The front-page story in this week’s Times Educational Supplement has attracted considerable attention from English educational commentators .
Titled: ‘Elite: Forget GCSE, Go Straight to A Level’, it says:
‘Ministers are considering giving state schools the freedom to bypass GCSEs and fast-track bright pupils straight to A-levels.
New performance measures are also proposed, including an ‘advanced Bac’ GCSE benchmark – building on the controversial English Baccalaureate (EBac) – and an ‘accelerated Bac’ to reward schools that skip GCSEs.
“We are considering much greater freedom for schools to accelerate bright kids past GCSE to do either A levels or pre-Us and introducing league table measures that capture that and reward schools for it, not penalise them,” a source close to education secretary Michael Gove said.
The source points to Singapore where they say around a fifth of pupils take A-levels without any intermediate national exams.
Ministers are concerned that schools in England that did the same thing and put 16-year-olds in for more advanced exams, instead of GCSEs, would be punished in the current league tables.
As a result they are planning an ‘accelerated Bac’ for the GCSE tables to reflect and reward passes in “much harder” qualifications.’
The Baccalaureate Controversy
Most of the attention has focused on the notion that the Department is interested in variants on the already controversial English Baccalaureate (E Bac), which is not a new qualification but a grouping of existing Key Stage 4 qualifications (taken at age 16) now reported in England’s annual School Performance Tables.
The Government intends the E Bac to act as a policy lever encouraging schools to ‘offer pupils a broad range of academic subjects to age 16’.
OFSTED inspection and school performance tables are just about the only two powerful policy levers left to Central Government, which has been busy unhypothecating funding streams, eliminating programmes and conferring greater autonomy on schools.
In order to achieve the E Bac, students must achieve at least at least a Grade C in GCSE or iGCSE examinations in six subjects: English, maths, two sciences, a language and a humanities subject.
Many professionals are angry that this new measure, included for the first time in the January 2011 Performance Tables, was imposed retrospectively – in the sense that it was applied to students who had already undertaken their courses, so schools had no chance to adjust their policies on course entry.
Consequently, just 15% of students nationally achieved the E Bac in 2010. Moreover, this already low global figure masks enormous variation between schools. Some selective schools and many academies are amongst those with very low percentages of pupils jumping the E Bac hurdle.
Some schools are reportedly taking emergency action by adjusting their options choices, or even providing additional ‘extended learning opportunities’ for students without the requisite subject combinations. Others have opted instead to develop alternative baccalaureates of their own, or simply to ignore the new measure and continue as before.
Many educators are concerned that the choice of subjects for inclusion in the E Bac is unnecessarily narrow – there are campaigns against the exclusion of RE and music for example – and that it will narrow the secondary curriculum, weakening their capacity to offer students a wider range of options that reflect their needs and interests.
The TES story aggravates these concerns still further by suggesting that Ministers are now contemplating:
- an ‘Advanced Bac’, also at GCSE level, which would require in addition to the existing qualifications a third science and English Literature, so eight GCSEs/iGCSEs in all; and
- an ‘Accelerated Bac’ which would enable schools to recognise the achievement of learners who had skipped GCSEs and moved on to advanced courses, in recognition of the fact that the E Bac would be a disincentive to schools contemplating such provision.
The first of these especially is ‘a red rag to a bull’ since it compounds the key problem of inflexibility associated with the original E Bac.
(I have myself suggested that an advanced Bac would be a useful way to reward performance by gifted learners, but via achievement of A*/A grades in the existing Bac subject areas, rather than by increasing the number of subject areas included.)
But the real story here is not so much the floating of possible Bac variants – indeed any Ministerial intention to foster these developments has subsequently been denied – but, much more significantly, the idea of following Singapore’s example in introducing the option of skipping KS4 qualifications entirely.
In Singapore this is achieved by means of the Integrated Programme (IP).
Secondary School Pathways in Singapore
Singapore’s education system is complex. All learners follow a six-year primary school curriculum which culminates in the Primary School Leaving Examination (PLSE).
Those in the maintained sector then typically follow one of four main secondary pathways:
- a Secondary Vocational Course lasting from one to four years, followed by a one or two year course at an Institute of Technical Education; or
- a Secondary Normal course that can be either Academic (five years) or Technical (four years). The former culminates in GCE O level; the latter in GCE N (Normal) Level (But students who perform well can progress on to O level after a further year of study). Those completing N level progress to an Institute of Technical Education; those completing O level to a Junior College (see below); or
- a Secondary Express course, lasting four years, culminating in GCE O level qualifications and followed by two or three years in Junior College culminating in GCE A level or an equivalent qualification; or
- an Integrated Programme (IP) that combines secondary education and Junior College, culminates in GCE A levels or an equivalent qualification and has no intermediate qualification.
It is the latter option that the English Government is reportedly interested in replicating.
There are several variants to these core strands, as the system has developed over the past decade. Further helpful information about the Singapore secondary education system can be found in this publication.
Origins of the IP
The Integrated Programme was originally recommended in a 2002 Report by the Junior College/Upper Secondary Education Committee.
It was one of several recommendations that were intended to make the education system more flexible and capable of nurturing diverse talents.
The Report offers the following justification:
‘‘O’ levels serve as a valuable intermediate benchmark for the large majority of our students. However, they are not necessary for students who are certain of going on to universities. For those students who have gone on to ‘A’ levels, the ‘O’ levels are not taken into account for university admission at home and abroad; the ‘A’ levels and SAT are the key bases for university admission.
Students who are clearly university-bound can better spend the last four years of their upper secondary/Junior College education, from Secondary Year 3 to Junior College Year 2, engaging in broader learning experiences, instead of preparing for two major examinations – the ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels – within the space of three years.
Some of our schools which are ready should offer IP that provides a seamless upper secondary and Junior College education where secondary students can proceed to Junior College without taking high stakes examinations at the ‘O’ levels. It is envisaged that the IP would be suitable for the top 10% of cohort (i.e. about 6-8 schools) eventually.
Currently, at least 92% of the top 5% of Primary School Leaving Examination (PLSE) cohort and 86% of the top 6-10% of PSLE cohort qualify for our local universities. The number of students in the top 10% who enter an IP school and fail to make it to a university, either in Singapore or abroad, will be few. Such students will be able to apply for the polytechnics, either after Secondary Year 4 (by taking polytechnic entrance tests) or after their ‘A’ levels.
There are 3 possible models for IP: 6th Form, Schools/Junior College Cluster and Junior College-Plus:
a. Model 1: 6th Form. In the 6th Form model, established secondary schools start classes for the pre-university levels so that their students can receive a six-year integrated education. Students remain in the school for 6 years;
b. Model 2: Schools/Junior College Cluster. A family of schools with strong affiliations, comprising secondary schools and their affiliated Junior College, can provide integrated education for their students from Secondary Year 1 to Junior College Year 2; and
c. Model 3: Junior College-Plus. A Junior College can extend its programme to start from Secondary Year 3 so as to provide an IP.’
‘Feedback received by the Committee suggested a majority in favour of introducing the IP. There were concerns of greater elitism being built into the education system. The Committee feels that we have to accept a degree of differentiation in the system if we want to have diversity and choice in education, offering different routes for students with different talents and inclinations. We should not stifle innovation in education to avoid differentiation. We should also not “level down” students who are able to benefit from new approaches to learning.
The establishment of IP in our schools will have implications for the Gifted Education Programme (GEP). It is expected that a significant proportion of GEP students (who represent the top 1% of cohort) will join the IP schools if they qualify. IP schools can choose to absorb the GEP students into the mainstream classes, but programmes catering to top abilities in specific subjects should be put in place to continue to cater to students with exceptional intellectual abilities.’
Development of the IP
The IP was introduced in 2004 in four schools but has expanded significantly since then.
A six-year IP is currently offered in nine institutions. In six of them it leads to GCE A level, in one (the NUS High School of Mathematics and Science) it culminates in the NUS’s own High School Diploma and in one more (the Anglo-Chinese School) it concludes with the International Baccalaureate (IB) qualification.
A four-year IP is also offered by two junior colleges, Temasek and Victoria. These courses start from year 3 of secondary education, so the overall duration of study remains six years.
It should be noted that additional gifted education support is available to students on the IP and O level tracks. Gifted students can choose either option. Further information about Singapore’s Gifted Education Programme (GEP) is available here.
In September 2010, Singapore’s Education Ministry announced that it would be expanding the IP programme to a further seven schools, given evidence that the first batch of participants had ‘performed well’:
The expansion means that around 10% of learners completing the Primary School Leaving Certificate will progress onto an IP, as originally intended.
An Exemplar IP Course
The IP at the National Junior College is described in some detail here. Key points from the coverage include:
- the 4 year programme established in 2004 attracts over 500 applicants for 130 places from Singapore and overseas
- a 6-year programme was introduced in 2009. In Years 1-4 students access a broad curriculum , regarded as a radical departure from the mainstream subject-based curriculum and built up from cross-disciplinary modules. All students must cover the core modules which include: Integrated Humanities, Integrated Sciences, Mathematics, Language Arts, Man And Ideas, Mother Tongue, SPIRE (Research Programme), Governance and Society, Guidance Curriculum, Arts Appreciation and Physical Fitness
- They can if they wish undertake additional core modules in art, music and a third language. They also select from a range of elective modules (eg Advanced Space Science, C++ Programming) and, if they excel in a particular area, they can take accelerated modules in that.
- In Years 5-6 they focus more specifically on A level studies
- Throughout the course emphasis is placed on the development of independent learning skills and Problem-Based learning (PBL) is deployed across some of the curriculum
- Students can also access several enrichment and development opportunities, including research attachments, overseas exchanges and community leadership programmes
- Every student has a personal mentor who provides social and emotional guidance, careers and university admissions advice and, if necessary, counselling
- There is a strong emphasis on leadership development, especially within the boarding option offered by the College.
- Assessment is via a continuous assessment framework and modular grades are combined in ‘a criterion-referenced grade point average system’
Is the IP Successful?
The Government remains firmly committed to the IP. The Ministry website says:
‘The time “saved” by not having to prepare for the GCE O-Level Examination is used to develop pupils’ intellectual curiosity, encourage them to undertake research work and provide a broad-based education that is more in tune with desired real-world competencies.
Elsewhere, the IP is described as providing:
‘a seamless education for students who are clearly bound for university with an integrated secondary and junior college education. With IP, more time is spent on stretching the potential of students and engaging them in broader learning experiences’.
In 2008, an MP asked the Singaporean Minister of Education a Parliamentary Question about evaluation of the IP. The reply noted that:
- Only a preliminary evaluation is possible since only one cohort has completed A level or equivalent examinations
- Student feedback is that ‘they have enjoyed the learning environment which allowed them to stretch their intellectual potential, while equipping them for self-directed learning’.
- Examination performance has been good. Performance of IP students in junior colleges in 2007 was comparable with the achievement of junior college students in 2006 (98.2% of IP students achieved a pass in three subjects plus a general paper, compared with 98.3% of JC students in 2006) and better than non-IP students in the same college in 2007 (96.8% of whom achieved the same outcome).
- Only ‘a handful’ of students did not achieve the admissions criteria for Singapore’s public universities.
There is, however, no specific information about the examination grades achieved by these students and how they compare with students not on the IP. It would be very interesting to see such data but I cannot source it online.
So Would it Work in the UK?
The concept of an Integrated Programme is attractive as an option for gifted students, who would be freed to a large extent from the age-locked education process that can often be so restrictive to their development.
There is no inherent reason why students completing such a programme would be at a disadvantage in terms of university admission, as this guidance issued by Exeter University shows. Indeed, the regular references to the IP in the admissions guidance of UK universities suggest that they would be quite familiar with the concept.
It would be a good test of the flexibility of the new National Curriculum that it could accommodate such provision. It would require extensive curriculum development work and careful piloting. Participating students would need to be very carefully selected and would need extensive support. It would not be a cheap option (though it might generate significant offsetting savings in terms of examination costs at age 16).
It would not serve as a substitute for a full-fledged gifted education policy. The example of Singapore shows that extensive investment is needed in the gifted education of younger pupils – and there is still a place for additional gifted education provision within the IP and, indeed, alongside it for other students.
Further evidence of the impact of the Singaporean provision would be extremely helpful. I am sure that they will have evaluated the IP extremely carefully, but it appears that very little of that information is in the public domain.
Such reticence, in a country that is typically scrupulous about placing key documents online, may suggest that the evidence so far is relatively mixed. For, if the vast majority of participating students achieved higher grades than a comparable ‘control’ group on the express track, I think we would know about it by now.
However, as the 2002 Report says,
‘We should not stifle innovation in education to avoid differentiation. We should also not “level down” students who are able to benefit from new approaches to learning.’
So, by all means, let’s give it a go, by testing and carefully evaluating an integrated approach in a sample of English schools.
Since the Government is clearly enthusiastic, there is an excellent opportunity to secure funding for a pilot targeted at gifted disadvantaged students through the Education Endowment Fund. And it would not be hard to establish such a programme at the heart of the Government’s drive to increase social mobility by improving fair access to competitive universities.
Do please contact me if you would like to work together on formulating such a bid!