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.