Education for Post-16: A New Future

The president of the UK’s most prestigious science academy is to call for A-levels to be replaced with a baccalaureate-style qualification to “break the stranglehold of academic snobbery” towards learning skills.


Sir Adrian Smith will tell a Royal Society conference on the future of education that concentrating on A-levels “forces young people to abandon a broad range of skills at the age of 16”, narrowing their perspectives and limiting their ability to change careers later in life.


The Royal Society believes that a more rounded education would better equip young people for an increasingly automated workforce and help create an equal society.


Sir Adrian will say that while some young people will always choose to specialise in a particular academic discipline, “we need to think much more broadly about the skills that young people will require in an increasingly automated society, where machines replace many routine jobs”.


He will add that a baccalaureate-style qualification would allow students to study a wide range of subjects and develop skills, including critical thinking, problem-solving and creativity.


The Royal Society is not alone in calling for A-levels to be reformed or replaced. The select education committee has also called for a review of the qualifications, while the head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has said that A-levels no longer have the “currency” they once did.

However, the government has so far resisted calls for change, with education secretary Damian Hinds recently saying that A-levels remain “rigorous and challenging”.


The A-level system was introduced in the 1950s to streamline the college and university admissions process. It quickly became the gold standard for academic achievement but has been criticised recently for becoming too “exam-driven” and narrow in focus.

To focus on growth and skills in post-16 education, the government introduced the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) in 2010. The EBacc is a performance measure that recognises students who achieve good grades in a core set of academic subjects, including English, maths, sciences, languages and history or geography.


However, critics have argued that the EBacc is “skewing” the curriculum towards academic subjects at the expense of more vocational or “practical” disciplines such as art and design, music and drama.


The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has also called for a review of A-levels, saying that the system is “not fit for purpose” and is failing to meet the needs of employers.


The CBI’s deputy director-general, Josh Hardie, said that the current system was “encouraging students to take subjects that play to their strengths rather than providing them with a broad and balanced education”.


He added: “This narrow focus not only restricts young people’s options later in life but also hampers businesses who are crying out for well-rounded employees with good communication skills, teamwork abilities and creative flair.”


In addition to reforming the A-level system, the Royal Society calls for a greater focus on “21st-century” skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving and creativity.


Sir Adrian Smith will say that these skills are “essential for success in an automated world” and that young people need to be “taught how to learn” to adapt to change throughout their lives.


He will add that the government should work with businesses and universities to develop a new framework for education that recognises the importance of these skills.


The conference, which is being held in London on 9 May, will bring together leading figures from education, business and politics to discuss the future of post-16 education.


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