5 October 2023

Exam reform? It’s as easy as ABS


After all the rumours and off-record briefings, yesterday we finally found out what the Prime Minister means by long-term decisions for a brighter future.

And when it comes to schools, it means pretty substantial changes to what and how 16 to 19-year-olds study.

So it’s bye-bye to A and T-levels and many of the other qualifications out there, and hi-hi to the Advanced British Standard – or ABS for short. I’ve spent the last 24 hours getting my head around the pretty substantial document explaining it all, and the ambition is pretty breathtaking.

Let’s start by considering how things are now. Having been comprehensively trashed by Labour, reforms since 2010 means that we’ve got a darned good curriculum and set of accompanying gold-standard qualifications. We should be really proud of what the government and teachers have achieved here.

However, English students post-16 typically study fewer subjects, with fewer hours in class, than many other countries. And 25% still don’t achieve a decent pass in GCSE maths and English by age 19. Put it all together, more youngsters head off into the world with a narrower and less rich experience than we’d like – particularly the half who don’t study A-levels.

Rishi’s response to this? Roll out a complete overhaul over the next decade. 

First of all, he proposes that all students continue to study maths and English in one form or another. We knew he was big on ‘maths-to-18’ and now we know he’s as keen on novels as he is numbers.

To address the breadth of study, the plan is to bring all technical and academic qualifications under one banner. Instead of working towards three A-levels (or equivalent), they’ll study five subjects – three in more depth as a ‘major’, and two smaller ones as a ‘minor’, with two of the five in English and maths.

Now, you’re probably and rightly thinking ‘but five into three won’t go, unless you water stuff down’ – and you’re right. A-levels and T-levels are known for their rigour and depth, and a big reason why English universities are so popular and successful is the way they can build on this with three year degrees, unlike many other countries which need four years to get to the same standard.

So the intention is to do something potentially really clever: find the space for the extra subjects by slightly reducing the ‘size’ of the majors compared to existing A-levels, so they can be taught with fewer lessons, and increasing the amount of timetabled learning that students have overall by around 2 ½ hours a week.

It all requires a lot more cash and teachers, and the PM committed to funding all this and more. He rightly identified that it needs us to build up the numbers coming into teaching, and keep more of them along the way. That’s not going to happen overnight, hence the plan to do things over the course of a decade or so.

Also, reforming curriculum and qualifications successfully is a slow and complicated process. It’s so important that this is done right. The current system is really good overall, and well understood, notwithstanding the issues highlighted above.

Curriculum and exam reform is one of the big successes since 2010, and we’re only now starting to see the payoff: those taking their A-levels next summer are the first cohort to have been through school entirely under the Conservatives and benefitted from all the reforms. Whenever I hear people from business or universities list the deficiencies of those entering the world of work I urge them to hold on just a little longer, as a new generation of more literate, numerate and knowledgeable youngsters are about to come their way.

So the devil is absolutely going to be in the detail and implementation of the ABS. Changing 16-19 education will have knock-on impacts to GCSEs before and university and apprenticeships after too, so this needs working through carefully as well.

It’s definitely more substantial than anything we’ve seen from Labour so far – oracy, anyone? – and it’ll be fascinating to see how it’s fleshed out in the run up to the election. But get this right and it’s just possible we’ll square the circle and have more kids, especially those from poorer backgrounds, studying a wider range of subjects for longer, and leaving formal education with a richer and broader knowledge base than ever before. And that’s something worth working for.

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Mark Lehain is Head of Education at the Centre for Policy Studies.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.