It isn’t enough just to abolish A Levels


The UK government has announced its intention to abolish A-Levels. This is to be welcomed. Indeed, it is one of the suggestions we make in Education for the 21st Century, our Open Manifesto suggestions for educational reform.

Yet the suggestion that A-levels should be replaced by a baccalaureate betrays a government locked in an archaic, exam focused mindset that is no longer fit for the requirements of the 21st century. 

The world has transformed. An education system that has become a joyless exam factory, still focused on the transmission of knowledge and testing through formal exams, is no longer fit for purpose in an information saturated world.

A world where knowledge is available at everyone’s fingertips; where emerging Artificial Intelligence tools will transform the landscape; where today’s ‘knowledge’ is obsolete tomorrow morning; where businesses continue to complain about hiring students unable to be productive in the real world.

What is needed is a fundamental change in mindset of what a 21st century education should look like not the tinkering around the edges that has characterised so-called ‘education reform’ for decades.

In our manifesto suggestions we focus on the following main issues:

  • Rethinking what the purpose of education is in a 21st century world.
  • Abolishing the national curriculum and moving towards a system where individual students can compile their own curriculum according to their own passions and interests.  
  • Developing the teaching skills necessary in a 21st century technology dominated and information saturated world.
  • Moving from a summative approach to evaluating performance (exams) to a formative, project-based assessment.
  • Incorporating exposure to ‘real world’ experience into the educational model.
  • A fundamental reset of the role of Ofsted to focus on enhancing performance rather than finger-wagging policing.

Education is a vital tool for strengthening the country’s economic prospects, narrowing the gap between rich and poor, improving social mobility, encouraging innovation and change, providing resilience, reducing dependency, and providing empowerment and real participation in civic life. 

We need a government that is capable of delivering the bold reforms necessary to change the mindset and approach. To enable Britain’s success in a 21st century world.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. baldarab says

    Seven years back, I sent an email directly about this to the headteacher at the school of one of my children. He’d sent an email about how the school was approaching technology – essentially saying that they teach coding. Still relevant, and a small subset.

    Dear David,

    Your newsletter article last week was particularly interesting and topical. I have been concerned for some little while that our education system has been treating the subject of technology in a fairly superficial way, while the world that our children will inhabit is being transformed somewhat more profoundly. We teach ‘technology’ as a subject, or at best as a facilitator, but we don’t focus as explicitly on its impact on what our children will need in order to succeed in a dynamic world increasingly shaped by rapidly accelerating technology.

    There are a number of factors that make their world radically different from ours. The availability of information, as you highlighted, is one, though it is a double-edged sword. The opportunity is absolutely the ease with which it is accessible, but the challenge is to discern objective truth (whatever that means, but that’s a separate discussion) from intentional or simply misinformed content. For instance, faced with a research issue, my eldest boys will often do a Google search and use the first result that comes back. This is not through laziness (at least, not entirely!), but simply because they find it hard to conceive that it may be totally inaccurate. Likewise, content on Wikipedia is viewed as factual without reference or analysis of sources. It is a continual topic of discussion that I have with them, though I don’t have the pedagogical skills to formally educate them in how to apply critical thinking to the search results that they find.

    But this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of how their world is already changing. Permanent connectivity (which I view as different from connection), and its most insidious impact of constant distraction, makes focus much harder while the ability to do so becomes a rare and prized asset. The ability to resist the continual dopamine hit of an incoming email, or Facebook update, or WhatsApp message, or Tweet, or any of countless notification-fuelled mechanisms of contact is lacking in most adults, let alone children who if we’re not careful will be neurologically wired to this from an early age. Likewise, rapidly developing computational ability is being applied today even to intellectually challenging areas, such as the law, which means that the type of demands on tomorrow’s adult will be very different from those on today’s. Our education should be arming them for the skills of that world rather than those of ours if they are to achieve to their capabilities.

    Some of these skills are ones that I believe your school is already working hard at equipping them with, simply because they are perennial skills worth cultivating. Many of those are relentlessly undermined by trends in technology, and so they will become increasingly rare, and their value will only increase. For example, the focus that comes with meditative practice, if transferred into all areas of their lives will serve them well against constant interruption. Likewise, contemplation and self-awareness will be in greater demand as reliance on technology increases. In addition, the attention the school pays to communication skills and the ability to be articulate are very human requirements which are in visible recession in young adults. Clarity on values and ethical thinking will play a key role as we move to a more automated world. For instance, as we move to autonomous vehicles, at some point we will be called upon to codify ethical decisions regarding the probabilities that attach to accidents. Or in the field of biotechnology and genomics, we are already facing hard ethical choices with regards to what are the boundaries within which we can alter life.

    However, there are a number of areas where I wonder whether there is a strategy in place to help develop the boys’ skills. Some are about thinking processes, others about attitudes, and others about deepening their humanity. For instance:

    – the very skill of learning, and identifying their best way of doing this effectively, as the relative importance of learning rather than fact retention increases;
    – critical thinking to help with discerning information from the flood that is too readily available;
    – logical thinking, and the construction of arguments, to help not only with shaping what they do, but also to deepen their facility to understand technology;
    – creativity and innovation, which may be the start of processes that could then be handed over to technology for the more predictable processes of delivering the innovations;
    – empathy;
    – planning, executing, inspecting and adapting;
    – curiosity.

    It’s a long list, and one which I believe our generation only learned as a set of by-products, rather than as a set of primary attributes, and which I think our education systems still don’t focus on sufficiently. I don’t raise it as a technological luddite – far from it, I’ve made my career with technology, and am a fan of its capabilities. However, I am also concerned with it developing a momentum whose impact occurs without conscious thought on our side, and am concerned that we collectively address this so that we remain masters of its direction. This is something which I’ve raised as a governor at my younger children’s primary school, where initiatives are now in play to support these, especially in the areas of conscious application of learning skills. I also raised this with your development consultant when we met, though I think it was probably outside the scope of his work. I am intrigued as to whether these are areas that you see the school playing a stronger role with our boys’ education, and if so, how that would be practically implemented.

    A long email – apologies – but it is a topic which is dear to my heart, especially with regards to the futures of our children.

    • Joe Zammit-Lucia says

      Thank you for your comment and for posting your very insightful email.

      You are quite right that we are stuck with a focus on ‘subjects’ rather than skills. The whole education system is structured around that.

      One question is what would it take to change that. I can imagine significant resistance from may quarters within the educational establishment.

      Many ideas have been around for a long time and voiced by many. But little ever seems to change. Why? How can we overcome such inertia?

  2. Nigel Langley says

    I agree with nearly all of your education manifesto. I like the emphasis on real-world experience. It would be great if some classes are taught by people who work as project managers, AI professionals, etc. However, I’m uncomfortable with the mandatory one-size-fits-all requirement of a minimum of 20% of time spent outside. At tertiary level, this might be difficult in some subjects. I would make the 20% a recommendation, rather than a requirement. At school, I would give each teenage pupil the option to opt of these visits so they can pursue their own passions instead.

    Wherever there is assessment, it means schools and many students will be focused on assessments, not on students developing the skills they need or pursuing their own passions. Continuous formative assessment means continuous stress. Is it worth considering whether to abolish assessments in schools? When students leave school, they could get a report that, for each subject studied, lists the topics they’ve studied and that lists projects accomplished on their own, in pairs and in teams of three or more.

    • Joe Zammit-Lucia says

      Thank you for your helpful commentary.

      I take your point about assessments – whether summative or formative. In my experience, students find formative assessments much less stressful unless they are implemented with the old mindset – essentially as frequent summative assessments. But there are other ways.

      One question would be the likely reaction from both higher education institutions and future employers to a system without some form of assessment. As we know, assessments are used, rightly or wrongly, as a shortcut to filter out applicants to some sort of manageable shortlist. One would need to find alternative ways of doing that.

      That said, I suggest that your idea that kids leaving education would have a description of what they have achieved and what is their specific skill set is a great one. Well worth putting forward and exploring further.

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