Lindsey Taylor, OCR Policy Researcher
It’s been a busy year for education policy-making, particularly when it comes to qualifications and assessment. In this blog I’ll take a look back at three of the key education policy developments of 2023 – broadening the curriculum, vocational reform, and artificial intelligence – and consider how these might change or evolve as we move towards a General Election.
The Prime Minister Rishi Sunak started the year with his ambition for all young people to study maths in some form until the age of 18 to combat what he sees as high rates of innumeracy in England. By October, this pledge had morphed into something with a much more significant impact – a new baccalaureate-style qualification called the ‘Advanced British Standard’, with A Levels and T Levels becoming one single qualification and both maths and English made compulsory to the age of 18.
Some might say that these proposals may never see the full light of day: that teacher shortages are already at a concerning high; that schools and colleges are struggling with post-pandemic recovery, stability, and well-being. Others have welcomed the long-called-for aspiration for a broader curriculum which will allow young people to embrace both academic and technical understanding on their journey to progression. Either way, the Department for Education’s thinking and consultation on the 10-year implementation plan is already well underway.
If elected to government, the Labour Party has said it plans to carry out a major review of curriculum and assessment before making changes but the Party’s mission for opportunity published in July clearly sign-posted a desire for more breadth in the curriculum, with an emphasis on developing knowledge as well as skills. Whoever is in government after the General Election, it seems clear that, although it may not be immediate, a move towards a broader curriculum is inevitable.
The start of the year also saw confirmation of the final pieces of the government’s post-16 vocational reforms in the form of the approvals process, subjects permitted, and timelines for new Level 3 qualifications (I’ll save post-16 Level 2 and below reforms for another time). Awarding organisations submitted new Level 3 qualifications for approval earlier this year – Alternative Academic Qualifications and Technical qualifications – for first teaching in 2025, with future cycles to follow in subsequent years.
Lobbying to reduce the impact of these reforms across the sector, particularly in terms of the timescale for de-funding existing qualifications, has continued throughout 2023, not least with the publication in May of the two-year inquiry from the Education Select Committee which said that the reforms were based on “untried and untested” [T Level] qualifications. We don’t yet know the full detail of how these post-16 reforms will progress within the plans for the Advanced British Standard, but the Prime Minister has said that reducing the number of technical qualifications in the landscape will continue, as will the development of T Levels. If elected to government, Labour has said it will pause post-16 reforms and review options before making any changes.
The uncertainty that this potential change to policy is causing for schools and colleges is recognised, and here at OCR we do everything we can to provide support throughout government reforms. What is best for learners should always remain at the heart of education policy.
One of the biggest news items of the year was of course Artificial Intelligence, or the increased public access to AI, and the impact of that on education. The Department for Education has now responded to its call for evidence on AI in the summer aiming to better understand the dangers and opportunities so that education is not left behind.
We can’t put AI back in its box – it has the potential to transform education. AI will change the way in which students learn and how they are supported by their teachers. There are risks and potential unseen consequences associated with the unskilled or inappropriate use of AI, but it represents a massive opportunity to enhance approaches to education and assessment – something which needs to be embraced rather than suppressed. The debates about its risks and benefits will continue for a long time.
The impact of technology and digitalisation on education goes well beyond the use of AI of course, and is a growing area of investigation for the Department for Education. The knowledge and skills required in this fast-changing arena are equally important and the Labour Party has already said, if elected to government, it wants to see increased digital skills embedded across the entire curriculum with whole-school approaches to developing digital skills.
Embracing the possibilities of AI, technology and digitalisation for qualifications and assessment will no doubt feature well into 2024 and beyond.
When pre-election manifestos are published in 2024, we may have a clearer view of exactly what the next government’s plans will be for education. But don’t forget that the run up to the General Election comes at a time when we will have a new Ofsted Chief Inspector, a new Ofqual Chief Regulator and a new UCAS CEO – all of whom may have their own ideas and priorities for their time in post which could impact across the education sector at a time of potential policy change.
As we began to emerge in 2023 from an unprecedented time, the challenges of disruption to learning seen during the pandemic were not the only significant impacts to education we saw this year. The media headlines around teacher recruitment and retention, mental health, the widening attainment gap and the cost of living (to name a few) continue. Some say that crisis is not an over-used word in education. A call for A Level reform is not necessarily at the top of everyone’s priority list. One thing’s for sure, whoever ends up in government after the General Election will need more than a crystal ball to conquer the long to-do list.
You can keep up to date with all the latest policy developments on OCR’s policy website and @OCR_Policy on Twitter/X. If you have comments, you can email us at email@example.com.
Lindsey has been with OCR since its inception in 1998 having worked for RSA in the early 90s. Her role covers policy research, policy comms and stakeholder engagement with a particular current focus on the run up to the General Election.