SINGAPORE — British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced last Wednesday (Oct 4) plans to merge the country’s current A-Levels and T-Levels into a new, single qualification called the Advanced British Standard.
The A-Levels and T-Levels are two post-secondary options presently available to students in the United Kingdom (UK), upon the completion of their General Certificate of Secondary Education, the equivalent of the O-Levels in Singapore.
According to the British government, the T-Levels — introduced in September 2020 by the Boris Johnson administration — are two-year courses designed in collaboration with employers and education providers to prepare students for skilled employment, an apprenticeship or technical study.
They come with an industry placement of at least 315 hours — approximately 45 days.
If adopted, the new Advanced British Standard would replace the existing A-Levels and T-Levels, by combining them into a single qualification.
TODAY looks at why the new Advanced British Standard was introduced, what it would entail, and whether there are any potential implications for Singapore given the past links in the education systems.
WHY IS THE ADVANCED BRITISH STANDARD BEING INTRODUCED?
Speaking at the ruling Conservative Party’s annual conference last Wednesday, Mr Sunak said the new qualification would “finally deliver on the promise of parity of esteem between academic and technical education”, because all students will sit for the Advanced British Standard.
He added that it would also “raise the floor ensuring that our children leave school literate and numerate, because with the Advanced British Standard, all students will study some form of Maths and English to 18 (years old) — with extra help for those who struggle most. In our country, no child should be left behind.”
Currently, A-Level students in the UK typically take only three subjects “compared to the seven studied by our economic competitors”, said Mr Sunak.
“The Advanced British Standard will change that too, with students typically studying five subjects. And thanks to the extra teaching time we are introducing, the great breadth won’t come at the expense of depth which is such a strength of our system.”
He also announced an initial investment of £600 million (S$1 billion) over two years to lay the groundwork to deliver the Advanced British Standard.
WHAT WOULD IT ENTAIL?
In a foreword for the policy paper outlining this reform — published on Oct 4 by the UK’s Department for Education (DFE) and titled “A world-class education system: The Advanced British Standard” — Ms Gillian Keegan, the UK’s secretary of state for education, said the new qualification would place “equal value on technical and academic knowledge and skills by harnessing the best parts of both A-Levels and T-Levels”.
Students would be able to take a mix of technical and academic subjects, which would give them “a greater degree of flexibility over their future career options,” wrote Ms Keegan.
As outlined in the policy paper, the new qualification would:
Remove the “artificial separation” between technical and academic qualifications, and create a single, unified structure for all 16 to 19 year-olds in England. It would replace all other non-apprenticeship qualifications at this level, for this age groupIncrease the number of taught hours by an extra 15 per cent for most students aged 16 to 19, from about 1,280 hours over two years to a minimum of 1,475 hours over two years. This is expected to move the country “closer to international norms” and help more children succeedEnsure every young person studies “some form of English and Maths” until age 18, hence “raising the floor of attainment and bringing us into line with international peers”Increase the number of subjects that students take, to provide greater breadth. Students will choose a combination of bigger and smaller subjects — called majors and minors — from both technical and academic options, and will typically study a minimum of five subjects
WHAT IS THE TIMELINE FOR THE REFORM?
In a blog post on The Education Hub — an online site owned by the DFE — the department said it would take “around a decade to fully roll out” the Advanced British Standard.
Until then, the A-Levels and T-Levels would continue to be offered as “rigorous, high-quality options” for British youths’ post-secondary education.
“Pupils starting primary school this term are expected to be the first cohort to take the new qualification,” it added.
Leading up to the roll-out, the department would also open a “consultation” later this year, “asking education providers and other stakeholders how best to design and implement the Advanced British Standard”.
The DFE added that it would work closely with these education providers and stakeholders to “develop and deliver this important reform in the most effective way possible”.
But British education unions have said that the plans are “pie in the sky” and “out of touch with reality” due to teacher shortages.
ANY IMPLICATIONS FOR SINGAPORE?
Experts told TODAY that they do not foresee the reform having a significant impact on Singapore.
The Singapore-Cambridge General Certificate of Education Advanced Level (GCE A-Level) examination — introduced in 1975 — was decoupled from the UK’s GCE A-Level examination in 2002, said Dr Wong Hwei Ming, the assistant centre director of education at the National Institute of Education’s Centre for Research in Pedagogy and Practice at Nanyang Technological University.
This move was part of the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) efforts to have “greater management of the administration of the examination”, she added.
As Singapore’s GCE A-Level examination is currently closely tailored to the curriculum set by MOE, the recent announcement from the UK is unlikely to have a significant impact on Singapore, said Dr Wong.
Asked if a qualification like the new Advanced British Standard could possibly be adopted in Singapore, Associate Professor Jason Tan from the National Institute of Education, whose research interest includes comparative education and education reform, said: “I think what’s important is to design policies that best fit the local context.
“Because, of course, each country has its own unique, sociopolitical context to grapple with — so I don’t think it’s wise to adopt other countries’ education reforms wholesale without any (contextualisation).
“I would say it’s very fair to say the A-Levels are very focused on university entry. They don’t aim to be vocational qualifications in the way that polytechnic or Institute of Technical Education qualifications do.
“And right now the Ministry of Education’s preference seems to be to maintain these three separate sorts of pathways instead of attempting any sort of merger across the three pathways. (But) I mean, let’s wait and see.”
Still, experts acknowledge that Singapore faces a similar conundrum on ensuring this “parity of esteem between academic and technical education” that Mr Sunak spoke about.
Earlier in April this year, during the opening of the second session of the 14th Parliament, then-President Halimah Yacob spoke of the need to ensure a “broader and more open meritocracy” that works well for all Singaporeans.
During a subsequent debate on her speech in Parliament, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong spoke about necessary “mindset shifts”, and ways to “tilt the scales and narrow the wage gap across professions” — including professionalising skilled trades and blue-collar jobs.
On whether he thinks such an education reform would be a good first step in ensuring different work types are equally esteemed, Assoc Prof Tan said: “It’s kind of like this issue of ‘where do you start?’ Because if you wait indefinitely for social attitudes to change, then I guess you won’t see very much change at all. So I guess one way to try and change social attitudes is to take bold policy steps.”
“But of course, I have to say that policy steps alone aren’t necessarily going to result in overnight changes in the direction of greater parity and esteem for various educational as well as career options.”
He added that “a multi-pronged strategy to tackle education reforms, workplace reforms, as well as social attitudes” would be needed.
“You have to remember that these attitudes are well-entrenched. They aren’t easily dislodged. So you need more than mere moral-suasion alone to see any tangible changes in attitudes towards this academic-vocational divide.”