriate level and continue that to 18. The top paper being equivalent to A level Grade A & A*.


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