SSAT’s national survey of school leaders

Bill WatkinBill Watkin, Operational Director SSAT, writes…

Following the announcement by Nick Gibb, minister of state for school reform, on 11 June, that the government was committed to honouring its manifesto pledge to require pupils to study the EBacc, SSAT, the country’s largest schools membership network, launched a survey for school leaders. The intention was to build a rapid and representative picture of the positions being adopted by school leaders and their responses to the requirement for this academic EBacc curriculum for all.

On 16 June, the secretary of state for education confirmed that this requirement will apply to all students, except those with Special Educational Needs, in all maintained schools, though there is a willingness to explore the particular circumstances of UTCs and Studio Schools which may qualify for an exemption. Ofsted will be unable to award its highest ratings to schools that refuse to teach the EBacc to all pupils.

The plan is that all pupils who start secondary school in Sept 2015, and who will start Y10 in 2018, will be required to be entered for GCSE exams in the full EBacc suite. There is to be a period of consultation, but the government will focus on how this initiative will be implemented, rather than on if it should be implemented.

Schools will choose, therefore, to teach the EBacc to all, or to accept that they cannot be judged to be Outstanding by Ofsted.

Some schools will already be Outstanding and their leaders may have to forego that status – which may have implications for their existing work as NLEs and Teaching Schools.

Some schools will be on the journey to Outstanding, but will perhaps have to accept that there is a ceiling of Good, beyond which they cannot pass, unless they redesign their curriculum to make all EBacc subjects a requirement.

A spectrum of views

Clearly there is a wide spread of opinion and it is valuable to draw on as many different views as possible, if we are to understand the thinking among school leaders about how this might impact on their schools and students. The government is positioning the debate very much in its agenda to raise aspirations and achievement among more vulnerable and disadvantaged learners. A number of Arts organisations have expressed the view that a focus on the EBacc will pose a threat to non-EBacc subjects. Some schools, of course, are worried about curriculum time (the impact on non-EBacc subjects), option choices (the choices available to students according to their aptitudes and abilities), staff recruitment (the skills required on the staff and the importance of recruiting according to the new curriculum requirements) and/or a one size fits all curriculum (the notions of pathways and personalisation may need some reworking).

How did we get to this point?

When the last government announced the proposed new accountability measures for secondary schools, many felt that the move from 5+A*-CEM to Progress 8 was a good thing. Less focus on the C/D borderline; more emphasis on progress rather than raw attainment; greater attention paid to eight subjects, not just five. This all made sense.

Yes, the EBacc measure would still be reported in the performance tables but would not be a determining factor in the floor standards.

Schools were encouraged to enter more students for EBacc subjects; to do otherwise, we were told, would be to do them a disservice because their chances of getting into the best universities and of securing the best jobs would suffer if they did not qualify in the more rigorous and aspirational disciplines.

However, the EBacc was not compulsory. There was a broad understanding that it was not suitable for all students. Years of personalisation and flexible curriculum pathways had shown us that a critical tool in engaging learners was an accessible, appropriate and individualised (as far as possible) curriculum.

And it seemed that the government agreed:

‘We expect some schools to offer EBacc subjects to many more pupils as a result of these accountability reforms.’
Update on Progress 8 measure and reforms to secondary school accountability framework, DfE, January 2014

Many more pupils, but not all.

Even earlier this year, there seemed to be an understanding that curriculum and qualifications were not best served by a one size fits all approach. Not everyone can or should go to a Russell Group university. Not everyone can or should pursue academic studies. If that were to happen, the lack of variety in workplace skills and opportunities, everyone knew, would result in social and economic meltdown in no time.

And there was a commonly-expressed view that if all pupils were to be pushed along a single (EBacc) curriculum pathway, the consequent risk would be heightened disaffection and disengagement among less academic learners.

But schools were told that they only had to enter students for EBacc subjects, ‘where appropriate’:

‘Schools should continue to focus on which qualifications are most suitable for individual pupils, as the grades pupils achieve will help them reach their goals for the next stage of their education or training.’
Progress 8 measure in 2016 and 2017, Guide for maintained secondary schools, academies and free schools, DfE , March 2015

Furthermore, Progress 8, we were told, did not demand all EBacc subjects. The EBacc category could be filled with 3 sciences and no humanities or languages at all. Essentially, at least one, if not two of the EBacc disciplines were optional, as far as the school’s performance measures were concerned.

What is more, the government told us that it might even be advantageous to more vulnerable, less able, learners, to follow fewer subjects. If you impose the study of French on a statemented EAL student, he may conscientiously spend so much time trying to master the necessary skills and content for his French GCSE that his other studies suffer.

‘It can be of more benefit to less-able students to strive for good grades (and hence score more points) in fewer subjects, with the emphasis on doing well in English and mathematics, than to take more subjects but achieve lower grades overall.’
Factsheet: Progress 8 measure 2014 and 2015, DfE, Feb 2014

A manifesto promise
‘We will require secondary school pupils to take GCSEs in English, maths, science, a language and history or geography, with Ofsted unable to award its highest ratings to schools that refuse to teach these core subjects.’ (Conservative Manifesto, 2015)

The case for the EBacc being a requirement for all.

Those who express support for this requirement say that

1. If it is aspirational and right for my child, should it not be right for all young people? How will we close the attainment gap if we do not have equal expectations of young people from all points of the social spectrum? A child’s background is not an excuse for lower achievement. Nor does social disadvantage equate to low achievement potential, of course.

2. The EBacc is a lever for social mobility and it must not be the preserve of the more advantaged sections of society. Socio-economic disadvantage is not the same thing as low ability at all, and this aspirational suite of qualifications is not only as important to less privileged young people, it is actually more important to them. These are the young people who desperately need the keys to open doorways to a successful adult and working life.

3. Recent research carried out by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, an independent body which monitors whether youngsters from poorer backgrounds have the same opportunities in the workplace, tells us that employers at elite companies are ‘systematically excluding’ candidates if they are not middle or upper-class. It was found that 70 per cent of ‘elite’ job offers went to graduates educated at selective state or fee-paying schools.

The survey headlines

  1. In the first 3 days of the survey, one and a half thousand responses were received. The responding schools were almost all community schools and academies. Just over 87% of responses came from good (58.2%) or outstanding (29.4%) schools.
  2. Responding schools catered for a predominantly more able student grouping with only 33.8% described as below average.
  3. Less than 1% of respondents already offer the EBacc to all, while in almost 40% of schools the full EBacc is followed by more than one pupil in two.
  4. Only 16% of respondents said that they would make the EBacc compulsory if that was a requirement for an Outstanding judgement from Ofsted.
  5. 70% of respondents would refuse to teach the EBacc for all, even if that meant a ceiling of Ofsted Good for their schools.
  6. Over 44% of Outstanding schools would refuse to teach the EBacc for all, even if it meant losing their Outstanding status. A further 34% of Outstanding schools remain undecided. Only 1 in 5 Outstanding schools said that they would make the Ebacc compulsory for all.
  7. 83% of schools would have to change their staffing, with 45% anticipating significant changes required.
  8. Only one school in ten would not have to make cuts to other subjects on the curriculum in order to accommodate the EBacc for all. Most commonly cited subjects under threat among the other 90% of schools are technologies, arts, PE and RE.
  9. 69% of respondents would have to reduce their vocational provision, with a further 10% still not sure.
  10. Only 12% of respondents felt that the EBacc for all would benefit students. 80% felt there would be no benefit, with a further 8% unsure.
  11. Conversely, 94% of respondents felt that students would be disadvantaged by a compulsory EBacc curriculum, with a further 2% still unsure.
  12. The overwhelming view is that the EBacc requirement would benefit the more able and disadvantage the less able.

Some respondents felt that the policy would be beneficial for some pupils, especially middle and high attainers who might not otherwise have picked academic subjects. People commented that this group could include a significant proportion of pupils eligible for pupil premium funding, and that this would help to raise their aspirations for FE and HE.

However, there is an overwhelming feeling that the EBacc curriculum is not appropriate for all. Pupils with lower prior attainment, those newly arrived to the country, and some with poor literacy, were cited as being ‘set up to fail’ if forced to study a language and a humanity at GCSE. Many practitioners worried that this could distract students from the core curriculum of English, maths and science; and limit the opportunity for these students to undertake rigourous vocational and technical courses. Many teachers suggested that vocational courses provide strong routes into further education, and that pupils would be disadvantaged by forcing them down a purely academic route.

Furthermore, there was a feeling that, as offering the full EBacc would require other subjects to be cut from the KS4 options, students who had aptitude and interest in the arts and other creative subjects would miss out. Conversely, students for whom a predominantly STEM curriculum was appropriate would be equally disadvantaged (by the need to study for both a humanity and a language).

Many respondents chose to comment on the discrepancy between the UK drive for digital and technical skills and this perceived return to a traditional, academic curriculum. School leaders are worried that the EBacc does not allow for sufficient personalisation in the curriculum.

The overriding message in the responses is that while take-up of the EBacc should be encouraged for the most able learners, whatever their background, it is not appropriate for all, and will lead to an unhelpful and regressive narrowing of the curriculum.

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