87% Oppose #EBacc

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What are policymakers discussing and what decisions are they making that will influence education?

This transcript is from the House of Lords debate on Thursday 4th February 2016. I rarely blog full transcripts, preferring to blog my own thoughts and content, but this is too important to miss.

We understand that the driving force in this is the Minister of State for Schools, Mr Gibb, who seems to be in thrall to E.D. Hirsch and his theory of the core knowledge system, which above all is characterised by one word: inflexibility.

EBacc Nick Gibb

A Question for Short Debate:

The Earl of Clancarty (CB): My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to have this important debate. I look forward to hearing all noble Lords’ contributions and the Minister’s response. I am only sorry that we do not have more time. I thank the many organisations that have sent me briefings, all of which, without exception, either decry the omission of arts subjects from the English baccalaureate performance measure or wish to see the measure removed entirely. The consultation on the implementation of EBacc closed last Friday, but I hope the Minister will take the contributions made today on EBacc specifically in the spirit of being additional to that consultation. There is a sense of déjà vu. It is almost exactly three years since, following a huge outcry from educationalists, arts educators and the creative industries, Michael Gove made the announcement that the EBacc certificate would be “a bridge too far”. Yet, three years on, the Bacc for the Future campaign is reconvened, and here we are again with the EBacc strengthened as a performance measure. The newer “progress eight” accountability measure may include arts subjects, but there is every sense from the Government that the EBacc is to be the most significant measure.

There are many reasons why a broad-based or rounded education is a good thing—I would say an essential element of a child’s preparation for life. I will go through some of these reasons and suggest where the EBacc or other curricula might relate to it.

I have an 11 year-old daughter who will go to secondary school later this year, so these concerns are very much on my mind. First, I believe that the important thing for my daughter is that her curiosity about the world should be met by her education and that she should enjoy learning. I could stop right there, because that is the most important thing and something it is far too easy to forget in today’s political culture—not necessarily shared by all—which so firmly yokes an idea about future work and assumptions about what employers will want to education, where education has become synonymous with what is termed “academic achievement”.

Personally, I would get rid of all league tables. Germany, which has recently reorganised its school educational system and has 7% youth unemployment, as opposed to our 12%, does pretty well without them. The Cultural Learning Alliance, alongside others, argues against having the EBacc at all, not just because of the arts omission, but because there is, as it says, an already desperately crowded accountability system of measures—five of them now, including three EBacc ones—with the exclusivity of the EBacc as an all-or-nothing measure particularly concerning. This is a long way from education for its own sake.

Secondly, a broad-based education creates as many opportunities as possible, whether it is the history class that fired you up, or that particular art teacher. Children will not necessarily be excited by everything. This is the cardinal mistake that Nick Gibb made in his social justice speech last June. Real social justice is to treat children as individuals who are open to a variety of possibilities. The narrow and, crucially, uniformly set EBacc curriculum of eight subjects, which could be pushed to 10, and the average number of subjects taken at key stage 4 of eight will, once you include statutory RE and PE—and PSHE, which should be statutory—leave very little room, if any, for art, music and drama, or other subjects, including technological courses.

It ought to be emphasised that this is an observation made not just by interested arts organisations. The Association of School and College Leaders, for example, argued precisely this in its EBacc consultation, noting, as many others have, the danger that music and drama courses will end up becoming the preserve of the elite, accessible only to those who can afford private tuition, or, indeed, private schooling.

The Earl of Clancarty

The Earl of Clancarty – Nicholas Power Richard Le Poer Trench

Arts Curriculum:

Department for Education figures, quoted by the Cultural Learning Alliance, show that between 2010 and 2014 the number of hours that the arts were taught fell by 10% and the number of arts teachers fell by 11%.”

Other subjects, too, are being pushed to the margins—philosophy, for instance, which AC Grayling and John Taylor of Rugby justifiably argued should have its own GCSE. Tom Sherrington of the Headteachers’ Roundtable makes the case for sociology. But what all such arguments make apparent is the increasing lack of flexibility in subject choice. What is the Minister’s reaction to those schools which are resistant to the EBacc, particularly considering that an ASCL survey last year found that;

… a staggering 87% of secondary school leaders are unhappy with the EBacc proposals? One of the conditions, too, of the setting up of academies was that they should provide a broad-based education, which, as I will endeavour to show, the EBacc, by its very nature, opposes.”

Thirdly, a narrow curriculum will be a poorer one because a broad-based curriculum is one that, in a good school, will allow subjects to have conversations with each other. I like very much the developmental psychologist Howard Gardner’s description of the international baccalaureate—a more broad-based, balanced and outward-looking curriculum—as one which helps students, “think critically, synthesize knowledge, reflect on their own thought processes and get their feet wet in interdisciplinary thinking”. In this sense, an EBacc without the arts should be unthinkable; a core curriculum without the arts will not raise standards but lower them. Students being able to make connections between disparate subjects is not only part of the learning process; it will be that innovation that fires the future.

Finally, a rounded education treats the main areas of education as being of equal value. This is not just good for the pupil; it is good for society that in later life the scientist or technologist should have an equal respect for the artist or creative, and the artist the same respect for science. A broad-based education is not the enemy of specialisation but part of the same process—the T-shape. I do not know whether any of your Lordships have read the remarkable blog by 16 year-old Orli Vogt-Vincent in this week’sGuardian, which describes the prejudice she has had to face at her school, not just from fellow students but from teachers too, in deciding to choose dance as a main subject of study—shades of “Billy Elliot”.

Through changing the culture, the EBacc will have an effect throughout all the key stages and beyond. Why, for instance, would primary schools take seriously subjects that are considered inferior at a later stage? The National Society for Education in Art and Design, in a survey of more than 1,000 educators, the full results of which are to be presented at next week’s all-party art, design and craft education group meeting, indicates that in the last five years 53% of key stage 3 art and design teachers report a fall in levels of attainment at secondary transfer, whereas only 6% said that standards had increased.

At present, the EBacc subjects are taken up by just over a quarter of students. The Cultural Learning Alliance has shown that in the last five years take-up of GCSE arts and design subjects, including music, drama and design and technology, among other subjects, has already dropped by 14%. What, then, will be the outcome for a balanced education if the Government achieve their current target of 90%?

The Cultural Learning Alliance:

… the vast majority of secondary school leaders oppose the current EBacc as it stands. The National Association of Head Teachers, the NUT, the Creative Industries Federation, the Music Industries Association, the Design Council and the CBI—the list goes on and on. Hundreds of organisations and institutions have expressed concern over the omission of creative subjects from the EBacc as well as its inflexibility. The EBacc is a flawed measure. It should either be radically reformed, or dropped entirely.

I am not against maths, English, science, foreign languages, history or geography. I am not against action to promote their learning and to cherish what they offer to the nation.

shutterstock_65802817 Big Ben, Houses of Parliament overlooking River Thames on bright sunny morning, London England

Image: Shutterstock

Curriculum and Assessment:

So we have a problem. One of the problems now is that schools are spending too much time talking about the curriculum and assessment, and how they can fiddle their staffing and their curriculum to get more points through the English baccalaureate. I have sat in too many conversations in the last two to three months where time has been spent on the adjustments that will need to be made to the curriculum to get a higher level in the English baccalaureate. That time should have been spent on teaching, learning and getting better outcomes from students in the classroom. So there is a problem and there is a consequence. The noble Earl made that quite clear.

… This English baccalaureate is not a broad and balanced curriculum and that, by law, is what we are meant to be achieving. When I tabled a summer debate on the literacy and numeracy strategy, I said, “There is nothing to stop schools doing art, drama and all those things”, and I suspect the Minister may say the same. However, the reality is that schools are not doing so and are losing the facilities needed. The teachers are not being recruited. The time is not being made available. We have, therefore, two problems. We have people spending time responding to the English baccalaureate and also reality that they are taking teachers away. It is no good the Secretary of State quoting in the consultation King Solomon Academy or Whitmore High School. It is great—fantastic—that they do this and offer the arts as well. However, we cannot have a school system where the law is made up on the assumption that everyone will do the things that Ministers think they should be able to do. On that basis, we should have no need for a school improvement system.

Since the introduction in 2010 of the EBacc, where the emphasis has been on core subjects, there has been a rapid erosion of vocational subjects such as design and technology, and many schools are already cutting back on creative and arts options, which the EBacc measure does not include. No one disputes the value of these subjects; indeed, in different combinations they are essential for the prosperity of the creative sector. However, this focus is contributing to the sidelining of creative subjects, as highlighted by an early research report by Ipsos MORI for the Department for Education in 2012.

It found that 27% of schools had cut or withdrawn courses for the 2012-13 academic year, as a direct result of its implementation. Indeed, over the past five years there has been a 14% decline in the number of arts GCSE entries, from 720,438 in 2010 to 618,440 in 2015. Those figures do not even include BTEC qualifications, where arts and design entries have fallen by approximately 20,000 since 2010. On top of that, the number of hours for which the arts are taught in secondary schools has fallen by 10%, while the number of art teachers fell by 11% in the years 2010-14.

DfE Motives:

The Government’s motives are excellent. They claim that a compulsory EBacc will enhance the prospects of pupils, particularly disadvantaged pupils, by ensuring that they receive a core academic curriculum that allows them to retain options in subsequent education and in the employment market. I heartily endorse this aim, but I am concerned that the proposals will not work for pupils or for the wider economy.

They will not work for pupils because the curriculum is too limited. The message, although unsupported by the evidence, seems to be that, although all pupils should have opportunities to study the arts and creative subjects, they are less important, less rigorous or less valuable than the EBacc subjects—as the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said—whatever the particular abilities, interests and skills of individual pupils. As a result, many may be left with much-reduced choice and with their potential talents largely untapped.

The Government claim that the EBacc leaves room for other subjects, but it requires at least seven GCSEs against the average number taken of just over eight, and fewer than that taken by low attainment pupils. Other subjects are likely to be frozen out for more disadvantaged pupils, and that will widen the gap between their schools and the highest performing schools which give proper focus to the arts and creative subjects. I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Young, that, if anything, schools seem to be too focused on an academic rather than all-round education. For example, hardly any of the many talented apprentices I have met were steered into the apprenticeship route by their schools.

Creative Subjects Decline:

We are already seeing this happen as schools facing budget cuts ditch non-EBacc subjects or are unable to offer the full range of creative subjects. Some even believe that because a subject is not part of the EBacc offer it has not got the same importance and status. Between November 2011 and November 2014, the number of teachers teaching creative subjects declined by 13.1%. The number of hours being taught in creative subjects in secondary schools is also in decline. It becomes a vicious circle, as fewer students being taught or taking creative subjects leads to a decline in the number of teachers being trained, which leads to a reduction in the number of available teachers of creative subjects. As the NAHT said in its submission to the consultation on the EBacc:

The decline in available curriculum time for optional subjects and the exclusion of creative and cultural subjects from the EBacc will lead to a significant reduction in pupils taking these subjects”.

Despite the views of most education professionals, the Government are determined to press ahead with their aim of having 90% of GCSE students take the EBacc by 2020. We understand that the driving force in this is the Minister of State for Schools, Mr Gibb, who seems to be in thrall to E.D. Hirsch and his theory of the core knowledge system, which above all is characterised by one word: inflexibility.

You can read more from the full transcript at the House of Lords debate.


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9 thoughts on “87% Oppose #EBacc

  1. It just makes me wonder what if schools decided not to be compliant, to not promote the Ebacc. If enough did then the measure would fail surely as so many schools would be judged poor that insufficient resources would be available to monitor them. Is it a disease of education that teachers are compliant, is it a condition of success in education that leads students to be teachers and thus perpetuate the condition? If the measure is seen to fail then will the argument behind it also fail? Perhaps the creativity we seek is the answer to this dilemma and is already in such scarce supply in education and politics to make it ineffective, impotent even. The perceived lack of value of creativity may be because the majority of those directing policy or responding to it are so unaware of it or its value in life. They are, to use an analogy, insistent on everyone having black and white TV’s because they have no perception of colour.

    Let’s use this thing we call creativity to solve this problem, to take it out of the hands that would have us see the world in shades of grey.

      1. But then have you not got a D&T background Ross! Too few of us I am afraid and too few in leadership roles and fewer by the year with the Ebacc biting.

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