The English Baccalaureate Is A Social Justice Problem

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Smell The Coffee


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Is the English Baccalaureate making educational outcomes wider for disadvantaged pupils?

Research by AQA researchers, Emma Armiage and Caroline Lau investigate the introduction of the English Baccalureate (EBacc) by the Conservative – Liberal Democratic coalition government in 2010.

How does school policy widen equality?

England has a long history of educational inequality, where students from advantage background outperform students from more disadvantaged backgrounds. This study offers some important reflections and analysis of the relationship between students with free school meal (FSM) eligibility studying the EBacc and GCSE attainment. The current findings suggest that the EBacc will not create a more socially just education system. Worse? It forces school leaders to adapt timetables and make these curriculum choices which could fuel inequality. Even worse? Ofsted ‘checking’ to ensure a school is EBacc compliant!

(Greevey et al.,2012)

How did it happen?

The EBacc curriculum which was introduced to encourage more disadvantaged students to study the ‘core academic’ GCSE subjects. Over 87 per cent of school leaders were against it, but that didn’t matter as the government ploughed on, regardless. Proposed in 2011 and made statutory in 2015, the government took over 500 days to respond to the public consultation – one of the longest – analysing just 2,755 responses. The Department for Education’s ambition is to see 75% of pupils studying the EBacc subject combination at GCSE by 2022, and 90% by 2025 is still off the mark. In January 2019, only 221 schools from 3,084 secondary schools currently met the DfE’s EBacc target of 90 per cent.

Prior to the EBacc s introduction, far fewer FSM than non-FSM students entered what were to become EBacc subjects (DfE, 2010; Greevey, Knox, Nunney, & Pye, 2012; Henderson, Sullivan, Anders, & Moulton, 2016 ; House of Commons Education Select Committee,2011 ) and these gaps persist even for the most-able students (Sutton Trust, 2015b). This suggests that the gap is, at least in part, the result ofsecondary effects of stratification (Boudon,1974), which are the social class differences that emerge as a result of the different educational choices made by advantaged and disadvantaged students, after controlling for prior attainment

(Sullivan, Zimdars, & Heath,2010 )

Research suggests far-reaching consequences…

Can the English Baccalaureate act as an educational equaliser? EBaccThe analysis draws upon a sample of 3,078,999 candidates from the National Pupil Database (NPD) who had taken at least one full course GCSE in England.

The authors write: ‘ . . . it is clear that the EBacc cannot hope to offer disadvantaged students social justice in terms of both equal access to traditional academic subjects and good grades in those subjects, without a parallel strategy for narrowing the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Until such time as more disadvantaged students are given the resources to convert the “intellectual and cultural capital” associated with the EBacc subjects into the currency of good grades, policies that focus solely on providing them with access to that capital will be insufficient to deliver a form of social justice that has farreaching consequences for the life chances of disadvantaged students, and which could genuinely improve social mobility’.

Time to wake up and smell the coffee?

As UK now officially has left the European Union, and little is known of its’ impact on disadvantaged students’ future life chances, research into achievement gaps between different student groups should be carefully monitored in the years to come. I do wonder if it’s time for school leaders to wake up and smell the coffee? Some have, but is it time for us all to take a stand post-COVID-19?

Allowing students the freedom to choose what they want to study does not necessarily mean that the same opportunities are equally accessible to everyone because of the unequal resources students have to draw on when making subject choice decisions (Davies et al., 2006; Henderson et al., 2016; Sutton Trust, 2015b).

Source: Can the English Baccalaureate act as an educational equaliser? (Armitage and Lau, 2019)

Here is the latest DfE data (March 2020) and a succinct evaluation by FFT Datalab.

8 thoughts on “The English Baccalaureate Is A Social Justice Problem

  1. Not only was the EBacc introduced by Gove without any evidence to support its introduction but his cronies then brought in an accountability measure (Progress 8) which attempts to bully schools into complying by awarding greater weight to EBacc choices in the scoring system that are used to calculate league tables. To compound this Ofsted now is expected to report on how well schools are moving towards the ludicrous targets for EBacc take-up. This is having a disastrous impact upon the Arts in schools, with music particularly suffering. A reduction in option choices at KS4 impacts upon the numbers of staff needed and many LAs have got rid of their music service, forcing such teachers to go self-employed, making music the choice of the wealthy. Gove’s stated aim which was to get state schools following the example of the independent sector is itself a joke; most independent schools place huge value on the Arts. It is time to dispense with this nonsense. Geoff Barton, writing in the TES sums it up beautifully:
    “EBacc feels increasingly like the policy that time forgot. With both feet planted firmly in the past, it relies on arcane accountability mechanisms to try to grind every child through an identikit set of subjects, regardless of the alienating, dispiriting impact on many pupils (and probably many of their teachers, too), plus a snooty sense that from KS4, some subjects matter much more than others.”

    1. Amen. I hope by writing this blog, more school leaders will rise up and have confidence to abandon it – and tell Ofsted inspectors where to go – including those school leaders who are Ofsted inspectors.

  2. I work in the school my son attends. When he made his option choices in Year 8 (a policy now abandoned- alleluiah!), pupils were handed booklets where they were forced into one of 3 pathways: EBACC, non-EBACC or Motor Vehicle Studies (pre- selected group of pupils).
    Parents had to fight hard if they wanted their child to choose subjects from a different pathway.
    Social justice indeed! This is not far removed from the tri-partite system of 1944!
    To add insult to injury, HODs and teaching staff were not allowed sight of the docunment until it was too late to influence any change.
    Fortunately, this practice has now been replaced and it appears my son’s cohort has been a guinea-pig year for all sorts of wild ideas.

  3. I’m currently trying to get my daughter removed from the EBacc pathway as she chooses her options. She finds studying a language incredibly difficult and stressful and has additional learning needs. Her time will be far better spent on another subject

  4. Good luck. I am a governor in a comprehensive and the head with the support of the entire governing body allows free choice in options – EBacc subjects are up to the students. More schools need to resist the Philistine direction of this government and stop treating the arts and practical subjects as second class subjects. It is appalling that Ofsted and Progress 8 are used to try and force schools to follow this dreadful policy and even worse that some leadership teams bow to this bullying in the pursuit of performance tables.

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