'Compulsory EBacc or more grammar schools: the government can’t have it both ways'

Conservative ministers can't have it both ways when it comes to the EBacc and their plans for new grammar schools, argues one educationalist

Leora Cruddas

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It should be no surprise that the Association for School and College Leaders' manifesto is calling for all political parties to commit to developing a long-term, shared vision for education.

Education policy in the recent past has felt piecemeal. It has lacked coherence or any sense of an underpinning education philosophy. EBacc and increasing selection are a case in point.  They are mutually contradictory.

The case for the English Baccalaureate

We have long awaited the government’s response to the EBacc consultation. In fact, the EBacc consultation closed at the end of January 2016. Unusually, the government has taken over a year to respond.

I accept that we had a change of administration midway through this period after Brexit, when Theresa May became the prime minister and Justine Greening replaced Nicky Morgan as education secretary. But this lengthy delay is, frankly, not acceptable.

Ms Morgan, in the introduction to the consultation on implementing the English Baccalaureate, makes the case that it is the power of an academic curriculum that open minds, shapes futures and delivers real social justice – this is why, she says, studying it should be the right of every child.

Nick Gibb, the schools minister across both the Cameron and May administrations, has fairly consistently made the social justice case for an academic curriculum for all young people. He is on record as saying that the body of academic knowledge belongs to everyone, regardless of background, circumstance or job.

The case for implementing the EBacc is based on a view that all children and young people are capable of learning an academic curriculum. It is a mind-set issue. It assumes that intelligence is not fixed, but rather that all – or nearly all – children and young people are able to master academically rigorous subjects.

The case for selection

Selective education is based on a wholly different educational philosophy. It assumes that some children are not academically inclined and, therefore, need a different kind of curriculum from their academically-gifted peers.

It assumes that intelligence is fixed – and on the basis of this, it is perfectly reasonable to select by ability at the age of 11.

The government makes the case that lifting the ban on opening new grammar schools is fair because it allows grammar schools to take a larger number of pupils from lower income households. This, the government argues, would ensure that selective education is not reserved for those with the means to pay for an education, move into a catchment area or pay for tuition to pass a test.

Clearly, the government does not want economic status to determine educational outcomes. This may sound right, but we cannot get away from the fact that the government is simply replacing it with another form of determinism – determinism by perceived intelligence.

We can’t have it both ways

Either as a society we accept that intelligence is fixed and that it is therefore possible – sensible even – to select at age 11, and create more schools that specialise in academically able children and young people.

Or we believe that intelligence is not fixed, and all – or nearly all – children and young people are able to master academically rigorous subjects.

We can’t have it both ways.

In my view, determinism – either by social background or by perceived intelligence – has no place in education. 

And I worry about the language of meritocracy - that it is somehow right that children and young people are selected according to "merit". What are we saying about the rest? That they lack merit?

I know the EBacc is controversial. It defines too narrowly the parameters of an academic education. But, surely, as a society we want for our children an academically rigorous education based on a belief that intelligence is not fixed – that all children and young people regardless of social background or perceived intelligence have the right to succeed at school?

I believe the body of academic knowledge really does belong to everyone, regardless of background, circumstance or job.

Let’s create a long-term, shared vision for education built on evidence and a powerful educational philosophy which assumes that achievement can be realised at scale for all children and young people.

Our economy – in fact our society – depends on it


Leora Cruddas is director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders. She tweets @leoracruddas

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Leora Cruddas

Leora Cruddas

Leora Cruddas is director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders

Find me on Twitter @LeoraCruddas

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