Chemistry education is important because it provides benefits to both individuals and society. Given this importance we will be looking for the ABS to equip students with core chemistry knowledge and skills, via both academic and vocational options, that will enable them to enter career paths in the chemical sciences or pursue further study.
Efforts to create parity between how academic and vocational options are viewed as particularly welcome – to achieve that, the government must ensure that there is proper student choice through equity of access at their post-16 provider. That’s especially important where providers have traditionally only offered either academic or vocational courses. There also needs to be a comprehensive plan from the government to ensure there are enough suitable work placements and engaged employers to support these occupational pathways in the ABS. That is something that has been difficult to achieve so far with the T-level. T-levels have also not been given the time to embed and become an established vocational route – post-16 providers, employers and exam boards in the process of designing and implementing these new technical qualifications (T-Levels and the soon to be AAQs) are once again facing major change.
The ABS plans aim to achieve ‘broader knowledge with the right degree of depth to be able to excel in their path post 18’. That will be a difficult balance to reach and will need careful consultation with the wider education sector. On the academic route, there is the potential to learn from the similar structure of Scotland’s Highers system, which leads into a longer undergraduate degree, compared to what is currently offered in England.
One welcome signal is the inclusion of FE colleges in the teacher bonus scheme – for too long these teachers have missed out on recruitment and retention incentives focused on schoolteachers. However, the ABS will require a significant increase in the teaching workforce. As the chemistry teacher recruitment targets in England have been missed for a number of years, it’s hard to see how the proposed teacher bonus scheme will attract and retain enough specialist chemistry teachers to both solve the current recruitment and retention crisis and provide enough extra teachers to cover the ABS.
Working conditions (including excessive workload), and the declining appeal of teaching as a profession must be addressed, both to help attract the numbers of new chemistry teachers that will be needed to deliver the ABS, and to stem the flow of experienced teachers leaving the profession. We want to see long-term solutions to make teaching a more desirable profession that can withstand population and economic fluctuations. That requires a balance between getting the right financial incentives and making teaching a job people want to do because they enjoy it. Subject-specific professional development also has a role to play in ensuring teachers have the right expertise for the classes they are required to teach. By improving conditions in schools and colleges, and prioritising ongoing professional development, the need for these short-term financial incentives will be reduced. To this end, we look forward to seeing the government’s refreshed five-year follow-up strategy on teacher recruitment and retention.
In summary, we are pleased to see longer-term thinking around education reform and we are cautiously optimistic about the intentions of the ABS proposals. That said, the level of support provided to schools and colleges – particularly around ensuring these providers are appropriately staffed with specialist teachers – will be a major influence on their future success.