On 13 October 2022, the House of Lords is due to consider a motion in the name of Lord Lexdon (Conservative), “that this House takes note of the report of the Times Education Commission, published on 15 June”.

1. Purpose and evidence gathering

The Times Education Commission was set up by the Times newspaper in June 2021 at the suggestion of Sir Anthony Seldon, former head of Brighton College and former master of Wellington College. Its purpose was to “examine Britain’s whole education system and consider its future in the light of the Covid-19 crisis, declining social mobility, new technology and the changing nature of work”.

The commission examined education provision from early years to higher education and lifelong learning. Its report stated that it was “the broadest inquiry ever held”. It said its wide scope was necessary because it was “impossible to disentangle the constituent parts of the system”.

The commission gathered input from a variety of sources:

  • evidence sessions
  • regional round table meetings
  • school visits
  • international trips
  • youth panels
  • parent focus groups and interviews

2. Findings and recommendations

The report is divided into 10 thematic sections:

  • purpose of education
  • social mobility and levelling up
  • the curriculum
  • assessment
  • teaching
  • technology
  • wellbeing and mental health
  • schools in the community
  • special educational needs and disabilities and alternative provision
  • further education, higher education and lifelong learning

The commission identified the role of education as:

  • helping each child reach their potential
  • promoting social mobility
  • fostering community cohesion
  • equipping children with the skills they need to work
  • ensuring businesses can hire people with the right skills

The commission concluded that the education system “is failing on every measure”. It said that adopting the report’s recommendations would “make for a fairer society, a more productive economy and a happier and healthier population”.

2.1 Exam reforms

The report’s key recommendation was for reforms to the exams pupils take at ages 18 and 16. The commission proposed a British baccalaureate that would be taken at age 18. This would replace A-levels. It would be modelled on the international baccalaureate and would include both academic and vocational options. Those on the academic programme would take three major subjects and three minor subjects. Those on the vocational programme would combine learning such as BTecs or T-levels with work experience. It would be possible to combine elements of the two programmes.

The report recommended that the number of exams pupils take at age 16 be reduced to five core subjects, and that continuous assessment should contribute to their grade. Schools would be required to teach a broad curriculum that went beyond the subjects covered by the exams.

The commission argued that the British baccalaureate would be at least as academically demanding as A-levels but would introduce “greater breadth and flexibility” to post-16 education. It also said a baccalaureate would end the division between academic and vocational education. It argued that the proposed reform could raise standards and increase social mobility.

2.2 Commission’s 12-point plan

Reforming exam was the first in the commission’s ‘12-point plan’ to improve the education system. The other 11 points were:

  • introducing an electives premium for all schools, to be spent on activities including drama, music, dance and sport, and a national citizen service experience for every pupil
  • setting up a new cadre of elite technical and vocational sixth forms with close links to industry, to be known as career academies
  • increasing early years funding, to be targeted at the most vulnerable, and a unique pupil number from birth
  • establishing an “army” of undergraduate tutors earning credit towards their degrees by tutoring pupils who have fallen behind
  • providing a laptop or tablet for every child and making sure there is a greater use of artificial intelligence in schools, colleges and universities
  • making sure there is a counsellor in every school and an annual wellbeing survey of pupils
  • enhancing the status and appeal of teaching with better career development, revalidation every five years and a new category of consultant teachers, as well as a new teaching apprenticeship
  • reforming Ofsted so that it works collaboratively with schools
  • providing better training for teachers to identify children who have special educational needs, putting a greater focus on inclusion, and creating a duty for schools to remain accountable for the pupils they exclude
  • creating new university campuses in 50 higher education “cold spots”, improved pay and conditions in the further education sector and a transferrable credit system between universities and colleges
  • putting in place a 15-year strategy for education, drawn up in consultation with business leaders, scientists, local mayors, civic leaders and cultural figures

The commission also presented 45 recommendations in an annex to the report.

3. Debate in Parliament

On 21 June 2022, Lord Lexden (Conservative) asked the government in an oral question what assessment it had made of the commission’s main recommendation for the introduction of a British baccalaureate. Baroness Barran, parliamentary under secretary of state at the Department for Education, replied that the government had no plans to introduce a new British baccalaureate. This was because, she said, over the last 10 years the government had “transformed the quality of academic and technical qualifications” and had further reforms in progress.

Baroness Blackstone (Independent Labour), former senior leader of several higher education institutions, former professor of education administration and former education minister, said that the minister’s reply was “extraordinarily complacent and very disappointing”. She said she could not understand how the government could “have such a closed mind to a sensible suggestion of the kind that the Times Education Commission has made”. She said that no other Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) country had such a specialised curriculum for 16- to 18-year-olds and that young people should have the opportunity to study a wider range of subjects.

Other members expressed support for the commission’s recommendations that bursaries for trainee language teachers be increased, and that an electives premium for the arts and sports and a national citizen service experience be introduced. Baroness Blower (Labour) highlighted the work other commissions had done on the curriculum and assessments.

The Earl of Clancarty (Crossbench) asked the government in a written question whether it would produce a formal response to the commission’s report. Baroness Barran replied that the government had no plans to do so and highlighted the education changes proposed in the 2022 schools white paper and the 2021 ‘Skills for jobs’ white paper. For more information on the 2022 schools white paper see section 1 of the House of Lords Library briefing ‘Schools Bill [HL]’ (19 May 2022).

4. Reaction to the report

The National Education Union agreed with many of the commission’s recommendations. It said the report was “another indicator of the gulf between the policies of government and the needs of our education system”. It said the report’s findings added to the case for replacing Ofsted, rethinking the exam system, prioritising creativity and investing in the early years. It also said, however, that attention was needed on issues that were less prominent in the report, such as “the damage done to children by rising levels of poverty” and replacing the “deeply flawed” system of primary assessment.

The Education Policy Institute (EPI), a research institution, said that the report highlighted “the pressing need for the government to tackle the growing gap in inequalities in education”. It said a number of the report’s recommendations reflected their own conclusions. These included significantly increasing funding in the early years, improving mental health and wellbeing support in schools and colleges, and extending the pupil premium to cover children who have a child protection plan in place. They also agreed with the commission on the importance of ensuring all children have access to a digital device, increasing post-16 funding and raising the status of the teaching profession. It argued that inequalities in education were growing and said the government needed to act to reverse this.

In a statement to the Times, a spokesperson for the Department for Education said that exams were “the best and fairest way” of assessing students and ensuring they were prepared for work or further study. They said that GCSE and A-level exams were reformed in 2011 in consultation with schools, universities and employers and were designed “to be in line with the highest-performing education systems in the world”.

5. Commission membership

The chair of the commission was Rachel Sylvester, a journalist at the Times newspaper. Its members were:

  • Sir Anthony Seldon
  • Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders
  • Lord Bilimoria, founder of Cobra Beer, president of the Confederation of British Industry and chancellor of Birmingham University
  • Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, professor of cognitive neuroscience at Cambridge University
  • Sir Damon Buffini, founding partner of Permira and chair of the National Theatre and the Cultural Recovery Fund board
  • Dame Sally Coates, director at United Learning and author of a review of education in prison
  • Evelyn Forde, head teacher at Copthall School in Barnet and the winner of Times Education Supplement head of the year 2020
  • Kiran Gill, founder of teacher training organisation The Difference
  • Robert Halfon, Conservative MP for Harlow and chair of the House of Commons Education Committee
  • Lucy Heller, chief executive of Ark
  • Tristram Hunt, Victoria and Albert Museum director and former Labour MP for Stroke-on-Trent Central
  • Lord Johnson of Marylebone, chair of the Times Education Supplement and former universities minister
  • Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies
  • Lucy Kellaway, teacher at Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney and co-founder of Now Teach
  • Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho, chair of WeTransfer, chancellor of the Open University and chair of the House of Lords Covid-19 Committee
  • Anne Longfield, former children’s commissioner for England
  • Professor Heather McGregor, executive dean of Edinburgh Business School at Heriot-Watt University
  • Amanda Melton, principal of Nelson and Colne College
  • Sir Michael Morpurgo, author, poet, playwright and former teacher
  • Lord Rees of Ludlow, astronomer royal
  • Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, vice-chancellor of Manchester University and chair of the Russell Group
  • Sir Tim Smit, executive vice-chairman and co-founder of the Eden Project

Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at the OECD, was an international advisor to the committee.

Cover image by Charisse Kenion on Unsplash