Upper-secondary schooling system in England today is confusing and fragmented. This paper sets out a vision for 14–19 education that is more coherent and more effective at guiding young people through the vital transition to adulthood, higher education, further training and employment.

The report makes the case for a well-defined upper-secondary system in England, which will ensure a broad, stretching programme of study for all students over a four-year period. This needs to be underpinned by:

  • a clear vision and agreement on an overarching curriculum – including an agreed focus on the whole four- or five-year period from the age of 14, and a national curriculum that both ensures students attain core, essential skills and knowledge, such as literacy and numeracy, and anticipates and prepares students for the variety of pathways through academic, vocational and mixed higher education and training
  • a more open transition at the beginning of the phase – including improved access for students and parents to information about alternative schools and institutions taking students from age 14, to shift emphasis away from moving school at age 16, which currently create an arbitrary break at the halfway point of a young person's upper-secondary education
  • an accountability system which encourages responsibility for a learner across the whole period – including shifting the focal point for performance assessment away from attainment at age 16 and towards progress across the whole 14–19 period
  • clearer local oversight to be able to deliver the vision – including the introduction of schools commissioners, to oversee
  • fairer funding across the phase – including consideration for equalising funding arrangements across the whole schooling period, unlike current plans which protect funding for 5–15-year-olds but not for 16–18-year olds.

Unlike previous cycles of education reform, this report does not begin with a particular view of skill needs, of students, employers or the wider economy, which in turn determines a particular programme of changes to qualifications and curriculum. Instead, we seek to set out a definition and unifying view of upper-secondary education, which in turn will allow a more coherent, universal and effective system to be fostered.

Crucially, there is no consistent picture or description, either within England or internationally, of this vital phase of a young person's education. Our proposed definition for upper-secondary education is:

'"the educational experience of a young person which starts at the beginning of Year 10 and typically lasts four years until the end of the academic year in which they turn 18. This is the period through which all young people will be expected to complete a broad, stretching and coherent programme of study, building up a collection of knowledge, skills and experience to allow them to move into a prosperous, flexible and rewarding adulthood.'

Next, we propose a vision for the 14–19 phase:

'We want the English upper-secondary education system to ensure that every young person is equipped with the knowledge, skills and capabilities to participate fully in society, whether at work or in further and higher education, and in the wider civic life of the community. This means that in their four years of upper-secondary education every young person should be given the opportunity to develop:

  • a core of subject knowledge, understanding and learning skills attained through coherent programmes of study
  • good levels of literacy and numeracy, at a minimum equivalent to GCSE grade C, but with many going further as they pursue these subjects throughout their whole upper-secondary education
  • the cultural resources and capabilities to approach adulthood with independence, confidence and creativity
  • an understanding of democratic and social citizenship that will enable them to benefit from and contribute to wider society.'

Finally, we set out a picture of what a young person should be capable of at the end of this phase:

We believe that all young people should be expected to leave upper-secondary education having achieved much broader and more demanding programmes of study than they do currently. This includes:

  • having demonstrated core learning and achieved qualifications of both breadth and depth
  • with the literacy and numeracy skills required to succeed in adult life (and with many stretching themselves in this respect beyond what has been expected previously)
  • having demonstrated their ability to critically and independently approach and tackle complex problems, through the requirement to complete an extended project
  • with a portfolio of experience that shows their personal development and contribution to the community.