To EBacc or not to EBacc …

Following on from my interview in The Independent on Thursday, I thought that it was worth writing a little more about the EBacc and its consequences. Figures released ahead of GCSE results day and published in The Telegraph indicated that fewer and fewer 16 year olds are taking GCSEs in five strongly academic subjects – English, Maths, Science, a Modern or Classical Language and either History or Geography. In 1997, 292,568 pupils took this particular combination of subjects – 49.9% of all the students in English schools – but by 2010 only 140,551 (22%) were taking them. Meanwhile, a plethora of other subjects have taken their place, from Media Studies to Child Care. Concern about the drop in academic rigour of the combination of qualifications taken by 16 year-olds was what prompted Michael Gove to introduce a new performance measure earlier this year, based on the five central subjects, which he called the English Baccalaureate or EBacc, but was he right to do so?

When the EBacc was announced, it was met almost universally with disapproval from the education sector. Largely this was because it was introduced retrospectively, to highlight what had been happening in schools and to focus minds on the fact that the 5 A*-C standard against which schools had been measured disguised the quality of those GCSEs. Personally, I think it was right to draw this into the public consciousness; GCSEs should be about life choices for individuals, and without English or Maths, at the very least, young people have doors closed to them and, crucially, miss out on an understanding of what the world is about, and how it functions. This is why Science and some kind of language awareness too are essential, as is some awareness of history or another humanity; the fact that significant numbers of schools had been allowing their pupils not to study these subjects brought with it the suspicion that this was more for the benefit of the schools and their position in the league tables than it was for the teenager in question, and this needed to be flushed out.

However, not everything was – or is – rosy with the EBacc. First, leaving aside questions of the quality and relevance of the GCSE examinations themselves, the construction of the EBacc was far too restrictive as regards the definite requirement of either History or Geography. Religious Studies, with its rich cultural understanding and awareness of world faiths (which underpin so much of our history as a species) was a glaring omission from this list, and despite representations to the DfE, the position has not budged. This is remarkably blinkered, and has certainly undermined the concept of the EBacc in the eyes of many schools who were perfectly happy and in tune with the notion of rigour embedded in it.

Secondly, the EBacc is not really a baccalaureate at all in the sense of breadth that normally accompanies baccalaureate – from European baccalaureates to the IB. It is a core set of subjects which should be a basic entitlement for young people, and which should give them a framework to help them understand the world and therefore have a more enriched life within it. Positioning the EBacc as a qualification rather than as simply a performance measure – one of many to which parents and other will have access, and which can be explained in a local context – is dangerous. If a school’s position in local league tables depends on this ‘qualification’ – and this is more pertinent to state schools than to independent schools, who already have a healthy disregard for the league tables – then the risk is that it will push schools to focus solely on these subjects to the exclusion of others, in an attempt to make sure that the pupils gain reasonable passes. A core entitlement therefore transmutes into a restrictive curriculum, and this can do no-one any good.

So … look beyond the figures. Good schools will always be doing what is right for the individuals in their care. This is what we should be measuring.

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