Advanced British Standard: Sunak’s proposed replacement for A-levels and T-levels could make education less divisive


Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has announced plans to scrap A-levels and the recently introduced T-levels. He unveiled proposals for young people to instead study the new Advanced British Standard (ABS) at the Conservative party conference in Manchester.

The proposed changes represent a major shake-up of post-16 education in England. Sunak intends to replace existing post-GCSE qualifications, such as A-levels and T-levels, with a single qualification. Under the ABS, most learners aged 16-19 would study five different subjects, including some form of English and maths.

Most students would study three subjects in depth as a “major”, and two further subjects as a “minor”. The government says this will give students the “wider knowledge base” valued by employers.

The new qualification is likely to take at least a decade to design and implement.

The Advanced British Standard aims to combine the “the best parts of both A-levels and T-levels” – the academic rigour of the former and the occupational standards provided by the latter. In this way, the new proposals build on the principles of the “British Baccalaureate” proposed by Sunak during his first, unsuccessful, leadership bid in 2022.

Reforms of post-16 education are long overdue. The current system – in which students choose three or four A-levels as an academic preparation for higher education, or a single vocational subject linked to the workplace – is unnecessarily divisive and limiting.

My research suggests that young people are highly aware that vocational qualifications are sometimes seen as second-best by schools, teachers, parents and universities. Sunak argues that the ABS will give technical qualifications the respect they deserve.

Cross-party consensus?

The timescale for introducing this new qualification raises questions over how likely these plans are to happen if the Conservatives fail to win the next general election. A change of government could lead to plans for the new qualification being amended or scrapped altogether.

However, a Labour government might see the attraction in retaining aspects of the ABS. Recent comments from the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, and the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, suggest they share similar concerns about the academic and vocational divide in post-16 education.

In July 2023, Starmer spoke of his desire to get rid of “the snobbery that looks down on vocational education” and give children a “grounding” in both academic and vocational subjects.

And in May 2023, Burnham revealed his plans for a Manchester Baccalaureate for 14- to 16-year-olds. These proposals, currently at consultation stage, suggest creating two different but equal pathways for students choosing GCSE subjects – one academic, one technical.

This is actually not the first time the UK government has considered combining academic and vocational routes into one qualification. The 2004 Tomlinson report, commissioned by a Labour government, also recommended the creation of a single diploma framework that would replace GCSEs, A-levels and vocational qualifications. This diploma was to have four different levels, allowing learners to progress at their own pace, and fewer exams.

Like the proposals for the ABS, Tomlinson’s recommendations were envisaged to take ten years to come into full effect. But while the diploma was first offered as an option from 2008, it was withdrawn in 2013.

One of the reasons for its failure was the refusal of some universities to accept the qualification. This suggests that the success of a system like the ABS depends on it being a replacement for A-levels – as Sunak has proposed – not an alternative.

Questions also remain about how much the new qualification will benefit the young people who would have chosen a vocational route. Instead of one subject in depth as part of a vocational qualification, learners will now have to study four or five, suggesting the option to specialise may be reduced.

Young people who may have looked forward to leaving maths or English behind after GCSEs, feeling that academic study of these subjects did not suit them, will now have to take both until 18.

It remains to be seen how well GCSEs will prepare students for the new ABS.

A number of details about the new proposals are yet to be clarified. However, with both the Conservative and Labour parties now talking of major reforms to 16-19 education, it seems that change may (eventually) be in the offing.

Author Bio: Elizabeth Gregory is a Lecturer in Education at the University of Manchester