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Can the Manchester Baccalaureate bridge the technical education gap?

After securing its first devolution deal since 2017, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) is spearheading a new direction for education – the Manchester Baccalaureate (MBacc) – a qualification designed specifically for young people looking to enter technical education.

By September 2024, the MBacc will look to give young people a route straight into one of Greater Manchester’s regional industries via T Levels, apprenticeships, and placements.

A potential game-changer for schools and colleges, perhaps an early victory for the “trailblazer” devolution deal, or maybe a spanner in the works?

“It really comes down to what we can influence and control, and that is the spirit of devolution, ” said Councillor Eamonn O’Brien, leader of Bury Council and portfolio holder of Technical Education & Skills for the Greater Manchester Combined Authority.

“We’ve said we can create better programmes, we can make better decisions in our local area, and we have been working for a long time on that Greater Manchester relationship – all of our universities, colleges, areas of further education, training providers and businesses.

“If it is a success, then we can start to influence nationally after that.”

A local plan for the local economy. A model economy for the model system. A national system for the national policy. Swap out education for health and Manchester for Tredegar – you might think we’ve been here before.

But it’s not quite so easy or so popular with all parties.

A spokesperson for the Department for Education (DfE) recently criticised the MBacc, saying: “Introducing a separate system or Manchester Baccalaureate would undermine this progress, create an unequal system and narrow the opportunities available to young people.”

“Our reforms to post-16 qualifications are simplifying the system, providing a clearer choice of all the high-quality options available to young people including new T levels alongside A Levels, and creating a level playing field.

When discussing the DfE statement with Cllr O’Brien he seemed bemused with the comment. Not at the words themselves, but the logic behind it.

“We’re [the government] saying to the vast proportion of our young people: ‘if you don’t fully complete the EBacc, there is not a clear pathway for what you do next.’ We think that’s fundamentally wrong,” he said.

“Not just on a moral basis, but it’s bad for the economy, for those young people, and it doesn’t match the expectations of the jobs market. The reason why we wanted to add the MBacc wasn’t to replace the EBacc, but to be an equal pathway alongside it.”

While GMCA want T levels and apprenticeships to make up the backbone of their technical education MBacc, the current English Baccalaureate (EBacc) is seen by many as more of an academic pathway towards university.

Getting an EBacc requires Year 11 leavers to have obtained GCSEs in English language, English literature, maths, combined or triple science, geography or history, and a language.

This checklist approach can, and does, work for many who wish to get A levels and degrees. You might read this and not want to touch it with a 10-foot barge pole, and you’re not alone.

According to data from the government’s Explore education statistics, state-funded schools in England had only 38.7% of Key Stage 4 pupils (Years 10 and 11) entering the EBacc from 2021/22.

Anna Dawe, Principal of Wigan and Leigh College, said: “If you listen to the media and perceptions, the belief is that the academic route is the only valid route.

“I think the challenge we’re presented with is that too few young people believe that they’re technical pathway has got equal validity or value as A-Levels.”

Even accounting for COVID’s impact on education, since the EBacc’s introduction in 2010, the highest enrolment peaked at 40% in 2018/19.

Meanwhile, a DfE guidance page for the EBacc, last updated in 2019, states the government’s ambition was to see 75% of GCSE students taking the EBacc – moving to 90% by 2025.

“It’s not only supporting more people to consider technical education, but almost equipping them – to be better able to progress into technical education,” Dawe said.

“I think the proposal around the MBacc, will give that broader mix of skills and knowledge that we haven’t got at the moment.”

For all that one could simply reason ‘politics’, GMCA’s decision to embrace a new qualification also seems to be birthed out of necessity.

According to their website, 64% of Manchester’s 16-year-olds don’t achieve an EBacc. While only a third of Year 10 students remembered getting information about technical education opportunities.

But the MBacc isn’t just being offered as a way to give students different directions for learning, it’s also to provide a pathway for them into Greater Manchester’s own industries – construction, finance, and computer science to name a few.

Verity Gleave, Head of Marketing and Communications at Stockport Homes Group, said: “We have a commitment to employ apprentices, across all different types of trades.

“We work in an area that has hugely deprived neighbourhoods, and being able to offer young people opportunities, particularly with women in construction is important.”

Of course, much has changed in the past few years. COVID effectively grounded children from leaving their homes, hampering their ability to attend school. Teachers on the other hand, are vying for sweeping changes – not just to their pay – but for systematic shifts in areas like Ofsted and workload.

In the end, bold plans always require the same resources effective communication and willing action.

This was highlighted by Dawe, who said: “The interesting thing that will come out of this is a conversation that is joined up, rather than schools, colleges, and higher education being seen as separate parts.

“Giving young people that big tick. Saying ‘your pathway is worth just as much to the economy. Your future skills, your life chances – every bit is as important and worthwhile as the academic route.’ I think that is huge.”

Featured Image: ‘final exam’ by dcJohn via Flickr

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