Opinion: Beyond the Ebacc

Two years ago theWest Midlands Region embarked on a project which we called “Beyond the Ebacc.” We chose the title because we recognised then that the Coalition government was intent on embedding the Ebacc as the gold standard qualification at 16 and wanted our party, the Liberal Democrats, to emerge from coalition with our own radical policies in this critical area.

We were able to draw on a wide range of experience, including that of overseeing education in large municipal authorities.

Our concern was the stark evidence that our school system is failing many young people. Every government that has sought to “raise” achievement has increased failure. Even by the long-standing measure of  5 A-C GCSEs, about half the population of 16 year olds fails. Even worse there are clear problems with boys, for whom learning is increasingly uncool and for whom studying English at GCSE is definitely unmasculine. This has been epitomised by dreadful levels of achievement among poor, white working class boys.

But there was also evidence of successful strategies – too often undermined by the changing of goal-posts by national governments. Vocational studies had engaged many young people but the Diploma programme, which sought to extend them, was a failure. Functional skills have been embedded in maths and English GCSEs.

Our conclusions were liberal and radical and created a buzz among some of the region’s top educationalists. We talked of a massive extension of choice for students  and of using modern technology to boost resources for teaching and learning. We reaffirmed our party’s commitment to integrating vocational and academic education, seeing it as the route to engage many youngsters with the joy of maths or the benefits of good English. We didn’t want dumbing down and we did want better learning.

We were excited by our findings and were looking for a way to present them to the wider party.

Imagine my dismay at yesterday’s announcement when both Nick Clegg and David Laws seemed to sign us up to a narrow backward looking vision of education, to more goal-post shifting that will make educational achievement tougher and more remote than ever for even more teenagers. Nick’s gold standard has always been social mobility – but I had thought this meant social mobility for the many, not the few who can attain top grades in the new Ebacc.

It is not just the leadership who should face questions. On Saturday afternoon in Brightonthe Federal Conference will debate a motion on education. It is not clear who has written it but it appears to have been written in anticipation of yesterday’s announcement. There are well-meaning paragraphs about vocational education but also a call for a “vocational equivalent to the Ebacc.” These are dangerous words, which would simultaneously embed Michael Gove’s Ebacc in party policy and end our commitment to a single qualification at 16 by treating vocational education as a separate course of study. Because they are not prominent in the motion, there is a danger that conference will accept them by default and then find it is reported as having adopted the Coalition Ebacc as Liberal Democrat policy.

We had tabled some of our ideas as an amendment to this, to restore our party’s approach to truly integrated study in a call for choice and opportunity for all young people. In the light of yesterday’s announcement it is imperative that Conference Committee tables our amendment and allows a proper and full debate on the future of secondary school qualifications.

* Jon Hunt is a councillor in Birmingham and has held senior roles in education and regional public transport. He is also policy chair for the West Midlands region. He has run a new media business for the last 13 years.

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13 Comments

  • Helen Tedcastle 18th Sep '12 - 3:53pm

    An excellent well-reasoned and most importantly, Liberal Democrat approach to the problem of under-achievement and social mobility.

    It is to be regretted that the Party Leader and his acolytes have taken us down the road of accepting, indeed incorporating Tory principles and proposals for education, without any discussion beforehand.

    How can it be right for Liberal Democrats to accept that a narrowly configured set of one-off terminal examinations, is the only way of assessing the worth of a young person at 16?

    It is still unclear where all this leaves the non-EBacc subjects – there is a real danger of a two-tier subject system developing. Also, Gove himself has not ruled out a cap on top grades – that issue is still live.

    The events of the past twenty four hours has shown me that political leaders have clear shelf lives and that power can corrupt or at least distort thinking.

  • What is it with us as a party and our inability to have any real coherent ideas on education? The party doesn’t seem to have any real policy on it and every time someone writes about it it’s a lot of fuzzy words and very few suggestions for implementation.

  • Richard Dean 18th Sep '12 - 4:19pm

    “… our school system is failing many young people … worse there are clear problems with boys, for whom learning is increasingly uncool ….”

    Does this not suggest that educators need to look outside the purely educational sphere, and even be given powers outside that sphere, to find out waht is wrong and put them right?

  • Richard Burt 18th Sep '12 - 8:03pm

    Good luck Jon.

  • Andy Thompson 18th Sep '12 - 8:23pm

    John, I was appalled to hear that we were signing up to Gove’s elitest and damaging proposals which will leave many students, and particularly those from poorer backgrounds, “failing” in education. The separation of academic and vocational studies will inevitably leave many young people stigmatised, devalued and held back simply because Gove, Laws and Clegg only see value and worth in academia.

    When we discussed this at the West Midlands Regional Conference we were adamant that vocational skills must firm the basis of any new qualification and I will be fully supporting our amendment at conference and I urge all members to do the same.

    Let’s fight this illiberal and damaging policy and stand up for what we believe.

  • Nigel Quinton 19th Sep '12 - 8:19am

    Jon, thank you for reminding us that as a party we are able to develop good, evidence based policy. Which makes it even more inexplicable that our (current) leadership seems determined to ignore, and hence undermine the strengths we have.

  • John Carlisle 19th Sep '12 - 9:12am

    You have to ask what Laws knows about education – especially for the many.

  • Matthew Green 19th Sep '12 - 9:33am

    I do get fed up with so many of our activists who talk about supporting radical polices, but in the end oppose any substantive changes. Education seems to be thick with them, which is perhaps why education policy is a bit of a vacuum for the party, allowing Nick Clegg and others to make it up as they go along. Far too many of our activists do not understand the implications of your statment that our current system is failing far too many people. They are too keen to keep things quiet in there own cosy corner. But the system has to be changed, and that will be uncomfortable for everybody working in it.

    So I congratulate you Jon for not being one of these activists, and trying to develop constructive ideas that might make a difference – which might stop the Tories from having the field all to themselves. Good luck!

  • Peter Watson 19th Sep '12 - 12:10pm

    @Tony Harms “No system of education which aims at producing a large number of educated people will produce social mobility in the same way as the old grammar school system and perhaps will produce no social mobility at all.”
    If social mobility means educating a few people and allowing them to climb the ladder, then maybe that is less desirable than “producing a large number of educated people” and shortening the ladder for everybody.

  • As a teacher I find it is disappointingly rare to find someone in politics who comments on education and actually understands the issues! Thanks for restoring my faith, Jon. I wish I believed those in government had some clue about what is meant by quality education for all, rather than simply seeking to reproduce their own experience. The white working class issue (boys particularly, but girls too) is not just about what is ‘cool’ however. There is a complex interplay of cultural and social issues and a lack of aspiration for these pupils from teachers, parents and the pupils themselves. Very hard to unpick and address, but we should be doing better. Reading widely for pleasure has emerged as something which can make a difference and I’m pleased to see that the government is at least making some noise on this issue.

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