Assessment

Bacc again: A policy briefing on baccalaureate curriculum models

What could a baccalaureate look like in England? AQi explores some of the options.

Executive Summary
Introduction
How do A-levels and VTQs compare to a baccalaureate?
Is a baccalaureate model the future for England?
Conclusion
Date05/10/23
AuthorCharley Jarrett, Policy & Public Affairs Manager, AQA

Executive Summary

Time and again, various educational thinkers in England have argued for a change to a baccalaureate-style system.

A baccalaureate can be loosely defined as a pre-university programme of curriculum study and assessment, with an emphasis on covering core subjects and a rounded curriculum.

In debate on curriculum in England, stakeholders who propose a change to a baccalaureate system typically do not specify what they mean in terms of the curriculum strategy they would want to adopt and what their wider policy objectives for a baccalaureate system would be.

Furthermore, multiple baccalaureate systems exist with often widely divergent characteristics. There is not one baccalaureate system, but many. Examples include: the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme; Le baccalauréat in France; the European Baccalaureate; Das Abitur in Germany; as well as various vocational and technical baccalaureates.

Baccalaureates typically mandate roundedness among their students, requiring them to study a broad curriculum. Advocates for an English baccalaureate argue that this reduces the risk of students shutting off options at 16 through choices around A-levels and vocational and technical qualifications (VTQs). However, the lack of opportunity to specialise may be detrimental to students who know what they wish to do, and are forced to take subjects of which they will not subsequently make use.

A common, but not universal, feature of baccalaureates is a compulsory personal project or extended essay. In England, project qualifications are widely available but are not part of the mainstream curriculum Foundation, Higher or Extended Project Qualifications (Levels 1, 2 and 3 respectively).

Ultimately, the benefits or otherwise of a baccalaureate model depend on how much value is placed on:

  • roundedness and curriculum breadth – which are often perceived to benefit students, but may result in them having to study subjects up to the age of 18 that they ultimately have no interest in or use for
  • student choice – allowing students to exercise choice regarding what they study before they leave mainstream education.

Crucially, the post-16 system in England does enable students to choose a broad curriculum, including academic, vocational and technical qualifications. As such, no student is prevented from pursuing breadth and realising the benefits of a rounded curriculum in the style of a baccalaureate.

Introduction

A-levels in England have been described as the “gold-standard qualification” for 18-year-olds.[1]

However, time and again, certain stakeholders have advocated for a change in England to a baccalaureate-style system – most famously in the ‘Tomlinson Report’.[2]

Proponents suggest that adopting a baccalaureate model in England would be better in equipping young people with the skills, knowledge and roundedness needed to prepare them for work or further study.

To inform debate on the future of the Key Stage 4 and 5 curriculum in England, this policy briefing explores:

  • what is a baccalaureate?
  • how do A-levels and VTQs compare to a baccalaureate?
  • is a baccalaureate model the future for England?

What is a baccalaureate?

A baccalaureate can be loosely defined as a pre-university programme of study and assessment, with an emphasis on covering a core set of subjects within a rounded curriculum.

Stakeholders who propose moving to a baccalaureate system typically do not specify what they mean and what they envisage a baccalaureate system would look like, and instead simply point to the number of cases overseas. The implication of this argument is that there is one settled option of what a baccalaureate system looks like.

In fact, multiple baccalaureate systems exist with often widely divergent characteristics. There is not one baccalaureate system, but many.

It is therefore useful to explore existing qualifications which fall under the baccalaureate label – before turning to what sets them apart from popular Level 3 qualifications in England such as A-levels and BTECs. Several examples are reviewed:

  • The International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme
  • Le baccalauréat in France
  • The European Baccalaureate
  • Das Abitur in Germany
  • Vocational and technical baccalaureates

The International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme

The International Baccalaureate (IB) was founded in 1968 and its vision was twofold – by nature of it being sat worldwide, it seeks to be both an “educational technique for peace” and a suitable pre-university qualification for the children of the internationally mobile.

The IB is a popular model studied around the world. In 2021, there were 165,884 students in 3,073 schools undertaking the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme. Of these, 64% of candidates were in the Americas, 23% were in Africa, Europe and the Middle East, and 12% were in Asia and the Pacific region. 52% of these schools were in the private sector, and 48% were in the state sector.

In England, a growing number of schools, notably international, private and some grammar schools and large FE colleges, offer the IB Diploma Programme either instead of or as an alternative option to A-levels. 

Students taking the Diploma Programme must study six subjects (normally three at Higher Level, and the others at Standard Level), which must include:

  • their first language, or more accurately the literature of a language in which they are fluent
  • a second language, which can be studied at beginners’, progressors’ or fluent level
  • a humanity or social science
  • a science
  • mathematics, with assorted types and difficulty levels offered
  • and either an art, or an elective from one of the groups above

In addition, they must undertake a dissertation-style 4,000-word Extended Essay in a topic of their choosing, an epistemology course called Theory of Knowledge, and undertake at least 150 hours of extracurricular activities spanning Creativity, Action and Service.

Each of the six main subjects is graded from 7 (the highest) to 1 (the lowest), and a matrix is used based on their Extended Essay and Theory of Knowledge grades to award up to an additional 3 points – for a maximum possible Diploma result of 45.

Le baccalauréat

The French end-of-school examinations – taken in the last two years of school – are known as the baccalauréat, or the ‘bac’.

It has existed since the middle ages, but has evolved many times since then. As of 2021, around 40% of French students have undertaken the academic ‘general baccalaureate.’

In the general baccalaureate, 40% of marks come from continuous assessment in:

  • history and geography (5%)
  • two foreign languages (or one foreign and one regional – such as Basque, Breton or Corsican) contribute 5% each
  • physical education (5%),
  • science (5%)
  • and their school report (10%).

60% of marks are obtained in national tests, including in written and oral French (10%) and philosophy (8%).

All of these elements have the aim of ensuring students undertake ‘rounded’ studies. However, the remaining marks allow for a certain degree of specialisation.

Students can choose three options out of twelve: arts; biology and ecology; history, geography and politics; foreign and regional languages; languages and cultures of antiquity; mathematics; computer science; chemistry and physics; life and earth sciences; and economic and social sciences.

One of these is dropped at the end of the first year, and contributes a further 5% of the continuous assessment marks. National tests are sat in the remaining two, each counting for 16% of the final mark. The remaining 10% of the overall grade is made up of the ‘grand oral exam’ – students must prepare five-minute personal reflections on two questions related to their specialisms, and publicly present one of them chosen by an examiner.

As of 2019, 80% of people in France hold a baccalaureate – 42.6% have the general baccalaureate, while 16.5% and 20.9% have a technological or professional baccalaureate, respectively, discussed in more detail later in this briefing.

The European Baccalaureate

There are around 21,000 pupils taking the European Baccalaureate of whom 1,400 sit their final exams each year in 33 schools across 14 countries, which must be European Union member states. It is overseen by an organisation called European Schools.

Students must speak at least two languages as part of their programme. Alongside these two languages, they study mathematics, sport and either religion or ethics. They must also study history and geography in their second language (as proof of their bilingualism), philosophy and a science. Students supplement these with three to five electives from across the spectrum of subjects from art to Ancient Greek. The exams are taken in January and June of the seventh and final year of study, at Year 13 age.

Das Abitur

‘Abitur’ is effectively the German word for baccalaureate (the International Baccalaureate and European Baccalaureate are known in Germany as the internationales Abitur and europäisches Abitur respectively).

The Abitur is also the longstanding end-of-secondary qualification taken at the end of secondary school at age 18 or 19 in Germany. It is usually taken at the end of a student’s time at an academically selective Gymnasium school, attended by approximately 30% of German pupils.

There is some variation from one state to another but students undertake four or five subjects- two or three at an advanced level, and three of these must each come from one of four categories:

  • Language, literature and the arts
  • Social sciences
  • Mathematics, natural sciences and technology
  • Sports

The other one or two subjects comprise a free choice for the student.

Vocational and technical baccalaureates

Both the International Baccalaureate and the French baccalauréat have introduced vocational and/or technical streams.

The IB Career-Related Programme collaborates with a number of businesses and organisations across the world, and students take two of the ‘traditional’ academic IB subjects alongside their career-related studies.

The baccalauréat technologique was introduced in 1968, for those who wished to pursue a technical rather than academic progression route. It contributed greatly to the larger number of school leavers in recent decades who have attained a baccalaureate.

Its study streams include management, healthcare, industry and sustainable development, design and applied art, hospitality, laboratory work, agronomy and living organisms, and theatre, music and dance.

In a similar vein, there is the baccalauréat professionnel whichoffers streams including food, sales, beauty, building, health, design, vehicles and digital.

How do A-levels and VTQs compare to a baccalaureate?

There are number of similarities between baccalaureates, and the English system of A-levels, and vocational and technical qualifications (VTQs), such as BTECs. In particular, these qualifications are taken at the end of secondary education, usually in preparation for progression into further study or work. However, there are also a number of differences.

Curriculum breadth

Baccalaureates typically mandate roundedness among their students, requiring them to study a broad curriculum.

Unlike A-levels, baccalaureate students have no option to specialise in their final two years of study and take, for example, three STEM subjects or three languages.

There are pros and cons to such an approach.

By giving students the option to specialise, the A-level system in England also creates greater risk that students will have options shut off because of the subject choices they studied at 16 and chose several years earlier still. For example, not taking maths at A-level may reduce a student’s higher education subject options. Whereas in many baccalaureate models, students would have been required to continue studying maths.  

This risk is therefore reduced in a baccalaureate system because students are typically required to study a broad range of subjects. However, the lack of opportunity to specialise may be detrimental to students who know what they wish to do, and are forced to take subjects of limited use to their studies and desired careers.

Similarly, those who want to have the freedom to mix academic and technical qualifications are less able to do so in many baccalaureate systems. In England, meanwhile, Level 3 students can mix and match A-levels and VTQs in line with their interests and progression plans.

It is also worth noting that the curriculum breadth of a baccalaureate course – e.g. six subjects, a philosophy course and a personal project (as in the IB) – is extremely time-consuming. Students undertaking three A-levels arguably have more time for hobbies and socialising.

Extended projects

A common, but not universal, feature of baccalaureates is a compulsory personal project or extended essay.

In England, project qualifications are widely available but are not part of the mainstream curriculum Foundation, Higher or Extended Project Qualifications (Levels 1, 2 and 3 respectively). The final output of a project qualification can be a report or an artefact, so offers some additional flexibility relative to the IB’s Extended Essay.

Advocates for project qualifications argue that it enables those who want to explore a topic in greater depth to do so, and to pick up an additional qualification.

Around 30,000 students per year in England complete an Extended Project Qualification, usually alongside A-levels, and these are recognised by a growing number of universities.

Mode of assessment

Level 3 qualifications in England, including BTECs and A-levels, vary widely in their ratio of examinations to non-exam assessment (NEA, or coursework).

Subjects as diverse as English Literature, French, geography, physics and music typically require some type of NEA, whether an assignment, oral, practical, fieldwork or portfolio.

There are however some A-levels which are awarded entirely on the basis of exams, which is not the case with the equivalent subject in the IB – some examples of which below:

CourseAssessmentCourseAssessment
A-level Latin (OCR)100% examHL Latin60% exam
A-level Environmental Science (AQA)100% examSL Environmental Systems & Societies75% exam
A-level Government & Politics (Edexcel)100% examHL Global Politics60% exam
A-level Mathematics (WJEC)100% examHL Maths: Applications & Interpretations80% exam

Baccalaureate systems, meanwhile, have or are shifting towards a more blended approach to exams and coursework. This includes modes which remain relatively exceptional in England, such as oral exams, which are a feature of the French baccalaureate’s Grand Oral, or the IB’s Theory of Knowledge presentation, and are mandatory for all students taking those courses.

Nevertheless, given many A-levels historically featured coursework, it may be that the ratio between exams and NEA will change again in the future.

Is a baccalaureate model the future for England?

Calls for England to adopt a baccalaureate system have been made repeatedly over many years – as with the 2004 Tomlinson Report, which called for GCSEs, AS- and A-levels, BTECs and AVCEs to be replaced by a 14-to-19 diploma. However, such a change has never materialised.

Ultimately, the benefits of a baccalaureate model depend the value that is placed on:

  • roundedness and curriculum breadth – which are often perceived to benefit students, but may result in them having to study subjects up to the age of 18 for which they ultimately have no use, versus
  • student choice – allowing students to exercise choice regarding what they study before they leave mainstream education.

In England, many young people see it as their right to choose what they study after the age of 16, which is one reason why a baccalaureate model has not been adopted.

Crucially, the post-16 system in England does enable students to choose a broad curriculum, including academic, vocational and technical qualifications. As such, no student is prevented from pursuing breadth if they so wish and realising the benefits of a rounded curriculum in the style of a baccalaureate.

A new middle ground?

While debate on the baccalaureate model frequently features calls for a wholesale adoption, several middle ground options can be identified:

  1. The 14-16 GCSE English Baccalaureate (EBacc) does not exist as a separate qualification or award but, via the school performance measurement system, the government recognises achievement of a grade 4 and above a range of GCSE subjects across five EBacc categories (Maths, English, Science, Humanities and Languages) as a student achieving the EBacc. The government’s ambition is for 90% of students to achieve the EBacc by 2025. In this way, the government encourage curriculum breadth up to the age of 16.
  • Launched in 2015, the Welsh Baccalaureate[3] is a non-compulsory curriculum programme that aims to give learners “broader experiences than traditional learning programmes”. It certificates 14- to 19-year-olds whether they are Level 1, 2 or 3 learners. They must have achieved a GCSE in English or Welsh, and in maths; any grade is acceptable.  They must also have picked up some further Level-appropriate qualifications. The Welsh Baccalaureate also includes a personal project, as found in most baccalaureate systems. While it is not a standalone entry qualification for universities, it does attract some UCAS points because students are required to demonstrate certain skills and undertake certain challenges (such as ‘enterprise and employability’ and ‘global citizenship’).
  • The National Baccalaureate Trust in England has called for a baccalaureate-style system which that couldconsist of a transcript for 14- to 19-year-olds that would record a mandatory personal project, some extracurricular activities and any other qualifications obtained during this stage, including existing GCSEs, A-levels and vocational qualifications.[4]

Conclusion

Proposals for reform to 14-19 education in England based on a baccalaureate have been a persistent feature of curriculum and assessment debate, but have often lacked detail. Any move to a baccalaureate model would require a specific set of policy choices by the government, which advocates of a baccalaureate model need to address:

  • How much choice should be taken away from students at Key Stage 4 and Key Stage 5?
  • Should a new baccalaureate be developed from scratch in the style of certain baccalaureate models that mandate English, maths, a personal project as well as courses from prescribed lists?
  • Or, should a new baccalaureate model offer considerable flexibility by recognising a wide range of Level 3 courses (both A-levels and VTQs) – more akin to the Welsh Baccalaureate?

Ultimately, any type of baccalaureate confronts the same trade-offs and choices around curriculum and assessment. It is important to emphasise that a baccalaureate model is not a ‘magic wand’, and the perceived benefits associated with a baccalaureate system can be achieved for students in the context of the current English system of assessment and qualification.

[1] https://questions-statements.parliament.uk/written-statements/detail/2016-03-01/hlws549

[2] https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/11961/19/annexes%20to%20final%20report_Redacted.pdf

[3] https://gov.wales/welsh-baccalaureate

[4] https://drive.google.com/file/d/1sAiv4IE_31ZDACUzBoZbDB12UF8xeGyy/view

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