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Rishi Sunak's Education Reforms Welcomed, But Teachers Aren't Sure They're Realistic

Prime minister Rishi Sunak announced significant education reforms in his keynote speech at the Conservative party conference in Manchester. (Alamy)

6 min read

Rishi Sunak's proposal to scrap A-levels has been welcomed among MPs with education briefs but teachers have said the new policy is unrealistic and that reforms would be better targeted towards GCSEs.

In his Conservative Party Conference speech on Wednesday, Sunak confirmed plans to explore a new Advanced British Standard that would combine A-levels and T-levels into a single qualification, and would require all students in post-16 education to study some form of mathematics and English until the age of 18. 

It will also allow students to "major" and "minor" in a broader range of topics, with most students expected to study a minimum of five subjects, and able to mix technical and academic subjects. 

Speaking on the BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Thursday, Sunak said the reforms are "making sure our children are prepared for the future".

The government has also said it will provide £600m of initial funding over two years for the plans to support retention and recruitment of staff in order to implement the plans, including £30,000 tax free for newly qualified teachers in subject areas with teacher shortages. 

Tory MP Robin Walker, chair of the education select committee and vice chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on students told PoliticsHome there was "some really exciting stuff" in Sunak's announcements.

"The idea of bringing vocational and academic together is certainly something which is attractive, and has been something the select committee has talked about on a number of occasions – so that's that's very positive," he said.

However, while the committee chair welcomed the A Level reform, he urged the government to go further by exploring reform of GCSEs. 

"What I'd also like to see on that front, and what I've been saying to No 10, and to the education department, is a broader look at the qualifications that are available," Walker continued. 

"It strikes me that maths GCSE just isn't for everybody – and so more things like core maths and numeracy focused qualifications would be very welcome."

Conservative MP Flick Drummond, who sits on the education select committee and is chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Schools, Learning and Assessment told PoliticsHome she was "extremely pleased" with the Prime Minister's announcement. 

"This is a start, as far as I can see, that we're going to have a wide breadth of education at 18 including maths and English – which is fantastic, and I like the idea of the major and the minor subjects as well.." she said.

"To put vocational or technical and academic subjects on the same level is also fantastic, so I'm really excited."

However, Drummond – who also described the reforms as "a start" – like Walker said she hopes the government goes further in its education reforms, arguing the "six months of that GCSE year could be easily spent on doing lots of other interesting things which will lead you to that qualification at 18". 

"I'd like to see an 11-to-18 curriculum, so each year builds on the next year on all the subjects that you're interested in and then you're coming out with I think they put five [subjects]... some of those could be majors or minor subjects," she said. 

Tory MP Mark Fysh, who chairs the APPG on education, told PoliticsHome Sunak's announcements as "quite welcome news". 

Rishi Sunak"I'm looking forward to working on the detail with ministers over the coming weeks and months, but I think it's potentially quite a game changer for the types of technical education that are going to be very valuable in the modern world," Fysh said.

"I think we need to look at more of the detail as to what types of mathematical exposure fall into the category: they say that they want to have maths and numeracy skills continuing to be learners up to age 18 – I would like to see, for example, things like computer science be able to count within that because there's a lot of maths within computer science, and it may well be that that sort of thing could combine well with more arts based subjects which kind of give a rounded view."

However, despite the warm reception from some Tory MPs working on education issues, the National Education Union (NEU) took a more critical position. 

Daniel Kebede, general secretary of the NEU, said the Prime Minister was "out of touch with reality" and "doubling down on pie-in-the-sky education policies" – warning a core issue is sector "haemorrhaging" teachers due to high work loads and below inflation pay. 

"The Advanced British Standard, briefed out last month and confirmed today, is even more misconceived and extends his detachment from reality," Kebede said.

"There is no magic wand to create English and maths teachers in sufficient numbers to educate 11-16 year olds, let alone at A-level too. We already have a shortage of secondary teachers."

Kebede said Sunak's announcement was "headline-seeking", warning the Prime Minister had "missed an opportunity today to reset an education system in crisis" – outlining other issues facing the sector including the recent crisis over the stability of school buildings. 

"The Prime Minister is unwilling to do the hard work on fixing the major challenges facing education," Kebede added.

"Any education reform needs to deal with and confront the crises facing our schools and colleges, and this must be done in consultation with the profession to avoid yet more unworkable ideas." 

Laura McInerney, co-founder of Teacher Tapp, a daily survey app of 10,000 teachers, told PoliticsHome polling by the organisation shows Sunak's announcements do not reflect what teachers see as priorities in schools. 

"The policy suggestions that teachers have been ranking on Teacher Tapp so far: number one is mental health, anything to do with mental health comes out at the top – followed by hunger, and reforms around free breakfasts for children, followed by Ofsted reform, and more entitlement to professional development," McInerney said.

"That's before we get to the fact that they haven't been offered any solutions for the many growing issues with increased numbers of children with special educational needs, for which there is very few specialist teachers available, and the fact that other services which help support young people are falling apart."

She also warned that the government's £30,000 tax free incentive over the first five years a teacher's career in certain subjects with teacher shortages could "backfire" by creating further teacher shortages in subject areas struggling to recruit staff. 

"The challenge of that is who counts as a key subjects teacher," said McInerney.

"Because often you will have say, a physics teacher – and we have a massive shortage of physics teachers – who might teach maths 30 per cent of the time. If they can now get an extra £6,000 a year by going and teaching maths all of the time you could exacerbate that problem."

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