The English Baccalaureate is a Mickey Mouse qualification

Almost two years ago, a fortnight after my daughter confirmed her GCSE choices; Michael Gove announced his latest bright idea for the nation’s schoolchildren. The English Baccalaureate was originally intended to ‘be the equivalent of the old School Leaving Certificate’, but the EBacc, as it became known, has turned into just another of Gove’s personal follys, greeted with less than lukewarm enthusiasm by pupils, teachers, parents and employers.

I’m all for pupils studying a good range of subjects, at a level that reflects their abilities and supports their future studies and career paths. But the EBacc does nothing for pupils or schools, except provide another stick to beat them with, as Gove always intended. The cat has been let permanently out of the DfE bag with the ‘clarification’ that the EBacc is intended as ‘a performance measure’ and ‘not a qualification in its own right’.

The main issue with the EBacc is the choice of subjects. Few would argue that Maths, English, a foreign language and science were the cornerstones of secondary education, but the inclusion of a humanity caused controversy when only History and Geography were allowed. No room for Religious Studies, Economics, Business Studies or Sociology. No recognition for art, music, ICT or practical subjects.

This in turn led to an inevitable narrowing of subject choice and distortion of the curriculum. It was no good the Education Secretary saying that schools and pupils were free to choose the subjects they thought were best: the Government had introduced a new hoop into the league tables and pupils would be ‘encouraged’ to jump through it. Some pupils were moved off non-EBacc courses, such as RS and drama and onto French and history part way through Year 10, the first year of their GCSE study, with others expected to make up their ‘deficiencies’ through extra classes at lunchtime or after school.

Some of the papers are trumpeting Gove’s line that the introduction of the EBacc has led to an increase in pupils sitting exams in more traditional subjects. It is clear that previous declines in those sitting some subjects such as triple science, had already been reversed. But in any case, this year’s cohort of GCSE students had already begun their GCSE studies before the EBacc was introduced. This year’s exams were either freely chosen or were forced upon students as unwanted and unsettling mid-year changes.

The rush of some schools to tick the EBacc box has also led a number of schools to enter pupils early for GCSEs. This can lead to pupils clocking up a C grade pass, where further study may have led to a higher grade and letting down those pupils who may find that their way to higher level study is blocked without at least a B or even A grade.

The rule for academic qualifications is that you can’t count the same examination towards two different qualifications. But of course the EBacc pretends to do exactly that, as it is achieved without examination or further study. Surely if anything deserves the title of a ‘Mickey Mouse qualification’ it is one that requires no study or testing in its own right?

But if you want to really know the value of the EBacc, it’s not a bad idea to ask the pupils to whom it is meant to apply. Despite gaining ten excellent passes in Maths, English Language and Literature, three languages and three sciences, our daughter has not achieved the EBacc, due to choosing RS over one of Gove’s select humanities of history or geography. Is she bothered? Has she even noticed? It seems not. Gove’s quiet revolution has completely passed her by.

* Sara Bedford is the leader of Three Rivers District Council and leads the growing Lib Dem group at the District Councils’ Network.  

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  • Absolutely correct.

    For me (declaring an interest) the fact that it doesn’t include any creative or cultural subjects, and isn’t backed up by the evidence claimed is damaging too. It is a qualification built on Conservative prejudices which even in themselves are mis-informed about what ‘tradition’ is… And the lack of innovation and creativity undermines diversity and ultimately the freedom of choice of pupils as schools clamber to match the DfE nudge. Gove has been given far too much time to run around in the Department for Education without a check and balance and we need a liberal there who is concerned with pupil choice and the economic sustainability of current policy.

    What I would really like our cabinet members to ask is: If it was backed by employers then why is it opposed by the CBI? If it was backed by higher education institutions then why do universities publish alternative lists and focus on post-16, not pre-16 qualifications?

  • Agree with most of it, but in 2012 do we really want students wasting time on RE? Its no different from Greek mythology. Interesting true, but useful? I have taught RE and the curriculum is a joke, so easy, little thinking required and all the interesting parts are ignored just in case somebody is offended. Better to teach philosophy.

  • One wonders if all of these structural and diagrammatic modifications, renaming tests and so forth, would have one tenth of the impact of a small investment in infrastructure, such as: making sure that every student has his or her own desk.

  • Thomas Long 24th Aug '12 - 2:13pm

    The EBacc is fine… it may not be a perfect fix but it’s better than not having it and I say that as someone whose sister is currently taking the requisite GCSEs (and has a good chance of failing some of them).

    It doesn’t really narrow your subject choices as it only accounts for half of your GCSEs.

    The history or geography thing is a shame though… (we all know history is the only real humanity).

  • Thomas – it does narrow choices for a great many pupils and the evidence is bearing this out. Inevitably to some extent you are right: we need to ensure that rigour and quality are recognised, but that is not reflected in the current choice of subjects. It is also the case that it takes up far more than half of the options for many pupils (the EBac takes up 6 options, as double science is minimum).

    Duncan – Yes, that would solve most of the problems. (Though HE is not necessarily relevant to Key Stage 4 unless you’re ruling yourself out of A-levels.)

  • I took my options this for my GCSEs and was happy with my choices. I then found out that these options would also qualify me for Ebacc so if it’s an extra qualification to benefit me in the future it must be good!

  • >>No room for Religious Studies, Economics, Business Studies or Sociology. No recognition for art, music, ICT or practical subjects.<<

    I have great difficulty with the idea that any of these should be studied *instead of* history or geography. I even have difficulty with the idea that an education should include history OR geography. To me they are both essential to what might be considered "an education". As I understand it the EBacc doesn't prevent studying things like RE, just ensures that the basics are covered.


  • Bob – I think music is far harder as a GCSE than History as it combines history with creativity, and a wealth of other skills; having said that, I – and I think the HE providers – would agree with you on the Sociology/Business Studies point but, interestingly, not the Economics, ICT or music point. Ultimately though, whether you may view one or other as being supremely important, the liberty of those who disagree with Mr Gove is being hampered.

  • Peter Hutton 24th Aug '12 - 4:23pm

    I’m with Thomas Long on this. Personally I am all in favour of the Bacc. Five core subjects and then choices – so, for example, my son who is starting his GCSEs in two weeks is doing music as well as triple science; and history. So a broad range.
    FYI – Religious Studies is still a compulsory part of the curriculum for Year 10-11. Why? I wouldn’t mind so much but only theistic religions are covered so philosophy of thought or humanism are not included.
    Sara, you say that it represents an “inevitable narrowing of subject choice and distortion of the curriculum” I disagree. The five topics present the basis of a balanced curriculum with scope for individual specialisation as chosen by the pupil. When I did O’Grades (which both shows my age and origins) we did 8 subjects – with the emphasis on core topics and then options.
    Also “I’m all for pupils studying a good range of subjects, at a level that reflects their abilities and supports their future studies and career paths”; I’m sorry but what child at 13-14 knows his/her future career paths? At least the Bacc provides a core foundation in the ability to know one’s own language, another language, numeracy to a reasonable standard and at least one humanity. I for one think that that is a reasonable spread. Also if at 13-14 the curriculum does not reflects their abilities, then that is where SENCO steps in.

  • Attributing ‘importance’ by government diktat to any academic subject outside of the core skills of reading, writing and arithmetic can never be anything other than reactionary, illiberal and prejudiced: qualities this government excels at. Why not let kids, parents employers and further/higher educational institutions decide what is important . I trust them more than the jerks of Michael Gove’s knees.

  • There are only “six main world faiths”? Really? Who decided that, and on what criteria?

  • Matthew Huntbach 24th Aug '12 - 11:55pm

    I’m sorry, but from the 10 years I spent as a university admissions tutor, I know there was a serious problem with too many school pupils opting for subjects that actually weren’t very useful. What is called “ICT” is a good example – the subject I was admissions tutor for and teach at university level is Computer Science, and we found too many of our applicants choosing to take “ICT” because they wrongly thought it was the most useful subject for us and dropping the subjects that actually are better preparation. In fact school ” ICT” is of very little use, like many of the “soft option” subjects, it was far too much based on memorisation and reward for pointless slogging, and not nearly enough on development of logical reasoning skills.

    This is not said from “snobbery”, although when I try to make this point I am often accused of that. In practice, the experience not just in my department but in most other university departments is that those who came in with qualifications in the core subjects that now constitute the EBacc almost did much better than those who came in with the same grades in the subjects that have been excluded from the EBacc. It tended to be students from the lower socio-economic backgrounds who opted for the weaker subjects because they were more easily taken in by their exciting sounding and relevant titles and didn’t have the contacts to realise that higher up these subjects were not values.

    The introduction of the EBacc has reversed this trend, I assure you it is a good thing, it will greatly help social mobility.

  • Martin Pierce 25th Aug '12 - 8:16am

    I think E-Bacc is about the only thing I have agreed with Gove on. It’s as much a measure of schools as pupils – too many were getting pupils to do just soft subjects to get their GCSE scores up. We risk becoming seen as a party soft on education and content with mediocrity if we’re not careful – something that will not help social mobility. As a first generation university grad who came through comprehensives I’m very aware how important stretch and setting the bar high is – and then teaching and studying to a standard to achieve it. Unfortunately Nick with his silver spoon has no idea

  • Dennis Brown 25th Aug '12 - 9:15am

    Like Matthew Huntbach, I spent a period as a Departmental University Admissions “tutor”. When almost every applicant was claimed, by their school, to be expecting an A-grade in every subject, one had to look for other discriminators (how did they spend their spare time, etc.). Sadly, achieving exam grades now appear as an end in itself. Even more sadly, it often turned out that although many of these A-graders could pass exams, their basic understanding, knowledge and appreciation of their subject was still lacking. This view was supported when I was working in a number of European research laboratories, and fellow researchers commented on the “lack of basic knowledge of current British students”.

    Exams must remain a means to an end and not just an end in themselves.

  • Sara Bedford 25th Aug '12 - 11:51am

    @Matthew If univestities want particular subjects at GCSE then they should ask for them. Ditto FE colleges and employers. As Duncan saya, let the market decide

    Are universitioes really saying that they would prefer someone who has GCSEs in Maths, English, Double Science, Biblical Hebrew and History at Grade C over someone with Maths, English Lit and Language, French, German, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Latin and Music, all at Grade A*? After all the first has the EBacc and the second doesn’t.

    It is the pupils at either end of the academic range who are most likely to lose out from the EBacc. A gifted scientist shouls not be penalised for taking Latin instead of history, whilst someone who is with literacy and numeracy may be better served by getting a decent qualification in English and Maths and then a vocational subject with quality.

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Aug '12 - 3:06pm

    Rebecca Hanson

    @Matthew – Has the Ebacc led to schools teaching and students taking GCSE computers studies instead of ICT?

    There has been a separat initiative, pushed by both industry and Computer Science academics, which has also been quite heavily promoted by the Guardian/Observer newspaper, to encourage a switch from what schools call “ICT” to qualifications closer to what we in academia call “Computer Science”.

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Aug '12 - 6:26pm

    Sara Bedford

    @Matthew If univestities want particular subjects at GCSE then they should ask for them. Ditto FE colleges and employers. As Duncan saya, let the market decide

    I’m sorry Sara, but your comments really do illustrate why this has become such a big problem – because it became impossible to discuss it rationally due the fact that when one tried one always got this sort of thing – which completely misses the point – thrown back.

    Look, does it help if I tell you when I was admissions tutor for my university department, I rejected hundreds of applicants very year because they applied with qualifications which if only they had read the prospectus they would have seen were not suitable? We kept saying what we wanted, but they just did not listen in the schools. That was when they got as far as applying, so why should they listen when choosing GCSEs? Some of the problem came from choice of GCSEs which shut them out of the most relevant A-levels, the other part was choice of A-levels which was not suitable for the degree they wanted to do.

    Computer Science has a particular problem in that many schools believe it is a continuation of what they call “ICT”, whereas actually school “ICT” is not very useful for it. The problem is made worse because in industry they use “IT” to mean anything related to computers, whereas there was a deliberate policy in schools to use “ICT” to mean use of computer applications and to exclude from it the most central aspect of Computer Science, which is programming.

    As my department’s admissions tutor, I would often visit schools and be placed in front of the “ICT” class, and what was I supposed to say? I had to try and be gentle, but I could hardly say “Look, sorry, but you lot are wasting your time – please, what we really need is good Maths and good language skills, not memorisation of outdated computer-related terms, or skills in using office applications”.

    Now, a further issue is that as admissions tutor I had a quota of places to fill. Had I insisted that we would only accept those with A-level Maths (the most reliable determiner of success in the degree), I would have been left with half my places empty, and therefore our department would face closure and myself and my colleagues face losing our jobs. So, yes, I did accept applicants with qualifications in subjects I knew were less suitable. However, the result of this was that the schools these applicants came from said to their pupils “Look, they accept applicants who don’t have A-level Maths, and so sixth form students who were perfectly capable of it didn’t take it”.

    It appeared to be impossible to get the message across to the schools that there were certain subjects we found, from experience, were more suitable than others, so we would prefer those who wanted to do Computer Science to take those subjects, but we wouldn’t rule out applicants with other subjects. Schools seemed to expect us to work to simplistic hard and fast rules, but I never worked like that. I always considered all aspects of each applicant individually. However, I do feel that schools can have an influence and give useful training and experience to thier pupils, so that therefore those aplicants who have had that training were more likely to be offered a place than those who had not due to having taken subjects that did not give it.

  • Based on Gove’s interview with Andrew Marr, a problem with the EBacc seems to be that it is trying to do two different things.

    Firstly, he seems to want to reward excellence: “The “English Bac”, … would be awarded to pupils who achieve five A*to C grades in English, Maths, one science, one foreign language and one humanity.”.

    Secondly, he seems to want to give recognition to the gaining of a ‘basic education’ (quotes used as what this actually means is open to debate): “an English Baccalaureate would be the equivalent of the old School Leaving Certificate once taken by Secondary Modern pupils …”

    Now, we should remember the original purpose of the Secondary Modern school was to take those who failed their 11-plus (the 75% of 11 year olds) and largely prepared them to site CSE’s. So whilst recognising both excellence and core competency are worthy objectives, I don’t see how the single qualification EBacc can realistically achieve both.

  • Sara Bedford 28th Aug '12 - 1:38pm

    @MatthewHuntbach The problem that you saw in admissions is partly caused by league tables and teachers influencing pupils to take what they perceive to be easier qualifications. But I do not see that the EBacc helps with that, in fact it makes it worse. Many schools now only care about the number of A-C grades obtained and often this is downgraded to just the number of C grades. One local school puts children in for Maths and English one exam at a time until they scrape a C, often in Year 10.

    A grade C obtained a year before the start of A levels is unlikely to be the best preparation for studying A level Maths. The change away from modular to linear GCSEs will help subjects be taught in a more logical manner. However I am unsure what can be done regarding prospective students presenting with the ‘wrong’ subjects if universities will take them anyway to fill quotas.

    I suppose I start from the perspective of a daughter who has chosen the GCSEs that she needed to move on next month to the A levels required for her current choice of degree. But until both schools and the Government can be convinced to allow pupils to study what is best for the pupils themselves and not the league tables, this problem is unlikely to be solved.

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Aug '12 - 6:18pm

    @ Sara Bedford
    Yes, the problem is League Tables. Part of my argument with the opponents of EBacc is that they seem to have taken for granted the idea that League Tables are all that matters, and are just fighting about the exact points system used to compile them. If we had a more numerate population, and perhaps more political commentators and politicians from a mathematical/scientific we would have some decent scepticism about league tables, and less of a willingness just to accept whatever it is that the points give. For example, I find Gove’s policy on university students with AAB in A-levels so silly, since it fails to note that subject is just as important as grades. If I were still an admissions tutor, it would force me through financial pressure to take on students with high grades in the wrong subjects and reject students I know could do better because though their grades were lower, they were in the right subjects.

    However, there is already evidence that the EBacc is causing a shift towards subjects which I know from experience are more useful. Just because I note this and think it good does not mean I agree with the details of the EBacc, or with the general obsession with points above deeper considerations of true skills and abilities.

    On students studying what is better for them – well, I’m sorry but when I was admissions tutor I dealt with hundreds of students every year who studied what was not better for them because they were poorly advised or did not realise what would be most useful. Indeed, I still find this now. Whenever I have a conversation with someone about the A-levels they have chosen, or with the parents of an A-level student, and ask what subjects they have chosen, I am almost always left thinking (but I don’t like to say) “Oh dear, what a poor choice, don’t you know how much you have reduced your chance of a good university place through that?”. I don’t mix in posh circles, so these are people mostly lower down the social scale – higher up the social scale there is more knowledge and understanding which avoids these poor choices.

    I am not saying here that everyone should choose A-level Maths and the other most useful subjects. But I am suggesting that those who are capable of it should do so as it opens up many more doors than the subjects which have a superficial appearance of being more “relevant”.

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