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!