One nation should not have two systems –

– an inclusive, comprehensive and unified approach to 14-19 education and training

In a paper prepared for the New Visions Group and Compass, Ken Spours calls for a 14-19 education system that is sufficiently unified to promote improved performance and social and education cohesion, but also sufficiently diverse to include all learners and their different preferences and needs.

Beyond 14-19 division

A new education vision

1. We need a new vision of education that focuses on development throughout the life-course and prepares everyone to flourish as a human being; to be able to participate fully in society and the economy and to address humanity’s most pressing problems by being able to ask the big questions.1

2. It has been argued that education is a power for good, but that it cannot achieve this potential by itself. If education is to help us envisage a different and better future, rather than reinforcing the divided world in which we live, it has to be part of a wider vision of societal and economic change. This is what we mean when we talk of ‘education for the Good Society’ .2

3. Human beings in their modern form have been around for about 50,000 years and mass formal education in England has existed for only about 100 years. Education as we know it is in its infancy. Furthermore, the past 30 years have been dominated by neo-liberal thinking and practice, which has seen an expansion of formal education, but with deepening divisions and impoverishment of purpose. Little wonder then that education has not experienced its ‘1948 NHS moment’. The National Health Service, despite all its problems and political distortions, is regarded as a national treasure. Education, on the other hand, has not experienced its own transformative moment despite attempts to introduce comprehensive reform and the day-to-day efforts of practitioners to make education work for their students.3 There is no settled will and education has become a political football and site of permanent discontent.

14-19 education is a deeply contested and divided phase

4. Nowhere is this more so than in 14-19 education. These years mark the point of greater learner choice and specialization and while education trajectories are influenced early on in life, 14-19 education and its selective qualifications and institutions have a very direct impact on life-chances. Precisely because of this, 14-19 education has become an intensely politicized arena with governments constantly meddling, particularly in relation to qualifications reform. It is also a phase that deepens social divisions between those who succeed and attain places in prestigious universities at one end and those who remain NEET (Not in employment, education and work). In between also lies an increasingly neglected group of middle attainers.4

5. Despite its importance, 14-19 still remains an unofficial phase in English education. Promoted by education professionals in the late 1980s and early 1990s and belatedly recognized by the Labour Government in 2002, the Coalition Government does not really acknowledge 14-19 as a single phase. Instead, it is seen as a point of selection. The Coalition Government, for example, has its EBacc and possibly an ABacc, intended for a minority of high attaining learners. GCSE is seen primarily as a means of weeding out lower attaining learners rather than building the means of progression. In response, the Labour Party is focusing its attention on vocational education and apprenticeships5 as part of its plan for the ‘forgotten 50 per cent’.6 This is intended as a reverse image of Conservative elitism. Both political parties, in their different ways, see 14-19 education as either partial or divided.

6. The English education system is known for its prestigious universities and top independent schools. It is also known for subject specialization and selection in preparation for three-year university single subject honours degrees. However, these strengths are also weaknesses. GCSEs provide for subject breadth, but are regarded by many as the means of selection at 16+ rather than developing more diverse skills for progression. Elective A Levels allow learners to avoid ‘difficult subjects’ and the focus on three or four specialist subjects leaves insufficient attention on the development of ‘21st Century Competences’.7 GCSEs and A Levels can provide some of the building blocks, but they do not constitute a curriculum that adequately prepares young for the future.

7. In a system dominated by academic qualifications, vocational education is still regarded as second best. Moreover our apprenticeship system is very small compared internationally.8 Vocational education is also narrow because it does not contain sufficient general education and increasingly cannot provide adequate experience of working life or apprenticeships because of lack of growth in the economy and poor employer engagement. England has a weak vocational system and this is why, for example, the Labour Party and the Baker/Dearing Educational Trust are focusing on the vocational side.9 But they are mistaken in thinking that vocational education can be successfully strengthened in the shadow of an unreformed general education. This divided approach to qualifications reform has been repeatedly attempted since the mid-1980s – National Vocational Qualifications, General National Vocational Qualifications, and Advanced Vocational Certificates of Education – and has not succeeded. Unless the context for reform is changed, Labour’s proposed Tech Bacc could end up the same way.

8. A damaging academic-vocational divide is reinforced by a bewildering array of competing institutions for 14-19 year olds. School sixth forms cater mainly for A Levels and their selection policies mean that learners from low-income families and from BME backgrounds become concentrated in further education colleges. Moreover, small school sixth forms are unable to offer a wide range of courses for their learners and institutions are often reluctant to collaborate in the interests of all learners in an area. This means that institutional collaboration is central to any serious reform of the 14-19 phase.

One nation should not have two systems

9. 14-19 education is intersected by several reinforcing divisions that prevent the development of common expectations of all, this being one of the reasons for the low performance of young people in fundamental skills compared internationally.10 Because of the damaging effect of these divisions on performance and on social cohesion, I argue here that ‘one nation should not have two systems’. Instead, it should strive for greater inclusion and integration that caters for 100 per cent of 14-19 year olds with high expectations of all.

10. There are two fundamental reasons to support this argument. First, all humans ‘think’ as well as ‘do’ and education should affirm this theory/practice nexus. It is the source of the human condition. Second, despite the divisions and individualism of neo-liberalism, the world is becoming increasingly inter-dependent, social and complex as organization of work and wider society blurs boundaries. Progressive interpretations of global trends, economic, social and technological, suggest the need for all learners to develop a broad range of 21st Century competences; for institutions to collaborate to deliver a more enhanced and varied curriculum to support both social cohesion and what has been termed the ‘social economy’.11 Here the emphasis will be on building relationships as well as on developing practical know-how and specialist knowledge. Because of this need to link with economic and social developments, 14-19 education will require stronger local dimensions that provide a place of progression for all learners. Successful Nordic upper secondary systems have developed these more integrated and localized features.12

11. Moreover, in an era of ‘Raising of the Participation Age’ 14-19 education in England is de facto becoming a universal phase. In this context what we need is a more comprehensive, unified, inclusive and flexible upper secondary system that improves the experience of both general and vocational education and provides an improved ladder of progression for everyone. But unified does not mean uniform. Instead we can talk of ‘unity in diversity’ in which, for example, there will be different pathways within a single curriculum and qualifications framework and real freedoms for schools, colleges and work-based learning providers as they work together within ‘strongly collaborative partnerships’ at the local level.

12. England needs an extended universal upper secondary (14-19) education that will serve the needs of those who require longer to benefit from a diverse and enriching education and support the vast majority to reach Level 3 by the age of 19. The effects of social class on education development costs at least one year by age 16. That is why an inclusive system needs to be 14-19 and not just 14-18. This extended phase is required to reconcile the tensions inherent in upper secondary education, notably between the need to continue some common learning, to allow for increasing specialization and to effectively link lower secondary education with tertiary education.13 A 14-19 phase is also important in the English context to overcome selection at 16+ that can damage the prospects of those learners who do not achieve highly at Key Stage 4. In a reformed 14-19 phase, the role of a 16+ examination becomes far less relevant.14

Dimensions of a universal, comprehensive and unified 14-19 phase

13. In response to this complex and conflicting context, this section of the paper outlines some key dimensions that can assist in the building of a universal, comprehensive and more unified 14-19 phase of education.

Agreed aims and values

14. Due to the reliance over the last 30 years on centralised policy and markets, the development of an agreed set of aims and values for upper secondary education has been neglected. Individual schools and colleges may have their own set, but it does not exist at the national level. A more diverse and unified phase will require a common set of aims and values15 to act as the ‘glue’ of the system if it is to work in a more consensual and high trust manner and thus avoid being driven from above. The Nuffield 14-19 Review suggested that the education system should answer the question ‘what should be counted as an educated 19 year old in this day and age’.16

Enriched general education and stronger vocational education in a unified framework

15. The argument for a unified approach to 14-19 curriculum and qualifications reform is based on the recognition that general and vocational qualifications are deeply and historically inter-related and should be reformed together rather than separately. Studying three A Levels is exceedingly narrow compared with other upper secondary systems and students would benefit from a broader curriculum, particularly the inclusion of research skills and 21st Century competences that employers and universities keep calling for. This could mean studying a greater range of subjects as in the International Baccalaureate or a greater research focus as in the Cambridge Pre-U or both.

16. Vocational education is just as narrow as general education if not more so and could benefit from the addition of a similar type of enrichment as that being proposed for general education. In this more demanding form, vocational education could be seen as an important entitlement rather than a ‘siding into which low achievers are conveniently shunted’.17 This would mean, for example, that all 14-16 year olds would engage with working life in some form because it broadens horizons. Building on this more comprehensive approach to vocational education, later in the phase students could begin to specialize in vocational education deeply embedded in workplaces, but with the necessary general education that keeps open the door to higher education.

17. In this unified model, the qualifications system would not be ‘track-based’ but ‘pathway-based’.18 Here vocational specialization is seen as part of the unified system, where all learners are working towards the award of a baccalaureate at 18 or 19. The status of vocational education can be derived from an inter-related range of sources – being part of a common system and something that all learners have an interest in; having sufficient general education for progression to further study and having employer recognition and integration with the workplace. In such a system apprenticeships will be increasingly end on to 14-19 education and the Labour consultative document suggests new ideas on incentives to employers in both the private and public sector to produce more high quality places.19

18. In the unified approach, a common core of learning would link general and vocational education. This could comprise English and/or mathematics at a higher level than attained at 16; a research project of personal choice; CEIAG (careers education, information and guidance) and a volunteering or international activity. A core of this kind helps to foster the 21st century competences that are of growing importance in a globalized society. Moreover, a more broadly based qualification framework that embraced and intertwined both general and vocational education would not only reflect international trends,20 but also better reflect the idea of a more rounded curriculum for all young people up to the age of 19.

Strong local collaboration and partnership

19. This kind of expansive curriculum that provides distinct and blended pathways within a common framework and qualifications framework will need to be supported by stronger partnerships at the local level. New approaches to collaboration are emerging, for example, 14+ Progression and Transition Boards, that focus on helping all young people in a locality to progress within the 14-19 phase and to make a successful transition at the end of it.21 If these local bodies/networks are to operate effectively on a national scale they will need to:

• provide a powerful forum for institutional collaboration, partnership and planning of the curriculum and progression pathways on a local and sub-regional basis;
• bring together schools, colleges, work-based training providers, local regeneration agencies and higher education with the aim of developing ‘high opportunity progression eco-systems’;22
• provide the basis for the greater participation of social partners in developing a life-long learning strategy for the area;
• develop linkages between education, training, the social infrastructure and the local economy;
• result in an agreed area education and training plan supported by local government.

20. It is very difficult presently to get all schools to collaborate, particularly those from academy chains. Thus strong partnerships will also require support from national and local government in order that all institutions (including academies) have the incentive, if not the public duty, to come to the table and collaborate in the interests of all learners in an area.

An expansive professionalism

21. Partnership working of this kind will also require a more ‘expansive professionalism’ and a willingness and capacity to work across traditional subject and institutional boundaries. This could be seen as a third layer of professional capacity build on a foundation of two other professional personas – an expert grasp of the specialist area of knowledge and skill and an expert approach to teaching and the support of the learner23 . An enhanced professionalism could:

• offer a focus for a greater professional voice and a high trust approach to change;
• emphasise increasing quality in teaching, learning and assessment;
• bring different professional cultures together to develop new communities of practice that are able to address complex local issues;
• provide an infrastructure for continuous professional learning and the development of wider collaborative capacities;
• promote effective peer-to-peer support for institutional and local system improvement;
• encourage democratic forms of accountability and new types of partnership with communities.

22. As such an expanded professionalism would work hand-in-hand with the greater emphasis on partnership and a more collaborative curriculum at the local level24 .

A reformed policy process and a more devolved system

23. The English education system is excessively centralized at the national level and, at the same time, extremely fragmented at the local level. A more unified system will also have to be a much more devolved system in which the people who use and run the system have a much greater voice with the space to be able to feed back and to take greater responsibility for quality and improvement. For this to happen, the policy process also has to become slower so there is time to deliberate and to make more sustainable decisions. A more devolved system would bring about more appropriate decision-making at different levels of governance. A reformed policy process and more devolved system would:

• see the role of national government as supporting equity and national standards as well as investment and frameworks for collaboration at the levels below;
• promote regional networking to support ‘skills eco-systems’, and ‘career cluster approaches’;
• facilitate the formation of new participative collaborative forums (see 2 above) that have powers to deliver change;
• empower local government to effectively co-ordinate local services; be the champion of vulnerable learners and marginal communities and support new more participative structures.

24. These five dimensions of system reform are intended to work as an ‘eco-system’, with each dimension reinforcing the others in order to produce a sustainable path of change.

Education as a component of a wider economic and social strategy
25. The main failure of our system, from the perspective of the young person, is not educational; it is economic. A million 16-25 year olds are currently unemployed, three times the adult rate.

26. While this paper is focused on upper secondary education (the 14-19 phase), the role of this phase is intimately tied to the one that follows, particularly the transition to Apprenticeships, the work-based route and working life. Education cannot resolve these problems on its own. What is needed is an alliance with local and regional social and economic partners. This suggests an increased focus on 18+ transitions and the economic opportunities available to young adults from 19-25 years, including for those graduating from higher education. This broader approach is central to expanded partnerships such as 14+ progression and transition boards and a revitalized role for local government that seeks to combine education, economic and social agendas.

A unified curriculum and qualifications framework

27. The centre-piece of a more unified system of education and training should be a unified curriculum and qualifications framework encompassing both general and vocational learning that aims to provide a richer education and training for all learners with a focus on capacities for successful progression and transition. It could be called an ‘English Baccalaureate System’ that builds on the proposals of the Tomlinson Working Group in 200425 , but also acknowledges developments in the decade that has followed.

28. Such a curriculum and qualifications system, that embraces both general and vocational education, might involve the following:

a. A baccalaureate-type qualification awarded at age 18 or 19 at Advanced, Intermediate/Higher or Foundation Level in which learners can claim a particular title (e.g. Humanities or Engineering) based on the number of specialist courses attained at particular levels.

b. Grade points accumulated over the 14-19 phase to determine the personal level of attainment. The final award could, for example, be made at a number of levels in which there would be thresholds to be passed in each case. This could reduce the selective importance of the 16+ divide and stimulate the development of, for example, a Level 2.5 to encourage more learners to complete Level 3 over three years rather than two.

c. A common core of learning for all pathways comprising English and mathematics at a higher level than attained at 16; a research project of personal choice; CEIAG (careers education, information and guidance) and a volunteering or international activity. The core could be allocated a number of points based on a grading system, as is the case in the International Baccalaureate, or/and be ‘attested’ through reflection on participation in a particular activity/experience.

d. Optional or specialist courses would comprise the majority of the award – in the first instance, these would comprise existing qualifications such as GCSEs, A Levels or BTEC First or National Diplomas but, over time, would be engineered to fit with the prevailing curriculum principles of the framework. It is envisaged that there would be a two-stage approach to advanced level (e.g. AS/A2), but that the baccalaureate framework would allow an assessment weighting to reflect the level of difficulty of the different parts of the award (e.g. revisiting the Dearing 40/60 split for AS/A2).

e. Extension components to stretch learners – the Headteachers’ Roundtable qualifications framework proposals (see suggest that in addition to core and options, a curriculum and qualifications framework should also provide for extension components where learners can demonstrate their attainment beyond the baseline requirements of a baccalaureate award. This is a sensible suggestion, not least because it suggests that there is no fixed ceiling to attainment and that learners can explore as broadly and deeply as they think possible.

f. More balanced assessment – an enriched curriculum will require more balanced assessment and a greater professional role. Written examinations cannot adequately assess the range of competences required, nor does this summative approach place sufficient emphasis on what has been termed ‘assessment for learning’. What is needed instead is more space for in-course assessment and for key aspects of the curriculum, such as the proposed research project, to be assessed locally through networks of expert teacher examiners, reinforced by an inspectorate and awarding bodies.

Conclusion – unity, diversity, blending traditions and staged change

29. England needs a 14-19 education system that is sufficiently unified to promote improved performance and social and education cohesion, but also sufficiently diverse to include all learners and their different preferences and needs. It also has to be a system focused on wider competences for participation in a complex and global society and for effective progression and transition.

30. This unified perspective might be seen not just as an alternative to the current divided arrangements, but incorporating the arguments for a distinctiveness experience post-16. The curriculum and qualifications model described in the previous section could be viewed as blending features of the academic disciplines in the Government’s EBacc and the focus on technical and vocational education in the proposed Tech Bacc. In an era in which baccalaureate-type ideas are entering the English system, the question is not whether we have baccalaureates or not but which model to adopt.

31. The changes are required not only to policy content but also ‘policy style’. This means creating a more stable and sustainable reform process in which education professionals and wider social partners are able to play a constructive role. In this regard we suggest a long-term vision and a staged approach. Stage 1 of a unified qualifications system would essentially be a ‘framework stage’ in which a curriculum framework embraces existing qualifications, building on the best we have got. During the later stage (in a decade or so), the framework would begin to absorb and re-engineer the qualifications components into a better internal fit. This is beginning to take place in Wales in relation to the further development of the Welsh Baccalaureate.

32. We also have to ensure that the dimensions of a more unified system work in a positive mutually reinforcing way. Here is yet another reason for strong local partnerships that are provided with the powers to plan and agree curriculum, qualifications, organizational and professional changes informed by a strong and accepted set of aims and values. This more gradualist and consensual approach to change would be revolutionary in the English context.


Notes and References

1 Frank Coffield and Bill Williamson (2012) From exam factories to communities of discovery: the democratic route. London: IOE Publications.

2 Neal Lawson and Ken Spours (2011) Education for the Good Society, London: Compass publications.

3 This is one of the central arguments of a new ‘Compass’ paper on education Towards a new approach to education: An framework discussion paper for the Compass-NUT Inquiry London: Compass, 2013.

4 For a discussion of middle attainers in 14-19 education see Ann Hodgson and Ken Spours (2013) Middle attainers and 14–19 progression in England: half-served by New Labour and now overlooked by the Coalition? British Educational Research Journal, DOI: 10.1002/berj.3091.

5 As part of its approach to vocational education, the Labour Party has formed a skills taskforce chaired by Prof. Chris Husbands from the IOE. It published an interim report in June 2013 Talent matters and more recently a report on apprenticeships Something for something. These will be followed by two reports on further education and vocational education in the 14-19 phase.

6 Miliband’s education plan for ‘the forgotten 50 per cent’ by George Eaton (2013) New Statesman 2 October.

7 21st Century competences are broadly defined as knowledge, skills and attributes that include subjects such as mathematics, languages and societal skills. See Gordon, J., Halasz, G., Karawczyk, M., Leney, T., Michel, A., Pepper, D., Putkiewicz, E. and Wisniewski, J. (2009) Key competences in Europe: opening doors for lifelong learning across the school curriculum and teacher education Warsaw: Centre for Social and Economic Research.

8 Less than 6 per cent of 16-18 year olds are involved in apprenticeships in England – DfE (2013) Participation in education, training and employment by 16-18 year olds in England, end 2011 Statistical First Release 12/2012.

9 See Kenneth Baker et al. (2013) 14-18: A New Vision for Secondary Education London: Bloomsbury.

10 OECD (2103) Survey of adult skills (PIAAC) (

11 For an incisive analysis of the social economy see Robin Murray (2009) Danger and opportunity: Crisis and the new social economy, London: NESTA.

12 See Pasi Sahlberg Secondary education in OECD Countries Common Challenges, Differing Solutions, Turin: European Training, 2007.

13 For a discussion on changing international patterns of upper secondary education see World Bank (2005) Expanding Opportunities and Building Competencies for Young People:
a new agenda for secondary education. Washington DC: World Bank.

14 The central argument in this paper and the proposed dimensions of a unified system arises primarily from the work of Ann Hodgson and Ken Spours in their contribution to the Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education and Training in England and Wales (2003-2009); their Joint Inaugural Lecture Towards a universal upper secondary education system in England: a unified and eco-system vision (2012); a scoping paper Understanding baccalaureate frameworks in the English context (2012) and a new international paper Heavy fog in the Channel, Continent cut off: reform of upper secondary education from the perspective of English exceptionalism (2013).

15 This point has been forcefully made by Richard Pring in his New Visions discussion piece 14-18 – Ask what counts.

16 Richard Pring, in his article 14-18 – Ask what counts – has attempted to address this question by suggesting that the key aims should be – self-worth; basic capabilities in reading, numeracy and communicating both orally and in writing; knowledge and understanding for the intelligent management of life; making sense of the social, physical and economic worlds they inhabit;
practical capabilities; moral seriousness’ in thinking about the life; (e.g. environmental destruction) and the capacity to contribute to the wider community of which they are part.

17 Bosch and Chalest Bosch, G. and Charest, J. (2008), Vocational training and the labour market in liberal and coordinated economies, Industrial Relations Journal 39 (5) p.445.

18 A ‘track-based system’ is defined by qualifications separated on the basis of their structure, content and assessment. A ‘pathway-based’ system, on the other hand, would combine ‘common learning’ in the core with specialized learning in the optional courses, within a common qualifications framework and some a mixed system of assessment, some common and some specific.

19 Something for something, Labour Party, 2013.

20 The World Bank (2005) suggests that there is a fading of the academic/vocational divide in upper secondary education systems.

21 For further discussion of 14+ Progression and Transition Boards see the final chapter in Excellence and equity: Tackling educational disadvantage in England’s secondary schools London: IPPR.

22 For a discussion of human ecological interpretations of the 14-19 phase see Ann Hodgson and Ken Spours (2013) Tackling the crisis facing young people: building ‘high opportunity progression ecosystems’, Oxford Review of Education. DOI.1080/03054985.2013.787923.

23 For a discussion of more expansive professionalism see, for example, Ann Hodgson and Ken Spours (2013) Why IfL should promote ‘triple professionalism’ In Tuition Institute for Learning Issue 13, Summer 2013.

24 See, for example, the RSA Area-based curriculum: engaging the local, London: RSA.

25 Working Group for 14-19 Reform (2004) 14-19 curriculum and qualifications reform: final report of the Working Group. London: DfES.