Requires improvement: urgent change for 11–16 education Contents

Chapter 2: The 11–16 curriculum

The national curriculum and academies

The national curriculum

28.The national curriculum was first introduced following the passage of the Education Reform Act 1988. It has since been revised several times, with the current version introduced in 2014 alongside reforms to General Certificates of Secondary Education (GCSEs) taken at the end of key stage 4 (year 11). The DfE told us:

“We want all children to be inspired, confident and motivated at school. A broad, ambitious knowledge-rich curriculum not only achieves this by fostering competence and mastery in each subject, but also inspires pupils by introducing them to the best that has been thought and said, opening up access to their intellectual, cultural and scientific inheritance.”43

29.The national curriculum for key stage 3 (years 7 to 9) contains an extensive list of subjects. There are five compulsory ‘core’ subjects in all state-funded schools: English, maths, science, religious education and relationships, sex and health education (RSHE). An additional nine are known as ‘foundation’ subjects and are not mandatory in most schools. At key stage 4, the core subjects remain the same, but the number of foundation subjects is reduced to just computing, citizenship and physical education. The remaining foundation subjects (as well as many others) can be chosen by pupils to study as a GCSE or Technical Award44 but are not mandatory in any school.45

Table 2: The national curriculum


Key stage 3

Key stage 4










Art and design








Design and technology










Physical education



Religious education






Key: M = Mandatory in all schools; F = Foundation subject, only mandatory in community schools; Blank = Non-mandatory in all schools.

Source: Written evidence from the Department for Education (EDU0085)

Academisation of secondary schools

30.State schools in England are usually academies or community schools.46 Community schools, also known as local authority maintained schools, are funded by the local authority. They are required to follow the entire national curriculum. Academies are run by not-for-profit academy trusts that are independent of the local authority and funded directly from central government. Most academies are part of multi-academy trusts (MATs) that manage multiple schools. Academies have more freedom and flexibility than community schools, including the right to teach their own curriculum. Academy trusts can also manage free schools.47

31.Academies are required to teach only the five core subjects and do not need to include all of the foundation subjects in their curriculum; the latter are mandatory for community schools only. Over 80% of secondary schools in England are now part of an academy trust,48 which means that the vast majority of schools no longer have to teach most of the national curriculum. This proportion has dramatically increased since 2011, when just 11% of secondary schools were academies.49 It seems likely to increase further, with the ambition set out in the recent Schools White Paper that by 2030 all schools should be part of a “strong multi-academy trust” or have “plans to join or form one”.50

Academies and curriculum flexibility

32.Academies are expected to teach a curriculum that is comparable in breadth and ambition to the national curriculum, and all schools are required by the DfE to publish their school curriculum by subject and academic year online. They must offer a curriculum that is “balanced and broadly based”, “promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society,” and “prepares pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life.”51 According to the DfE, many academies choose to teach the full national curriculum to achieve these expectations, but “schools have considerable flexibility to organise the content and delivery of the curriculum”.52

33.We heard several examples of schools that have used this flexibility to develop innovative approaches. Jamie Portman, Trust Instruction Lead at XP Trust, told us that their schools follow the national curriculum, but that it is taught through interdisciplinary “expeditions”. These are designed to be “purposeful and authentic learning experiences”. They are usually focused on real-world issues and result in outcomes such as “publishing a book, creating artwork or doing a performance”.53

34.Mark Marande, Principal of The Petersfield School (part of Bohunt Multi-Academy Trust), told us that they follow the national curriculum but “aim to go considerably beyond its demands to give our students a real experience that they can take into the workplace”. They primarily do this through placing outdoor learning “at the absolute centre of the curriculum”. He stressed that they are also “big believers in interdisciplinary learning” and ensure that all pupils experience cross-curricular opportunities. Mr Marande argued that there are “so many things that you just cannot learn in a traditional classroom” and that their approach helps pupils develop the “four Cs—collaboration, creative thinking, critical thinking and communication”, which are “what employers want”.54

35.However, witnesses also suggested that some academies are moving away from the national curriculum requirements, by removing curriculum content or even completely dropping foundational subjects. Deborah Annetts, Chief Executive, Independent Society of Musicians, told us of “schools where music has entirely disappeared at secondary stage or is taught as just part of performing arts”.55 Sir Jon Coles, Group Chief Executive, United Learning, noted that his multi-academy trust has taken on schools that have “got into difficulty” and “done things like drop music from their key stage 3 curriculum”.56

Squeezing key stage 3

36.A significant number of academies have used their freedom to start teaching the GCSE curriculum during key stage 3, instead of the much broader national curriculum. The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change noted that, as of 2019, “56% of schools had started teaching GCSEs for most or all subjects in year 9 (some even begin doing this as early as year 7)”.57 Research published by Ofsted in 2017 concluded that around a quarter of pupils were having to choose their GCSE options at the end of year 8, meaning that “a considerable number of pupils will be experiencing only two years of study … possibly never to study [some] subjects again”.58

37.The practice of shortening key stage 3 was criticised by numerous witnesses. Sir Jon Coles asserted that it was “straightforwardly wrong”.59 Olly Newton, Executive Director, Edge Foundation, described key stage 3 as “sacrosanct” and stated that “the third year needs to be part of it”. He argued that key stage 3 “should be a golden time” when pupils can “get excited about the whole range of things they could do”, but that it is often just a “different part of the treadmill”.60

38.Rt. Hon. Nick Gibb MP, then Minister of State for Schools, told us that:

“it is wrong to reduce key stage 3 to two years. Young people need that broad array of subjects for those full three years. The GCSEs were designed to be taught in two years and it is not fair to young people to extend those GCSE courses”.61

39.Amanda Spielman, Chief Inspector, Ofsted, agreed and noted that a number of schools “have now reversed” their decision to shorten key stage 3.62 The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change highlighted that following changes made to the Ofsted inspection framework in 2019, which shifted the focus more towards the breadth of the curriculum, there are “tentative signs that some schools have moderated some of the blunter forms of crowding out they were previously practising”.63 Chris Russell, National Director for Education, Ofsted, confirmed that there had been some improvement, but that “no one is suggesting that things are perfect”.64

40.In 2021, Ofsted confirmed that no judgement during inspections “should be based solely on the length of a school’s key stage 3” and several schools have been graded ‘outstanding’ despite shortening their key stage 3 to two years.65 Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that many schools still teach a shortened key stage 3, as confirmed by several subject associations,66 and that Ofsted and the DfE are allowing this to happen despite widespread criticism.

A “common entitlement”

41.We heard from Tom Middlehurst, Curriculum, Assessment and Inspection Specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), that:

“If, increasingly, all schools are academies … there should be a common entitlement for all young people … set out by a national curriculum that every state-funded school should have to follow.”

This would be “slimmed down”, compared to the national curriculum, to maintain flexibility. Mr Middlehurst suggested that ASCL had not received an unfavourable response to this proposal from the academy sector, even though it would undermine academies’ current freedom over the curriculum.67

42.However, ASCL’s proposal may be deemed inappropriate for some specialist free schools and academies, particularly those that start at year 9. For example, London Design and Engineering school is a university technical college (UTC)68 in Newham that specialises in technical education for pupils from year 9 to 13. It offers a range of technical options at key stage 4 that are rarely available in mainstream schools. To support pupils to make an informed choice, it runs a ‘subject carousel’ for the first two terms of year 9, in which pupils experience all the available key stage 4 subjects.69 This approach would not be possible if all schools were required to teach even a slimmed down key stage 3 national curriculum up to the end of year 9.

43.It is vital that pupils experience a wide range of subjects and curriculum content up to the age of 14 to keep their future options open, inform their subsequent choices and ensure they receive a broad and balanced education. Although it is helpful for schools to have some flexibility over their curriculum, this should not extend to ‘squeezing’ key stage 3 into two years or dropping foundation subjects entirely. The growing number of academies in 11–16 provision brings into question the appropriateness of the current national curriculum’s status, as it is no longer mandatory for the vast majority of schools.

44.The Government should conduct a review of the national curriculum’s status, with the aim of ensuring that all mainstream, state-funded schools are teaching a genuinely broad and balanced curriculum throughout a three-year key stage 3. The proposal for a mandatory national curriculum that ensures a common entitlement for all pupils should be considered in this context. The review should consider the impact of any curriculum changes on specialist schools, to ensure that innovative approaches are not undermined where they are to the benefit of pupils.

An “overloaded” curriculum

45.The current 11–16 curriculum has been shaped by the Government’s focus on a ‘knowledge-rich’ approach. We have heard that, as a result, there is too great an emphasis on the teaching and learning of individual facts and concepts. Evidence has suggested that this has “left our young people with heads full of data committed to short-term memory—a diet perfect for examinations but wholly inadequate for life.”70 Charles Tracy, Senior Adviser for Learning and Skills at the Institute of Physics, told us that the curriculum in his subject “can leave the impression that physics is a large compendium of disparate facts.” He called instead for a curriculum that “develops a deep understanding of the discipline … built on a smaller number of big ideas and explicitly including the practices and ways of thinking”.71

46.Evidence suggested that the emphasis on knowledge acquisition means that “covering content at pace” has to take precedence over developing pupils’ understanding of the core concepts that underpin subject knowledge.72 We heard that this is especially the case at key stage 4, where the increase in the size of GCSE curricula following the 2015 reforms73 has led to “complete content overload”.74 The Historical Association told us that “the current history GCSE qualification is overloaded with content, with little allowance for students to go beyond a content gallop of each unit”. Their surveys of teachers show that only 20% agree that “the level of content in the current history GCSE is manageable”.75

47.Data from the survey platform Teacher Tapp found that 76% of teachers felt there was too much content to cover in their GCSE classes76 and that 57% were unable or only “just about” able to complete teaching their course prior to exam season.77 A history teacher who attended our roundtable sessions told us that the GCSE course is so extensive they feel they are “letting down” pupils who are less academically able, whose attainment would be higher if they were required to learn a more reasonable amount of content.78 We heard from a science teacher that many pupils are “turned off” by the large number of facts they are expected to learn, and that there is no scope for additional, engaging topics, such as space travel, to be taught.79 At our roundtable with young people, several participants spoke of teachers being unable to take questions during a lesson, because there was so much material to get through. They suggested that this stifled curiosity and opportunities for deeper learning in the classroom.80

48.Dr Mary Bousted, then Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, told us that many schools reduced the number of subject options available for pupils to choose in response to the increased content in the reformed GCSEs.81 Indeed, the percentage of pupils taking nine or more GCSEs fell from 51.1% in 2014 to 41.5% in 2023. The percentage of pupils taking 10 or more GCSEs dropped even more dramatically, from 32.8% to 14.2%.82

49.On the key stage 4 foundation subjects, the Association for Physical Education told us:

“A significant number of schools have reduced key stage 4 time allocated to core PE to one hour or less which is insufficient time to cover the content required in the national curriculum programme of study”.83

Similarly, the Association for Citizenship Teaching told us that citizenship teachers are “constantly battling for curriculum time”.84 BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, has expressed concerns in relation to the coverage of computing.85 However, we did not receive evidence to suggest that the key stage 4 national curriculum requirements themselves needed to be altered, as these are already fairly limited in scope.

50.Mr Gibb emphasised that the reforms to GCSEs in 2015 were undertaken following “a very thorough curriculum review”. He also commented that:

“I am reassured and confident that the specification of the exam boards is of a quantum that is on par with high-performing jurisdictions around the world.”86

On the Government’s emphasis on a content-rich curriculum, he argued that this underpins the development of subject-specific skills: “If you want those skills—how to work scientifically, how to behave like a historian—you need sophisticated knowledge.”87

51.The Government’s emphasis on a knowledge-rich approach has led to an 11–16 curriculum which is overloaded with content, particularly at key stage 4. The extent of the material to be covered hampers pupils’ understanding of core concepts and stifles engagement.

52.The Government should reduce the overall content load of the 11–16 curriculum, focusing particularly on GCSE subject curricula. It should undertake a review to establish how this can be achieved, and publish its findings.

Literacy, numeracy and oracy

Literacy and numeracy in the 11–16 curriculum

53.The DfE highlighted the importance of literacy and numeracy to a well-rounded education, as well as to future opportunities for pupils. They told us that “the cornerstones of a broad, academic, knowledge-rich curriculum are high standards of literacy and numeracy” and that “securing the basics of literacy and numeracy are the gateway to further educational attainment, and fulfilling experiences”.88 Many other witnesses commented on the importance of literacy and numeracy as core skills for education, employment and life in general. Pearson noted that numeracy and literacy skills are a requirement to access higher technical education.89 The Fair Education Alliance highlighted that improving literacy and numeracy has a significant impact on a pupil’s later employment and earnings.90

54.During key stage 3 and 4, literacy and numeracy skills are taught almost exclusively through English and maths. These subjects receive additional weighting in school performance measures.91 As a result, they increasingly dominate timetables as schools attempt to improve their performance, as defined by the DfE. Impington Village and International College suggested that an appropriate balance between different subjects in the timetable is difficult to strike, due to performance measures being “massively skewed towards English and maths at the expense of everything else”.92 Aalok Kanwar, Regional Director of Science at Outwood Grange Academies Trust, agreed, commenting that although numeracy and literacy are the “bedrock for the educational system in terms of accessibility to the curriculum and future employment“, English and maths have become “overemphasised” at key stage 3 and 4, with “drastic consequences for the breadth of curriculum studied”.93

55.English and maths are disciplines in their own right and, particularly at GCSE, their subject content goes significantly beyond core literacy and numeracy. Professor Jessie Ricketts and Dr Laura Shapiro told us that “the primary English curriculum focuses on literacy knowledge and skills, whereas the emphasis shifts to English as a discipline in the secondary curriculum”.94 Mr Middlehurst argued:

“We must be very cautious about using the disciplinary nature of English literature or English language and of mathematics as proxies for being literate and numerate. We need to dissociate those”.95

56.Catherine Sezen, Director of Education Policy at the Association of Colleges, noted that English language GCSE is quite “literature focused”,96 despite it being the only qualification available for most pupils to demonstrate their basic literacy skills. Moreover, when the current maths GCSE was introduced in 2013, the Government said that it would “demand deeper and broader mathematical understanding.”97 Dr Bousted noted that the content of the reformed maths GCSE has significantly increased compared to the previous version.98

The pass boundary

57.Achieving a grade 4 in English and maths at GCSE is seen as the threshold at which a young person demonstrates that they have reached required standards in literacy and numeracy.99 The Government refers to this as a ‘standard pass’. NAHT, a school leaders union, asserted that the Government’s language “undermines the value of grades 1–3, effectively labelling them a fail, and, as a result, devaluing the achievements of a wide range of students”.100 Mr Gibb told us that “all grades from 1 represent a pass grade”.101 Mr Middlehurst, however, argued that the earlier references to a standard pass have “cemented” the idea of a pass/fail boundary into the system in such a way that it can no longer be removed.102

Box 1: GCSE grading system

Following the announcement of the current nine-point scale grading system for GCSEs, the DfE announced in 2015 that the new grade 5 would be the ‘good pass’ level to match the equivalent rate most pupils are working at in “top-performing countries such as Finland, Canada, the Netherlands and Switzerland”.103 In 2017, Justine Greening (then Secretary of State for Education) told the Commons Education Committee that there would be two GCSE pass rates in school performance tables—grade 4, a “standard pass”, and grade 5, a “strong pass”—with both published as accountability measures. However, only the latter is regarded as a headline performance measure for schools.104

The “forgotten third”

58.Around a third of all pupils in state-funded schools do not secure a grade 4 or above in both English and maths GCSE each year. In 2023 this figure was 35.2%.105 We heard from many witnesses that not reaching the ‘standard pass’ threshold at 16 can leave pupils feeling they have been “labelled as failures”,106 with some suggesting this can have a long-term impact:

“This is a ‘cliff edge’ for many and research suggests young people find perceived failure at this stage in their academic career to be difficult to recover from academically and more holistically.”107

59.The group of pupils who receive grades less than 4 in English and maths is often referred to as the “forgotten third”. Mr Middlehurst clarified that:

“When we say forgotten we mean that they are forgotten in policy terms. There is no policy design for those young people. Essentially, you are saying to those young people after over a decade of academic study and time in school: ‘You have now failed’.”108

60.These pupils have more limited options in the 16–19 phase. A grade 4 in English and maths is generally required for a pupil to progress to a level 3 qualification, such as an A-level, T-level or apprenticeship.109 Ms Sezen noted that “to go on to a level 3 course, most colleges would require students to have five GCSEs at grade 4 and above, including English and maths”.110 Moreover, pupils who ‘fail’ either of these GCSEs are required to resit the qualification up to the age of 18, or until they achieve a grade 4.111 Several witnesses highlighted the demoralising effect that this can have. Ms Sezen noted that engaging young people who are preparing for resits is a “tall order”. She suggested that the main role of the teacher in this context becomes helping pupils with “building confidence and dealing with failure.”112

61.Others drew attention to the low proportion of pupils who go on to achieve a grade 4 in their resits.113 In June 2023, around 118,000 17 to 18 year-olds resat their maths GCSE, with 13.7% securing a grade 4 or above. Of the roughly 90,500 17 to 18 year-olds who retook their English exams, 23.5% achieved a grade 4 or above.114 The National Education Union suggested that, for many, having to retake exams equates to “an insistence on a repetition of the experience of failure.”115 Several witnesses therefore argued that consideration should be given to offering alternative literacy and numeracy qualifications at key stage 4. They argued that this would address this “continued barrier” and support young people who struggle to secure a grade 4 in their English and maths GCSEs to progress to post-16 education and training.116

Functional skills qualifications

62.One option is the already available ‘functional skills’ qualifications in English and maths. These are available at both level 1 (equivalent to GCSE grades 1–3) and level 2 (equivalent to GCSE grades 4–9), but they are usually taken from the age of 16 onwards, rather than in key stage 4. NCFE, an awarding body for technical qualifications, describe functional skills qualifications as a “vocational pathway into English and maths”.117 Passing the level 2 English and maths is the equivalent of receiving a grade 4 in the respective GCSEs, but the content and exams are designed to be more applicable to real-world scenarios, including employment. As a result, functional skills qualifications are often viewed as theoretically more achievable and relevant to students who have difficulty reaching the grade 4 threshold in their GCSEs.

63.Currently, some students can take functional skills qualifications as an alternative to resitting English or maths GCSEs post 16, but only if they received a grade 2 or below and if their school or college offers them.118 These qualifications are also taken as alternatives to GCSEs at key stage 4 by some pupils, although in practice this is only in special schools and in very small numbers. Of the 8,641 pupils who took NCFE’s level 2 maths functional skills qualification in 2022–23, just 0.8% were under 16.119

64.NCFE highlighted that mainstream schools are strongly disincentivised from offering functional skills qualifications in English and maths due to the weighting of GCSE English and maths in the current accountability measures—schools would receive significantly lower scores in their headline performance scores if their pupils did not study English and maths GCSEs. NCFE argued that the measures should record attainment in functional skills qualifications to “make it fair for learners who are not suited to academic learning styles”.120 NAHT argued that, when assessing which qualifications will best enable a pupil to develop and demonstrate core skills,

“schools should be able to decide which qualification is most appropriate and in the best interests of the student, without this having a detrimental impact on any related performance measures.”121

Proposals for new qualifications

65.While increasing take-up of the existing functional skills qualifications is a potential option in the short term, we also heard that they have some limitations. Paul Warner, Director of Strategy and Business Development at the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, was broadly supportive of the wider use of functional skills qualifications at key stage 4. However, he criticised the current versions of the English and maths functional skills courses, which were introduced in 2019.122 He argued that stakeholders are increasingly “hard-pushed to find the difference” between the GCSE and the functional skills course:

“if you put a GCSE exam paper and a functional skills paper side by side and took the titles off, I would defy anybody to make an informed guess about which one was actually the GCSE and which one was the functional skills … We say that one of them is going to be applied. It is actually not.”123

66.Dr Jo Saxton, Chief Regulator at Ofqual, noted that they have heard stakeholder concerns regarding the recently reformed functional skills qualifications. She told us that Ofqual undertook research into them and concluded that “in the pure assessment sense the questions are not harder than in the unreformed version”. However, Dr Saxton highlighted that:

“this all comes back to what the curriculum that it is built on is asking. The reformed functional skills assessments absolutely assess the curriculum as set out by the Department for Education.”124

Mr Warner told us that the DfE guidelines for functional skills say that they “do not have to be assessed in an occupational or real-life context”, which means they are increasingly not contextualised in this way.125

67.Other witnesses suggested that new qualifications should be introduced to either replace GCSE English language and maths, or as alternative foundation level qualifications that could be taken alongside them. ASCL proposed a new “passport” qualification focused on proficiency in literacy and numeracy. This would be “certificated by a body with international standing, with employer approval and branding”.126 Mathematics in Education and Industry suggested creating a new GCSE in ‘essential maths’. This would be at foundation tier only (grades 1–5) and enable pupils to “demonstrate that they have mastered the mathematics knowledge, skills and understanding needed to be able to use mathematics successfully in later life.”127 Both proposals suggested that these qualifications could be taken by pupils at any point from year 10 onwards, which could reduce the likelihood of large numbers of pupils ‘failing’ due to having to take core English and maths qualifications at a fixed point in year 11.

68.The Welsh Government plans to introduce a level 1 “number, measure and data” qualification in 2027. This is designed to be taught alongside GCSE maths and taken by most learners aged 14–16. It will be assessed via a single on-screen test, taken whenever a pupil is ready. According to the Welsh Government, the qualification “has been developed alongside employers and post-16 learning providers to make sure it focuses on the mathematical skills most needed by young people”. It is intended to “evidence learners’ ability to function numerically for the workplace and everyday life.”128

69.Supporting pupils to achieve a basic standard of literacy and numeracy should remain a core purpose of the 11–16 system. These skills are essential for young people to progress in their education and to succeed in life and work. The stubbornly high proportion of pupils who do not achieve a grade 4 or above in GCSE English and maths each year must be addressed.

70.The Government should determine why around a third of pupils do not secure a grade 4 or above in GCSE English and maths each year, and publish its findings.

71.We recommend that high-quality level 2 literacy and numeracy qualifications should be available for pupils to take during key stage 4, and that attainment in these should be recognised in school performance measures. Such qualifications should be genuinely distinct from the discipline-based English and maths GCSEs and should focus on the application of essential skills. We invite the Government to launch a consultation to assess whether the existing English and maths functional skills qualifications could fulfil this purpose, or whether the development of new qualifications is required.


72.Voice 21, an education charity, defines oracy as “the ability to articulate ideas, develop understanding and engage with others through spoken language.” They, along with others, argued that “oracy skills are essential for young people to successfully transition from school into further study and the workforce”.129 However, they also commented that while the 11–16 curriculum includes a statutory spoken language programme, “evidence suggests that this is not being realised in schools; only 23% of secondary school teachers are confident in their understanding of the statutory spoken language requirements outlined in the national curriculum.”130

73.At present, oracy plays only a very minor role during key stage 4 assessment, which may contribute to the limited emphasis it is given in the 11–16 phase. GCSE English language previously contained a speaking and listening component worth 20% of the overall grade.131 However, with the reformed GCSEs introduced in 2015, this was replaced with a spoken language task that requires pupils to give an oral presentation and respond to questions and feedback. This task no longer contributes to a pupil’s overall grade, with pupils receiving only an endorsement from their teacher.132 The Working Group on GCSE English Reform commented that while teachers are “obliged to undertake oracy assessment” at GCSE, this has “no value in the eyes of students”.133

74.However, we also heard positive examples of schools that have successfully woven the development of communication skills into their curricula at key stages 3 and 4 through, for example, interdisciplinary learning and extended project work. For example, Jamie Portman, XP Trust, told us that the interdisciplinary ‘expeditions’ pupils complete in their school conclude with presentations, where pupils “have to present their learning in front of a live audience”.134

75.Oracy is an essential skill for pupils to develop in preparation for their future life and work, but it may not be being consistently prioritised by schools in the 11–16 phase.

76.As part of a wider review of the key stage 3 and GCSE curricula, the Government should embed opportunities for oracy and communication skills development.

Digital skills

Digital skills in the 11–16 curriculum

77.Many witnesses drew attention to existing digital skills gaps and noted that the demand for digital skills is growing every year, across almost all sectors of the economy. Dr Claire Thorne, Co-CEO of Tech She Can, suggested that “£60 billion is the projected lost annual income to the UK economy from the digital skills gap.”135 To tackle this gap, BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, argued that the secondary computing curriculum must address the needs of three different groups:

78.The DfE told us that the current computing curriculum “provides young people with the essential knowledge and skills to succeed as active participants in a digital world, and to help meet the needs of the future digital economy in shortage areas such as programming.”137 Mr Gibb also highlighted the establishment of the National Centre for Computing Education and “30 computing teaching hubs around the country, which are training teachers how to teach computer science”.138 BCS told us that there is “a lot to be proud of”, and that the computing national curriculum “sets out an entitlement for every learner to access a high-quality computing education. It can equip pupils to use computational thinking and creativity to understand and change the world.”139

79.However, BCS also argued that the key stage 3 computing curriculum is often impacted by the specialist computer science GCSE, with teaching skewed towards this and away from the full breadth of computing.140 They also suggested that, despite computing being a foundation subject in the national curriculum at key stage 4, and therefore a mandatory subject in maintained schools,141 it is inconsistently delivered in schools, with few consequences from Ofsted.142 This means that in some schools pupils finish formal study of computing at 14.

80.We heard that an alternative approach to digital skills development in the curriculum has been taken in Wales. The Welsh Government has positioned “digital competence” as one of three “mandatory cross-curricular skills”, alongside literacy and numeracy, in the new Curriculum for Wales.143 It noted that “it will be the responsibility of all practitioners, across all curriculum areas, to develop and ensure progression in these skills”. Methods of implementation will be “decided at a local level and will fit with individual schools’ approaches.”144 Some have called for a similar approach to be taken in England. A primary recommendation in a recent Microsoft report on addressing the digital skills gap was to: “Embed computing and digital literacy skills across key stages 1–3 to boost uptake of key stage 4 computer science GCSE”.145

81.A multi-academy trust commented that its main concern in relation to the development of pupils’ digital skills was that “many pupils are expected to complete the majority of their classwork by hand, writing for long periods”. They identified funding constraints and lack of access to specialist teachers as barriers in the transition towards delivering a greater proportion of classwork digitally.146 Other witnesses highlighted the need for improved digital infrastructure and access to devices in delivering high-quality digital learning.147

82.An education technology survey conducted by the Government in 2020–21 found that “the majority of headteachers (88%) and teachers (84%) indicated that technology had or would contribute to improved pupil attainment”. However, it also identified that:

“1:1 access to mobile devices for pupils was extremely low. Just 1% of primary schools and 2% of secondary schools provided access to at least one mobile device (tablet or laptop) for every pupil.”

Financial barriers were seen by teachers and school leaders as the biggest obstacle to increased uptake of educational technology, with connectivity, pupils’ access to technology at home, and teachers’ digital skills and confidence also mentioned.148

Take-up of digital qualifications at key stage 4

83.The number of pupils taking a digital qualification at GCSE level has declined significantly in recent years. This relates primarily to the termination of GCSE information and communication technology (ICT) in 2019, following the introduction of GCSE computer science in 2012. While the number of pupils taking GCSE computer science has grown in recent years, from 34,019 in 2015 to 87,405 in 2023, this has not compensated for the 98,908 pupils who were taking ICT GCSE in 2015.149 Overall, there has been a 34% decline in entries across the two subjects. Moreover, although 14% of pupils took computer science GCSE in 2023, only 21% of these pupils were girls.150 BCS noted that “nine in 10 girls leave school without IT skills or a computing qualification”.151

Figure 1: GCSE entries in ICT and computer science (England only)

Chart showing GCSE entries in GCSE ICT and computer science

Source: Joint Council for Qualifications CIC, ‘Examination results’: [accessed 10 October 2023]

84.Some pupils take technical or vocational qualifications, or Technical Awards, that relate to digital skills. However, as Professor Simon Peyton Jones and Professor Dame Muffy Calder highlighted, Technical Awards “do not enjoy parity of esteem with GCSE”, meaning pupils are less likely to be encouraged to take them by teachers and parents.152 In 2023, 23,974 pupils took an ICT Technical Award; this corresponds to 3.7% of the cohort.153

85.The DfE do not permit computing-related Technical Awards to include much of the content from the key stage 3 computing curriculum or the computer science GCSE subject specification.154 Prof Peyton Jones and Prof Dame Muffy Calder argue that they are therefore “not really technical at all”, and that this limits topic coverage:

“An awarding organisation could not offer an exciting Technical Award in robotics, say, with substantial programming content, because it would overlap with the GCSE.”155

Kate Ambrosi, Director of Innovation and Learning, Baker Dearing Educational Trust, argued that providers are:

“stuck with the [digital] qualifications they are given, and some of them are not innovative or creative. They are driving down the number of young people overall in the country who are doing digital skills.”156

GCSE in applied computing

86.BCS argued that GCSE computer science addresses the needs of only the first of the three groups described above—future specialist computing professionals.157 Prof Peyton Jones and Prof Dame Muffy Calder suggested that the qualification is by design “academic and challenging” and does not cover “the more applied parts of the curriculum”.158 They called for a new applied computing GCSE, which could “contain a substantial element of programming” and focus on the application of digital skills in contexts such as graphics, business data processing and web design.

87.BCS similarly proposed the introduction of a new qualification that would recognise “higher-level technical knowledge and skills at the GCSE level”, valued equally to the computer science GCSE.159 Julia Adamson, Managing Director of Education and Public Benefit at BCS, highlighted that these skills are essential for jobs in many sectors—“from pharmaceuticals to farming to food production to transport”.160 BCS suggested that this approach would be welcomed by parents, citing a recent survey in which 74% of respondents supported the introduction of a broader IT skills GCSE .161

88.Witnesses noted that as part of its wider education reforms, Wales has introduced “a compulsory digital route in their Science and Technology area of learning”, with two “complementary pathways” available at GCSE, in computer science and digital technology.162 This has been supported by a new digital technology GCSE, which was introduced by WJEC, the Welsh exam board, in 2021. The qualification is “designed for learners who wish to begin their journey towards a career that utilises digital technologies or to progress onto advanced level programmes of learning involving digital technologies.”163 It covers topics such as website design, animation and game design, storing and using data, marketing and social media, cyber security, artificial intelligence, and the history and ethics of digital technology.164

89.We heard persuasive evidence that an applied computing GCSE should be introduced, to provide an alternative to the more academically focused computer science GCSE. This could help to address the declining uptake of digital qualifications at key stage 4 and support us to meet the growing demand for a wide range of digital skills across the economy.

90.Working closely with stakeholders, the Government should take steps to develop and introduce a new GCSE in applied computing as soon as possible.

Digital literacy qualification

91.We have also heard that a basic digital skills qualification should be made available at key stage 4. This would allow pupils to develop and demonstrate an expected standard of digital literacy, in a similar way to the core literacy and numeracy qualifications called for above. Prof Peyton Jones and Prof Dame Muffy Calder argued that this should be “unashamedly focused on employability skills, and what young people need to flourish as well-informed users in a digital world”. They also suggested it could be taken whenever pupils are ready.165 BCS called for a “digitally enabled portfolio-based assessment of young people’s digital literacy for every learner”. They suggested this would address the needs of the “approximately three-quarters of mainstream state-funded pupils [who] leave school, aged 16, without a qualification in IT skills or computing”.166

92.The Government has recently introduced a digital functional skills qualification to replace the legacy ICT qualification. This is intended to provide learners with “the skills they need to succeed in work, education and life”.167 However, this has been introduced at ‘entry level’ only, which is equivalent to slightly below a grade 1 at GCSE. It supports learners who may have “little or no prior experience of using digital devices or the internet” to develop the basic digital skills needed to complete everyday tasks.168 Although the qualification is theoretically available to be taken by pupils from the age of 14, functional skills qualifications are primarily designed to support post-16 students. It is far from clear that this would be a suitable basis for a digital literacy qualification that could be made available to all key stage 4 pupils.

93.All pupils should have the option of taking a digital literacy qualification in the 14–16 phase. This would support the development of core digital skills, particularly for those who do not choose to take a computing qualification at key stage 4.

94.The Government should explore introducing a basic digital literacy qualification that can be taken at key stage 4, to ensure that all pupils have an opportunity to develop the basic digital skills needed to participate effectively in post-16 education and training, employment and wider life.

Climate and sustainability education

95.In April 2022, the DfE published a policy paper entitled Sustainability and climate change: a strategy for the education and children’s services systems. It sets out how the department, and education and children’s services providers in England, will contribute to increased sustainability and particularly the drive towards net zero. The paper describes a vision for the UK to be “the world-leading education sector in sustainability and climate change by 2030” and identifies climate education as one of five key ‘action areas’.169 It specifies that the actions set out within it aim to respond to the recommendations for education from the Climate Change Committee, the Dasgupta review170 and the Green Jobs Taskforce report.171 In presenting the case for change, the paper recognises that young people are concerned about climate change and eager to learn more about it, and that the education system provides important opportunities to engage with them on this topic. It also recognises the relevance of sustainability and climate change to the future employment opportunities young people will have access to, stating that these will “touch every career”.172 These conclusions were echoed by several witnesses.173

96.The DfE’s paper sets out that children and young people have opportunities to develop their knowledge of the natural world and sustainability and environmental topics through the science, geography and citizenship programmes within the national curriculum. Witnesses similarly identified these subjects as the primary means through which young people learn about these topics in the 11–16 phase. However, they suggested that even in these subjects such topics do not necessarily receive adequate coverage. The Royal Society of Chemistry, for example, highlighted that in research it had conducted “70% of 11 to 14 educators and 65% of 14 to 16 educators … raised concerns that there is ‘too little content in the chemistry curriculum that directly relates to sustainability and climate change’”.174

97.The British Science Association argued that climate education at key stage 4 is “constrained by exam requirements”, with pupils studying GCSEs in both science and geography feeling that “they are taught ‘just enough to pass the exam’”.175 It also noted that confining climate education to “subject silos” is likely to result in inequality in climate literacy. It highlighted that those who do not take GCSEs in geography or triple science176 (which has a larger climate education component than the double science option, but which may not be available to all pupils) will have fewer opportunities to study climate and sustainability topics. The British Science Association also drew attention to the ways climate education is handled within these subjects, highlighting a tendency to “focus narrowly on impacts and rarely on solutions”.177

98.UCL’s Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability Education (CCCSE) suggested that at key stage 3, the breadth of the curriculum “could be viewed as providing adequate opportunity for teachers to generate their own content, including content related to climate change and sustainability”.178 However, it also highlighted research suggesting that in many schools pupils receive very little or no climate change and sustainability education in this phase. CCCSE therefore called for “a more ‘climate change and sustainability aware’ approach across all subjects”.179 This recommendation was supported by organisations including Chester Zoo, the Zoological Society of London and the British Science Association, all of whom argued that climate education should be embedded across the school curriculum.180 A similar conclusion was reached by the House of Lords Environment and Climate Change Committee in its recent report on behaviour change towards environmental goals. The committee stressed the “need for young people to be educated about the science of climate change and actions they can take to support meeting climate and environmental goals, which must be embedded across the curriculum”.181 The youth-led campaign Teach the Future’s Curriculum for a Changing Climate project provides a fully developed framework for how this could be achieved at key stages 3 and 4.182

99.Many witnesses who addressed the topic of climate education made reference to the new GCSE in natural history. Arising from a campaign led by naturalist Mary Colwell, the proposal for the new qualification was taken forward by the exam board OCR and received backing from the DfE in April 2022.183 The department suggests that the GCSE could be available to pupils by 2025 and that its content will enable them to “explore the world by learning about organisms and environments, environmental and sustainability issues, … gain a deeper knowledge of the natural world around them” and “develop the skills to help them carve a future career in the natural world if they wish to”.184

100.Witnesses generally welcomed the new qualification.185 However, Mary Colwell, Professor Alastair Fitter and Professor Russell Wynn argued that the GCSE “needs to be embedded in a wider remit”, which they describe as a “defined nature pathway” from primary through to tertiary education. They also concluded that schools may need support to deliver the new GCSE, due to limited confidence in their ability to teach the subject or lack of resources.186 The Royal Society of Biology similarly identified that the “proposed element of fieldwork” will have “financial and resource implications for schools”.187 They stated:

“It is not expected that many students would take this qualification in addition to those that are already on offer, which would limit access to this knowledge to a small group of students … Independent schools are likely to be best placed to offer these fieldwork experiences to their students, which could further narrow the demographic.”188

101.Witnesses consistently suggested that the likely benefits of a greater focus on climate and sustainability education across the whole curriculum would include:

102.Benefits for teachers were also identified.190 However, witnesses highlighted that at present many teachers feel insufficiently prepared to incorporate climate change and sustainability into their teaching. CCCSE reported survey data which suggests that while science and geography teachers feel “relatively confident” in their ability to do this, a “sizeable and troubling gap” is seen in other subject areas. As such, it called for the provision of “comprehensive, up-to-date and trustworthy support” for teachers. It also recommended the inclusion of climate change and sustainability within the core content framework of the initial teacher education programme.191

103.Secondary education must support young people to develop the knowledge, skills and agency they will need to live in a world affected by the impacts of climate change. We welcome the actions relating to climate education set out in the Sustainability and climate change strategy published by the DfE, particularly the recognition that providing effective support, training and resources for teachers will be critical to the delivery of high-quality climate and sustainability education to all pupils. It is essential that the Government meets the commitments detailed in this strategy.

104.We also welcome the new natural history GCSE and the opportunities it will afford for pupils to learn about the natural world as part of their key stage 4 studies. However, without reform to embed nature, climate and sustainability education more widely across the 11–16 curriculum, particularly at key stage 3, the qualification risks becoming a ‘subject silo’. It could also see low take-up, as pupils may be less likely to select a GCSE in a subject to which they have previously had limited exposure, and not all schools will have the necessary resources to deliver it.

105.The Government must ensure that a core purpose of future reviews of the key stage 3 and 4 curricula, and GCSE content specifications, is to identify and incorporate opportunities to educate pupils about climate change and sustainability across a wider range of subjects. This is necessary to avoid the persistence of ‘subject silos’ and to ensure that teaching on such topics is available to all.


106.The DfE told us that “languages are hugely important in broadening pupils’ horizons and improving their employment opportunities.”192 In 2022, it published updated subject content for GCSEs in French, German and Spanish that “is intended to encourage more students to take up these important subjects … The changes will make modern foreign language GCSEs more well-rounded for both teachers and pupils”.193 In March 2023, it launched a language hubs programme, which aims to encourage schools to work together to “improve standards of language teaching across the country” and “increase the number of pupils studying languages to GCSE level and beyond”. The programme is also intended to increase access to “home, heritage and community languages”.194

107.Ofsted has similarly described languages as an “integral part of the curriculum” and argued that they “equip pupils with the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life.”195 Amanda Spielman, His Majesty’s Chief Inspector, Ofsted, said that “there is clearly an intrinsic but also cultural and economic value to children in learning a language. Having a range of language speakers is immensely important.”196

108.The number of pupils studying languages at GCSE has declined significantly since “studying a language after the age of 14 was made non-statutory” in 2004.197 In 2003, there were just under 515,000 GCSE entries in modern foreign languages (MFL)198 in England, but this had fallen to around 286,000 by 2011.199 Following the introduction of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) accountability measure in 2010,200 the number of entries in MFL rose, reaching around 334,000 in 2014. Since then, the number of entries has declined slightly, to 292,000 entries in 2019, and 317,000 in 2023.201 Stuart Miller, Director of Curriculum and General Qualifications at the DfE, told us that “you could argue that the EBacc is a driver of that recovery in language uptake”, but that “it is not yet back to where it was”.202

109.Ms Spielman commented that:

“a long-standing challenge for all English-speaking countries, at an individual level, has been having children recognise the clear value of learning a particular language in their own lives. We have struggled with that for decades, as do Australia and America … I recognise the pragmatic choices that are made about this in schools.”203

She also suggested that “there is nowhere near the cadre of teachers needed to make language teaching universal”.204 ASCL noted that the EBacc measure “fails to recognise the difficulty of finding sufficient teachers to teach the EBacc subjects, particularly modern foreign languages.”205

110.Evidence suggested that GCSEs and A-levels in modern foreign languages, along with the sciences and computer science, are graded more harshly than other subjects, and that this affects pupils’ subject choices.206 Dr Jo Saxton, Chief Regulator, Ofqual, told us that the regulator “takes action where evidence in the round, including the statistics, demonstrates that that is the right thing to do”, and confirmed that it had recently “required the adjustment of the standards in French and German to better align with Spanish.”207 However, 2023 analysis by FFT Education Datalab concluded that pupils who take GCSEs in French, German, Spanish or computer science “tend to achieve half a grade lower” in these subjects than in English and maths, and that “despite efforts to bring French and German in line with Spanish, they still seem more severely graded”.208 Dave Thomson, Chief Statistician at FFT Education Datalab, argued that the current key stage 4 school performance measures, many of which are based on pupils’ GCSE results, may “dissuade schools from entering pupils for qualifications that score less well; I am thinking mainly about modern languages.”209

111.Gavin Busuttil-Reynaud, Director of Operations at AlphaPlus, suggested that alternative qualification models for languages were being considered in Wales, as part of a broader review of GCSEs:

“They are looking at innovating the design and what they reward so that, for example, you can choose to try to achieve a conversational level in three different languages because you are interested in their communications value rather than trying to become expert in a single language … They are going back to effectively a unitised and credit-based approach that values the love of learning and the value of languages.”210

112.Proficiency in modern languages is an important asset, both in individual relationships and for career pathways. The low take-up of GCSEs in modern foreign languages, despite the inclusion of languages within the EBacc subject combination, is therefore concerning. We heard that a number of different factors contribute to this.

113.The Government should explore innovative ways to encourage schools to promote language learning, whether or not as a GCSE subject, and to address practical barriers, including the limited supply of suitably qualified teachers.

Creative and artistic subjects

114.Evidence suggests that creativity211 is increasingly valued by employers across all sectors of the economy.212 Olly Newton, Executive Director, Edge Foundation, suggested that creativity “comes out time and again at the top of the league table of skills that employers are looking for, not just in the UK but internationally”.213

115.The value of the creative sectors to the UK economy is well documented.214 Evidence highlighted Nesta research that suggests that the creative industries are growing twice as fast as other industry sectors and will create 900,000 new jobs in the next 10 years.215 Sage Gateshead told us that in the last pre-pandemic year, “the creative industries contributed £116 billion to the UK economy gross value added and grew faster than the economy as a whole”.216

116.As well as being valuable to employers and the UK economy, we heard that access to creative subjects and the arts can have profound benefits for individual pupils. A 2021 report by the Independent Society of Musicians cited evidence that music can “enhance language skills and literacy, support creativity, academic progress and attainment, enhance fine motor skills, motivate disaffected students and contribute to health and wellbeing.”217

Access to creative subjects

117.There has, however, been an ongoing decline in take-up of arts subjects in the 11–16 phase, as well as a decrease in wider opportunities to develop creativity. As noted earlier in this chapter, witnesses expressed concern that some academies are using the flexibility they have over their curricula to drop national curriculum arts subjects, such as art and design and music, in key stage 3.218 On drama, which is not compulsory for any school, we heard that “from 2010 to 2020, the number of drama teachers reduced by 18% and the number of hours taught reduced by 12% across the nation”.219

118.GCSE entries in many creative subjects have declined in recent years. The number of pupils taking music, drama and performing/expressive arts GCSEs in 2023 was 29,732 (5% of all pupils), 49,247 (8%) and 6,780 (1%) respectively.220 Take-up of all three subjects has declined since 2010, with music falling by 35%, drama by 40% and performing/expressive arts by 69%.221 Likewise, take-up of media/film/TV studies fell by 49% to 32,429.222 Amanda Spielman, His Majesty’s Chief Inspector, suggested that there has not been a drop-off in take-up of arts subjects but instead a shift from GCSEs to technical and vocational qualifications in these subjects.223 The decline for music is indeed smaller when entries for Technical Awards in music are included—the overall decline in music entries per pupil between 2016 and 2023 then falls to 8%. However, the decline in drama remains significant, with a reduction in the number of overall drama entries per pupil of 16% in the same period.224

Figure 2: GCSE entries in creative subjects (England only)

Chart showing GCSE entries in creative subjects from 2010 to 2023

Source: Joint Council for Qualifications CIC, ‘Examination results’: [accessed 10 October 2023]

119.Several witnesses argued that the decline in opportunities to study creative and arts subjects across the 11–16 phase is largely a result of school accountability measures that prioritise traditionally academic study over more creative learning.225 The Independent Society of Musicians also highlighted the impacts of reduced funding for arts subjects. They argued that real-terms education spending per pupil fell 9% between 2009 and 2019. They also noted the wide variations in music department budgets in different schools and spoke of “a widening gulf between arts provision in state and independent schools.”226

120.This was echoed by the National Education Union:

“Independent schools tend to ascribe value to arts and cultural education. State school teachers increasingly report that basic resources for the teaching of arts subjects are not available. This divergence between public and private leads to increased inequalities in terms of access to a broad educational experience.”227

121.Sage Gateshead argued that:

“This leads to a reduction in diversity of creative talent and closes off careers in the creative sector with the very real risk, aside from the damage to individuals and communities, of reduced international competitiveness of such an economically important sector.”228

122.Witnesses also described a more general decline in opportunities to develop creativity across secondary education. Some attributed this to the Government’s focus on knowledge acquisition within a content-rich curriculum, which was seen to have squeezed out the opportunity to develop broader skills such as creativity across all subjects.229 Recent reports from the Durham Commission on Creativity and Education and the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee emphasised that all subjects can be taught in a way that fosters creativity. They also stressed the value of opportunities for interdisciplinary learning in secondary school, in view of the growing demand in the workforce for individuals with both creative and technical skills.230

Government activity

123.In June 2022, the Government published new non-statutory guidance on the teaching of music in its national plan for music education.231 This is supported by the model music curriculum, published in 2021, which provides guidance on how the statutory music curriculum can be delivered in key stages 1, 2 and 3.232 The new national plan detailed that:

124.Music organisations generally welcomed the plan but argued that additional funding would be needed to deliver fully on its ambitions.233 The Independent Society of Musicians (ISM) noted that the number of music hubs will be reduced, with each one expected to cover a wider geographical area,234 and suggested that, in real terms, funding has been cut since 2015.235 ISM also highlighted the challenges of delivering the commitments set out in the plan in the current context of limited teacher supply. It noted that the plan “states that all schools should deliver one hour of curriculum music per week, but with the current shortfall in teachers, it is hard to see how this ambition can be realised.”236

125.The Government has also recently appointed an expert advisory panel to support the development of a similar plan for cultural education. It states that the plan will aim to:

“articulate and highlight the importance of high-quality cultural education in schools. It will also promote the value of cultural and creative education, outline and support career progression pathways, address skills gaps and tackle disparities in opportunity and outcome by ensuring that all young people, regardless of their background, can access high-quality cultural education.”237

126.Baroness Bull, chair of the expert advisory panel, noted that its terms of reference clarify the remit of this work and that “the national curriculum and exams, Ofsted’s inspection framework and performance measures such as the EBacc and Progress 8 are all out of scope.”238 The Government states that this is because it has:

“already implemented significant reforms to raise expectations in what all children are taught and how schools are held accountable. This is to ensure that every school has a well sequenced, knowledge-rich curriculum so children build knowledge in a broad range of subjects before going on to specialise after the age of 16.”239

The Government’s intention is to publish the cultural education plan by the end of 2023.240

127.Pupils must have genuine, substantive opportunities to study creative and artistic subjects at key stages 3 and 4. This is vital to enable them to develop creative skills and to support a diverse talent pipeline for our creative industries, which are a key sector of the UK economy, and the many other businesses that are crying out for creative skills. We have heard that the delivery of these opportunities is increasingly difficult in the current context due to funding constraints and the deprioritisation of creative subjects due to accountability measures.

128.A principal aim of future adjustments to key stage 4 school accountability measures, including those called for in this report, should be to reverse the impact of the current measures on the take-up of creative subjects at GCSE.

Technical and vocational education

The value of technical and vocational learning opportunities

129.Technical education is defined by the DfE as “any training … that focuses on progression into skilled employment” and that “requires the acquisition of both a substantial body of technical knowledge and a set of practical skills valued by industry.”241 The DfE states that it “draws its purpose from the workplace rather than an academic discipline.”242 Design and technology is generally seen as the subject most closely related to technical education, although practical skills and vocational learning can be incorporated into many subjects. At key stage 4, some schools also offer Technical Awards,243 which are more explicitly focused on technical and vocational learning, as well as GCSEs in subjects such as engineering.

130.Numerous witnesses highlighted the value of offering technical education opportunities during the 11–16 phase. David Gallagher, Chief Executive, NCFE, told us that “for many young people, access to technical and vocational opportunities is what suddenly lights a fire and sparks people into life. It can be engaging and inspiring.”244 He also highlighted that these opportunities can allow pupils to “try different things to figure out their strengths and preferences in order to inform their choices” for post-16 education.245

131.The Government has taken a number of steps in recent years aimed at boosting technical education for those aged 16 and above. These include launching T-levels in 2020,246 establishing a network of Institutes of Technology247 and taking forward commitments made in the Skills for Jobs White Paper.248 The desire to “ensure technical and academic education are placed on an equal footing” at key stage 5 has been reiterated in announcements on the proposed Advanced British Standard, which would bring A-level and T-level programmes together into a single new qualification.249

132.However, commenting on the 14–16 phase, Energy and Utility Skills suggested that:

“Whereas GCSEs are directly designed to support progression to higher levels of study, the vocational offer does not enjoy the same integrated approach. Alongside the five core GCSEs, there are no clear vocational options that support progression to, for example, apprenticeships, T-levels or employment.”

They argued that a “credible, consistent vocational offer” would:

“integrate with progression opportunities, support young people who have, to one degree or another, rejected or failed to engage with academic study and do not adequately attend school, and support the national skills needs that employers are concerned about.”250

133.Energy and Utility Skills highlighted particularly the increasing importance of technical and practical skills to the UK economy as it transitions towards a low-carbon future. Existing and growing skills demands in the energy, construction and manufacturing sectors were also noted by NOCN Group and EngineeringUK.251 WorldSkills UK argued that “empowering young people to pursue technical and vocational options is vital to meeting demand for digital and green skills across all sectors of the economy.”252

Declining take-up of technical qualifications

134.In recent years, there has been a significant decline in the number of pupils taking technical-related qualifications at key stage 4. Entries for GCSE design and technology have fallen by more than 70% since 2010. In 2023, the subject was taken by just 12% of all pupils. Likewise, the number of pupils taking GCSE engineering has fallen by 65% since 2016 to just 1% of pupils.253 Between 2016 and 2023, there was a drop of nearly 100,000 entries across the two subjects.254

Figure 3: GCSE entries in technical subjects (England only)

Chart showing technical GCSE entries in England from 2010 to 2023

Source: Joint Council for Qualifications CIC, ‘Examination results’: [accessed 10 October 2023]

135.In this period, the number of Technical Award entries grew by only 45,000, an increase which is reduced to just 32,000 once entries for more ‘creative’ Technical Awards in music, drama, dance and art are excluded.255 NOCN Group noted that the Technical Awards offered to 14–16 year-olds in schools are “often confined to those easy to deliver”, such as fashion and textiles, food technology and business, and that the 415,000 Technical Awards certified in 2020–21 is small by comparison to the 5.3 million GCSEs awarded.256

136.Stakeholders have also expressed concerns about a more general decline in the development of practical skills in the 11–16 system, across a wider range of subjects. HMC, an association for headteachers of independent schools, found that only 2% of the teachers and school leaders it surveyed were “very satisfied with the way our curriculum is developing practical skills.” It concluded that:

“While our research does not explicitly explore the balance between academic and technical and vocational qualifications at GCSE, those students with a preference for practical skills appear to be particularly badly served.”257

137.The Times Education Commission argued that “education has become increasingly theoretical”. It noted, for example, that “only 37% of students took part in science practicals in 2019 (down from 44% three years previously)”.258 EngineeringUK saw the decline in practical work in science lessons since 2016 as “coinciding with the removal of its teacher assessment as part of GCSEs.”259 This emphasis on exam-based assessment affects other subjects too—even in design and technology, 50% of a pupil’s grade is now determined by a written exam.260

138.The evidence we received suggested that the 11–16 curriculum is overly focused on academic learning, with technical and vocational education insufficiently valued. EngineeringUK argued that this may affect pupils’ progression to post-16 technical pathways:

“A greater focus on traditionally ‘academic’ subjects and less practical experience within them could be one of the drivers of the decline in uptake of engineering apprenticeships—students are given little understanding of what more hands-on, contextualised learning looks like.”261

In a recent report, they suggested that those who do apply for apprenticeships do so “without having gained enough practical experience … at school”, in part due to the “lack of importance” given to subjects such as design and technology.262

139.Many witnesses suggested that this focus on academic learning has been caused, in part, by the introduction of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) accountability measure.263 However, Amanda Spielman, His Majesty’s Chief Inspector, Ofsted, argued that design and technology has been in a longer-term decline, with significant falls in entries taking place prior to the introduction of the EBacc. She suggested that this may be due to the subject no longer being compulsory264 and argued for more limited scope to drop subjects at the end of key stage 3:

“If we want more children taking technology subjects throughout the system, removing some of the flexibility and freedom of choice at that age is the only sensible way of achieving that.”265

140.Mr Gallagher suggested that there were other challenges associated with the teaching of design and technology and other technical subjects. He highlighted that “technical and vocational education is more costly to deliver because of the infrastructure that is required”.266 EngineeringUK agreed, commenting that declining take-up of these subjects “may result from the need for physical resources—a technology studio requires a lot of space and a lot of expensive equipment.”267 On funding, Mr Gallagher noted that “we are one of the few OECD countries that spends less on our technical and vocational education than we do on our general education”.268

141.Mr Gallagher also drew attention to the impact of the recent reforms to post-16 education. He argued that it is unclear “whom a T-level is for”, how these fit with apprenticeships and what they lead to.269 He suggested this could make post-16 technical and vocational education a less attractive option to learners in the 11–16 phase: “The incoherence in the system is a huge barrier to young people and their parents and carers”.270

Potential solutions

142.We heard several potential solutions to encourage greater prioritisation and take-up of technical subjects at secondary school. Rt. Hon. Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, proposed the introduction of a Greater Manchester Baccalaureate (MBacc), which would focus on technical careers and sit alongside the academically orientated EBacc.271 Like the EBacc, the MBacc would not be a qualification or certificate in itself, but a collection of subjects for pupils to study at key stage 4. The subjects included would be “designed to steer young people on the technical route” towards jobs in key sectors of the Greater Manchester economy, including manufacturing, construction and health.272 Mr Burnham suggested that a similar baccalaureate could be created in every region of England and be tailored to the subjects that would best support pupils into jobs in the local economy.273 He argued that the MBacc is “the start of the journey of creating a clear and equal pathway for technical education.”274

143.Another proposal was to extend the approach taken by university technical colleges (UTCs) into mainstream schools. There are 44 UTCs across England, which educate around 19,000 students, and a further two are scheduled to open in 2026.275 They are government-funded free schools, “established by companies and universities in areas of high demand for talent to provide sought-after technical qualifications”. They focus on providing “industry standard equipment and specialist staff” and usually enable their pupils to study subjects that are not available elsewhere.276 UTCs are not expected to promote the EBacc list of subjects like other schools.277 Kate Ambrosi, Director of Innovation and Learning, Baker Dearing Educational Trust, highlighted that pupils from UTCs are significantly more likely to continue in technical and vocational pathways from age 16 onwards.278 It was noted that some engineering-focused UTCs see 60–80% of pupils going on to apprenticeships, including degree apprenticeships.279

144.Most UTCs begin at key stage 4 (year 10) or towards the end of key stage 3 (year 9), requiring pupils to change institution partway through secondary school. NOCN Group suggested that this can be a drawback of the model, as it is “a big commitment without a sound understanding of the alternative subjects on offer.” They also commented that there is little incentive for schools to advertise a UTC as an option to their students, due to government funding following the pupil.280

145.To broaden access to technical education, the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, which oversees and supports UTCs, proposed a model to “insert a technical stream” into mainstream 11–18 secondary schools—a “UTC sleeve”. This is aimed at schools that wish to provide a specialist technical stream alongside their main curriculum and would focus on preparing pupils to take T-levels at key stage 5. The UTC sleeve would have “separate principals, teachers, classrooms … and a separate governing body, led by representatives of local employers and a local university.”281 The Baker Dearing Educational Trust suggested that this would be a relatively low-cost way of significantly enhancing technical education opportunities and noted that at least one pilot is already underway.282 NOCN Group suggested that significant funding would still be needed to purchase specialist equipment.283 However, this resource would need to be committed by any schools that wish to offer T-levels, regardless of whether they adopted a UTC sleeve.

146.There has been a significant decline in recent years in the number of pupils taking up technical subjects during key stage 4. This is coupled with a wider decline in the opportunities available throughout 11–16 education for pupils to develop practical skills. The current system is overly focused on academic pathways and changes are needed to ensure that there are clear and coherent routes from key stage 4 into post-16 technical education.

147.The collapse in take-up of design and technology requires the urgent attention of the Government. The expansion of technology and engineering learning at key stage 4 is essential to opening up opportunities for young people and nurturing core talent for the future economy.

148.We support the ambition of the MBacc and UTC sleeve proposals in seeking to promote the status and availability of technical education in the 11–16 phase of education. We recognise, however, that careful consideration is needed to ensure that any changes of this nature can be effectively and equitably delivered within the current system.

149.The Government should set out how technical and vocational education opportunities can be promoted to a greater number of pupils during the 11–16 phase, with the aim of enabling all pupils to study at least one technical or vocational subject should they wish. The Government should engage closely with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s proposal to offer, as an alternative to the EBacc, a key stage 4 subject combination focused on technical careers, and the Baker Dearing Educational Trust’s proposal for a “UTC sleeve”, and publish its response to these suggestions.

Careers education and employer engagement

150.The House of Commons Education Committee recently undertook an inquiry on careers education, information, advice and guidance (CEIAG), publishing its report in June 2023.284 The Committee noted that, following changes in recent years, the system of CEIAG now takes broadly the right approach. However, it identified “a lack of a clear overarching strategy” and noted that progress towards meeting the Gatsby benchmarks285 has been slow. The Committee recommended that the Government should publish an updated careers strategy by the end of 2024. The DfE have since confirmed that they plan to do this.286

151.In light of the Commons Education Committee’s work, we did not make this topic a principal area of focus in this inquiry. Nonetheless, many witnesses addressed this subject in their evidence. A strong theme was that careers education should be embedded across the secondary curriculum, from year 7 onwards.

152.Oli de Botton, CEO, Careers and Enterprise Company, told us that there is an opportunity to make “the existing curriculum come to life” by linking learning to employment. He highlighted the example of a manufacturing company in the West Midlands that has worked with local academy trusts to incorporate industry-specific learning into their key stage 3 curricula.287 The Edge Foundation noted how Cowes Enterprise College has adapted its key stage 3 curriculum in partnership with local maritime employers, to focus on “applying the knowledge and skills learned to real-world problems such as the mechanics of a boat.” They suggested this had led to “increased engagement and attainment particularly amongst its most disadvantaged students.”288 Ms Ambrosi suggested that the extensive employer engagement that takes place in UTCs supports pupils to develop skills and behaviours such as independence and teamwork, and to make more informed choices about post-16 education and training.289

153.To support teachers to embed careers-related content, Dr Claire Thorne, Co-CEO of Tech She Can, told us that teachers must have access to “tech-focused, industry-relevant” continuing professional development (CPD) resources, aimed at helping them understand “what the workplace of today and tomorrow might look like.” She argued that: “We cannot expect teachers to understand what it looks like to work in Deutsche Bank or Google”.290 Aspirations Academies Trust proposed that “teacher training needs to change so teachers have a better understanding of the world outside the classroom and the skills required to succeed in it.”291

154.Evidence also emphasised the importance of pupils having access to work experience.292 However, Carolyn Roberts, Headteacher at Thomas Tallis School, noted that it can be difficult for mainstream schools to offer this. She argued that it is expensive and often inequitable, suggesting that while “young people who have reach within their own households can get interesting work experience”, this is not available to all.293 Organisations which provide work experience opportunities commented that the approach across schools is inconsistent:

“With work experience not being compulsory for key stage 4 students, there is a very different level of engagement in careers education and work experience at different schools—it’s a bit of a postcode lottery. Some local schools still hold space for work experience for all year 10 students, and take up places with us, whereas others don’t.”294

155.Some called for the reintroduction of mandatory work experience in the 14–16 phase.295 Dr Thorne suggested that “the notion of traditional work, or a quota on the number of hours of work experience, is less important”, and that the emphasis should instead be on “immersive experiences with employers”.296 Nick Brook, CEO of Speakers for Schools, argued that schools need to help pupils to “draw the value from the experience they have had, to identify the learning from it and to capitalise on it”.297 Mr de Botton similarly told us that there should be “objectives set in advance, assessment throughout, and reflection after”.298

156.The Commons Education Committee found that, despite the introduction of the new ‘provider access legislation’,299 schools are still incentivised primarily to promote academic routes. We heard similar arguments and received wide-ranging evidence in favour of raising the prominence of technical and vocational education in the 11–16 phase.300 Witnesses highlighted the importance of ensuring teachers are well informed. The Careers and Enterprise Company noted the need to focus on “skills pathways like apprenticeships where awareness may be lower”, citing a Teacher Tapp survey that found that only 26% of teachers felt confident advising students about how to find an apprenticeship.301 Catherine Sezen, Director of Policy, Association of Colleges, told us that:

“It is about educating the educators as well. By definition, people who work in schools are people like me, who went to school and university and then went back into teaching … It should be very much a whole-school process. Everybody should engage and find out much more about vocational technical options and what they offer.”302

157.We are encouraged by the House of Commons Education Committee’s conclusion that reasonable progress towards improving careers education, information, advice and guidance (CEIAG) in secondary schools has been made over the past decade. We heard that an even greater emphasis on CEIAG is needed in the 11–16 phase, and that this can be enhanced through meaningful engagement between schools and employers.

158.Careers education, information, advice and guidance in the 11–16 phase must give equal status to the full range of post-16 pathways, including technical and vocational qualifications, such as BTECs, and apprenticeships. We support the House of Commons Education Committee’s call for the Government to develop potential solutions to the problem of schools being overly incentivised to encourage pupils to follow academic routes.

43 Written evidence from Department for Education (EDU0085)

44 See para 129.

45 Local authority maintained schools must provide access to a minimum of one course in each of the four entitlement areas (arts, humanities, design and technology, and modern foreign languages) and the opportunity for pupils to obtain an approved qualification in all four areas, should they wish. Department for Education, The national curriculum in England (December 2014), p 7: [accessed 3 October 2023]

46 Other types include foundation schools and voluntary schools, which are funded by the local authority but have slightly more freedom than community schools and are sometimes supported by representatives from religious groups such as churches. There are also grammar schools, which select pupils based on academic ability. These can be run by an academy trust, foundation body or the local authority.

47 In practice, free schools are very similar to academies. The primary difference is that they are newly established schools, whereas academies have generally converted to that status having previously been a community school.

48 FFT Education Datalab, ‘The size of multi-academy trusts’: [accessed 24 October 2023]

49 Department for Education, ‘More than 1 in 10 secondary schools now academies with many more in the pipeline’ (6 January 2011): [accessed 24 October 2023]

51 Department for Education, ‘National curriculum in England’ (updated 2 December 2014): [accessed 24 October 2023]

52 Written evidence from Department for Education (EDU0085)

53 1 (Jamie Portman)

54 Q 1 (Mark Marande)

55 Q 43 (Deborah Annetts)

56 Q 73 (Sir Jon Coles)

58 Ofsted, ‘HMCI’s commentary’ (11 October 2017): [accessed 24 October 2023]

59 Q 73 (Sir Jon Coles)

60 Q 48 (Olly Newton)

61 Q 156 (Nick Gibb MP)

62 Q 112 (Amanda Spielman)

64 Q 112 (Chris Russell)

65 Ofsted, ‘Schools and early education update: September 2021’ (updated 21 December 2022): [accessed 24 October 2023]

66 Including by Dr Geoffrey Readman, Chair of National Drama (Q 44), and in written evidence from British Science Association (EDU0089).

67 Q 65 (Tom Middlehurst)

68 See paras 143–44.

69 London Design and Engineering UTC, ‘Frequently Asked Questions’: [accessed 19 October 2023]

70 Written evidence from Design and Technology Association (EDU0026)

71 Q 28 (Charles Tracy)

72 Written evidence from Christopher Collins (EDU0003)

73 Analysis by Ofqual suggested that as a result of these reforms, some GCSE curricula increased in size by up to 25%. Ofqual, GCSE reform in schools (December 2019): [accessed 23 October 2023]

74 Q 64 (Dr Mary Bousted)

75 Written evidence from Historical Association (EDU0075)

76 Teacher Tapp, ‘What changes would teachers make to their subject’s KS4 curriculum?’: [accessed 24 October 2023]

77 Teacher Tapp, ‘Attendance, time travel and GCSE content...’: [accessed 24 October 2023]

78 Roundtable discussion with teachers (14 September 2023):

79 Ibid.

80 Roundtable discussion with pupils (20 September 2023):

81 Q 64 (Dr Mary Bousted)

82 Cambridge Assessment, Uptake of GCSE subjects 2014 (April 2015), p 2: [accessed 24 October 2023] and Ofqual, ‘Infographics for GCSE results, 2023 (accessible)’: [accessed 24 October 2023]. These declines may also have been prompted by changes to the headline key stage 4 accountability measures, which are discussed in Chapter 4.

83 Written evidence from Association for Physical Education (EDU0048)

84 Written evidence from Association for Citizenship Teaching (EDU0063)

85 In its response to the Ofsted Inspection Framework consultation in 2019, BCS argued that: “The national curriculum states clearly that at key stage 4 ‘All pupils must have the opportunity to study aspects of information technology and computer science at sufficient depth to allow them to progress to higher levels of study or to a professional career.’ Yet all the evidence we have is that this commitment is essentially ignored in practice.” BCS, Non examined subjects at key stage 4—especially computing (March 2019), p 3: [accessed 24 October2 023]

86 Q 158 (Nick Gibb MP)

87 Q 159 (Nick Gibb MP)

88 Written evidence from Department for Education (EDU0085)

89 Written evidence from Pearson (EDU0093)

90 Written evidence from Fair Education Alliance (EDU0024)

91 Details of the relevant measures can be found in paras 274–75 and para 292.

92 Written evidence from Impington Village and International College (EDU0014)

93 Written evidence from Aalok Kanwar (EDU0069)

94 Written evidence from Professor Jessie Ricketts and Dr Laura Shapiro (EDU0055)

95 Q 62 (Tom Middlehurst)

96 Q 173 (Catherine Sezen)

97 HC Deb, 1 November 2013, col 63WS

98 Q 66 (Dr Mary Bousted)

99 A grade 4 is roughly equivalent to a C grade in the previous GCSE grading system.

100 Written evidence from NAHT (EDU0020)

101 Letter from Nick Gibb MP to Lord Johnson of Marylebone Chair of the Education for 11–16 Year Olds Committee (8 August 2023):

102 Q 64 (Tom Middlehurst)

103 Department for Education, ‘New reforms to raise standards and improve behaviour’ (16 June 2015): [accessed 10 August 2023]

104 Letter from Rt. Hon. Justine Greening MP Secretary of State for Education to Neil Carmichael MP Chair of the Education Committee (28 March 2017): [accessed 29  November 2023]

105 Data available at Department for Education, ‘Explore education statistics’: [accessed 19 October 2023].

106 Written evidence from Parentkind (EDU0030)

107 Written evidence from Pearson (EDU0093)

108 Q 64 (Tom Middlehurst)

109 Government guidance for pupils notes that most A-level and T-level courses “require at least five GCSEs at grades 9 to 4, including English and maths.” Entry requirements for other courses “vary depending on the college and course”. Those for apprenticeships “vary depending on the employer, training provider and level of the apprenticeship”, but “many require English and maths GCSEs.” Department for Education, ‘GCSE results day: What to do if you didn’t get the grades you were expecting’ (24 August 2023): [accessed 29 November 2023]

110 Q 169 (Catherine Sezen)

111 Some pupils are able to take alternative qualifications depending on their grade and the institution they attend.

112 Q 176 (Catherine Sezen)

113 Written evidence from National Foundation for Educational Research (EDU0050)

114 Joint Council for Qualifications CIC, GCSE (full course): outcomes for post-16 for England (August 2023): [accessed 29 November 2023]

115 Written evidence from National Education Union (EDU0071)

116 Written evidence from National Foundation for Educational Research (EDU0050)

117 NCFE, ‘Functional Skills’: [accessed 27 October 2023]

118 Letter from Nick Gibb MP to Lord Johnson of Marylebone Chair of the Education for 11–16 Year Olds Committee (8 August 2023):

119 This data was provided to us by NCFE.

120 Written evidence from NCFE (EDU0104)

121 Written evidence from NAHT (EDU0020)

122 Ofqual, ‘Reform of Functional Skills qualifications in English and maths’ (12 April 2019): [accessed 29 November 2023]

123 Q 163 (Paul Warner)

124 Q 140 (Dr Jo Saxton)

125 Q 174 (Paul Warner)

126 Association of School and College Leaders, The forgotten third (September 2019), p 7: [accessed 29 November 2023]

127 Written evidence from Mathematics in Education and Industry (EDU0072)

129 Written evidence from Voice 21 (EDU0073)

130 Ibid.

131 Ofqual, ‘Changes to GCSE English and English language’: available at [accessed 29 November 2023]

132 Department for Education, English language: GCSE subject content and assessment objectives (November 2013), p 3: [accessed 29 November 2023]

133 Written evidence from Working Group on GCSE English Reform (EDU0059)

134 Q 1 (Jamie Portman)

135 Q 58 (Dr Claire Thorne)

136 Written evidence from BCS, Chartered Institute for IT (EDU0090)

137 Written evidence from Department for Education (EDU0085)

138 149 (Nick Gibb MP)

139 Written evidence from BCS, Chartered Institute for IT (EDU0090)

140 Written evidence from BCS, Chartered Institute for IT (EDU0090)

141 See paragraph 29.

142 BCS, Non examined subjects at key stage 4—especially computing (March 2019), pp 3–4: [accessed 29 November 2023]

143 Welsh Government, ‘Cross-curricular skills frameworks’: [accessed 10 October 2023]

144 Ibid.

145 Microsoft, Rebooting tech skills: A blueprint to transform the digital skills landscape (2023), p 3: [accessed 29 November 2023]

146 Written evidence from Bradford Diocesan Academies Trust (EDU0041)

147 Written evidence from Stuart McLaughlin (EDU0011), Association of School and College Leaders (EDU0029), National Association for Special Educational Needs (EDU0038), Sutton Trust (EDU0057) and Pearson (EDU0093)

148 Department for Education, Education technology (EdTech) survey 2020–21 (May 2021), pp 14–20: [accessed 29 November 2023]

149 Data available at Joint Council for Qualifications CIC, ‘Examination results’: [accessed 29 November 2023].

150 Ibid.

151 Written evidence from BCS, Chartered Institute for IT (EDU0090)

152 Written evidence from Professor Simon Peyton Jones and Professor Dame Muffy Calder (EDU0094)

153 These figures refer to Technical Awards categorised as ICT qualifications by the DfE. Other categories of Technical Award, such as ‘multimedia’, may also include opportunities for the development of digital skills. The “cohort” is the number of pupils taking a GCSE in any subject in 2022–23. Data available at Department for Education, ‘Explore education statistics’: [accessed 19 October 2023].

154 BCS, Chartered Institute for IT, ‘England: Vocational and Technical Qualifications in Computing at the end of Key Stage 4 and 5’: [accessed 10 October 2023]

155 Written evidence from Professor Simon Peyton Jones and Professor Dame Muffy Calder (EDU0094)

156 Q 11 (Kate Ambrosi)

157 See para 77.

158 Written evidence from Professor Simon Peyton Jones and Professor Dame Muffy Calder (EDU0094)

159 Written evidence from BCS, Chartered Institute for IT (EDU0090)

160 28 (Julia Adamson)

161 Written evidence from BCS, Chartered Institute for IT (EDU0090)

162 Written evidence from BCS, Chartered Institute for IT (EDU0090)

163 WJEC, WJEC GCSE in digital technology (June 2020), p 4: [accessed 10 October 2023]

164 Ibid., pp 7–31

165 Written evidence from Professor Simon Peyton Jones and Professor Dame Muffy Calder (EDU0094)

166 Written evidence from BCS, Chartered Institute for IT (EDU0090)

167 NCFE, ‘Digital Functional Skills’: [accessed 10 October 2023]

168 Department for Education, Digital functional skills qualifications: subject content (October 2021), p 4: [accessed 10 October 2023]

169 Department for Education, Sustainability and climate change: a strategy for the education and children’s services systems (April 2022): [accessed 22 August 2023]

170 The Dasgupta review was commissioned in 2019 by HM Treasury. It called for changes to how economic success is measured, presenting a new economic framework that takes account of nature and biodiversity. On education, it argued that “every child in every country is owed the teaching of natural history, to be introduced to the awe and wonder of the natural world, and to appreciate how it contributes to our lives. Establishing the natural world within educational policy would contribute to countering the shifting baseline, whereby we progressively redefine ourselves as inhabitants of an emptying world and believe that what we see is how it is and how it will continue to be.” HM Treasury, The economics of biodiversity: the Dasgupta review (February 2021), p 498: [accessed 17 November 2023]

171 The Green Jobs Taskforce was convened by the then Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Education to examine the skills needed for the UK’s transition to net zero. Its report concluded that “if the UK is to grasp the opportunities afforded by a green industrial revolution, we must develop a comprehensive and holistic view of the green jobs and skills challenge”. Its recommendations included proposals on ways to “build pathways into green careers for people from all backgrounds”. Green Jobs Taskforce, Report to government: industry and the skills sector (July 2021), p 6: [accessed 17 November 2023]

172 Department for Education, Sustainability and climate change: a strategy for the education and children’s services systems (April 2022): [accessed 22 August 2023]

173 Written evidence from Royal Society of Chemistry (EDU0022), Teach the Future (EDU0027) and UCL Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability Education (EDU0065)

174 Written evidence from Royal Society of Chemistry (EDU0022)

175 Written evidence from British Science Association (EDU0089)

176 There are two routes through the sciences at GCSE. Pupils taking the ‘triple science’ option take separate GCSEs in physics, chemistry and biology. Pupils taking ‘double science’ take a double GCSE that combines all three sciences but contains less content than the separate GCSEs.

177 Written evidence from British Science Association (EDU0089)

178 Written evidence from UCL Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability Education (EDU0065)

179 Ibid.

180 Written evidence from Chester Zoo and Chester Youth Board (EDU0049), Zoological Society of London (EDU0056) and British Science Association (EDU0089)

181 Environment and Climate Change Committee, In our hands: behaviour change for climate and environmental goals (1st Report, Session 2022–23, HL Paper 64)

182 Written evidence from Teach the Future (EDU0027) and Teach the Future, ‘Curriculum for a Changing Climate’: [accessed 22 August 2023]

184 Department for Education, ‘The new Natural History GCSE and how we’re leading the way in climate and sustainability education—your questions answered’ (25 April 2022): [accessed 22 August 2023]

185 Written evidence from Royal Society of Biology (EDU0023), Field Studies Council (EDU0044) and Chester Zoo and Chester Zoo Youth Board (EDU0049)

186 Written evidence from Mary Colwell, Professor Alastair Fitter and Professor Russell Wynn (EDU0032)

187 Written evidence from Royal Society of Biology (EDU0023)

188 Ibid.

189 Written evidence from Royal Society of Chemistry (EDU0022), Royal Society of Biology (EDU0023), Teach the Future (EDU0027), Chester Zoo and Chester Zoo Youth Board (EDU0049), UCL Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability Education (EDU0065) and British Science Association (EDU0089)

190 Written evidence from Teach the Future (EDU0027)

191 Written evidence from UCL Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability Education (EDU0065)

192 Written evidence from Department for Education (EDU0085)

193 Ibid.

194 Ibid.

195 Ofsted, ‘Research review series: languages’ (June 2021): [accessed 29 November 2023]

196 Q 110 (Amanda Spielman)

197 Ofsted, ‘Research review series: languages’ (June 2021): [accessed 29 November 2023]

198 Modern foreign languages include frequently taught languages such as French, German and Spanish, but many exam boards offer GCSEs in a much broader range of languages. For example, Pearson offers GCSEs in Arabic, Japanese and Urdu, among others. Pearson, ‘Modern Languages’: [accessed 29 November 2023]

199 Data available at Joint Council for Qualifications CIC, ‘Examination results’: [accessed 29 November 2023]. The decline in language entries is primarily associated with a decline in take-up of GCSE French and German. Entries in other modern foreign languages GCSEs, including Spanish, have nearly doubled since 2003.

200 See paras 248–49 and figure 6.

201 Data available at Joint Council for Qualifications CIC, ‘Examination results’: [accessed 29 November 2023].

202 Q 147 (Stuart Miller)

203 Q 110 (Amanda Spielman)

204 Ibid.

205 Written evidence from Association of School and College Leaders (EDU0029)

206 Written evidence from Royal Society of Biology (EDU0023) and Science Education Policy Alliance (EDU0099)

207 Q 134 (Dr Jo Saxton)

208 FFT Education Datalab, ‘Revisiting subject difficulty at Key Stage 4’: [accessed 9 November 2023]

209 Q 69 (Dave Thomson)

210 Q 21 (Gavin Busuttil-Reynaud)

211 The Durham Commission on Creativity and Education defined creativity as “The capacity to imagine, conceive, express, or make something that was not there before” and creative thinking as “A process through which knowledge, intuition and skills are applied to imagine, express or make something novel or individual in its contexts.” Arts Council England, Durham Commission on Creativity and Education (November 2019), p 2: available at [accessed 29 November 2023]

212 Written evidence from NOCN Group (EDU0018)

213 Q 46 (Olly Newton)

214 See, for example, Communications and Digital Committee, At risk: our creative future (2nd Report, Session 2022–23, HL Paper 125).

215 Nesta, ‘Creative industries are driving economic growth across the UK, on track to create one million new creative industries jobs between 2013 and 2030’ (February 2018): [accessed 29 November 2023]

216 Written evidence from Sage Gateshead (EDU0081)

217 Independent Society of Musicians, Music: a subject in peril? (March 2022), p 2: [accessed 29 November 2023]

218 See para 35.

219 Q 42 (Dr Geoffrey Readman)

220 Declining take-up is also seen in design and technology. This is discussed in paras 134–41. Data available at Joint Council for Qualifications CIC, ‘Examination results’: [accessed 10 October 2023] and Ofqual, ‘Infographics for GCSE results, 2023’ (August 2023): [accessed 29 November 2023].

221 Data available at Joint Council for Qualifications CIC, ‘Examination results’: [accessed 10 October 2023].

222 Ibid.

223 108 (Amanda Spielman)

224 Data available at Joint Council for Qualifications CIC, ‘Examination results’: [accessed 29 November 2023] and Department for Education, ‘Key stage 4 performance’: [accessed 29 November 2023].

225 This is discussed in detail in Chapter 4.

226 Written evidence from Independent Society of Musicians (EDU0083)

227 Written evidence from National Education Union (EDU0071)

228 Written evidence from Sage Gateshead (EDU0081)

229 Written evidence from Design and Technology Association (EDU0026) and Andrew Martin Speight, Will Jay Hamilton and Sarah Madeline Smith (EDU0040)

230 Arts Council England, Durham Commission on Creativity and Education (October 2019), p 6: available at [accessed 22 November 2023] and Communications and Digital Committee, At risk: our creative future (2nd Report, Session 2022–23, HL Paper 125), p 40

231 HM Government, The power of music to change lives (June 2022): [accessed 29 November 2023]

232 Department for Education, Model music curriculum: Key stages 1 to 3 (March 2021): [accessed 29 November 2023]

233 House of Lords Library, ‘National plan for music education’ (September 2022): [accessed 29 November 2023]

234 Independent Society of Musicians, ‘The Music Hub Investment Programme’: [accessed 1 November 2023]

235 Independent Society of Musicians, Letter from Deborah Annetts, chief executive of ISM, to Rt. Hon. Nick Gibb MP (September 2023): [accessed 1 November 2023]

236 Written evidence from Independent Society of Musicians (EDU0083)

237 HM Government, ‘Government appoints new panel to promote cultural education’ (3 July 2023): [accessed 29 November 2023]

238 Letter from Baroness Bull to Lord Johnson of Marylebone Chair of the Education for 11–16 Year Olds Committee (17 July 2023):

239 HM Government, Cultural education plan expert advisory panel terms of reference (July 2023): [accessed 29 November 2023]

240 HM Government, ‘Cultural education plan expert advisory panel’: [accessed 29 November 2023]

241 Department for Education, Review of higher technical education: glossary of terms (2019), p 8: [accessed 29 November 2023]

242 Ibid.

243 The DfE says that Technical Awards “are distinct from GCSEs. They complement and supplement the academic curriculum. They must, however, provide a comparable level of rigour and challenge to GCSEs if they are to be recognised as valuable, distinctive and respected qualifications.” Department for Education, Technical qualifications for 14 to 16 year olds (September 2020), p 9: [accessed 29 November 2023]

244 Q 46 (David Gallagher)

245 Ibid.

246 Department for Education, ‘Introduction of T Levels’ (updated 9 March 2023): [accessed 29 November 2023]

247 Department for Education, ‘Institutes of Technology’ (updated 4 September 2023) [accessed 29 November 2023]

248 Department for Education, Skills for jobs: lifelong learning for opportunity and growth (January 2021): [accessed 29 November 2023]

249 Department for Education, ‘The Advanced British Standard: Everything you need to know’ (5 October 2023): [accessed 29 November 2023]

250 Written evidence from Energy and Utility Skills (EDU0051)

251 Written evidence from NOCN Group (EDU0018) and EngineeringUK (EDU0092)

252 Written evidence from WorldSkills UK (EDU0035)

253 Data available at Joint Council for Qualifications CIC, ‘Examination results’: [accessed 10 October 2023] and Ofqual, ‘Infographics for GCSE results, 2023’ (August 2023): [accessed 29 November 2023].

254 Data available at Joint Council for Qualifications CIC, ‘Examination results’: [accessed 10 October 2023].

255 Data available at Department for Education, ‘Key stage 4 performance’: [accessed 29 November 2023].

256 Written evidence from NOCN Group (EDU0018)

257 HMC, The state of education—time to talk (November 2022), p 19: [accessed 29 November 2023]

259 Written evidence from EngineeringUK (EDU0092). Following the reforms to GCSEs in 2015, practical coursework has been removed from the assessment of science subjects. These are now assessed by exam only.

260 Q 42 (Tony Ryan)

261 Written evidence from EngineeringUK (EDU0092)

262 EngineeringUK, Fit for the future: A 5-point plan to grow and sustain engineering and technology apprenticeships for young people (October 2023), p 37: [accessed 3 November 2023]

263 See paras 250–57.

264 Design and technology GCSE was compulsory prior to 2000. ‘Why has the number of teenagers taking design and technology GCSE dropped?’, The Conversation (24 August 2015): [accessed 29 November 2023]

265 Q 109 (Amanda Spielman)

266 Q 47 (David Gallagher)

267 Written evidence from EngineeringUK (EDU0092)

268 Q 47 (David Gallagher)

269 Ibid.

270 Ibid.

271 Greater Manchester Combined Authority, ‘Mayor unveils new plan for equal pathways to technical education and university for school leavers’: [accessed 29 November 2023]

272 Ibid.

273 Q 91 (Andy Burnham)

274 Greater Manchester Combined Authority, ‘Mayor unveils new plan for equal pathways to technical education and university for school leavers’: [accessed 29 November 2023]

275 Written evidence from Baker Dearing Educational Trust (EDU0015)

276 UTC, ‘Welcome’: [accessed 29 November 2023]

277 Ofsted, ‘School inspection handbook’ (updated 6 October 2023), para 280: [accessed 29 November 2023]

278 Q 9 (Kate Ambrosi)

279 Ibid.

280 Written evidence from NOCN Group (EDU0018)

281 Written evidence from Baker Dearing Educational Trust (EDU0015)

282 Ibid.

283 Written evidence from NOCN Group (EDU0018)

284 Education Committee, Careers Education, Information, Advice and Guidance, (Fourth Report, Session 2022–23, HC54)

285 The eight Gatsby benchmarks “define what world class careers provision in education looks like and provide a clear framework for organising the careers provision” at a school or college. The Careers and Enterprise Company, ‘Gatsby Benchmarks’: [accessed 29 November 2023]

286 Education Committee, Careers Education, Information, Advice and Guidance: Government response to the Committee’s Fourth Report, (Fifth Special Report, Session 2022–23, HC1848)

287 Q 54 (Oli de Botton)

288 Written evidence from Edge Foundation (EDU0021)

289 Q 1 (Kate Ambrosi)

290 Q 57 (Dr Claire Thorne)

291 Written evidence from Aspirations Academies Trust (EDU0006)

292 Written evidence from Speakers for Schools (EDU0046) and Sutton Trust (EDU0057)

293 Q 1 (Carolyn Roberts)

294 Written evidence from Zoological Society of London (EDU0056)

295 Written evidence from South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership (EDU0047), Sutton Trust (EDU0057) and Doceo Development (EDU0084)

296 Q 51 (Dr Claire Thorne)

297 Q 52 (Nick Brook)

298 Q 53 (Oli de Botton)

299 The updated provider access legislation requires schools to “provide at least six encounters with approved providers of apprenticeships and technical education for all their students.” The Careers and Enterprise Company, ‘Provider Access Legislation’: [accessed 29 November 2023]

300 See, for example, Q 47 (David Gallagher), Q 83 (Andy Burnham) and written evidence from NOCN Group (EDU0018), NAHT (EDU0020) and Speakers for Schools (EDU0046).

301 Written evidence from Careers and Enterprise Company (EDU0045)

302 Q 171 (Catherine Sezen)

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