Will introducing the Advanced British Standard ensure that no child is left behind?
By Edmore Masendeke, ALLFIE’s Policy and Research Officer
During this year’s Conservative Party conference, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that A levels and T levels will be replaced by a new qualification called the Advanced British Standard in England. This qualification will combine A levels and T levels into a new, single qualification, including compulsory study of English and maths to age 18. Students will also be required to study five subjects instead of the usual three and have more teaching hours in the classroom.
Mr Sunak ended the announcement with the promise that, “… no child should be left behind.”
For Disabled children, Young people and their parents, this promise is ironic, because Disabled children and Young people have been left behind in the current education system, including at GCSE and A level. And the new Advanced British Standard will most likely leave more Disabled children and Young people behind, especially those from under resourced families who are already pushed to the margins within the education system.
There are Disabled students who cannot access all the support and reasonable accommodations they require to effectively participate in education and learning activities due to the perennial underfunding of the SEND (Special Education Needs and Disabilities) system. This includes hiring Teaching Assistants for additional support where it is required. The proposed Advanced British Standard will require students to study more subject and have additional teaching hours. This will exclude Disabled students if the government fails to reform the SEND system, including providing funding to ensure that schools are able to provide support and reasonable accommodation for all Disabled students.
Beyond the problem of no or inadequate access support and reasonable adjustments for education and learning activities, some students cannot access the support and reasonable adjustments that they need during exams, especially those without EHCPs. In addition, the current GCSE and A level exams are not designed to cater for Disabled students, including the compulsory GCSE maths and English exams. As a result, Disabled children and Young people usually have lower pass rates in GCSE exams than non-disabled children and Young people.
According to a recent report by the Department for Education, 37.1% of pupils identified with SEN (Special Education Needs) in year 11 achieved Level 2 (equivalent to 5+ A*- C/9-4 at GCSE) including English and mathematics (GCSEs) by age 19 in 2021/22, compared to 79.3% of pupils with no identified SEN. The same report shows that 22.5% of Disabled pupils with SEN support and 7.0% of those with an Education Health and Care Plan (EHCP) in 2021/22 achieved grades 5 or above in English and mathematics GCSEs, compared to 55.8% of pupils with no identified SEN.
In maths exams, students are assessed on their ability to memorise formulas, while English assesses spelling, punctuation, and grammar skills, which are barriers for some Disabled students, especially those with neurodiversity. Therefore, introducing the proposed British Advanced Standards without reforming the principles of providing support and adjustments, as well as curriculum design and exams, will continue the legacy of a discriminatory education system.
Under the proposed Advanced British Standard, “All students will study some form of English and maths to 18, with extra help for those who struggle most,” Mr Sunak said. The prospects of such support being available are very slim, given the current shortage of teachers and teaching assistants in schools, including maths specialist teachers. These shortages need to be addressed regardless of whether the Advanced British Standard is implemented or not. In fact, these shortages may be barriers to the implementation of the Advanced British Standard.
The proposed Advanced British Standard is also inaccessible to the current GCSE system, according to Sir Chris Husbands, a leading education expert. This means that the transition from GCSE to the proposed Advanced British Standard is unlikely to be seamless. This is likely to be a challenge for all students, but more so for Disabled students, who may already have extra support needs which are not being addressed by the education system.
A-levels are currently being used for progression into university or higher education (HE). The current progression rate of Disabled Young people is much lower than that of non-disabled young people. In 2020/21, 8.7% of pupils with an EHC plan progressed to HE by age 19, compared to 22.5% of pupils with SEN support and 48.6% for pupils with no identified SEN. Disabled students are also less likely to continue their degrees, graduate with a good degree, and progress onto a highly skilled job or further study, according to the Office for Students.
The Prime Minister’s vision of creating the “best education system in the western world” in which “no child should be left behind” also needs to address the systemic and structural barriers and injustices that impact the participation and progression of Disabled children and Young people in the education system.