When attempting education reform, politicians should resist the temptation to look forward to a rosy past.
When he was prime minister, John Major fell prey to backward longing when he said: "Fifty years on from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county [cricket] grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and – as George Orwell said – 'old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist', and if we get our way Shakespeare still read even in school."
Well, he’s right about the Shakespeare. It will be read in school for many more than 50 years – and a jolly good thing, too. Cole Porter had it right when he urged everyone to "Brush up your Shakespeare, start quoting him now" – for the Bard does, it seems, have a wise saying for all eventualities.
It is tempting to look back and believe that things were better in the past and people were more courteous and contented. It is too easy to forget that the past is a different country.
Education ministers in particular, should guard against retrospective longing. They should be reminded, constantly, that their particular educational experience should not be a template for the next generation, nor for all pupils. What suited them will not suit all.
So I come to the Engish Baccalaureate – a one-size-fits-all, retrospective model of a curriculum that is neither broad nor balanced. The government’s drive to get at least 90 per cent of students to take EBacc subjects, forcing them to do the same five GCSEs – English, maths, science, a language and history or geography – is wrong. The EBacc requires students to take both English language and literature and double science – a total of seven GCSEs. As pupils take eight GCSEs on average, this removes any element of choice (which brings commitment) from many of them.
Education ministers argue that it is necessary to constrain pupils’ subject choices because, left to themselves, they might choose badly and take GCSEs that would not prepare them well for their adult lives. There is some merit in this argument. Certain subjects – English, maths and science, for example – should be studied by all pupils, as they provide a framework for other learning and essential life skills, provided that the curriculum is right. But for the government to require the vast majority of pupils to study a humanity or modern foreign language to age 16 is a fundamental break with the past, and one that is likely to create problems now and in the future.
The EBacc discriminates against the creative and practical subjects that should be essential parts of a broad and balanced curriculum for all pupils, be they academic, creative, practically oriented or a mixture of all three. The EBacc has been criticised by many in the creative industries for not including an arts subject, and 200 organisations, including the Brit School, the Royal Institute of British Architects and the English National Ballet, are backing the Bacc for the Future campaign to reform the EBacc.
Essential life skills
A petition on Parliament’s website calling for reform has attracted more than 100,000 signatures. MPs will debate the EBacc on 4 July, and some Conservative MPs are revolting (again). David Warburton, the MP for Somerset and Frome, said: "The arts are crucial. It’s not just because the arts bring economic benefits to people, but it’s all the other personal benefits you get from them. It’s a sad indictment of this country that the arts aren’t valued more."
As well as devaluing the arts, the EBacc devalues the practical subjects that allow so many pupils to excel. Design technology, business studies, citizenship and food technology are just a few of the subjects that enable pupils to develop important areas of knowledge and skills that equip them for life. There can be few more essential life skills than being able to prepare healthy and balanced meals for yourself and your family, yet the advent of the Ebacc means that far fewer young people will gain the knowledge upon which their own and their children’s health will depend.
The ATL teaching union has strongly criticised the EBacc and taken every opportunity to share our members’ concerns with Nick Gibb. When the Ebacc is debated in parliament on 4 July, we will join other members of the Bacc for the Future campaign in raising our voice in opposition to it.
Nor is the business community happy with the government’s plans. John Cridland, the CBI’s previous director general, called uon Nicky Morgan to undertake a fundamental review of the 14-19 curriculum. He said all young people should be offered "equal but different routes to heaven. Whatever path they want to follow – academic, vocational or a mixture of both."
The shock of the new
Cridland called for the breaking down of the "picket fence" that separates an FE college offering BTEC national qualifications but not A levels and a sixth-form offering A levels but not BTECs. This, he argued, was a far more positive and productive offer, "instead of forcing them to give up their future because the system says no. If that means radically changing how we fund schools and hold them accountable, so be it."
I could not agree more. We need new thinking about the curriculum and its assessment to meet the challenge of change and the shock of the new.
Andreas Schleicher, director of education and skills at the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development, wrote recently: "The skills that students need to contribute effectively to society are changing constantly, but school systems are not keeping up. Most schools look much the same today as they did a generation ago, and many teachers feel insufficiently prepared to develop the practices and skills required to meet the diverse needs of today’s learners."
One thing is clear: the imposition of the EBacc, a rigid performance measure comprised of traditional subjects assessed by written examinations, is not going to answer Schleicher’s fundamental critique of education systems that look forward to a rosy past and fail to prepare pupils adequately for the demands of their future lives.
Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the ATL teaching union. She tweets as @MaryBoustedATL