Tom Middlehurst, Head of Policy and Sylvia King, Senior Education Lead, SSAT, write…
Yesterday the former education secretary and chair of the Edge Foundation, Lord Baker, proposed changes to the current Ebacc measure, which he claims is based on an early C20th curriculum. Instead, we should be moving to a more unified 14-19 stage, he states, in a report published by Edge.
While many of the ideas behind Lord Baker’s suggestions are ones that SSAT support, we remain concerned that the practical implications of the changes would lead to greater narrowing of the curriculum and may lead to regional disadvantage.
What’s the Ebacc, and what is it not?
The Ebacc is a performance measure, or arguably two performance measures, reporting the percentage of students who are a) entered for, and b) achieve a good pass in English, maths, two sciences, history or geography, and a language.
It is not a qualification and it is not a curriculum – and should never be thought of as either. Certainly it may inform curriculum design and qualification choice, but should not direct it.
At an Inside Government event on the Ebacc yesterday, there was near universal agreement that doing the Ebacc subjects is not right for all young people. It must be school leaders who decide what curriculum is right for their contexts. Joanna Hall, Ofsted’s deputy director for schools, made it clear that inspection teams are looking for a broad and balanced curriculum, and that governors, senior leaders and middle leaders should be able to justify their curriculum designs. Remember, there are no school targets for the Ebacc measures (yet).
Where the Ebacc measure has value is as a central policy vehicle to encourage more schools to advise students, particularly the most able disadvantaged students, to choose a core academic curriculum. This is important and, along with Progress 8, has already broadened the curriculum for many young people since 2010. However, at SSAT we remain firm: the Ebacc will never be right for all.
Where the Ebacc measure has value is as a central policy vehicle to encourage more schools to advise students, particularly the most able disadvantaged students, to choose a core academic curriculum.
Let’s be clear though: social-economic disadvantage should never be a reason for a student not doing the full range of Ebacc subjects. Rather factors such as EAL, SEND, and – most importantly – aptitudes and interests may inform a decision not to study the full Ebacc subjects.
What’s the problem with Baker’s suggestion?
We wholly endorse Lord Baker’s suggestion to broaden the curriculum – but putting more subjects into the Ebacc, as proposed, would actually narrow it for some young people. Lord Baker suggests that the Ebacc should constitute:
- Two science GCSEs – one of which could be computer science
- A creative GCSE from a list which would include art and design, music, dance and drama
- A humanities GCSE from a list which would include history, geography, religious education and foreign languages
- A design and technology GCSE or an approved technical award.
As SSAT’s response [PDF] to the Ebacc consultation shows, compulsory Ebacc already limits students’ choices. Broadening the Ebacc would, paradoxically, exacerbate this and further restrict students’ choices. If, say, a particularly artistic student wanted to study English language, English literature, maths, double science, history, art, music, drama and dance at 14, we feel this is appropriate.
SSAT has always been committed to personalised curriculum approaches.
What should we do with the Ebacc?
Placing more emphasis on the Ebacc, which any revision or reform would inevitably to, would depersonalise and narrow curriculum choice.
Again, the Ebacc is a measure and provides some information about a school’s curriculum – but schools need their own narratives for their curricular designs. The Ebacc must be implemented sensitively and with the school’s context, vision and young people in mind.
A further problem with the ‘second Ebacc’ as a measure – ie the percentage of students achieving the Ebacc – is that it is another binary measure. At a time when Progress 8 is encouraging schools to look at the progress and achievement of every student, why have a measure which looks at whether a student crosses the line from a 4 to a 5 in certain subjects? It would only encourage a rush to the 4/5 borderline again.
As such, we suggest that rather than a new Bacc, the Department abandon the ‘achieving’ measure, and make clear how the ‘entered for’ measure should be interpreted.
14-19 phase: beyond A-levels
Lord Baker’s report also calls for a new overarching award comprising GCSEs, A-levels and technical qualifications, awarded at the end of a new 14-19 phase.
With the participation age now 18 rather than 16, it makes sense to rethink transition points. Like Lord Baker, we feel that students’ wider learning and contribution should be taken into account. Grades alone are, we believe, a poor representation of the whole person.
However, rather than further assessment and qualification reform at a time when changes are starting to come through, SSAT supports the notion of a National Baccalaureate, which has been developed by a steering group from the Headteachers’ Roundtable. The Nat Bacc is already being pioneered in a handful of schools, and is flexible enough for schools to adapt to their own contexts.
We don’t have the structures to support a unified 14-19 phase
Again, while we support the notion of a coherent 14-19 phase, our current education system in England would not adequately support this. A vast majority of secondary schools don’t have sixth form provision. At a time of financial constraint, this is set to continue, with small school sixth forms becoming increasingly unviable.
It would therefore be hard to have a really unified, coherent 14-19 stage. Accountability lines would be blurred. We already know that transition at 16 is an issue – if we try to have a unified phase with students moving between institutions within it, this would become more complex.
But more importantly, there is too much regional variation in the system for a unified 14-19 phase at this stage. Students in large urban areas may be able to study a range of different qualifications at different providers, whereas students in some remote, rural areas wouldn’t have this option. There is a danger that this could lead to greater educational disadvantage and inequality.
We do need to think hard about 14-19, but our current structures make implementation an issue, and one that would be costly to overcome.
In responding to Lord Baker’s report, and as we await the delayed Ebacc consultation response from the Department, we make the following suggestions:
- Abandon the measure of percentage of students achieving the Ebacc.
- Allow Progress 8 and Attainment 8 to embed and mature.
- Ofsted, the Department and the National Schools Commissioner should issue a joint statement on what constitutes a broad and balanced curriculum, and how the measure of percentage of students entered for the Ebacc will be used.
- The Department should actively promote the National Baccalaureate.
- The Department should set up a taskforce looking at transition points, and a unified 0-19 education system.