‘In 2017, not one of my sixth-formers took A levels. It was the best decision I ever made’

This year, for the first time in almost 10 years as a headteacher, I felt success on sixth form results day. For the first time ever, every student had passed and exceeded his or her target grade. Every student who wanted to go to university had achieved the grades to get into his or her first-choice institution. Every other student had a positive onward route into further education, an apprenticeship or an appropriate job. Two young men started work in the City and are probably already earning more than me. Carl Roberts,  headmaster of The Malling School in Kent writes for Tes reports.

For many years, students at my school had underachieved in their A levels, failed to get into university and failed to secure positive onward routes after Year 13. Each year, half of them dropped out after Year 12, never to be seen again. Yet this year, only one pupil didn’t transfer from Year 12 to Year 13 – and that was because she had gained the confidence to start an apprenticeship. In short, until this year my school had failed too many pupils during their sixth-form years.

What was different this year? We stopped teaching A levels.

Three years ago, I took the bold decision to stop offering A levels and to introduce the International Baccalaureate Career-related Programme (IBCP). I remember clearly talking to Paul Luxmoore, at that time headteacher of Dane Court Grammar School and Tony Smith, the retired headteacher of Dartford Grammar School, about the IBCP, which had been running in a few Kent schools for about three years. They spoke very convincingly and with a clear moral purpose about the programme that, until then, I had never heard of. 

The problem was they were grammar school headteachers and my school, the Malling School, is a non-selective secondary modern. Wasn’t the IB only for very academic students and therefore really only suited to grammar and independent schools? Well, maybe so for the diploma programme – although that is debatable – but the career-related programme is a more accessible course. It combines the academic rigour of the diploma with career-related or vocational elements, to make a programme that develops young people into confident, well rounded, globally focused and employable individuals. The success of my students – not only in their qualifications, but also in their lives – is a testament to that fact. 

Kent started trialling the IBCP seven years ago with six schools and results were impressive. Two years ago two further schools started teaching the programme and received their first set of results this year – again, the results were impressive. Pass rates for the IBCP in Kent non-selective schools from 2013-17 were 92 per cent, which is much higher than the equivalent A level statistic. From September this year, after receiving backing and funding from Kent County Council and support from the IB Organisation (IBO) and the IB Schools and Colleges Association (IBSCA), twenty-four schools are teaching IBCP. This represents more than 15 per cent of the world’s IBCP schools. It is the highest concentration of IBCP schools in the world.

The key to the programme for me, though, is not the examination success alone but the way in which IBCP develops the whole student. Through the “core” element, the programme teaches the skills and attributes that make a young person well-balanced, confident and interesting. Throughout all IB programmes, the Learner Profile helps develop knowledgeable, principled and inquisitive students who are not afraid to take risks. In short, it develops employable young people.

There is a growing swell of opinion that while A levels may be useful in developing academic knowledge in a narrow range of subjects, they are not the right qualification for developing the skills and attributes necessary to thrive in the workplace, at university or in life. If we are going to give our young people the best chances of success in a global society – and if we are to develop a generation that will really drive our economy – then as educators we must be looking beyond a narrow and purely academic curriculum.  

Read the full article ‘In 2017, not one of my sixth-formers took A levels. It was the best decision I ever made’

What do you think? Have A levels had their day? Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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