Tag Archives: Michael Gove

The Economist’s disgraceful prejudice on education policy

economist coverSome people hate The Economist; to them it is a proselytiser of that despised creed “neoliberalism” or just plain capitalism. Not me. I have been reading the Economist weekly since 1974 (from between the two British General Elections of that year), when I was just 16 and still at school. I loved its cosmopolitanism and that that it did not lets its opinions obscure the reporting of facts. It was opinionated, yes, but not prejudiced. Much of my writing in this blog has been inspired by my 40 years of readership. No other journal has come close in winning my loyalty.

The Economist has annoyed me of course. I felt a deep sense of betrayal when in 2011 it backed a No vote in the referendum on the Alternative Vote. My own strong support for AV dates from when The Economist itself persuaded me that it would be an appropriate and sensible reform. The chattering classes had taken against AV, and the paper followed the crowd. A perverse election result in Canada under first-past-the-post, reported in the very same edition of the paper, illustrated the case for AV perfectly. The paper’s support for the education reforms of the current government were built on similarly weak foundations, I thought, but these hadn’t strayed beyond mistaken opinion. Until this week.

The top article in the UK section, The new school rules, presents itself as a serious examination of the government’s education reforms. It reads like an article placed by a pro-government think tank, and not the original and critical journalism upon which the newspaper’s reputation has been built.

A bit of background. Under its first Education Secretary, the Conservative Michael Gove, the coalition government has driven through an eye-catching programme of reforms to England’s schools (in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland education is devolved). The centrepiece of this has been the establishment of autonomous “Academy” schools, independent of local council control. This built on the previous government’s policy, where Academies often replaced failed schools, and had to secure external sponsors to provide extra finance. This government has made it much easier to set up new Academies (referred to as “Free Schools”), and allowed existing schools to convert to Academy status without a sponsor. The government has done many other things too: established a “pupil premium” to channel extra funding to schools with needier children; refocused the school inspectorate, Ofsted; changed secondary school qualifications towards more academic subjects; refashioned the primary curriculum to something a more prescriptive and more to its political taste; changed teachers’ pay and conditions to give school managers more power; moved measurement of progress away from achieving arbitrary thresholds to measuring total progress. Given the general climate of government austerity, which has limited resources, these changes have been mainly to the good, though I fail to see the point of the changes to the primary curriculum, and the jury is out on the secondary reforms of qualifications.

But the Economist focuses almost entirely on the Academy programme, which it is claims is transforming schools and driving progress. It quotes evidence that secondary academies achieve more good GCSEs (the main secondary exam – “good” meaning achieving the grade C or above) than non-academies, even allowing for the number of pupils from poorer backgrounds. As it describes this progress it fails to mention two facts that throw an entirely different light on what is happening.

The first is that the most striking progress in recent times achieved by Britain’s schools has been in London, in the years up to 2010. Schools in apparently hopeless boroughs like Tower Hamlets pulled ahead of schools in much wealthier areas. This has been much written about and commented on – but it was achieved under the previous Labour government’s tutelage, working with councils of several political stripes. It was based on what I call “good old fashioned management”. A lot of focus was put on school performance, and where results were poor, school management was changed. Some failing schools were converted to Academies, not always successfully, but otherwise existing governance structures were used. The coalition has not undermined this achievement, which has largely continued under its watch (at least in areas I know about). But it is awkward for the article’s central thesis; the upward momentum in England’s schools predates the government’s reforms; it is far from clear whether greater autonomy has much to do with school progress.

The second awkward fact is that for ordinary schools that have converted to Academy status there is a bias towards better schools making the change. Schools who want to make the move on their own (i.e. without being folded into an externally run chain of schools) must achieve a high quality threshold. Rumour has it that one my local schools has been refused because standards aren’t high enough. Conversely schools with good performance often want to convert, in case an unexpected hiccup means that they are forced into being part of a chain. The article quotes evidence that the performance of schools that have converted is better than non-converters. Well, that is hardly surprising, but cause and effect have not been disentangled.

The article discusses the rather awkward fact that academy chains have delivered disappointing performance – I must acknowledge that it does raise difficult evidence in this case. These chains have a reputation of being brutally managed and focusing on a narrow curriculum – one reason that so many schools are anxious not to be swept into one. A bit of brutality is required in order to lift badly managed schools up to the standards of the best, and the London experience confirms that – but a broader, less performance-focused curriculum is needed to deliver the wider set of skills that the world of work (and outside it) demands. Schools have to be soft and hard both at once. It is no surprise to many that aggressively managed chains deliver at best only short-term results.

But the Economist seems to think that the problem is that management of the chains is is not aggressive enough. It suggests that one way to “turbocharge” the reforms would be to open up management of schools to for-profit companies, rather than just charitable foundations as now. If I was a cynic, I would suggest that the article was prompted by private sector company lobbying to be allowed to take over state schools – but I don’t believe that.

Unlike many I have no ideological objection to the use of the private sector in public services. But I do wonder whether the sort of aggressive performance-driven management that the private sector does well is what most state schools need. Private managers will be tempted to take two shortcuts. The first is to narrow the curriculum, which undermines the overall mission of education. At least competition might act as a check on this, as schools with too narrow a focus may be less popular. The second is more insidious: selecting the pupils by avoiding the neediest, through selective recruitment or exclusion. Whatever the formal controls against this, we can expect the private sector to find innovative ways around them, as this is the quickest way to improve margins. This then leaves a pool of needier pupils which will tend to be concentrated in other schools – when in almost all cases the best chances of meeting their needs is in schools with a good social mix. A vital social objective for state schools is to reduce the number of people who get into trouble of one kind or another later in life (crime, unemployment, poor mental and physical health). It is very important that schools handle the neediest cases well – and it is something that English schools have often been bad at. It is not something that private sector organisations have a strong enough incentive to deal with, and concentrating the problem into specialist schools is no way out.

When considering education policy in an international context, The Economist often says that teaching and management are the critical issues, and not other issues such as class sizes, money – or autonomy. English (and indeed British) education is nowhere near as good as it needs to be, and many schools and local authorities are complacent or defensive. Continued reform is needed. This needs to focus on getting good leaders in place, raising teaching standards, and ensuring that incentives and accountability are functional. No doubt academies, and even private sector expertise, has a role to play. It gives the politicians a few extra tools in the box. But to make autonomy the centrepiece of reform is a highly questionable approach, especially in a country, like Britain and unlike the US, where central government has such power over schools.

The author of the article was clearly inspired by visits made to well-run Academies. If he or she wants evidence that you don’t have to be an Academy to be a very impressive school, I am happy to offer them a tour of the wonderful primary school where I am Chair of Governors. That at least may open theirs eyes to what is possible without being an Academy.

I must allow The Economist to hold firm opinions rather sit on the fence. What is so disappointing is that this time that opinion seems based on such shallow foundations. And its discussion of the evidence and wider debate lowers the papers standards to those of less distinguished papers.

 

 

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Birmingham exposes the hollow heart of Conservative education policy

Britain is ill-served by its news media. There has been a growing kerfuffle about Muslim-dominated schools in Birmingham. The issues dominating this in media coverage are the extremism of some Muslims, and the explosive relations between the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, and the Home Secretary, Theresa May, which they assume is all to do with Mrs May’s leadership ambitions. This wantonly ignorant coverage is not only damaging community relations, but it failed to shine any light on the failure of the coalition’s Conservative-led education policy. This matters because this policy has been given nearly a free run in the media, and supported by papers, such as The Economist, that really should know better.

We must start with Mr Gove, who has been in post since the government was formed in 2010, and is one of the Conservatives’ big hitters. A journalist by profession, he has strong views on both education and extremism, which he has not hesitated to put into practice. Liberal Democrats have moderated some of his more extreme positions, but many suspect that the Lib Dem leadership (in contrast to its activists) sympathises with a lot of what Mr Gove is trying to do. Instead they have concentrated on their own pet policy, the Pupil Premium.

At the heart of Mr Gove’s policy is the idea that education should be run as a quasi-market, driven by parental choice, and without the need for much in the way of government direction – rather in the way the private sector does. Schools are being progressively pushed into being “Academies” independent of local authority control, and new Academies, “Free Schools”, are being established without much of the obstructive bureaucracy that would have strangled many of them at birth under the previous regime. These Academies were not subject to the National Curriculum, though they were subject to inspection by Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, which focuses on a narrow set of core subjects (literacy and numeracy – with “behaviour” thrown in to satisfy conservative prejudices). The idea was that bad schools would fail to attract pupils, and so they would end up being closed, or management changed. Competition would impose discipline on the schools, and the whole thing would be more democratic because parental choice would not be intermediated by busybody officials, elected and otherwise.

Two other themes ran alongside this. One was the idea that existing education was not based enough on factual learning, with too much emphasis on wishy-washy “skills” and mushy “values”. Mr Gove recalled the curriculum of old-fashioned private schools and selective state grammar schools, which educated most off Britain’s elite. A second was a distrust of educational experts and officials, who Mr Gove took to referring to as “The Blob”, who watered down and undermined the reform process. The “Blob” was progressively dismantled.

In this mix we should mention faith schools. The Birmingham row does not involve faith schools directly, which has led a number of, excessively defensive, faith school supporters to claim that they are a irrelevant. But they are heavily bound up in the consequences of the row. Faith schools were not a strong element of Mr Gove’s ideas. They were rather an enthusiasm of the previous Labour government, who, it must be added, started the whole process of setting up independent Academies. Britain’s state schools have always included those run by religious foundations, in particular the Church of England in (rather obviously) England. These were joined by Catholic schools. Under Labour these were extended to Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and no doubt other foundations. The Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair (a Catholic convert) had the idea that such faith schools gave children a solid moral grounding. Labour generally found that it helped their clientalist relationship with ethnic minority communities. These schools have been given a great deal of freedom to run themselves along their chosen lines. So long as you keep giving us good test scores and exam results, the suggestion was, we don’t care how you do it.

Finally in this background exposition, I need to mention Muslim extremism. Terrorist groups have successfully recruited a number of young British Muslims, and they have carried out a number of acts of violence both in this country and abroad, in such places as Syria. It is considered my many to be the biggest security threat the country faces. These extremists have very conservative instincts, such as believing in the veiling of women, but they tend to be converts and not very conversant with the actual teachings of Islam. Their extremism is fuelled by a general feeling of rejection and alienation.

In the public eye however, these young extremists have become tangled up with the conservative views of many Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities. These are horrified by what they see as the laxity of Western moral values, and do not want their children to be corrupted by them. They share many of the conservative instincts of their extremist co-religionists, along with an acute sense of injustice over the treatment of Muslims abroad, especially in Israel and Afghanistan; but there the similarity breaks down. Terrorism plays no part in their outlook, and certainly not in a domestic UK context – they may view Palestinian suicide bombers more sympathetically. But the extremists hover at the fringes of these communities, and that leaves the British state with a very tricky problem. They need intelligence from the established minority communities, and so to maintain good relations with them. But they are quite unsympathetic to many of their beliefs.

Into this delicate situation wade opportunistic journalists and careless politicians, Mr Gove among them. To them there is a direct line between the terrorist threat and conservative religious values. Most of the white community assume this to be the case, and happily lap up this message. Almost no politicians attempt to put a more realistic public gloss on this.

And so when allegations emerged that conservative Muslims had taken over a number of state schools in Birmingham (as part of a “Trojan Horse” plot), Mr Gove assumed that terrorism was at the heart of it, and so did most of the public. He steamed into a delicate situation, upsetting community relations and the Home Office, responsible for policing. The schools had been rated highly by Ofsted, who had focused on academic achievement, which was strong. The inspectors were sent in again with a different agenda, found evidence of  a conservative religious agenda, and, with a bit of ingenuity, ways in which these breached requirements of state-funded schools. The schools are in the process of being transferred to new management.

But the problems have only just begun:

  1. What has been alleged is that school governors, recruited from the local community, took the schools over and forced them into a conservative religious agenda. The school populations were almost entirely drawn from the local Muslim communities. But this is surely what school governors are supposed to do? They set the direction, ethos and strategy of the school. Their actions appear to have been perfectly popular with parents (though not staff). And though not faith schools, the widespread political support for faith schools would not have suggested to them that what they were doing was a bad thing. They were simply picking up the ball tossed by Westminster politicians and running with it.
  2. The actual alleged abuses are not so black and white. Segregation of the sexes? We still have 100% segregated schools. Allowing tradition Muslim dress? A lot of perfectly respectable schools do that already – and that is surely right. The same goes for making provision for prayer, which after all can be open to all faiths. A culture of intimidation? sounds a bit like my English private school education. And surely school management has a right to make the changes it wants, and this always leads to such allegations. The were, predictably, no demonstrable links to terrorist extremism.
  3. We are now told that Mr Gove wants “British Values” to be taught at all schools. Not only is defining this a minefield, but it is a step away from the “fact-based” principles that he had been so fond of espousing. And how will “real” faith schools, and not just Muslim ones, end up if judged to the same standards as those used in the second wave of Birmingham Ofsted inspections?
  4. Sorting out this mess is going to take a lot of work. Schools can’t in fact be left just to get on with it. They are going to need help, guidance and correction from an intermediate level of officialdom. A newly recreated Blob, in fact.

And so we find that parents are free to choose, provided they conform Mr Gove’s own version of political correctness. It is very easy to understand how the local Muslim community (and no so local ones) feel victimised – judged by double standards from a society that has lost its moral compass.

The government’s reforms are barking up the wrong tree. Here in London we have an outstanding example of how seemingly hopeless schools in deprived areas can be turned round. This did not need the creation of Academies; the existing local authority structures were up to the task. What it is did need was strong and credible leadership. Politicians can lead from on high, but ultimately this leadership has to come from experts who live and breath schools. The country was lucky enough to have plenty of these. But they have been side-lined and pensioned off.

Coalition policy is hollow at its heart, and the last four years have been largely wasted. Even Labour could do a better job than this.

 

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The remarkable politcal success of Michael Gove

Shortly before the British General Election in 2010 a headteacher at a local school told me: “Well, however is the new Education Secretary cannot be worse then Ed Balls.” Mr Balls, now Shadow Chancellor, was then Labour’s Education Secretary. He had built up a reputation for political posturing and bullying, while presiding over new Labour’s muddled education policies. I have not asked that headteacher how she thinks the new education Secretary, Michael Gove, compares to Mr Balls. I don’t have to; her prediction was spectacularly wrong. Mr Gove is even more loathed by education professionals than was Mr Balls. But Mr Gove, unlike Mr Balls, counts as a political success.

Mr Gove has been in the news recently. Yesterday he gave a speech spelling out his vision for state schools; over the weekend there was a fuss over his failure to reappoint the Chair of Ofsted, the schools’ inspectorate. His spin doctors have been pushing out a story of his reforming zeal against an educational establishment referred to as “the Blob” after a 1950s sci-fi movie. This has received a lot favourable coverage in the right-wing press. More neutral observers, such as the FT as well as the BBC, seem content to faithfully report Mr Gove’s spin while not openly taking sides.

All this is in stark contrast to the government’s attempts to reform the NHS, led by former Health Secretary Andrew Lansley. The government side of this argument hardly got a look in, as the picture of chaotic reforms took hold. This negative coverage stiffened opposition to the reforms, muddling them further, so that they have ended up being the biggest blot on the Coalition government’s record – though some good may yet come out of them. There has been little public support for opponents to Mr Gove’s education reforms, however. Mr Gove, an ex-journalist, is clearly a better communicator than Mr Lansley, an ex-doctor. The education system is also much simpler than the health service. But the political skills of Mr Gove’s “Blob” are totally lacking, unlike those of the doctors and nurses opposing Mr Lansley. The teaching unions have long been a bit of a comedy act, resisting basic workforce reforms, like performance appraisal, that non-teaching professionals have long since got themselves used to. Other educational professionals rarely raise themselves beyond the minutiae to give politicians and the public a clear vision of what they are trying to achieve.

Are and were British schools in a mess? Yes and no. International comparisons show a mixture of good and bad news. Overall performance is unspectacular but not awful. We have a long “tail” of under-achieving pupils that schools give up on too quickly. There is a lot of mediocrity, especially amongst rural schools, who “coast” by getting average performance from pupils capable of much more. But over the last two decades, the Blob has pulled off one of the most spectacular episodes in school improvement in the world: the transformation of London schools. This has given the lie to the standard line of the Left that the educational prospects of poor pupils will only be transformed once other social problems, like jobs and housing, have been fixed. The Borough of Tower Hamlets, one of the country’s poorest, regularly outperforms much wealthier districts outside London.

The transformation of London’s schools remains one of the last Labour government’s greatest achievements. But politically, it is problematic. It owes nothing to the various policies pushed by politicians and think tanks, such as creating semi-independent Academies. It was largely down to good old fashioned management: officials at national and council level holding school managements to account, and replacing heads of mediocre schools. As a result politicians are strangely reluctant to take the credit.

What of Mr Gove’s reforms? They are a mix of good, bad and ugly. On the good side, Ofsted’s remit has been sharpened up a lot. Previously it had expanded into such areas as “community cohesion”, which are highly sensitive to context, and inspectors did not show any great aptitude. Now they focus much more sharply on the quality of teaching. This gets to the core of what drives school performance. Some older teachers hate this – but it really isn’t any different to the pressures that accountants and lawyers find themselves under. Younger teachers seem accept the much greater level of accountability that is expected – and respond well to it. (My evidence on this is rather anecdotal though – based on my experience as a school governor in a London primary school).

Another good thing, though largely unremarked, is that Mr Gove’s Academy programme is putting private schools under real pressure. Many private schools outside the South East are now signing up to be state schools, run as academies. My local Free School is recruiting many middle class youngsters that would formerly have gone private. No doubt some on the left see this as a sinister subsidy to the middle classes – but a much higher level of social mixing occurs at these new state schools than would have occurred at private schools. And social mixing at schools helps the poorer children achieve more. It is worth noting that this policy works as well as it does thanks to two measures insisted on by the Liberal Democrats: a “pupil premium” giving extra funding for poorer pupils, and insisting on non-academic selection. Many Conservatives want to recreate academically selective Grammar Schools. These may once have been engines of social mobility, but now academic selection is simply used as a way of weeding out pupils from poorer backgrounds and reducing mixing.

The bad: there is a lot of wasted energy on changing things that don’t need changing. That particularly applies to changes to the curriculum. Mr Gove and his supporters seem to have an old-fashioned view on what should be taught in schools, to reflect a 1960s private education. Now it is true that the Blob has developed a lot of woolly curriculum ideas that don’t seem to be of lasting educational benefit (especially in “applied” qualifications), but they were gradually sorting out this mess by themselves. Mr Gove seems to have little idea as to what modern universities and employers actually want the product of a secondary education to be. A lot of the drive to turn state schools into academies seems a bit pointless, and will probably create problems of accountability in later years. It has a sinister aspect too: the Academy chains who are the main beneficiaries are politically well connected – and it is their political connections that seem to be critical in their success.

The ugly. We are getting more religiously founded state schools. Given religiously founded schools’ role in cementing toxic community relations between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland and Scotland, I am very nervous about this. But it could be that making these newer schools conform to modern educational norms, and forcing them to engage with a wider civil society, will bring benefits. But I really would prefer it if our children went to schools attended by children of many faiths and none. But the alienation of some religious communities is such that they would not engage in such arrangements, and for them a state religious school is a second-best.

My verdict on Mr Gove is that he is not quite as evil as he cracked up to be. But he is wasting a lot of time and energy. What should be absorbing energy is teaching standards, establishing a broad curriculum appropriate to modern life, and establishing better systems of accountability which don’t tempt schools to game the system by neglecting “hopeless” cases. Fix these and Britain’s state schools would be world class. But alas, we are distracted by political gimmickry.

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Class warfare: changing the primary school curriculum

Yesterday the Government announced proposals to change the national curriculum for primary schools in England.  No doubt there was the same sharp intake of breath in liberal circles that accompanies anything that comes forth from the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, with his appeal to traditional, conservative values.  But liberals have often failed to convince on education.

Mr Gove is a remarkable political phenomenon.  He is instinctively disliked by those of a liberal disposition, and the vast majority of people who work in the education sector, or councillors who are responsible for it.  And yet, unlike his health colleague Andrew Lansley, or Theresa May at the Home Office, the vitriolic criticism of the professionals, and lampooning by comedians, seems to make little impression on the public at large.  The government is being hurt by a lot of things at the moment, but education reform is not among them.  For once the public seem to trust the politicians more than the professionals.

So what to make of these proposals?  They amount to a much more prescriptive programme for English, Maths and Science – with proposals on modern languages on the way.  They go further than the current curriculum, and have a traditional, prep-school feel about them – English has a heavy emphasis on spelling, punctuation and reciting poetry, for example.  This is easy to dress up in old fashioned, conservative language – which Mr Gove duly does.

The first criticism to make is that the Government had promised teachers that they would get out of their way, and give them more discretion.  All the pressure in recent years has been to take things out of the National Curriculum, and not add more things in.  The more flexibility schools have, the more room for creativity there is, and the more diversity and choice there will be – something the government had seemed keen on promoting.  But evidently there are some things that Mr Gove feels are too important to be left to parental choice and diversity.  And the changes are focused on the very core subjects – not the peripheral things that politicians had proviously like to pitch in.

Behind all this lurks a topic that vexes many: class.  Now class is something that widely is misunderstood in Britain.  Class here used to be about what you were born into, and the idea that everybody should stay in their place, with all the privileges and duties that this implied.  Mobility was frowned on, but allowed to creep in gradually.  A lot of this mobility took the form of pretending that your family was better bred than it was.  I am doing a project on my family’s history at the moment.  One of the more amusing aspects is how much effort my middle class Victorian (and some later) forbears put into trying to prove the family had noble connections.

But two world wars and a relentless industrial transformation have swept away that understanding of class.  And yet to the disappointment of many, elitism and social stratification remains very much with us – and indeed many of the institutions that supported the old system are in very good health supporting the new – “public” schools, elite universities, and so on.  And although the idea of birthright might have gone, it is very much expected that you support your peer group – and do the best you can to give your children every advantage.  Social mobility, after leaping forward in the middle of the last century seems to be slowing down.  What happens here now is not the lingering of the old system, but something similar to what happens in other modern developed societies which did not have our feudal legacy – like the USA and Australia, who also have “class” problems.

Schools lie at the heart of concerns about class – and here liberals are on the defensive.  Liberals have dominated the state educational system for generations, seeing through major reforms to both structure (for example pushing selective elite grammar schools into comprehensive schools) and the way schools are run – towards what might be called “softer” values.  It hasn’t worked very well – though why remains hotly debated.

Enter Mr Gove.  His solution is to make state schools look and feel much more like their elite,private sector counterparts – and these curriculum proposals are an example.  His critics simply think this is to give middle class parents a private, elitist education at taxpayers expense, without having much impact on the rest of society.  But that is to misunderstand the thinking.  Mr Gove, and many conservative thinkers, think that social mobility is about turning working class people into middle class ones.  And that isn’t just about imparting knowledge and skills, it’s about talking and writing like middle class people too – or at least becoming “bilingual” in class ways.  The old grammar schools did this very successfully – and their abolition has not helped social mobility.

This is all very interesting.  It is easy to see difficulties.  State schools, apart from the surviving grammars, are still quite unlike their private school counterparts in that they cannot select their intake.  Will this approach exacerbate class tensions by teaching pupils to sneer at the less fortunate (as no doubt the old grammars did)?  But liberal policies of inclusiveness have not proved enough by themselves.

I’m giving Mr Gove the benefit of the doubt this time.  Too often we liberals forget the working class ideal of “bettering yourself”; celebrating diversity is good; celebrating mediocrity isn’t.

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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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