Bring on the Baccalaureate

This article was published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website on 8 November 2006.

Yet another report recommends scrapping A levels and replacing them with the Baccalaureate. Will the government listen this time?

Science education has been much in the news of late. Moaners have decried the state of science education in Britain’s schools, and politicians are trying desperately to spin their way out of a hole without actually doing anything substantial about the problem. So nothing new there.

It was interesting to read a few days ago a report from the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee on Science Teaching in Schools. Although widely reported in the media, the Lords’ document has been commented on by few, and for this small mercy the government will no doubt be relieved. The reason is that the noble Lords have made a sensible policy suggestion, and this, of course, is simply not on.

The Lords’ report repeats much of the widespread criticism of science education in Britain today. There is the perception that students find science too difficult and not “funky” (don’t they mean sexy?), the shortage of qualified and inspiring teachers, and a risk-averse culture that has led to many classic laboratory experiments being removed from the curriculum for health and safety reasons. Oh how we used to love setting fire to Bunsen burner taps in my school!

And then there’s the obsession with league tables and targets that leads to students being taught how to pass exams, not understand and appreciate the subjects at hand. I should know; I occasionally teach physics as a private tutor to school students, some of whom would rather watch paint dry, but for some reason require a physics A level in order to further their career goals in television production or whatever.

Maybe the problem with the Lords’ report is that with their repeat of all the usual stuff about the sickness in Britain’s school system, they lost the attention of readers who found other things to distract them before they got to the juicy bits about A levels being crap, and that the Baccalaureate diploma is the way to go. Readers may also have missed the allegation – sourced from that den of troublemakers the Institute of Physics – that some schools are actively discouraging students from following subjects that might weaken their league table position through lower A-level grades.

Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time that such things have been said. A few years ago, the government’s own working group on 14-19 education, headed by Mike Tomlinson, recommended that all students be offered the chance to follow a broad-based Baccalaureate-style programme rather than GCSEs and A levels. Last year, the government responded to the Tomlinson recommendations by insisting that A levels remained the “gold standard” of secondary education. Others asked why the government bothers commissioning expert studies when it consistently rejects the results.

The Baccalaureate is common in continental Europe, and with education policy in Wales devolved to the National Assembly, the Welsh Baccalaureate is offered as an option in some schools. This limited trial has now been judged so successful that the Welsh government have decided to make the new diploma more widely available from next year. There is a feeling among many in Wales that A levels should be scrapped completely, but insufficient political nerve and an unwillingness to risk incurring the wrath of Westminster.

The International Baccalaureate is offered in some 90 schools across the UK, including in England, and despite what its detractors are saying, the qualification is recognised by employers and university selectors who value its breadth and rigour. Students following a Baccalaureate programme study six subjects over two years, rather than focus on the three or four typical in A-level studies. They also produce an extended essay, and are recommended to take part in extra-curricular and community activities.

The A level system once served us well, but now, when young people are expected to have scientific and technical skills as well as the ability to express themselves creatively, A levels are no longer fit for their purpose. They have had their time. Scrap them. Now.