Response to Department for Education’s EBacc consultation
The Department for Education is consulting on a new expectation that at least 90% of pupils in English state schools should study the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) qualifications to GCSE.
The joint response from RSA Academies and the RSA is reproduced below. It argues that decisions about which subjects to study should be left to pupils, in consultation with their parents and teachers, rather than be skewed by an artificial government target.
I am writing on behalf of RSA Academies and the RSA, the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, in response to the DFE consultation on “Implementing the English Baccalaureate”.
Others, including my RSA colleague Joe Hallgarten, have already pointed out that a prior question should be whether to implement an English Baccalaureate (EBacc), before turning to the practicalities of how this should be done. I would also endorse SSAT’s response to the consultation, in particular the concerns they express about the likely impact the changes will have on the breadth of the curriculum offer at Key Stage 4. We are particularly concerned that the impact of the changes would mean a reduction in the opportunities for pupils in many state schools to study a wide range of arts subjects, including design and technology, as well as their access to high quality vocational qualifications.
Overall, the consultation lacks any robust case for change and theory of change. Whilst there is an overwhelming consensus about the importance of studying English, maths and science until at least 16, the government needs to provide a rationale for why languages, history and geography are more important and valuable for pupils than any other GCSEs. For instance, It mentions that 65% of employers value languages, but does not compare this with other areas of learning they value. The ‘facilitating subjects’ rationale a very narrow view of university entry; the need for the EBacc is refuted by many universities themselves. The consultation states that “countries such as Finland, Germany and Poland, and education jurisdictions such as Shanghai, the provinces of Victoria in Australia and Ontario in Canada all provide education in core academic subjects until at least 16.” However, it fails to mention that the arts are also studied to 16 in all of these places. More fundamentally, most of these countries leave external examinations to age 18 anyway. The consultation provides no evidence to underpin its claim that a rise to 90% of pupils taking the EBacc will support “increasing the productivity of the British economy”.
The move to a near-compulsory Ebacc demonstrates a lack of trust in schools’ professional judgements about curriculum choices. It also undermines one of the DfE’s five priorities for 2016: ‘empowering professionals’. Whilst the policy was proposed in the Conservative Manifesto, the same document stated that The Conservative party’s manifesto stated that“We believe that parents and teachers should be empowered to run their schools independently.” For these reasons, the policy demands a rationale far stronger than that provided by the consultation. We welcome Ofsted’s decision to not include compulsory EBacc participation as a new criterion for an ‘outstanding’ judgement.
How far the EBacc reduces curriculum breadth in schools depends on what proportion of pupils are expected to study all of these subjects to GCSE. Your first question, which asks “What factors should be taken into account in making decisions about which pupils should not be entered for the EBacc?” is therefore key. This submission is focused on answering that question.
In our view, there are two key factors to be taken into account in making a decision, both of which should be decisions for pupils themselves to make in consultation with their parents and teachers, rather than being a matter for central government. These two key factors are whether the pupil is likely to succeed in the EBacc subjects, and how far studying this set of GCSEs contributes positively to their future education and career ambitions.
Are they likely to succeed in the EBacc subjects? The consultation document focuses entirely on the intention for more pupils to be entered into the EBacc, with no mention of what proportion of pupils the government expects to pass the full set of qualifications. As the document highlights, over the last five years the proportion of pupils being entered for the EBacc qualifications has increased significantly, from 22% to 39%. The proportion achieving the EBacc has also increased, but much more slowly, from 15% to 24%.
Given the encouragement that is already given to schools to maximise the number of their pupils securing the EBacc, it is reasonable to assume that the vast majority of pupils who have a good chance of achieving well in the EBacc subjects will already be entered into those subjects. A dramatic increase in the numbers entering is therefore unlikely to lead to similarly high improvement in the achievement figures. As such, the government target of having at least 90% of students in mainstream secondary schools studying the EBacc is concerning because it could result in many more pupils being forced to take the EBacc subjects and failing as opposed to studying alternative qualifications that better suit their aptitudes and interests. As almost half of pupils already fail to gain 5 GCSEs including English and maths at A*-Cs, it seems misguided to implement a policy that could see this number grow.
In some subjects – for example, English and maths– it is clearly better to continue to study to 16 (and beyond) and achieve a D or E grade than drop the subject at 14. It is much more difficult, however, to see the advantages to anyone of failing a geography GCSE rather than passing a GCSE in music or psychology, neither of which are subjects included in the EBacc measure. In our view, pupils who are unlikely to succeed in all of the EBacc subjects should not be required to study it in full at key stage 4, but be encouraged to study other options more suited to their interests and aptitudes, alongside the core subjects. The curriculum implied by the Progress 8 measure provides a useful measure in this respect.
How far will studying the EBacc subjects contribute positively to their continuing education and career ambitions? We would agree that, for many high prior attainment pupils who are taking perhaps ten subjects at GCSE, including in their options the full EBacc is likely to provide a strong foundation for further study at A level and degree, and enables pupils to keep their options open for a wide range of degree subjects and career opportunities. Crucially for these students the EBacc does not represent the entirety of the courses followed at key stage 4, and they have the opportunity to complement the EBacc subjects with one or two arts or high quality vocational subjects.
However, analysis by the Edge Foundation shows that lower and middle prior attainment pupils choose fewer GCSEs to study than higher attaining pupils, taking an average of 5.8 and 8.4 GCSEs respectively. For these pupils, there is no question that the EBacc will put a squeeze on the opportunity to study a range of arts and vocational subjects. Evidence from the Cultural Learning Alliance, shows clearly that when you look at the numbers taking the full range of arts and creative subjects, including Design and Technology, participation rates are already declining. Pupils in these groups are also less likely to pass the EBacc GCSE subjects.
It is hard to see how it would be in these pupils’ interests to study for and fail at history and a modern foreign language, when they could instead be studying high quality vocational subjects, arts or music, which could provide a path to realistic and potentially rewarding career options for this group, and are more likely to keep the pupils engaged and motivated.
In conclusion, the EBacc provides an appropriate curriculum for some pupils in English state schools, particularly those with high prior attainment and who are working towards university. It will not, however, be suitable for the 90% target stated in the consultation document. Furthermore, as SSAT’s response to the consultation clearly explains, a focus on the EBacc subjects will almost certainly reduce the range of options at Key Stage 4, and could also narrow options at Key Stage 3. This is a particularly high risk now, at a time when schools are experiencing real terms cuts in their budgets, giving them less flexibility to offer subjects which have traditionally had quite small numbers, such as music and some design and technology subjects.
We would therefore recommend that pupils be left to decide which subjects to take at GCSE, taking this decision in consultation with their parents and teachers, rather than their subject choice being skewed by an artificial target imposed by central government.
Chief Executive, RSA Academies