- Published: Sunday, 31 January 2016 08:38
I am not a fan of league tables. I don’t object to publishing the students’ public examination results: all the Birkdale results are available on this website, broken down by subject. I do, however, find it dehumanising that the ambitions, achievements and stories of an entire year group of young people and their school are reduced to one percentage. I also think that whatever measurements are held to be important will eventually distort educational priorities. Nevertheless one of the pupils pointed out to me that Birkdale had snuck into the top spot in Sheffield on the recent government league tables (http://www2.sheffieldtoday.net/downloads/School-Tables-2016.pdf) so I tempered my principles with pragmatism and investigated.
After briefly enjoying the ‘rank 1’ label next to Birkdale, I learned that 79% of Birkdale pupils had achieved the Ebacc. Initially I thought that this was a nasty bacterial infection (think E.coli) and found myself leafing through the Department of Health’s list of notifiable diseases before erroneously googling Ebac and engaging with a manufacturer of domestic dehumidifiers (try it). Adding the extra ‘c’ allowed me to learn that the Ebacc is a measure of success in ‘academic’ subjects although, at least to me, it retains more than a whiff of Yorkshire. To achieve the Ebacc you must gain at least a C grade in GCSE Mathematics, English Language, English Literature, at least 2 sciences (which now include Computing!), History or Geography and a Foreign Language. I was quite pleased that 79% of the Birkdale students had achieved this largely by accident. Further research revealed that the government intends to make it compulsory for all (or possibly most) pupils in the maintained sector to take these subjects at GCSE. Not for the first time I am pleased to be able to lead a school in the independent sector and hence ignore what seems an ill-conceived idea.
The idea derives ultimately from the infamous list of ‘facilitating’ subjects at A level, supposedly helpful for getting into the elite universities (see last blog entry for more on this). (As it happens all 12 of our successful Oxbridge candidates this year had achieved the Ebacc at GCSE but probably not by design.) If more students take these subjects at GCSE then more will take them at A level, runs the reasoning, and perhaps more will be able to apply to elite universities. There are two problems with this.
Firstly not all students want, or are capable, of going to elite universities and to constrain the curriculum for everyone in the UK in order to help the academic few (who would probably choose these subjects anyway) seems odd. Fish don’t want to climb trees but they may want their talents to be recognised. At Birkdale, the vast majority of students do gain a GCSE in a foreign language because we think that this is useful and part of a broad education but this is philosophically different from forcing every student to do so regardless of their aptitude and interest.
Secondly, compelling all students to take these subjects will inevitably reduce take-up of other GCSE subjects. The alternative humanities subjects such as Classics and RE will be hit hard: a cursory glance at the news headlines might suggest that religious literacy is currently of some importance. The Arts subjects: Art, Music and Drama and probably Design & Technology will also be squeezed as they scrabble to be included in the students’ last couple of GCSE choices. The chief misdemeanour of these subjects seems to be that a degree of coursework is required in their study, somehow making them less academic than other subjects which are easier to assess by terminal examinations. To be successful at Art, for example, requires considerable technical skill, creativity and determination as well as impressive time management skills to complete the project work by the deadlines. Perhaps the real issue here is the fear that schools will ‘game the system’ if they are allowed to administer and mark coursework and thus subjects which require this must be marginalised. The choices that students make at GCSE have consequences for A level choices as many A level courses effectively require participation at GCSE.
A consultation on the Ebacc closes this weekend but seems unlikely to derail the proposal despite the energetic objections of the arts community (http://www.baccforthefuture.com/). An on-line petition has reached 62 000 of the 100 000 signatures needed for the matter to be discussed in Parliament (https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/111731) although a discussion is no guarantee of reform. The law of unintended consequences may mean that academic schools in the independent sector become refuges for artistically inclined students as the Ebacc reduces curriculum choice in the maintained sector.
Schools (and governments) have always pondered the question ‘Which subjects should be compulsory?’ and how to balance the aptitudes and interests of students with the need to confer upon them a broad education. Generally the UK encourages or at least allows its students to specialise at an earlier age than most other countries through the pursuit of 3 or 4 A levels in the Sixth Form. Viewed from this vantage point Ebacc would seem a rather ‘European’ innovation, reflecting the ‘Baccalaureate’ in the name: a strange choice given the current European uncertainty