Sunday thoughts: Is the MBacc revolutionary, or just a shiny political gimmick?

Jonathan Simons
8 min readMay 27, 2023


Andy Burnham has been making waves in the last couple of weeks with the announcement of his MBacc: the creation of “two equal routes — one academic and one technical — to give a clear path to all young people in Greater Manchester, whatever their interests, ambitions and passions”, according to the man himself (foreword to the official doc here).

It’s been generally well received. But is it, as he claims, an innovative new approach, made possible only by the devolved powers given to Greater Manchester? Or is it a glossy political wrapper around a fairly mainstream approach that many schools and colleges and local areas are doing anyway?

“After decades of education policy dominated by the University route, under governments of all colours, 36 per cent of young people make that choice in Greater Manchester. Which begs the question: what about the 64 per cent who don’t?”

Andy Burnham, in Schools Week.

Right off the bat, I don’t like the framing. I’ve never liked the “go to uni” vs “don’t go to uni” division, which is increasingly blurred now that almost a quarter of Higher Education is delivered in Further Education settings, and students increasingly take up Level 4 and 5 qualifications including in FE on route to a Level 6 degree.

It’s also slightly odd to frame that 36 per cent as low. The most comprehensive way of tracking HE participation is the CHEP method — the cohort based HE participation — which looks at 15 year olds in successive cohorts at school and tracks what proportion of them have entered HE by age 20, age 25, and age 30. On that basis, the North West more or less tracks England up until the most recent data — looking at 15 year olds in 2010/11, who are now 25 in the latest data, shows that 47% of all those in England had entered HE (grey line) and actually the North West slightly exceeded that at 47.7% (green line). Whether you look at those measured at 20, 25 or 30, the two lines of England and the North West are more or less equal.

Author’s own calculations

But put another way, the Mayor has a point. In the graphs below, I’ve looked at the participation onto “further education” (which covers degrees, higher apprenticeships, and other post level 3 qualifications) for all 18 year olds who took Level 3 qualifications in each institution across Greater Manchester’s ten boroughs in summer 2019 (ie pre pandemic). In total, the dataset covers 52 institutions, and shows 67% of these 18 year olds doing Level 3 progressed to some form of education after 18. 63% went to HE, 2% went onto a higher level Apprenticeship, and 2% went to do a Level 4 or Level 5 classroom based qualification.

Looking at the progression by instituton, we see a significant range, from 9 institutions where more than 90% of young people progressed, to 7 where fewer than 50% did.

Author’s own calculations

The macro figures show how HE dominates progression for these students. Again, looking at destination data by institution, and looking at the routes only for that proportion of the cohort who did progress, you see the orange bars of HE dominating even more. Only 12 institutions send more than 5% of their L3 students to Apprenticeships. There’s some sharp bars of grey, representing other qualifications — these are predominantly colleges sending students on to classroom based 4s and 5s and other routes.

Author’s own calculations

So in one sense, the Mayor is absolutely right. If you’re studying Level 3 qualifications post 16, whether academic or technical ones, you’re overwhelmingly likely to go on to HE if you progress beyond Level 3 (94% of all of those who are tracked as progressing in education and who took Level 3 quals between 16–18). That is the dominance of the academic route. But that does sit slightly oddly with a framing that HE isn’t really a GM thing, so the region needs other options, because only one third of school leavers go to HE overall — when as we’ve seen, this is more or less national average. Far better, I’d have thought, to frame there as needing to be an additional and flexible post level 3 option, to keep young people’s choices open, as well as offering options to young people who don’t take on Level 3 at 16 (which in fairness some of the messaging about these two pathways tries to do).

Fundamentally, the MBacc then tries to do two things which I really, really don’t like. Firstly, it emphasises that the “two routes” start at 14. Young people in GM can choose an academic route — GCSEs, and an assumed progression to A Levels and then university. Or the new technical / MBacc route, which includes some GCSEs — English, maths and computing — and some optional ones, with a presumed progression onto technical post 16 quals, and then an apprenticeship or higher technical quals. page 15 page 16

I don’t know how many times it needs to be shown that this framing at 14 doesn’t work, and won’t work. Every young person deserves the full suite of GCSEs until 16 and to be encouraged to study a wide range of subjects. Incentivising them to have the option to drop from a wide range of other subjects that aren’t English language, maths and technology is horribly narrow and utilitarian, and at worst, concedes to the low expectations of 14 year olds who have decided that these aren’t for them. Every child deserves to study literature, humanities, languages and arts – and in my view, with few exceptions, should be compelled to study a wider range of GCSEs, albeit not necessarily the Ebacc. The whole point of the division of a school leaving age at 16 is to offer every student a broad and balanced education until the end of compulsory schooling, and then pathways open up for the 16–18 phase.

We also know, from painful years of this being shown time after time after time (remember 14–19 Diplomas?) that a division like this at 14 becomes a class division. Young people who choose these routes at 14 are disproportionately likely to be lower attaining, or from lower socio economic backgrounds, or both. The one thing that the Mbacc has in its favour is that it doesn’t forcibly split people by institution. Whenever that has been tried — and despite what Ken Baker says — the evidence is unequivocal. Institutions like UTCs and studio schools that take students at 14 tend to take lower achieving ones who then make less progress, achieve fewer qualifications, and have poorer onward destination data.

My other gripe is more a presentational one. In order to make MBacc a parallel, the GMCA proposal presents the EBacc as a formal route, or almost a qualification in its own right. Students choose the “EBacc route”, runs the argument, and are supported through the academic pathway and do well. But this is nonsense. There is no such thing as an “Ebacc route”. Students take GCSEs, and if those GCSEs happen to fit within the structure of what is called the Ebacc, then the school and the pupil “achieves” an Ebacc. But it has no purchase in the system, and it isn’t a fixed set of options like an actual Baccalaureate. Students can take a whole suite of GCSEs, go on to do A Levels and a degree, and never achieve the Ebacc. Indeed, that’s the most common outcome! The Ebacc also doesn’t work as an accountability measure — although there was some evidence of schools changing GCSE options to better fit around the Ebacc, it isn’t now driving student and school behaviour, and there are no clear accountability consequences that flow from it. Ofsted will not fail a school because Ebacc pass rates are low, nor will a school fall beneath a floor standard and be compelled to academise. Indeed, for those who think that it’s really important that these combination of subjects are studied, the Ebacc is seen as a failure precisely because it has no teeth.

So MBacc is fundamentally tilting at a windmill. There is no Ebacc route to compare against.

What there is, though, is prestige dominance of academic qualifications both up until 16 (good) and post 16 (where there is far more room for innovation). To the extent that any framing can focus on a wider range of options post 16, and that no politician ever falls into the trap of dismissing young people taking academic routes and going on to university, then I’m much more supportive.

And it’s here that the MBacc can shine. GMCA has done some really good work on mapping the skills shortages and growth areas of the economy across GM, what roles these map onto, and they show quite clearly and convincingly how different qualifications post 16 can help young people be well set up for a career in these: page 12 page 18

And while — again — GMCA is slightly exaggerating for rhetorical effect how revolutionary this is (there’s very little of this mapping that any other city region or LA couldn’t do here — indeed, the Local Skills and Improvement Partnerships that exist across all areas are meant to do exactly this), this is very clearly the best exposition of it I’ve seen. And GMCA does have some additional convening powers in this post 16 space because of their city deal, to bring schools and colleges and employers together to make sure the relevant technical qualifications are available for those young people who might want to study them.

If GMCA could have resisted the temptation to over claim the novelty of what they’ve done — and if they could please, please focus on the post-16 route, as opposed to the well trodden failure routes of post-14 — then this really would be interesting.

As it is, the biggest advantage — and this is no small thing — is that it signals what other Combined Authorities might now do over time. I can foresee a world in which 11–16 education is much more standardised, but different localities create and promote different qualifications and routes depending on the needs of their local economy. So long as students do have the ability to move between the paths, which they seem to still be able to do under the MBacc, then that’s genuinely the most exciting development here.