Is the Ebacc such a bad idea?

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary for England (his remit not extending elsewhere in the UK, so far as I know), is one of the more controversial figures in the government.  I haven’t met anybody that works in or with the education sector that approves of him.  But amongst politicos and journalists, especially right-wing ones, he is considered one of the government’s best performers.  He is widely reviled by Liberal Democrats.  But not everything he says is nonsense.  And indeed the controversy he stirs up reveals some uncomfortable things about our educational establishment.  Today I am looking at one of his many controversial ideas: the English Baccalaureate, commonly referred to as the “Ebacc”.

What is it?  In principle the Ebacc is a certificate awarded to pupils who get C or better grades in five or more GCSE subjects, which must include maths, English, a foreign language (including Latin or ancient Greek), science, and history or geography (for more details see the link above).  Actually I’m not sure that it is a certificate yet; it was introduced last year as a performance target to show how well schools were doing in teaching these “core” academic subjects.

Why is it so controversial?  In the first place because it was dropped on schools out of nowhere last year, before they had a chance to plan for it.  Critics say that it should have been “tested” and phased in.  There may be some pupils who suffer because employers will be looking for their Ebacc when the school had put them in for some other subjects before they knew about it.  There is a lot of upset from schools who had looked good in earlier league tables that don’t look so good under this one.  This is mainly whinging by professionals who spend too much energy gaming the system to look good in league tables rather than considering what is best for their pupils.  To be fair, of course, many of the people I am dismissing as whingers actually have a more fundamental disagreement with the idea.  I am coming to that.

Also there are some more practical issues about how schools will respond.  One blogger (Anastasia de Waal of Civitas, quite sympathetic to the idea of a more academic curriculum) worries that schools won’t bother with pupils that they don’t think are going to reach C grades in one or more of these subjects.  This goes to the heart of another question: that of the use of league tables and performance measures.  A big topic for another day.

But the real controversy is about the subjects that aren’t included.  There are some subjects, such as religious studies and philosophy, that are (or should be) quite academic.  Why not include these if they test the same skills?  But the real issue is a whole swathe of “applied” or “vocational” subjects which have found their way into the GCSE.  These include applied sciences, applied languages (don’t ask), and things such as ICT (information and communications technology) and media studies.  These subjects were designed for pupils characterised as less academic, and were popular in schools because it was easier for students to get better grades.  By focusing on the more academic topics, the critics say, you are letting down all these less academic pupils from typically poorer backgrounds.

But the problem is that these “less academic” subjects are a major failure.  They are based on a misconception of what secondary school education at that age should be about.  They are, or so I understand, largely based on knowledge transfer, and not deeper understanding.  Pupils learn answers by rote and splurge them out as required.  But even supposing retention is good for this type of study, this knowledge is soon out of date.  What higher education recruiters and employers want, even for practical jobs, is understanding.  The “academic” subjects are much better at teaching this.  A college running a technology course would much rather its pupils were taught mathematics to a decent standard than any amount of ICT teaching (though schools have long been required to focus on maths and English).

This criticism makes a lot of sense to me, though I have only been involved in secondary education as a pupil, and that a long time ago.  For accountancy it has long been said that good basics (especially maths) is all that you really need from school – the rest can be picked up pretty quickly later.  When recruiting staff, I must admit that I didn’t take all that much interest in school qualifications if there was anything else (such as work experience) to go on.  And I find the idea of doing an applied subject without doing the theory alongside it to be equally flawed.

What am I saying?  At GCSE level a broad choice of subjects does not make for good education.  You need to focus on a range of basics and do them well.  Some regard the choice of subjects in the Ebacc as perverse, when other topics are equally as good.  I’m really not sure about that.  I don’t see that either religious studies or philosophy are good candidates to push out history or geography, or still less a foreign language.  Philosophy surely best after GCSE; I just don’t believe that religious studies is as stretching or socially inclusive as history or geography.  In my day I did a standard set of O levels, all in the Ebacc range (except English Literature); I never found that limiting.

What of the pupils who don’t make the Ebacc standard?  A very real problem – but the “applied” and “vocational” GCSEs were never the answer.  Better teaching and higher expectations are.  The more I see of the educational establishment, the more I am convinced that too many are content with the mediocre.

There is a final irony.  Mr Gove and his supporters often criticise modern education for lacking a focus on facts.  Actually the more academic subjects they advocate are mainly about skills, not facts.  They teach you how to think.  The less academic subjects fail because they are too focused on facts.  Of course you might argue that history and geography are, or should be, fact-based – but don’t get me started on that!

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9 Responses to Is the Ebacc such a bad idea?

  1. Free Radical says:

    Absolutely right. The EBacc will hopefully show what proportion of GCSE graduates have reached a reasonable standard across the basic skills. It also sends a clear message that modern language tuition is important: this is a message which needs to be screamed from the rooftops if we are to reverse the catastrophic decline in subjects which are not only useful directly but which also promote ways of thinking which are useful far beyond a single language, and which also do a lot to promote international awareness and understanding.

    I agree broadly with your assessment of less-academic GCSEs. They are harmless, and they are fine as a complement to the essential core subjects of the EBacc. I have GCSEs in both ICT and Design Technology – but in addition to the EBacc subjects, not as a replacement for them.

  2. Matthew – I agree that the current state of vocational education in the UK is not what it should be, and that the way it is taught does not make for deeper understanding and transfer of learning, as you say. The recent Wolf Review makes this clear.

    Mr Gove’s idea that we should be focusing on raising standards in core academic subjects is based on faulty assumptions, however: that core academic subjects are the logical sites to develop good thinkers and that, somehow, the subject content knowledge pupils are taught in those academic subjects will transfer into the real world as ‘skills’ when those pupils enter employment. This doesn’t happen. You are right that academic subjects can be taught to foster good thinking. But it is absolutely not a given.

    Universities and employers the world over are crying out for individuals who have those learning-oriented ‘habits of mind’ that serve retraining, and enable them to work through new challenges and the unknowns that they will be faced with.

    If pupils are to learn to cope with the demands of 21st century life, vocational learning is absolutely the place to start. Good vocational learning can provide the problem solving experiences that develop these learning habits far better than the more abstract kinds of learning so highly valued in the academic subjects. Applied and vocational learning provides an important context for the study and practice of good thinking; it provides opportunities for deep levels of engagement; and there is an economic imperative for developing craftspeople.

    This line of thinking has a big following in current learning sciences thinking. What is more, forward thinking teachers , who are sick of teaching to the test, realise that it is not about teaching learning as a fluffy ‘add-on’ (this doesn’t carry much value either), but about incorporating better thinking into the teaching of every subject; be it science, philosophy, or design & technology.

    Content is of great importance. But it is how you teach that content, not necessarily what that content is, that determines whether the subject is stretching and useful in later life.

    Look at http://groupspaces.com/eednet – this is a new network where teachers with the belief that intelligence is learnable, and that learning must prepare pupils for 21st century life, come together to learn how to trial out new approaches to fostering learning in their classrooms and share their experiences.

    So yes, of course we should insist that subjects provide long term value to pupils. But we should do this by teaching all subjects in a way that is challenging and fosters better thinking and learning over regurgitation of facts (as you point out that the less academic subjects do), not by throwing out those non-core subjects.

    • Matthew says:

      Ellen. Thank you for your thought provoking post. I’m sure you are right that we really need to boost vocational education. The problem seems to be the quality of existing vocational GCSEs – and the answer may well be to make these better, and, critically, better taught. My earlier view was that vocational education comes into its own after GCSE, once the basic groundwork has been done. But I’m no expert, especially on secondary schooling.

  3. Sarah Andrew says:

    I disagree! I am a 15 year old student that took my options in year 8 and started them in year 9… I am now ending year 10 with the options finished and for year 11 will be choosing 2 different subject options, where our school have now recommended to take History or Geography, and a language for the EBACC. The subjects I was prepared, and did, choose were psychology and public services. My school told me today that I was allowed no choice but to choose these subjects (and I hate every single one) for the EBACC. I do not want to choose these and for the job I’m aimed to do GCSE Psychology would helpp me get it, as with the Public services. History or Geography are unrelated to whatever job choice I would want to do and same with any language, so would not help me gain any of these jobs in any way where my options would. Although my school said they are recommending those EBACC choices, they have denied my requests to not do it and I am aware of the opportunity but I strongly dislike the idea that we have no choice and our opinions are not valid, taken into account or considered. I am sure that as a student that apparently ‘has’ to do this, I should have the option to do what other options were available to those that completed the humanities subject and language in the last set of options in year 9. I have been told I have no choice and as I denied to choose the two subjects, they would be chosen for me as to what classes have the most space in. I have informed the school that I will still not be completing the EBACC and if they place me in the classes I will not be attending them (‘skipping’ lessons) and will stay in the school library studying for other subjects, as in the lower years I did fail these compulsury classes and did not enjoy them in any way, and put in little effort. Any other subject I worked hard in and I already have completed enough GCSEs to attend most sixth forms (currently 9 GCSEs). I am ready to file an official complaint to the school and several other students with their parents are also prepared to do so. Nearly all students in my year (roughly 90%) complained to out student servivces at our school and the head of these departments in the first place when we found out about the EBACC recomendation, and so we ignored the ‘recommendation’ and filed for our chosen options anyway. I feel the EBACC is a good idea to those students that would like it, and the recommendation should be put out there (such as to our school) but we should NOT be forced into doing this! Surely as a right I have a choice, my opinion matters? Our school has ignored all students and parents as they are attempting to currently be an ‘improved’ school where we used to be famous for chaos, but our school is extremely unorganised in all departments and do not take into account students’ choices or opinions, they are simply doing all they do to make the school LOOK good to everyone else and our council and the government, but on the inside are students forced into anything the school wants them to do and feel like we have no say. I am old enough to make my own decision about this and and understand, which I do, what the EBACC is. This ‘forcing’ from the school is terrible and if the school continue to be this ignorant I am willing to move schools (despite the bad timing with exams) to somewhere more suitable where I feel I have a choice, a say, an opinion in my own education, and own choices.

    • Matthew says:

      Thank you for commenting Sarah. Your experiences of how the system is actually working in practice adds a lot to the debate! I certainly don’t like the sound of your school forcing you into choosing particular subjects rather than helping you to make an informed decision.

      The worry that I would have is that psychology and public services GCSE would not be as helpful for your future career as you hope. I don’t know the specifics of the curriculum here, or what employers require, so I could be quite wrong…but the criticism made by employers and universities of “non-core” subjects like these is that they are really no help to them at all, because what they want is stronger basic skills (maths, core science subjects, etc). I know this is the case with computer sciences, for example.

      It may not be very obvious to you how either history or geography can advance basic skills, but they are good vehicles to teach basic analysis of human societies, as well as promote facts and knowledge useful in a surprising range of contexts (not all at work). The benefits of languages are more obvious – knowledge of more than one language helps expand the mind the ability to learn new things. And you can never tell how useful it will be in future in this fast changing world. I was forced to do French at school, and hated it. But looking back I am very glad I did it, even though I can’t call myself fluent in the language.

      Of course to get the benefits the subjects need to be well taught, and if you don’t enjoy them, then that is not a good sign. And if you are passionate about something, it is usually good to follow that passion. And if that means moving schools, then maybe that is right.

      The EBACC won’t work for everybody. And maybe the choice of subjects it too restrictive. And badly led schools won’t make proper use of it, just as they misused the previous system. But I think the fundamental idea is right.

      Good luck as you go through this difficult time!

  4. Stephen Pritchard says:

    Just read your post and associated comments. I could debate the issue but a more fundamental thought occurs to me on reading: are you sure this is ‘liberal’ thinking? I see judgemental opinion, imposed limitations, polemics, etc. etc. This is not ‘liberal’ in the true sense but VERY LIBDEM i.e. in support of Tory party policy that thinks it ok to count Latin and Hebrew as subjects for an Ebacc but not the arts and most humanities. Outrageous! A truly liberal and democratic approach would be to allow all subjects to count towards Ebaccs. And before we start, arts are a 6th part of the International Bacc so why can’t England just use that (internationally recognised) measure of knowledge and learning? x (stay ‘liberal’!!!)

  5. Matthew says:

    Thank you Stephen. Mr Gove and his kind would say that liberalism was the whole problem: giving too much freedom to teachers and students in choosing subjects without due regard to were it was all going. But while liberalism is about allowing as much freedom of choice as possible, it is also about giving people the ability to make those choices. Nothing is more important than education in giving people the freedom to choose. My thinking stems from the idea that education needs to build outwards from some basics and from there into a wider world. The Ebacc (whose meaning has changed since my original post) is meant to cover the basics, which therefore give you a better ability to pursue wider interests; it isn’t meant to be a sum total of secondary education. If we don’t push some children in the right direction we might be condemning them to much more limited choices later in life.

    Where do arts and the humanities fit into all of this? The hurumphing on the subject in this mornng’s news annoys me somewhat – sounding too like special pleading without having fully understood what is being proposed. But if you asked me whether music was less deserving than Latin as a subject for inclusion, I would have to answer “no”. There is huge amount of discipline and rigour in music, and it resonates, as it were, in many different fields, not least mathematics. I do not see that visual arts, though, are taught in anything like such a rigorous way, even if they have that potential. And excluding subjects from the eBacc doesn’t mean that they won’t be taught, even to chidren in poorer areas.

    I am happy that my view is liberal, but I don’t think I have dealt with Ellen Hodgkinson’s critique at all adequately. It may well be less about the subjects themselves, and more about the way they are taught.

  6. Carrie Brewell says:

    I achieved grades A-C in all the subjects I chose but I am upset that philosophy and ethics is not apart of the Ebacc. My philosophy exam was probably the most dedemanding exam, it was worse that maths, english and biology put together due to having; having to learn about abortions not just through one perspective but many. My philosophy exam also took into consideration writring technique and spelling unlike other exams and so should be included in the Ebacc. I had never written so much until the hours in which my philosophy and ethics exam was set.

    • Matthew says:

      Thank you for commenting Carrie. I think you will really appreciate having worked so hard in philosophy and ethics. I wish I had done it at your age.

      I can’t disagree that the subject should be part of the eBacc. It should be part of every rounded education. The eBacc has some advantages over what went before but it doesn’t give the full advantage of a complete education that the bacc does in other countries.

      I hope people will appreciate that the eBacc isn’t everything. It’s i portent to do other subjects as well.

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