Are we ready for the ‘Advanced British Standard’?

Imagine waking up tomorrow as the headteacher of a small and struggling school. Early in the morning, a news article flashes on your phone screen: ‘Sunak qualification to replace A-levels and T-levels’. Your school will have to provide a new post-16 programme offering at least 5 subjects to each student and a brand new syllabus for every subject. The scale of this new challenge begins to form in your mind; you already have a teacher shortage, a tight budget constraint, and an overworked and underpaid group of staff. How can you ask each exhausted teacher to revise and rewrite hundreds of lessons? How will you find the money to employ new teachers and expand your already outdated facilities?

This nightmare became reality for headteachers around the country on the 2nd of October 2023, when Rishi Sunak announced the development of a new ‘Advanced British Standard’ (ABS). The ABS, though still an uncertain mixture of possible policies, is built upon Sunak’s declaration of the need for Maths and English education to the age of 18. Beyond the question of whether this new policy is a suitable replacement for A-levels and T-levels, we must ask whether this new direction for education is possible in a schooling system so underfunded and understaffed.

In response to the new policy, Daniel Kebede, General Secretary of the National Education Union, stated that the system was not ready for such a radical change – arguing that schools already have dangerously low numbers of teaching staff: this is shown in the Recruitment and Employment Confederation’s statement that there are almost 40,000 job vacancies in nursery, primary and secondary schools. Last year, teacher recruitment levels were 41% below the government target, and the number of teaching recruits for the next year remains around half the required level. This shows a worrying trend, that there won’t be enough teachers to implement the policy without serious new incentives. 

This shortage poses a threat to Mr. Sunak’s policy. His plan needs to provide the right incentives to attract more teachers to the public system. The proposal’s offering of special tax-free bonuses to some new teachers is not enough; it’s critically underestimating the scale of the problems within the education system. A short-term ‘bonus’ solution will only help a limited few - around 1-2% of teachers - and only for a limited time. It neglects the fact that teaching is a highly qualified profession, requiring long-term training and commitment. Potential Teachers will be looking at how they will be treated and paid over the course of their entire career, not the few years after they graduate. 


Even assuming that Sunak could fix the supply of qualified teachers, budgets would still be too tight. Within the last year, it has been found that 54% of schools will go into deficit unless they make heavy cuts to their budget. As a result, 50% of schools may be forced to reduce their number of teachers or their hours. Reality is far removed from Sunak’s plan of hiring more teachers into an underpaid and overworked profession. 

Even while Sunak is so invested in rewriting the nature of post-16 education, he continues to  neglect the physical foundations on which schools are built. Less than a month ago, it was revealed that schools were at risk of collapsing concrete. There are plenty of potential investments which are a greater priority than replacing an already functioning qualification: rebuilding and improving teaching areas, lowering average class sizes, or even providing funding for more extra-curricular activities - all of which have been neglected by successive governments, leading to overcrowded classrooms, collapsing buildings, and major inequality between students in music and other more practical subjects.

If Sunak’s government seriously wants to reform education, any existing crises must be addressed in advance of expecting schools to handle a new curriculum. The process would need to include long-term funding to redress the lost investment under austerity, especially investment in teaching and recruitment. He needs to repair the broken industrial relations that have harmed potential employment for years. But Sunak’s announcement was strangely silent on structural issues; he made no pay commitments beyond the short-term bonuses for new teachers and offered no promise to increase spending on education with or above the rate of inflation.

With the expectation for students to start the ABS in 2033 at the earliest, the government could fix these problems in time for the qualification’s success. However, the commitment and long-term planning are not yet there. Schools would need financial support to develop both their facilities and teaching hours to meet the growing student intake. This has not been the case to date; per-student expenditure has remained relatively neglected since the austerity low of the 2010s, decreasing in real terms by 8% since 2009.

So, are we ready? The answer right now is certainly not. But the government does have time. If they were to actively begin a recruitment and funding drive into the schooling system, then the policy has every chance of being a success. However, the current focus on fiscal conservatism makes it very unlikely that sufficient funding will be offered before it becomes absolutely necessary – at which point the schools will be in no state to offer a high-quality qualification.

All articles and opinions posted give the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Leeds Think Tank, the Leeds University Union, or the University of Leeds.