Isabel Hardman

Labour conference: Ed Miliband to announce big educational reforms (but won’t mention GCSEs)

Labour conference: Ed Miliband to announce big educational reforms (but won't mention GCSEs)
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Each day of the Labour conference covers a different aspect of Britain that Ed Miliband wants to rebuild, and tomorrow's theme as the Labour leader gives his speech will be rebuilding the education system. Miliband will announce plans for a new Technical Baccalaureate which starts at 14 and runs until 18. The idea is to target those children who will not be going to university, but who, according to Miliband, do not currently have the same road map for their future as those going down an academic route. Describing these students as the 'forgotten 50 per cent', he will say:

'In the 21st century everyone should be doing some form of education up to 18, not 16. That gives us the chance and the obligation to develop a new system from 14 to 18, in particular, for vocational qualifications. I want a curriculum that is rigorous and relevant with English and Maths up to 18, not 16, culminating in a new technical baccalaureate at 18 based on gold standard qualifications.

'I want ours to be a country where kids aspire not just to go to Oxford and Cambridge but to excellent technical colleges and elite vocational institutions. We need to do what we haven't done in decades: build a culture in our country where vocational qualifications are not seen as second class certificates but for what they can be - a real route on and up to quality apprenticeships.'

The 'Tech Bacc' will offer a route for a 'gold standard' qualification at 18 like the well-respected City & Guilds certificates. It will not replace A-levels, but students will choose at 16 whether to go down the vocational route or not. They will all be required to take some form of Maths and English up to the end of their schooling. And once they do leave, there will be a new system of apprenticeships waiting for them, or they can still go to university with such a highly-respected schooling behind them. Although there is no target for the number of students who will take this vocational qualification, the estimate is that it could apply to 136,000.

Miliband makes a very strong point about the forgotten 50 per cent (although it's actually closer to the forgotten 52 per cent). It is unfair that a 14 year old achieving top grades in English can chart their future all the way to their graduation from university at 21 while their less academic classmate could leave education forever two years later with no clear trajectory.

But what is confusing about tomorrow's announcement is that while it uses the same language as the coalition's reforms to GCSEs, with both new qualifications taking the 'baccalaureate' tag, Labour is not going to address whether the English Baccalaureate will indeed replace the current secondary exams system, or whether GCSEs are here to stay. The decision won't be made until 2015 because Labour wants to have a discussion with teachers about what they want to be the future of qualifications. That's all very well and good, but this September's year seven children will be the ones taking the new EBacc in 2017, and they will be starting the courses properly as 14 year-olds in 2015. Leaving the decision until after the general election means Labour could theoretically scrap an exam three or four months before teenagers start the course. Gove has already started encouraging schools to use IGCSEs in the interim as a more rigorous alternative to qualifications whose reputation is now seriously damaged. And exam boards will have started focusing their energies on bidding to set papers for certain subjects, closing down their operations on other GCSEs.

Aides around Miliband are keen to brief that this conference disproves the notion that Labour is not producing any concrete policies, setting out instead a blueprint for rebuilding Britain. But the leader of the opposition is proving to be a poor builder by refusing to address the GCSE issue: they are pretty essential bricks in education policy, after all.