Ofsted and the Ebacc

Secondary school leaders often ask how crucial their Ebacc entry rate will be when Ofsted inspectors make their overall judgement for the quality of education.

The Ebacc merits one small mention among the criteria for “good” for the quality of education in the Ofsted inspection framework: “The school’s aim is to have the Ebacc at the heart of its curriculum, in line with the DfE’s ambition where this applies, and good progress has been made towards this ambition”.

There are a couple of things to pull out from that sentence. Firstly, it refers to a school’s “aim”; the school doesn’t need to have already reached the DfE’s ambition of 75% of pupils studying the Ebacc by 2022 and 90% by 2025; it simply needs to have made “good progress” towards it.

Secondly, it’s a DfE ambition, not Ofsted’s. Inspectors are required to ask about how the Ebacc fits into a school’s curriculum offer and to challenge school leaders about it. They then weigh up the range of evidence they have gathered from across the curriculum to decide how ambitious they think the school is for all its pupils.

The overall judgement for an Ofsted good is a best fit across all the criteria, “relying on the professional judgement of the inspection team”. So not every criterion needs to be met and inspectors do have some flexibility when making a judgement, based on their overall knowledge of the school.

To be judged outstanding, however, is a tougher call as all the criteria for good must be met “securely and consistently” and the quality of education provided has to be “exceptional” (although there is no clarification of what exceptional actually means in this context). So, even without those few lines about the Ebacc in the criteria for good, the bar is set extremely high. But, given what we’ve already said about those criteria, is the Ebacc a potential deal-breaker for a judgement of outstanding?

Ofsted’s former national director, Sean Harford, wrote in 2020:

“…we are not making a judgement about the quality of education in any school based solely on its progress with the English Baccalaureate (Ebacc). Though this is, of course, a factor in understanding a school’s curricular ambition for its pupils.”

The key reference there is to “ambition”. If a school isn’t giving any pupils the opportunity to take the suite of Ebacc subjects, is that showing ambition for all? If only a very few disadvantaged pupils follow Ebacc subjects compared with their peers, is that showing ambition for them? Does a rising trend in Ebacc entry (even from a low base) show the gradual impact of greater ambition? Or, to put it much more simply, the basic question all schools ask themselves when planning their curriculum is “why do we teach what we teach?” It all comes back to curriculum intent and how that is then implemented in classrooms.

So much for the theory, but how have inspectors responded in practice?

A Watchsted search for the word “Ebacc” in Ofsted reports for good and outstanding schools under the latest framework produced 11 results, only one of which was for the top grade.

This is from the one outstanding school’s report:

“For example, they are proud that the majority of Key Stage 4 pupils are entered for the Ebacc…”

So, in this school, a majority were entered for Ebacc subjects but there’s no indication of what percentage, so it could have been a little over 50%. Whether the school’s pride was a contributing factor remains to be seen but this suggests that to meet the “exceptional” standard, Ebacc entry doesn’t have to be sky high.

Now for the good schools

1. The proportion of pupils being entered for the Ebacc has declined in recent years. In 2019, only 12% of pupils were entered for the Ebacc.

…The proportion of pupils studying the Ebacc has begun to rise.

The full report explains that the low entry rate was due to pupils in the past not being allowed to take a foreign language if they hadn’t reached the expected standard in maths and English at primary school. Although this practice has now changed, inspectors noted that a significant number of pupils in KS3 were still not studying a language. This didn’t prevent the school from being judged good, presumably because inspectors concluded that it was now showing greater ambition for all its pupils.

2. In the past, few pupils have been able to study all the subjects that make up the Ebacc. The entry rate for the Ebacc was well below the national average.

…For these year groups, the proportion of pupils that study the full suite of Ebacc subjects is in line with the national average.

The last sentence refers to the fact that most pupils are now taking at least one humanities subject in KS4 which had not previously been the case.

3. Leaders ensure that all pupils can choose to study the Ebacc. Twice as many pupils completed the Ebacc in 2018 than in 2017. The proportion of pupils entered for the Ebacc in 2018 was nearly half the national average.

Here credit seems to have been given to the fact that all pupils are able to choose to follow Ebacc subjects, although, despite the increase in 2018, actual entry was still low.

4. The school curriculum aligns well with the EBacc.

The Ebacc includes subjects considered essential for further education and employment. The proportion of pupils studying the Ebacc is already very close to government recommendations.

The Ebacc comments here seem pretty vague (deliberately so?). The reference to “government recommendations” presumably means the DfE’s ambition.

5. This means pupils are well prepared to study the Ebacc in Year 10 and Year 11.

The number of pupils studying the Ebacc is well above the national average.

What made pupils so well-prepared here for the Ebacc was the “broad range of subjects” learned “in depth” by all pupils in KS3. However, inspectors also praised the “wide range of qualifications in Year 10 and Year 11. These qualifications match well to pupils’ interests. For example, some pupils study animal care in the school’s on-site animal centre.”

6. However, only a minority of pupils follow Ebacc subjects.

They have set an ambitious goal for uptake of Ebacc, however, this is not yet underpinned by precise actions.

This was a short section 8 inspection that concluded that the school continued to be good, despite the lack of “precise actions” to improve Ebacc entry.

7. In 2019, the proportion of pupils studying the Ebacc was below the national average.

In Year 10, 57% of pupils are now studying the Ebacc subjects, English, mathematics, science, history or geography and a language.

In another short inspection, inspectors here praised leaders’ actions to increase Ebacc entry.

8. Leaders have placed the Ebacc at the heart of the curriculum. As a result, the proportion of pupils studying the full suite of Ebacc subjects is rising.

This school moved to good from requires improvement (RI). Inspectors noted an increase in the number of pupils taking a foreign language and of disadvantaged pupils taking separate sciences. Interestingly, however, no figures are given for these or for the actual current Ebacc entry which has risen – but from what to what?

9. The proportion of pupils entered for the Ebacc has been very low. Although this is beginning to change, the majority of pupils currently in Key Stage 4 are not entered for the Ebacc.

This school also moved from RI to good. Ebacc entry was clearly not the inspectors’ main focus; instead, they wrote at some length about the school’s ambition for all its pupils.

10. Leaders are ambitious for more pupils to take the Ebacc subjects at GCSE.

The proportion of pupils opting for subjects that result in them achieving the full Ebacc is very low and has been falling in recent years.

This school had previously been judged to be outstanding. The low Ebacc entry was in part due to low numbers of pupils taking a language after Year 8. Inspectors pointed out the leaders’ ambition for more pupils to take Ebacc but also noted their commitment “to allow pupils a free choice to follow courses that meet their needs and aspirations”.

So, what conclusions can we draw from this, admittedly small, sample?

As we’ve seen, the Ebacc question is only a small part of the overall judgement for the quality of education. Although inspectors are tasked with asking about it, it is likely that other, more systemic, reasons would lie behind an Ofsted grade below what a school might have hoped for. A typical example of this would be the school’s overall ambition for its pupils. One of the ways in which this might be evidenced could be in Ebacc entry rates, but it is unlikely to be the only, or even the main, one.

Overall judgements in this sample don’t appear to be based on any predetermined Ebacc entry rate. The outstanding school had a simple majority of its pupils entering, many of the good schools had relatively low entry rates.

Some reports suggest that the inspectors might have been glossing over Ebacc entry rates and keeping things deliberately vague so as not to make an issue of them. Perhaps this is down to using their professional judgement.

In at least one school, having above-average levels of Ebacc entry did not preclude them from offering a wide range of academic and vocational qualifications in KS4. In another, having an ambition for Ebacc despite a lack of precise actions to achieve it seemed not to pose a problem. In a third, the school’s commitment to giving a free choice of options to meet pupils’ needs and aspirations was respected.

In many ways, the discussion around Ebacc entry rates is akin to that around the respective merits of two- and three-year KS3s. Neither arguments can be reduced to a simple binary response. Both in the end boil down to the wise words of Fun Boy Three and Bananarama:

“It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.”

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