From September 2024, GCSE pupils in Greater Manchester may be able to embark on a educational pathway created specifically for them. Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, announced his plans to introduce a Manchester Baccalaureate (MBacc) in May 2023 and a public consultation on the plans has recently closed.
The MBacc would not be a new subject or assessment system, but a recommended combination of subjects to be studied at GCSE level. It is intended to provide students in Greater Manchester – a city with strong industrial heritage – with the best preparation to go on to a vocational qualification.
Vocational qualifications include T-levels and apprenticeships, which students can study to prepare for careers in industries such as manufacturing, engineering, financial services and health and social care.
The MBacc is intended to provide an alternative to the existing English Baccalaureate (EBacc). The EBacc is a set of subjects considered to provide GCSE students with the range of academic knowledge required for further study at A-Level and university. The subjects required for the EBacc are GCSE English literature and language, maths, science, a language and either geography or history.
The MBacc, by contrast, could require students to study maths, English language and technology alongside optional subjects such as engineering, creative arts, or sciences.
The government is aiming for 90% of pupils in England to be taking the EBacc combination of subjects at GCSE by 2025. The MBacc plans would likely interfere with this target. Burnham has suggested that students will be able to switch between the EBacc and MBacc pathways, although it is not yet clear exactly how this would work.
Presumably students taking MBacc subjects would still be able to go on to do A-levels, but switching subjects in the middle of GCSEs would be far more problematic. GCSEs are studied over a two-year period, so once subjects have been selected it is unlikely that movement could take place between them without disadvantaging the student.
The aim of the MBacc is to establish greater equality in how academic and vocational pathways are valued. Burnham hopes to create “two equal routes – one academic and one technical”.
This certainly seems like a step in the right direction in terms of enhancing the profile of vocational subjects. Not all young people want to go on to higher education.
According to the MBacc proposal document, in 2022, nearly two-thirds of 16 year olds in Manchester either did not study EBacc subjects, or did not pass them. These students can fall through the gaps in an education system geared up to support progression to university. The aim of the MBacc will then be to guide them towards the subject choices that will most benefit a future in technical careers.
The dual offering of the EBacc and MBacc is intended “to give a clear path to all young people in Greater Manchester, whatever their interests, ambitions and passions”. If young people are able to move between vocational and academic tracks easily, this could reduce the perception that the vocational route is a back-up for the “less academic”. Instead, the MBacc could be an active, positive step that would allow students to make meaningful choices at 14, as well as at 16.
However, the MBacc may end up perpetuating the very academic-vocational division it claims to address. Where there is choice, there is hierarchy.
A-levels and level three BTECs have technically always been equivalent qualifications but have never been seen as such. Research I carried out with young people before the pandemic suggested that they were highly aware that vocational qualifications are perceived as less academic – and therefore less desirable – than A-levels by parents, teachers and universities.
T-levels were introduced in September 2020 to replace the BTEC qualification, which is due to be defunded in 2024. T-levels have been explicitly positioned by the government as being equivalent to three full A-levels.
However, these new qualifications have yet to successfully bridge the division between academic and vocational study routes. Some universities – including Oxford and Cambridge and some Russell Group members for particular courses – do not accept T-levels as part of their entrance requirements.
In my research, young people said teachers and parents were the most influential sources of advice when they chose their options at 16, with “brighter” students directed towards A-levels. Teachers will need to be supported to give advice that does not assign a hierarchy to the two routes. If this hierarchy emerges, the division that becomes apparent at 16 could begin even earlier.
The MBacc is designed to relate to the specific needs of Manchester, a devolved region with a distinct economy, and may not translate to other areas. However, any initiative that offers greater support to young people wishing to follow a vocational pathway should be welcomed – if with caution.
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