The recent government announcement that all pupils will be expected to enter and sit GCSE subjects for the English Baccalaureate (Ebac) has created a crisis of conscience among headteachers.
Details of the policy are, as usual, to be revealed later. The government has grudgingly conceded that a very small minority of pupils will not be expected to sit five GCSE examinations including English, maths, history or geography science and a foreign language.
Currently, about 39 per cent of pupils in the country are entered for this combination of qualifications, and approximately 24 per cent passed all five. Most schools are already entering pupils whom they believe to have a good chance of passing the subjects for the Ebac. The mandatory expansion of the Ebac curriculum to include nearly all pupils at age 16 therefore has the potential to entrap thousands of pupils in a curriculum which suits neither their interests, nor their talents, nor their needs.
The threat to downgrade schools who do not obey this edict imposes a painful but – from a government’s point of view, one assumes – highly effective Hobsonian choice for all headteachers.
Previous reforms of league tables and the Ofsted framework could be defended to pupils and parents in terms of a necessary pursuit of higher standards for all in core skills. They could also be argued to be preparation for basic skills without which one could not take a next step in education or life. There was particular focus on English and maths, leaving much space in the curriculum for other subjects and pursuits. This space compensated for the fact that more than 40 per cent of pupils nationally do not pass English and maths at GCSE.
The compulsory Ebac reform essentially creates one curriculum for all the 14-16 year olds in the country and leaves very little room to match curriculum with pupils’ needs, interests and future plans. As heads we know a substantial percentage of our pupils need a curriculum other than the one being imposed. We can see the effects of making a pupil follow a course of study which is not appropriate for them – in short, alienation, apathy, and failure.
Because every curriculum is by nature a choice which precludes other choices, the mandatory nature of the policy and the extent to which it will dominate available options for pupils will deliver a blow to plans to improve technical and vocational education and will put a further nail into the coffin of arts education.
The policy has the unintended effect of downgrading and trivializing the aspirations and value of at least half the population by not providing high quality appropriate options for them. This policy says that the child determined to become a plumber must sit examinations in not two but five of the same subjects and qualifications as the child determined to go to Oxbridge. The policy therefore removes the room which schools should be given to differentiate for the aptitudes and interests of all their pupils.
Our school received a letter from school minster Nick Gibb MP praising our Ebac performance and we are also working hard toward satisfying the demands of Ofsted as a school rated good with outstanding features in pursuit of an outstanding rating. This new policy will crystalize in the minds of many heads of non-selective state schools like ours that they may now have to make a choice to either follow their conscience and their duty of care to pupils, or follow the precepts of Ofsted and impose a curriculum which their pupils can neither access nor succeed in.
Our Year 9 students are currently reading To Kill a Mocking Bird together. I do not think they have reached the immortal chapter in which Atticus Finch instructs the members of the jury to “do their duty”. But the headteachers of England appear to have been brought to the point where they will have to examine their conscience as to whether it allows them to impose on their pupils a curriculum which they know is inappropriate for them. The time is approaching for us to do our duty.