The president of the UK’s most prestigious science academy is to call for A-levels to be replaced with a baccalaureate-style qualification to “break the stranglehold of academic snobbery” towards learning skills.
Sir Adrian Smith will tell a Royal Society conference on the future of education that concentrating on A-levels “forces young people to abandon a broad range of skills at the age of 16”, narrowing their perspectives and limiting their ability to change careers later in life.
The Royal Society, founded in 1660, includes the likes of Issac Newton, Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking among its past fellows. But Smith – a former vice-chancellor of the University of London – wants fewer theoretical and more practical qualifications for the good of the country.
“If we want industry to thrive, productivity to increase and to create a more equal society, we need to be smarter and better prepared for the future,” Smith said. “The only way to do that is to get education right.
“At present, we have a 20th century educational system limping along in the 21st century. It is time for an upgrade.”
Part of Smith’s suggestions include students continuing with maths after their GCSEs by studying a “core maths” qualification to equip them with statistical and data skills.
“In our daily lives, we are continually faced with an avalanche of figures, numbers and statistics,” said Smith, himself a statistician. “Too few people have been taught the skills to process all this data, preventing millions from pursuing the kind of fulfilling jobs that our economy needs to thrive, and disenfranchising too many from participating confidently in informed national conversation.”
Smith will argue for qualifications encompassing wider skills to replace A-levels in England as the most likely pathway to high-skilled jobs, and point to the opportunities that technical qualifications such as T-levels offer instead.
“Unless we can break the stranglehold of academic snobbery, the moment may pass,” Smith – who studied at the University of Cambridge and University College London – will say.
“With the disruption caused to learning during the pandemic, there has never been a more opportune moment to make changes to improve outcomes for all.
“Educational reform could lead to a significant and positive impact on social mobility and helping to meet the government’s ‘levelling up’ ambitions.
“If we are serious about ‘levelling up’ we also need to be looking at the further and technical education sectors and recalibrating the relationship between technical and academic routes into careers.”