English Baccalaureate

January 12, 2011 § 18 Comments

Am cross cross cross about the English Bac. Its a way of arranging the data about Schools to show how many pupils get 5 A*-C passes in ‘rigorous’ subjects – strictly defined (no RE in humanities, no music etc).

1. I’ve argued before that a league table only tells you one thing about a school, and the data is so vulnerable that it generally tells you the wrong thing.
2. Michael Gove, the Secretary of State, decided to manipulate the data in this way without reasonable warning. As Christine Blower from the NUT said:  “You can’t have schools judged against things that didn’t exist before.” A previous decision had allowed pupils to drop a modern foreign language. Why should schools now be marked down without warning for the number of pupils who failed to attain one?
If this Government believes in fairness it should have flagged up that it would require the data to be presented in this way in time for schools to do something about it (ie with at least 3 years warning so that option choices can be made with all the inormation to hand).
What Gove has done is to declare that something which wasn’t an offence now is, send someone to prison for doing it while it was legal, and justify it on the basis that the punishment will make everyone buck their ideas up.

3.  The list of ‘rigorous’ subjects not only has some glaring and offensive omissions – isn’t RE a humanity? – but it devalues all the others as well. My two sons want to pursue careers in music and the expressive arts/design. One of them was earning a wage in that field while still at school, and is supporting himself in his gap year doing the same. Well thanks a lot Mr Gove. Not rigorous?

The English Bac is an act of contempt for a teaching profession which was asked to do one thing and has now been attacked for it. It makes a spurious, elitist and dangerous distinction between ‘proper’ and ‘improper’ subjects. Its imposition is duplicitous from a government which is supposedly giving more power to schools: the EB  tells schools what they should do while saying that of course they can choose to do something else if they want to be at the bottom of the league.

I am all for rigour in teaching and learning. I have 13 O levels and did all the sciences, three languages and 2 lots of maths as well as the English I went on to teach. I am all for attainment, the measuring of ability, the stretching of potential. But this is offensive, gimmicky and unworthy of someone who is supposed to hold education and teachers in the highest regard. After the sport debacle it’s the last thing schools need.

This chap clearly agrees!

§ 18 Responses to English Baccalaureate

  • Tim Burnage says:

    I’ve never written to the government before. But I was annoyed today, so I wrote a letter:

    “I was dismayed to hear the nature of many of your responses during the Radio 5 live debate on the Victoria Derbyshire show (12 Jan 2011). I can understand why an English Baccalaureate measure might be another useful indicator of schools performance, but as a teacher of Music, I have deep seated concerns that this new policy will create a two tier system for valuing subjects within education.

    As you will be aware the arts are fundamental to the development of human beings. We have nothing quite like it to express our emotions, aspirations, intellect and creativity. Educating young people in the effective deployment of artistic expression and creativity is vital to enabling them to enter into the work place equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Enterprise, management, design, production, teaching and even governing require us to use our artistic minds in order to solve problems and make progress. The arts are critical to our daily lives. Winston Churchill said during World War II that if we cut funding to the arts, “what are we fighting for?”

    The assessment culture that has grown up in schools during the previous government and the status given to league tables has, in my experience, led schools to become factory-like in their treatment of young people. Intervention strategies abound all day long to cajole students into achieving their 5 A*-Cs. Why? Not because it’s best for the students (sometimes it’s good for them to fail!), but because it’s the only thing we’re judged on. As a teacher of the Arts, can my focus be on providing inspirational teaching and musical opportunities? Not as much as it should, because whilst this may provide a life changing experience for a young person, ultimately what matters to the Head Teacher, Governing Body, Ofsted and the Government is their final, summative assessment.

    So schools have become student factories and now the government has revealed a two tier system of valuing subjects. English, Maths, Science, MFL and History become the Holy Grail whilst the Arts, RE and Technology become second rate citizens. We should not be naïve about how Head Teachers will consider spreading their resources in future. I also fear that the ideology that underpins this latest decision may lead to further drastic action. How long until Music is removed from the National Curriculum?

    I love teaching, I love inspiring students; I love Music and the Arts. However, it seems that this Coalition Government’s education policy does not share these values. The worst aspects of Labour’s legacy are being extended and those without the experience of doing the job are making decisions which have a profound impact on those of us who want to do our best for the young people in our care.

    • Joseph Reynolds says:

      It is a foolish fallacy to imply that all things are equal. Clearly there are choices that are not equal, otherwise you wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. I have made a list of things that are not equal, and how we use all our ‘critical thinking skills’ to make judgments about them.

      Ribeye steak or dog food?
      BMW or broken car without axle?
      Windsor Castle or cardboard box?

      Obviously some things are better than others. Therefore, some courses are better than others. Maths is better than IT, History is better than RE, a foreign language is better than media studies, and Science is better than ICT. English is better than Games. There should be no reason why we can’t just say so.

  • Anthony Archer says:

    My concern is that the poor performance of too many schools is perpetuating the elite; all but the best state schools stand very little chance of getting pupils into Russell Group universities. The English Bacc as I understand it is merely a new measure; what it has pointed up is that, by adding a language, a science and geography/history, the percentage of those gaining C or above at GCSE drops dramatically. Can this possibly be right? They are hardly difficult at GCSE level. The Government is driving for equality of opportunity, which at present is sadly unavailable for huge numbers of secondary pupils.

  • Anthony
    I don’t disagree that there’s a divide between the expectations of some universities and some schools. And I would welcome a ‘joining-up’ of those expectations within an agreed and holistic system.
    What I am very angry about is a diktat out of nowhere from a Secretary of State, redefining the measure of ‘success’ and the nature of expectation, without telling the schools first.
    It’s the modern language thing which particularly riles: if it is government policy that you don’t have to take one, why be now penalised, without warning, for not doing so.
    And what is wrong with success in RE and Music? What about the nature of sport as a science as well as a pleasure? The very successful independent school of which I was a Governor for seven years embraced Sport as an A level – it was the right subject for a good number of pupils.
    Education has broadened. Many other subjects can be ‘rigorous’ and can be assessed rigorously – I was very interested, for example, in the techniques, skill and learning required for my son’s Film Studies A Level.
    Gove cannot simply say: “everyone knows that these subjects are academic and the rest are a joke”. By doing so he infantilises the kind of debate you want to have.

    • Eveline Lemothenes (pseudonym) says:

      He is not redefining the measure of “success”, as a pupil could very well get the English Baccalaureate and get straight Cs, but a pupil could obtain straight A*s and didn’t get the EBacc as he or she did not have the opportunity to study a modern foreign language at GCSE. Success will ultimately boil down to the grade attainment of the individuals.

      The EBacc is just an indicator of the type of education the students are receiving at a particular school. A high proportion of EBaccers at a school would give an indication that the school is more academically-minded. What is wrong with that? Surely if I were a parent I want to know exactly what type of education my child is receiving?

      The fact is for some people, the EBacc is irrelevant. If I had a parent who wanted to go into Art or Music, I would not care for the EBacc and instead be focusing my efforts to support my child’s aspirations. The EBacc is simply for those parents who are concerned at the lack of academic qualifications their child may be getting. As it is a fact that many schools, instead of offering Triple Science and MFL offers OCR National Awards and BTECs. Is that what you want for our children?

      There is nothing wrong with take GCSE Music or RE. The fact is that if you are an aspiring musician, the EBacc will be irrelevant to you. I’d wager that your other GCSEs would be as well, seeing as a career in music is due to talent, hard work, commitment etc (which many British teenagers lack) as opposed to scraping a C grade in GCSE Music.

      I understand why GCSE RE is not included in the English Baccalaureate. GCSE RE is not rigorous at all. The EBacc is not saying that the academic study of Theology is inferior to other subjects; the fact is that GCSE RE is devoid of actual content that it is not comparable to GCSE History. The information is freely available on the internet. Compare GCSE History past papers with GCSE RE ones and you will understand that RE deserves not to be on the EBacc. In fact, many schools enter all students into GCSE short course RE to bag extra points for league tables. That is the sad state affairs of the current education system.

      With regards to your comment on the “nature of sport as a science”, here is the fact, it is not a science. Not anyways. Even GCSE Biology, Chemistry and Physics are devoid of actual scientific content, let alone those studying Applied Sciences. Again, for those who want to take up Sports Science at university or want to enter the world of sport and physical education, the EBacc is irrelevant to what they want to do in life.

      I would say that the EBacc is protecting those who just do not know in their teenage years what they want to do in life. A great apathy is within state schools where many pupils have no future aspirations. For their sakes’ it is best for them to receive a balanced education, i.e. the EBacc than for schools to enter them into BTEC Art, Short Course PE, National Award ICT et al. Pupils are being lied to.

      I am shocked that you were Governor of a very successful independent school and suggest that Film Studies A-level is a rigorous subject. I despair that many students have taken poor and incorrect A-level advice from you. The University of Cambridge released a blacklist of subjects that they deem unsuitable for their degrees, and long story short it is best to study subjects like the Sciences, Modern Foreign Languages, History, English Literature (what a surprise!) if one is ambivalent of what they want to take. Are you implying it is appropriate for a student aiming for Cambridge to study Film Studies when another A-level would serve him or her better?

      The fact is that Gove is simply right. The rest are a joke. GCSE Music is not the best preparation for those who want a career in music. GCSE RE is frankly poor for those who want to study Theology at university; GCSE Art is about fulfilling coursework criteria etc. BTECs and “equivalent qualifications” are just cheap scams employed by schools to manipulate league table points. Well, enough is enough. If a school has 2% of students taking the English Baccalaureate subjects (let alone gaining top grades in them), what does that say about the nature of that school? Not everyone wants to go into Music or Drama (which I stress, the EBacc will be irrelevant to them).

      The system is a joke, and if the EBacc is seen as an elitist smack onto the education system then I feel despair for the many students oblivious to what they are going to school for. The majority are not there to learn, rather be factory products churning out the equivalent of 5A*-C.

      I say this, not as a parent or a politician or a teacher. I say this as a secondary school student.

  • toby forward says:

    ‘It’s the modern language thing which particularly riles: if it is government policy that you don’t have to take one, why be now penalised, without warning, for not doing so.’
    I may have missed something, but I’m not aware of any penalty being imposed. What is it, please? Don’t just say, ‘a low position in the league table,’ that’s not a penalty, it’s a statistic.
    Russell Group Universities and discriminating employers already use this list of subjects as a guide to a candidate’s ability. It seems to me to be sensible for schools to realise it.
    It does no service to children from disadvantaged backgrounds to let them believe that a raft of subjects looked down on by future employers will be a good set of options to take. Independent schools know this and they make sure their pupils do the ‘right’ subjects. Why shouldn’t the pupils in state schools be given the same opportunities?
    As far as I can see, the present statistics are simply a snapshot, and a useful one, of what the position is at present.
    I would, however, agree with you, that it would make sense to broaden the category of humanities subjects, within limits.

  • Thanks Toby. It seems to me fine for Universities to interrogate ‘raw’ data in their own way, and discerning schools can work on this in conjunction with University Admissions people (of whom my wife is one). What annoys me is the government requirement to publish them with this filter applied, making an implication (or at least allowing an inference) without applying a policy (because that would be telling schools what to do).
    The Secretary of State effectively said this in the Radio 5 interview I tagged. “Of course headteachers can do what they want. I’m just making them look stupid if they choose something I don’t want them to” (my interpretation!)
    I guess its the imposition of the requirement without warning, and the implied requirement to change subject choice at 14, which annoys the most.

    • Joseph Reynolds says:

      This measure has obviously caught a lot of people napping. If universities already use these measures to judge ‘quality’ why shouldn’t we make this arrangement more widely known? It only seems common sense. Yes, it is patently unfair to make this a retroactive adjustment. But the last thing we need is a ‘consultation’ period.

  • toby forward says:

    Thanks Jeremy. That’s more moderate than your original piece, but I would like to hear the actual words of the Secretary of State, rather than your version of them.
    I notice you don’t take up my point about penalties.
    There is, I admit, a danger that the league table approach can distort reality. My own wife is a head teacher in a school in a very deprived area, so I’m constantly being reminded (well, often anyway) of the need for ‘value added’ results. But in the end, unless the universities change their admission policies, children from these areas will be excluded. The new criteria only make plain to all what has been going on for a long time.
    We’ve seen in the last few weeks that the newer universites take a disproportionate number of students from poorer backgrounds. And it’s only recently that it’s been made public that there is a list of ‘soft’ A level subjects that Russell Group universites won’t accept.
    As long as this is simply a snapshot of the present situation I think it’s very useful, particularly for pupils who come from families who don’t know how to play the education game.

  • Toby
    You’re right in that there is specific penalty, except the damage caused by being given a low place in a league table – and if the tables are anything they are there to show off the good schools and show up the bad ones.
    I’m very happy for universities to declare what they will accept, and let schools pass this on – my wife does admissions to the Hull York Medical School, and even if you have a First in B Sc Biology you won’t get an interview unless you also have an A in GCSE English and Maths.
    the other penalty is that, as I understand it, teh EBac is an award – so the students are penalised, by the school not knowing it was going to happen.
    Two interesting points from the Head of Brighton College (who is broadly in favour) in the Daily Telegraph:
    1. “I am disappointed that there is no space … for a creative subject”
    2. “This is the first occasion of which I am aware where pupils are awarded a qualification which did not exist when they sat their examinations.”
    And from the same page. lots of Independent Schools are annoyed that the even more academic iGCSE is not allowable for the English Bacc.
    I suppose the thing that annoys me the most is the half baked nature of the reform. The principle of reqarding breadth – and recognising that top universities need high achievers, and schools should prepare for that – is fine. Recognising that smome qualifications are not GCSE equivalents is also fine – but GCSE success is not the only measure. Would have been good to discuss it all with the educational establishment a bit more, I think.
    PS: hope you’re well – we are enjoying the East Riding!

  • toby forward says:

    I don’t think we’re too far apart on this in the end. I’m interested in your wife’s evidence. It bears out what I say that the system is already up and running, so it’s better for it to be in the open. After all, I suspect that the independent schools and the real grammars already know it and implement it.
    I’d read about the independents and the IGCSE They don’t really mind. Their parents know what it’s about, and they have their hotlines to the universities they want. They’ll either broker a deal with Gove or come into line. My guess is they’ll get Gove to agree to include it.
    All I’m really bothered about is that all schools and all pupils have the same information about the sort of selection procedures that your wife applies, and that pupils in less advantaged areas should have the same information, the same quality of teaching and the same opportunities as those who pay for their education and those with sharp-elbowed middle-class parents.
    I’d also like some recognition from the top universities that pupils from poorer areas who do well in school may not do as well as others. Some value-adding has to be put in place. Sadly, I don’t think Simon Hughes is the man to do it.
    Glad you’re happy in the East Riding. It is, of course, a little piece of heaven, and only the regrettable shortage of incense in Beverley Minster hides this from general view.
    We love being in Liverpool, though we still miss your neck of the woods, but you can’t be everywhere.

  • Toby: good to be in general agreement. Everything should be on the table – and if students are aiming towards certain universities to do certain courses then they will need to do (and know they should do) certain courses.
    The old educational conundrum is whether university requirements should affect the whole curriculum (ie that the ‘purely’ academic should be the gold standard), or whether a wider approach (still rigorous) would educate more broadly and with better consequences for society.
    One for your wife and mine!

  • Glad to read this-my aged parent had left her hearing aid behind this morning at 10am and couldnt get all you said.

  • Will Cookson says:

    Sorry to bring a level of disagreement to this but I was educated in the first wave of comprehensives in the ’70s. The education was appalling. There was little structure. The teaching was all over the place. At A level physics we spent the majority of our time on the subject of light and had one question on it.
    There was no inspirational teaching. It was rubbish.
    The unions and teachers have fought every single step on virtually every single issue.
    I am a governor at a local comprehensive school (where most of the brightest kids go to the local grammar schools). We have been inspected by ofsted this week. The school is only just making the grades in 5 GCSE’s but has now been rated good because of the big strides that the leadership team have made in the past few years by hard work and great leadership. Are we there yet? No. Will we continue to aim high? You bet. Would this school have done this without help from strategies and focus by the government (of all persuasions) – I really doubt it.
    Has the new english bac made a difference? Well it certainly means that we have more work to do. But the subjects they have put in seem reasonable and it does allow for others to be added.
    Sorry (though I’m not really) the teaching nowadays is so much better than it used to be. All this rubbish about it being “good” for people to fail is so patronising and consigns children to the dust heap of life.

  • Will – I don’t disagree – and am pretty clear that certain govt initiatives down the years have made a real difference.
    My worry is that the EB is too narrow and has been applied in a way which only penalises…even the Head of Brighton College said the same. Look at the Archbishop Sentamu Academy (Hull) website – it’s all about aspiration, inspiration etc etc, and it can’t stand the EB.

    • Joseph Reynolds says:

      If Archbishop Sentamu Academy has a different take on education, then by all means they should stress the ‘aspiration, inspiration’ side of things, explaining this to their students and parents. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some parents begin to think that these replies lack intellectual rigour.

  • Morning Jeremy,

    Great blog. I share a number of your concerns re the Bac but, I suppose, it provides a snapshot view of a school’s and a child’s performance from the angle that many universities and employers see them. It may seem unfair, in that it is retrospective, but, if that is how educational performance is already viewed by those who matter most in determining a child’s future, then the sooner it is revealed the better. The potential downplaying of RE, creative subjects and practical and vocational education is a slightly different issue and needs further debate. Personally I think the government is right to emphasise the need for more academic rigour but wrong to underestimate the value of practical learning as part of a rich and engaging curriculum for all pupils.

    Have a great weekend.


  • Graham

    Many thanks – hugely encouraging. My conversation with Toby above made me clarify to myself that a rigorous and ‘academic’ approach is fine, and to be welcomed (and transparency is all, especially where university entrance is concerned)- but the current ‘mood music’ is potentially placing this as the be all and end all. The Secretary of State is in danger of being characterised as a swot who didn’t like games, and I’m sure there’s more to him than that!
    Yes – it’s the retrospective nature of it that particularly rankled. The ‘Bacc’ idea is a good one – I see that Archbishop Sentamu Academy is looking to introduce a range of Baccs, which will form a rich and engaging curriculum for all pupils.
    I look forward to further debate – and wish you well in your vital role.

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