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Ebacc for All. Shackles on or off? – Tom Sherrington

6th November 2015

This week, School’s Minister, Nick Gibb, gave this speech setting out the social justice case for an academic curriculum – aka making the Ebacc a compulsory entitlement for all students. When this kicks in it will have a significant effect for a lot of schools where the study of a language and/or either History or Geography are not currently compulsory at KS4.

It’s important to stress that I do agree with a lot of what is said in the speech. In general, I agree that up to KS4, a broad curriculum with a strong academic weighting is important and should be an entitlement for all young people, regardless of their circumstances. There’s plenty of scope to specialise and to pursue technical learning routes from 16 onwards. I agree that too many students have been sold short by self-fulfilling low expectations around their capacity to engage in an academic curriculum. At Highbury Grove where we have over 70% of students on FSM, we’ve introduced a curriculum where languages and humanities subjects are compulsory at KS4; there are no longer separate pathways in KS3 or KS4 for students of different levels of prior attainment – again, because of the self-limiting effect that has had.  What used to be called ‘Pathway 1′ is now open to everyone. There is no ‘Pathway 2′.

Our KS4 ‘Bacc’ includes a compulsory arts GCSE and a more open interpretation in the humanities block. With this, in conjunction with a commitment to outdoor education, music provision and a Bacc-style post-16 offer, we think our Comprehensive Curriculum for All provides all young people with the basis of an outstanding education, rich in cultural capital. And yet, we’re still not fully Ebacc compliant. Mr Gibb, in all his wisdom, apparently knows better and is preaching to me about social justice from his lofty perch.

So, although EBacc for All isn’t a massive shock or threat to us, there are some major issues with it.

1. It’s puny and pale without the arts

The absence of the arts subjects from the Ebacc has always been its major weakness. I’d be far happier with Ebacc if there were six elements, not just five. There’s a foolish assumption that arts subjects are inherently less demanding or less rigorous. My daughter has an A* in Drama and in Art at GCSE – she’d have quite a lot to say about that. They were rigorous, intellectually demanding and challenging, both making a significant contribution to her learning experience at KS4. Interestingly, in our first year of arts for all in our GCSE options, students found it the hardest part of the compulsion. For many, being made to engage in the arts is challenging – I think that’s significant. They aren’t rushing to it as an easy option – far from it. The current formulation of Ebacc is sub-standard for this reason alone. It’s just not challenging enough.

In Nick Gibb’s speech, there’s a reference to the government’s commitment to the music and dance. This is a project spending £100+million to pay for students to go to special music and dance schools; it’s a scheme to give a limited number of children access to elite provision – this is not about universal entitlement to a proper arts education; it’s not the way to spend that money. Some people argue that KS3 arts should cover it – but that argument applies to all subjects and I don’t think arts or languages are inherently different in this regard. Surely, any Bacc worthy of the name would include arts subjects.

2. Only History or Geography?

I’ve never really understood this. At HGS, sociology is popular and is taught in a way that is extremely rigorous. It’s a proper discipline. Looking at specifications and exam questions, I think it is impossible to make a case for geography being ‘more academic’ than sociology at GCSE. Arguably, sociology overlaps more with both history and geography in terms of the different subject matter and the mode of academic study than history and geography overlap with each other. If the argument is about content, we’d need to debate including history for all or geography for all; allowing that either could be dropped undermines that case.  If it’s about ‘academic rigour’ in general, there is no basis for excluding sociology.

RE or RS is a more subtle issue. RS has suffered reputational damage over the years and the case for RS has been undermined by schools that have delivered condensed compulsory courses in a way that would never be done for history. A typical RS exam paper can feel that you could give it a fair go based on general knowledge of contemporary social issues and I would suggest RS needs more philosophical content and a stronger comparative strand. Currently, in schools that prize league table scores over educational integrity, there would be high take-up of RS for tactical reasons if it was included in the EBacc. Sadly. But that doesn’t mean that RS is inherently less valuable – it shouldn’t be and exam boards could do more to make that evident to all. At HGS, GCSE RS has parity; it’s firmly in our Bacc.

Gibb’s speech has reminded me that our ‘Ebacc for all’ claim is wrong; that RS and sociology don’t count. To me ‘humanities and languages’ for all should be enough. I’m now wondering what they’ll do to us if we just carry on. It might make an interesting court case to challenge the SOS’s power to decide which subjects are more academic than others.

3. Perverse incentives and curriculum constraints

It’s important to see the Ebacc in the context of Progress 8 and Attainment 8. With the double weighting of maths and English, schools are already acting (tactics over principle) to swing more time behind the core. I know several schools now only offering three options. At KEGS we had five options; this allowed for History AND Geography; two languages or two arts. This was real breadth. At HGS we’re sticking with our four options – it’s a good balance. You can do two humanities or two arts; you can still do a language, computing and various other combinations. With schools now forced to chase the P8/A8 and Ebacc, the choices are really very narrow. How does it equate to social justice if students can’t get anywhere near the curriculum breadth the Grammar school kids get? They’re being robbed; shackled, not liberated. Maths and English matter a lot but not so much that arts and a breadth of disciplines get squeezed out. I predict that fewer students will now study both Geography and History at GCSE – that’s a loss. Arts courses will close; that’ s a tragedy.

This is the consequence of a low-trust high-accountability system; we get perverse incentives for schools to act in certain ways that can’t be justified on principle. I believe that if we follow Ebacc compliance, we’ll be offering a more limited curriculum. If we chased P8 glory by squeezing time for options, it would be worse still. All the rhetoric of freedoms for academies is rendered hollow in the face of this centralising power. If my school community supports our curriculum as it does, why should we make it worse to suit someone else’s prejudices? That’s not democracy.

4. The Big Picture

Of course, the biggest issue of all is the audacity to call Ebacc a ‘Baccalaureate’ at all. The relentless emphasis on KS4 is such an utterly, utterly desperately limited vision for the education for our young people. It makes me cringe thinking of Nick Gibb standing up proclaiming social justice via Ebacc…. as if!! The opportunity is there to create a real 14-19 Baccalaureate with real power; a Bacc worthy of the name.  Ebacc is so full of holes in principle and in practice – we’ve  got to think much bigger if we’re serious about social justice. And I assume we are.

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