Politicians and education experts from across the spectrum have welcomed the final report of The Times Education Commission and said it made a case for change.
Dame Rachel de Souza, the children’s commissioner for England, said the report was “brimming with good ideas” and that she supported its calls for more digital inclusion.
She told Times Radio’s breakfast programme: “There’s some good stuff there and it’s a great time now to be thinking about it and being ambitious about education in this country.”
Lee Elliot Major, a professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, said there were “bold and compelling reforms” in the commission’s findings.
He welcomed the adoption of his recommendations for undergraduate tutors to help poorer pupils, adding: “We need to consider radical reset to ensure that the education system fulfils the potential of all children.”
The Children’s Society said: “After over ten years campaigning for a national measure on children’s wellbeing, it’s fantastic to see The Times Education Commission share the call.”
The Times Education Commission took evidence from more than 600 experts across fields including business, the arts and education.
The main recommendation of the year-long commission includes the introduction of a British Baccalaureate, an equally rigorous but broader qualification than A-levels including both academic and vocational routes or a combination of the two.
Pupils would take six subjects and the qualification would be based on the International Baccalaureate, an A-level alternative offered mainly in private schools, but customised for the UK. It could be adopted to replace the Highers qualification in Scotland as well as A-levels in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, said the report exposed failures across the education system “from prohibitively high childcare costs forcing parents to leave work, to fewer adults taking part in lifelong learning and young people leaving school without the skills they need”.
She added: “The commission is right to push, as Labour has already promised, for education to once again be put at the heart of our ambition for Britain. It’s right to focus on ensuring every child has a broad enriching education which equips them with the skills they need for life.”
The commission’s report report has been welcomed by Sir Tony Blair and Sir John Major, along with ten former education secretaries.
It recommends replacing GCSEs with slimmed-down exams at 16, digital skills being an integral part of the curriculum, 50 new university campuses, laptops for every child, an army of undergraduate tutors and a substantial investment in early years.
Chris Millward, the former director of fair access at the Office for Students who is now an education professor at Birmingham University, said it was “good to see measures to join up academic and vocational routes” in the report, through a British Baccalaureate and “universities working with further education colleges to take higher education out to new places.”
The commission has a focus on extra-curricular activities, like this year 10 yoga class
ADRIAN SHERRATT FOR THE TIMES
A 12-point plan for education
1 A British Baccalaureate
It would offer broader academic and vocational qualifications at 18, with parity in funding per pupil in both routes, and a slimmed-down set of exams at 16 to bring out the best in every child.
2 ‘Electives premium’
This should be offered for all schools to be spent on activities including drama, music, dance and sport and a National Citizen Service experience for every pupil, with volunteering and outdoor pursuits expeditions to ensure that the co-curricular activities enjoyed by the most advantaged become available to all.
3 New cadre of Career Academies
These would be elite technical and vocational sixth forms with close links to industry, mirroring the academic sixth forms that are being established and a new focus on creativity and entrepreneurialism in education to unleash the economic potential of Britain.
4 Significant boost to early years funding
The extra funding should be targeted at the most vulnerable. A unique pupil number would be given to every child from birth, to level the playing field before they get to school. Every primary school should have a library.
5 Army of undergraduate tutors
The students would earn credit towards their degrees by helping pupils who fall behind to catch up.
6 Making the most of tech
A laptop or tablet for every child, greater use of artificial intelligence in schools, colleges and universities to personalise learning, reduce teacher workload and prepare young people better for future employment.
7 Wellbeing at the heart of education
A counsellor should be placed in every school and an annual wellbeing survey of pupils carried out to encourage schools to actively build resilience rather than just support students once problems have arisen.
8 Bring out the best in teaching
The profession’s status and appeal would be increased with better career development, revalidation every five years and a new category of consultant teachers, promoted within the classroom, as well as a new teaching apprenticeship.
9 A reformed Ofsted
Ofsted should work collaboratively with schools to secure sustained improvement, rather than operating through fear, and a new “school report card” with a wider range of metrics including wellbeing, school culture, inclusion and attendance to unleash the potential of schools.
10 Better training
Teachers should be trained to identify children who have special educational needs, a greater focus should be placed on inclusion and a duty put on schools to remain accountable for the pupils they exclude to draw out the talent in every child.
11 New university campuses
New campuses should be created in 50 higher education “cold spots”, including satellite wings in further education colleges. In addition, pay and conditions in the FE sector should be improved and a transferrable credit system between universities and colleges created to boost stalled British productivity.
12 A 15-year strategy for education
The strategy should be drawn up in consultation with business leaders, scientists, local mayors, civic leaders and cultural figures, putting education above short-term party politics and bringing out the best in our schools, colleges and universities.
Those who choose the career-focused programme would combine their courses, which could include existing vocational qualifications such as Btecs or T-levels, with work experience. There would be the option for students to “mix and match” elements of both academic and vocational programmes to create the qualification that best suits them.
All pupils would complete an extended project, similar to a dissertation, community service and some literacy and numeracy through to 18.
The education leaving age is 18, although many children change schools at 16 or take up apprenticeships or work-based training. The commission suggests there is no longer a need for pupils to take ten or more GCSEs, as is presently the case in many schools.
Instead they would sit a slimmed-down set of exams in five core subjects instead of GCSEs, with continuous assessment as well as online tests contributing to their grade. This form of assessment would allow children to progress to the next level and provide accountability for schools, but lower the stakes and reduce the amount of time spent taking exams.
Other recommendations include a significant boost to early-years funding, encouraging university students to tutor pupils who fall behind, and providing a laptop or tablet for every child.
The work of the commission has been backed by Blair and Major, plus the former education secretaries Ed Balls, Justine Greening, Baroness Morgan, Lord Blunkett, Charles Clarke, Lord Baker, Ruth Kelly, Baroness Shephard, Baroness Morris and Alan Johnson.
While not all support every suggestion, a letter they have signed calls on the government “to look seriously at its recommendations”, adding: “The pandemic has created a reset moment and it is imperative that education is put back at top of the political agenda to boost productivity and make a reality of the levelling-up agenda.
“The commission has highlighted the importance of taking a serious, long-term approach to education, from the early years, through school, to further and higher education and lifelong learning, to better prepare young people for the challenges they face. The changing world of work, stalled social mobility, the growing mental health crisis and new technology means that reform is more important than ever to capitalise on all the country’s talent.”
The letter has also been signed by a series of business leaders, cultural figures and Sir Paul Nurse, the Nobel prizewinning scientist.
Blair, who promised to make “education, education, education” his priority as prime minister, told the commission: “We’ve got to refocus on education as the key priority for building a better, more successful, more unified country in the next decade.
“Education’s an area where I’d be teaching different things in schools in different ways. The whole concept of the exam system is due a complete overhaul.”
Major said: “Over past decades, too much time and energy has been spent in arguing about the system of education — grammar or comprehensive, private or state, academy or technical — rather than its quality.
“Public education remains underfunded; class sizes in the state sector remain far too large and the teaching profession is no longer given the respect and social cache it deserves.”
He said he would “urge the Treasury to define education expenditure as capital investment rather than day-to-day spending”.
Rachel Wolf, a former Downing Street education adviser who co-wrote the Tories’ election manifesto in 2019, said: “The narrowness of our 16-19 curriculum is a monumental weakness of our education system. It is not how other comparator countries educate their children. It makes it harder for people to engage with the complexities of our world and reduces their options in later life. If the commission’s recommendations lead to a system that allies academic rigour with breadth, then that would be a huge step forward.”
Sir Peter Lampl, the multimillionaire philanthropist who founded the Sutton Trust, which aims to tackle educational inequality, told The Times last month that A-levels should be abolished because pupils specialise too early, saying: “I think the whole thing should be reformed. Are you better off having done seven different subjects in sixth form or three? It’s a no-brainer.”
Robert Halfon, chairman of the Commons’ education select committee, said: “The Department for Education has said it ‘can’t hug the world’, but that can’t be an excuse for closing down radical thinking, especially post Covid. We need to have a serious debate about the future of the curriculum and make sure skills are given equivalence — a baccalaureate could make a huge difference in ending the artificial divide between academic and vocational.
“The Times Education Commission comes up with significant recommendations that I hope will start a debate around the country.”
A spokesman for the Department for Education said: “We thank the Times Education Commission for its report and always welcome new ideas and views from the sector and education experts.
“Our ambitious education recovery programme is already getting children back on track following the pandemic. Exams are the best and fairest way of assessing what students know and can do, and ensure young people leave school or college prepared for the workplace and higher study. The GCSE and A-level exams were reformed from 2011 following extensive consultation with schools, universities and employers to be in line with the highest-performing education systems in the world.”