Opinion: Making the EBacc work

Michael Gove seems intent on bringing forward a replacement for the GCSE, going so far as to make its introduction a matter of confidence in the face of criticism.  All parties can agree, however, it is important to set out what these reforms should look like and make sure they deliver a qualification that is fit for purpose.

There are at least two key areas that I think Liberal Democrats should seek to influence.

Firstly, the arts. Gove’s stated intention of the EBacc is that it will form a “basic suite” of subjects. This may seem all well and good, until you look at the list of subjects that are required to be studied and realise that there is some breadth to this “basic suite”.

This could be seen as a good thing, it is a step that would help ensure students study a broad range of subjects and do not ‘specialise’ too early on in their education. Except Gove has demonstrated a complete blind spot for the arts. The list of qualifications that count towards an EBacc range from Maths, English and Science through the humanities (though not Religious Education or Politics) to an assortment of foreign languages (as well as classical Greek or Ancient Latin) but does not include any of the arts.

If the aim of the EBacc is to offer a ‘core’ of subjects then the range is arguably too wide. If the aim is, however, to ensure a broad range of subjects is taught then the glaring omission of the arts is all the more baffling.

The second point is the proposed structure of the EBacc. The Baccalauréat in France, for example, is not a single combination of subjects. There are several differing ‘streams’. These are ‘scientific’, ‘economic and social sciences’, and ‘literature’.  A variety of subjects feature to a greater or lesser extent in each. I do not believe we should look to copy the French system, but the concept of there being several ‘streams’ of EBaccs is worth considering. A range of subjects could be studied to achieve an EBacc, with the combination achieved reflected in the ‘stream’ awarded.

Dare I even suggest such a move could be used to move towards some of the recommendations of the Tomlinson Report – a single ‘diploma system’ to replace GCSEs, A Levels and the vocational equivalents, covering both academic and vocational qualifications?

The proposals suggest students could study set ‘streams’ of subjects or an ‘open’ mixture across academic and vocational disciplines. In addition Labour have proposed a ‘vocational EBacc’ – something that Gove now looks to support- but I would argue that we should be more ambitious. We should support a unified framework for academic and vocational qualifications that makes qualifications easy to understand and compare, yet recognises the differences in students. A system that reflects the skills a student has, not the skills they do not.  One that identifies the talents of students whether they be in art, maths, engineering or technology- without celebrating talent in one ahead of the other;  ultimately recognition for those who are talented in vocational subjects and the arts, as well as those who achieve in Latin, science or history.

 

* Samuel Barratt is a Parliamentary Researcher and is completing a PhD at the University of Leeds. He is writing here in a personal capacity.

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17 Comments

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th Dec '12 - 5:29pm

    University admissions tutors (I held this post for my department for about 10 years) discount qualifications in practical arts subjects because such qualifications don’t tell them what the academic ability of the person with the qualification is. That’s a simple fact, it is not to say such qualifications are without value, presumably they are the first thing an admissions tutor in an art school looks at. So mixing one sort of qualification with another doesn’t make sense. The EBacc as proposed is valuable because it doesn’t do that, it’s clear what it measures, and that’s something which is useful.

    The EBacc contains those core subjects that would be useful in almost any future area. It doesn’t mean other more specialist subjects are of no use, it just recognises that there is a core. There was a HUGE problem of children dropping core subjects at GCSE level, picking instead subjects that were more fringe or less valued in practice, and then finding themselves at a big disadvantage later on. For example, too many children dropped maths too early on, because in their naivety they did not realise how widely it is needed – as a result they found too late they had cut themselves out of almost any science degree, and most of the better business and social science degrees. Too many children took subject like Information Technology supposing from their title they were valuable, whereas in fact they are not, the very professions they are aimed at find them of little use and would far rather children studied the more basic core topics. Ask any employer in software development or any admissions tutor for a Computer Science degree – what they want is good logical reasoning skills and good use of language, not rote memorisation of out-of-date definitions.

  • Alex Matthews 11th Dec '12 - 5:37pm

    A fundamental issue for Britain is our woeful record in regards to teaching modern languages. This is needs to be introduced eariler in the system and kept as a core subject for longer.

  • Gove’s English Bacc is not a baccalaureate. A baccalaureate is a qualification for entrance to university; this decidedly is not. The only resemblance to a bacc is that is will ensure a small measure of competence at designated core subjects, but not of a competence that indicates higher level studies are feasible.

    More complex packages of subjects could be possible, but would be likely to be more of a mess. I would have hoped that a lot of the English would belong to the Arts, but for all the subjects the titles mean little if the content expected is inadequate.

  • Helen Tedcastle 12th Dec '12 - 12:15pm

    The EBacc is a disastrous proposal. I disagree with Matthew Huntbach. I do not accept that a child is disadvantaged intellectually or academically by studying ,say Geography (allowed in the EBacc) rather than Religious Studies (excluded from the EBacc). They are both academic humanities and are of equivalent ‘rigour’ (according to Durham University research on assessment criteria).

    If Matthew has found that there is a problem with Computer Science applications, this I would contend, is not because a pupil studied for a GCSE in Music (excluded from the EBacc) but because the Maths and ICT curricula need improving?

    The EBacc is not a Baccalaureate. It does not allow for sufficient choice across the range of educational skills. The idea that only five subjects are intrinsically ‘hard’ is wrong. Assessment criteria can be made harder in any subject.

    However, the Blairite approach to education did allow a proliferation of qualifications which were not sufficiently understood by employers and pupils were insufficiently informed about what these qualifications could lead onto at HE level.

    Instead, Gove has come in and taken a sledgehammer to the curriculum, axing the new qualifications and devaluing well-established qualifications. He has gone too far and will foist on pupils a narrow curriculum more suited to the 1950s pre-multi-cultural Britain. Vocational education? Gove isn’t interested.

  • Peter Watson 12th Dec '12 - 1:24pm

    My son did GCSEs which included Maths, English, German, Dual Science, History and Geography. He chose these subjects because he enjoyed them and because we all felt it gave him a good broad set of qualifications with no obvious omissions, keeping his career and academic options open. The fact that Gove called such a combination an EBacc was irrelevant, and I accept that for other children it would not be a suitable combination.
    Consequently, I find myself a little torn on the EBacc. I think that in essence it reflects a good combination of subjects, so its introduction as an extra qualification was okay if a little unnecessary. At the time I wondered what the big deal was, but I now realise it was just the thin end of the wedge, and the way that it has subsequently been pushed forwards as a measure of schools and a proposed new qualification seems fundamentally flawed: it is overly prescriptive and restrictive. I also fail to see how it is supposed to address any of the perceived shortcomings in the current system.

  • @Helen Tedcastle – ICT is related to Computer Science only in the same way as driving lessons are related to Mechanical Engineering. As for Mathematics related to Computer Science, the problem is not with the content but with the fact that too many people from families who are not “in the know” drop it at 16 without realising that it is important for a career in software engineering.

  • Helen Tedcastle 12th Dec '12 - 2:31pm

    @Richard S – ” ICT is related to Computer Science only in the same way as driving lessons are related to Mechanical Engineering. As for Mathematics related to Computer Science, the problem is not with the content but with the fact that too many people from families who are not “in the know” drop it at 16 without realising that it is important for a career in software engineering.”

    I accept the thinking from Computer Scientists et al that the current ICT curriculum does not equip students for their degrees or occupations – that is why reform to the curriculum for ICT is welcome.

    I think your second point is well made. In the Blair years (and I was a sixth for tutor then), there was a burgeoning of all sorts of new qualifications, in order to entice more young people into sixth form study .

    However, and this is the key point in relation to pupils taking the wrong combinations of A levels for certain degrees, insufficient information was available to tutors, careers officers and students when it came to the latter choosing the right subjects for their aspirations. This has to be rectified and would alleviate many problems universities have experienced.

    However, what did Gove do to improve the situation? Take a sledgehammer to the entire curriculum. Not content with a curriculum review, which I think was needed, he picks out a few subjects and elevates them to God-like status, ditches hundreds of vocational courses at the stroke of a pen, and leaves all Arts subjects and Religious Studies, traditional mainstays of the curriculum, not whims, to trundle along as GCSEs for the foreseeable future. This move is having massive negative effects already in the classroom, with teacher-training recruitment of specialists in non-EBacc subjects and also with degree courses.

    Using the performance tables, Gove is forcing Heads to push more and more students into doing the EBacc subjects, and thereby decreasing the status and value of perfectly good, rigorous subjects.

    So much for the Liberal Democrat aspiration for every child to reach their potential by following a broad and balanced curriculum. We have ended up with a two-tier subject system which constrains not liberates.

  • Peter Watson 12th Dec '12 - 2:37pm

    @Richard S “ICT is related to Computer Science only in the same way as driving lessons are related to Mechanical Engineering. As for Mathematics related to Computer Science, the problem is not with the content but with the fact that too many people from families who are not “in the know” drop it at 16 without realising that it is important for a career in software engineering.”

    I fully accept that GCSE in ICT is not good preparation for a career in programming and am saddened that anyone might have been misled in to believing it to be so, but that is not to say that such a qualification has no value. After all, much of the population needs to be able to drive a car but few need to be able to design one. I think it is vital to ensure that all children have the opportunity to understand how to use the ICT tools around them, and this should be part of formal education rather than left to the vagaries of experiences at home. A qualification allows them to demonstrate to a potential employer that they have the requisite skills.

    I worry that the new system of EBacc and examinations being rushed through by Gove with the support of senior Lib Dems emphasises a final handwritten exam in a few traditional subjects over everything else, so coursework and the chance to use computer tools will be downgraded since it will not help with the final assessment. Ditto for the ability to work with others in teams. This does not feel like progress to me.

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th Dec '12 - 4:30pm

    Peter Watson

    I fully accept that GCSE in ICT is not good preparation for a career in programming and am saddened that anyone might have been misled in to believing it to be so, but that is not to say that such a qualification has no value. After all, much of the population needs to be able to drive a car but few need to be able to design one.

    I can assure you that when I was the admissions tutor for my university department I received HUNDREDS of UCAS applications every year where not just the applicant but the teacher writing the reference clearly supposed that school ICT was the ideal preparation for a degree in Computer Science, and assumed that the degree would be more of the same. I also regularly dealt with applicants who were taking A-level ICT but not A-level Maths who when I asked them “Why did you not take A-level Maths?” told me “Because my teachers advised me not to, they told me to take ICT because I said I wanted to do ‘computering’ at university and they said ICT was relevant for that but Maths was not”.

    I write ‘computering’ here because they tended to use a word like that but they meant Computer Science. Actually, though we would ideally have wanted all our applicants to have taken A-level Maths (and university Computer Science departments a bit higher up the pecking order do insist on it), we couldn’t on the simple grounds that if we made it an absolute requirement, we would not fill our places and half of us would get sacked. The trouble then was that teachers and students would then say “Look, you don’t need A-level Maths to do Computer Science”, and it was a vicious circle because they then assumed you didn’t need Maths at all – and sent us applicants with GCSE grade D or lower in Maths telling us how suitable they were for academic Computer Science due to their success in “ICT” qualifications.

    On whether those qualifications do have any value, I have never found anyone who has a good word for them. University admissions tutors and employers universally say they’d rather school students spent more time on basic literacy, numeracy and logical reasoning. After all, what is the point of knowing how to use a word processor if you can’t write basic English? Before we had school ICT, we had to teach the sort of things it teaches ourselves, we often had students who had never touched a computer before, and it took us, ooh I’d say all of a week or two.

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th Dec '12 - 4:44pm

    Helen Tedcastle

    However, and this is the key point in relation to pupils taking the wrong combinations of A levels for certain degrees, insufficient information was available to tutors, careers officers and students when it came to the latter choosing the right subjects for their aspirations. This has to be rectified and would alleviate many problems universities have experienced.

    Helen, sorry, but I used to write our prospectus entries, we made it very clear what our requirements were and the fact that good mathematical skills were what we most needed and most valued, but that did not seem to get through to the schools. Every year I rejected hundreds of UCAS applicants who needed only to glance at our prospectus entry to see that their qualifications ruled them out of serious consideration.

    The more difficult problem was trying to get the message across that we most valued mathematical skills, and we weren’t about advanced use of word processors etc in a way that didn’t put off those we would be willing to consider even though they didn’t have our ideal qualification mix. Schools just seemed to assume we worked to some rigid set of rules, and university admission for me was never like that – I always looked at the whole profile. There didn’t seem to be a way we could get across to schools “OK, we’d accept applicants with a good GCSE in Maths and at least something a bit mathsy-sciency at A-level, but really our advice to anyone who wants to do a Computer Science degree is to stick with the Maths at A-level and don’t bother with ICT, it isn’t very useful to us”. As soon as you dropped the “A-level Maths compulsory” bit they jumped straight to “Maths irrelevant” assumption.

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th Dec '12 - 5:00pm

    Helen Tedcastle

    The EBacc is a disastrous proposal. I disagree with Matthew Huntbach. I do not accept that a child is disadvantaged intellectually or academically by studying ,say Geography (allowed in the EBacc) rather than Religious Studies (excluded from the EBacc). They are both academic humanities and are of equivalent ‘rigour’ (according to Durham University research on assessment criteria).

    If Matthew has found that there is a problem with Computer Science applications, this I would contend, is not because a pupil studied for a GCSE in Music (excluded from the EBacc) but because the Maths and ICT curricula need improving?

    I am not saying there is anything wrong with a pupil studying Music or Religious Education. On the contrary, when I was admissions tutor for Computer Science, while the first thing I looked for was maths skills, the second thing I looked for was breadth of interest and skills, which meant I’d be very impressed by a good grade in Music or Religious Education, it was definitely a plus point, something that would push an applicant ahead of another who didn’t have such a wide mix of subjects.

    The problem with saying “reform the curriculum” is that often this means making it more appealling to the 15-year old mind and experience, which is not necessarily the same as making it more useful. At university level almost all academics I know value most the more abstract subjects because these develop and assess the basic skills we need. However, to the 15-year old these may seem “boring” and “irrelevant” because the 15-year old lacks the maturity and experience to see how they underpin even the most practical subjects we teach.

    It seems to me the EBacc subjects ARE the one we would most like EVERYONE to have covered till the age of 16. Saying that does not mean pupils should study nothing else. I took History of Art at O-level, which actually served me well, because being at that time a very nerdy 15-year old I didn’t want to do any of what I might then have dismissed as namby-pamby writing subjects, all I wanted to do was science and maths, but I liked art as well and my Head persuaded me to do History of Art – which actually kept me writing essays and thinking outside the narrow sciencey ways a 15-year old boy tends to think. But I wouldn’t say that History of Art should for that reason be in the EBacc, because I can’t say it’s so essential that every 15 year old should study it.

  • Helen Tedcastle 12th Dec '12 - 6:51pm

    @ Matthew Huntbach: ” The problem with saying “reform the curriculum” is that often this means making it more appealling to the 15-year old mind and experience, which is not necessarily the same as making it more useful. At university level almost all academics I know value most the more abstract subjects because these develop and assess the basic skills we need. However, to the 15-year old these may seem “boring” and “irrelevant” because the 15-year old lacks the maturity and experience to see how they underpin even the most practical subjects we teach.”

    I think this is what the Blairite ‘reforms’ achieved from 2004 but it has ended up with Gove going to the other extreme! Of course I agree with you that for academic study at university level, an academic grounding is essential. From a Humanities perspective, abstract thinking is achievable not just in History and Geography as Gove believes but RS as well and Politics/Economics/Classics, which are are also good, essay-based subjects.

    Blair wanted to increase numbers drastically going to university, hence the proliferation of new A Levels – all designed to appeal to the young mind – these subjects indeed, sounded cool and of course degrees are available in them – Law, Media, Photography, for instance.

    However, my point is not that abstract subjects are not vital for degree-level but which subjects are appropriate and which can prepare young people for HE study? It depends on the subject of course but in my experience, a number of degrees (except Medicine), only specify one or two essentials for their programme and are quite flexible with the third or even fourth.

    Gove has gone to the other extreme to Blair – he has axed hundreds of courses and devalued a number of subjects which of themselves are abstract conceptually and challenging intellectually.

    The EBacc has gone too far in demarcating university standard courses from practical/vocational. Hence, Music is not specified as ‘rigorous’ enough for an EBacc, so a gifted musical person can only take a GCSE in the subject. This is ludicrous.

    I would prefer to raise the attainment levels across the subject range, rather than select five subjects, some of which, like the humanities section, is unnecessarily narrow.

    Also, on my point about sixth form tutors not having the information – we were reliant to a great extent on the students finding out for themselves the entry requirements for degree courses, as we were not given any time to trawl through every prospectus for each of our twenty or more tutees. We also relied on careers advice and the head of Sixth Form, who liaised with universities.

    I suspect there is insufficient time for sixth form tutors in this crucial area. We were directed to help students with their draft applications and as teachers we helped those in our subject area. If universities are flagging up a problem with A level selection, there can be reform of attainment levels and focus at school on entry requirements. It does not require drastic regression back to the 1950s!

    I think Gove did spot a flaw in the system but his solution has gone far too far, especially in the humanities – it is having massive negative consequences in the Arts and my own subject, for example.

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Dec '12 - 9:04am

    Helen Tedcastle

    However, my point is not that abstract subjects are not vital for degree-level but which subjects are appropriate and which can prepare young people for HE study? It depends on the subject of course but in my experience, a number of degrees (except Medicine), only specify one or two essentials for their programme and are quite flexible with the third or even fourth

    Yes, that was my position when I was admissions tutor for Computer Science at my university. We didn’t have ANY subject we regarded as essential, though we would have made Mathematics essential were it not for the fact that insufficient numbers of sixth-formers who wanted to go on to Computer Science took it. The frustrating thing is that not making it essential was read by potential applicants as “maths not necessary”, whereas in fact study of Mathematics at A-level was the best way of developing and assessing the necessary ways of thinking for the subject. There just did not seem to be a way of getting the message across that for our purposes some subjects were far more valuable than others, and while we would consider applications from those whose qualification were form the others, those who had taken those poor choices were placing themselves at a disadvantage.

    It is not a matter of trawling through every university prospectus, because every other university admissions tutor in my subject I spoke to said the same. Looser restrictions on required subjects were never because they really did not care, all agreed that the most useful subject was mathematics and that many of the “vocational” qualifications seemed to be pretty useless, but the lower down the pecking order you were, the more you had to hide that and pretend you would equally accept everyone for the simple reason that we all have to fill our places somehow.

    To this day I find this to be a huge problem. When I speak to friends and acquaintances about their children and the A-levels they are taking, I am actually quite shocked about the number who are taking a range which I know to be a very poor choice which will in effect shut them out form most of the better degree programmes, or at least make entrance to them and success in them more difficult. The circles I mix with are mainly lower down the social scale, so it probably isn’t like this amongst the more clued up people form wealthy high social class backgrounds. In my experience, MOST sixth-formers from middling to lower socio-economic backgrounds are taking A-level subjects that will seriously disadvantage them at university application time – and they don’t know it, and no-one ever told them it. Of course I am polite myself so I don’t say much, but at the very least I would say to anyone picking A-levels – if you are capable of doing A-level Maths and getting a reasonable grade, take it, for the simple reason it open so many doors which are closed without it.

    After Maths, I would prefer to see a well-established humanities subject involving reading and writing and good analytical skills, so History and Geography would have been ideal – except that very few of our applicants had these. The point about the EBacc is that I do see it as encouraging pupils to stick with these core subjects and so more likely to take them at A-level.

    All I say is not through snobbery, as those who make these points are often accused of. It is through long experience, checking results in the degree with entrance subjects and grades. It really was the case that the applicant who came in with the A-level mix ICT, Business Studies and Media Studies was doomed to failure even when these were at high grades, whereas the applicant who came in with say Maths, History and Physics had a high chance of doing well even if these were at modest grades.

    When you have had to deal with students who started their degree all keen and enthusiastic and end it less than a year later in tears because they just can’t cope with the material, because they’ve not had the education which develops the abstract understanding and approach to learning needed for it, it does concentrate the mind.

  • Matthew, you are wrong to say that University professors do not value GCSEs or A-levels in the arts.

  • Also, Matthew, you appear to talk about A-levels which are not the same as a Key Stage 4 exam proposal which is blocking pupils from selecting some subjects.

  • Do you notice how Mr Gove says that the subjects chosen to be labelled as ‘core’ subjects are not specialised and will help people in later life. I what way do latin and ancient greek count as ‘core’ subjects? They sound pretty specialised to me.

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