In the 1960s, I did O-levels in English language, English literature, mathematics, French, physics, chemistry and history – pretty much an Ebac curriculum, although the absence of a third science would have labelled me an Ebac failure.
"Every child, no matter what their background, should receive an education that opens doors to their future and prepares them to realise their potential in adult life." So begins the consultation paper from the Department for Education on the English Baccalaureate.
Schools have until 26 January to respond to this consultation and would be well advised to do so. This is of vital importance to the future direction of education in secondary schools.
The gov.uk website states baldly that: "The English Baccalaureate (Ebac) is a school performance measure. It allows people to see how many pupils get a grade C or above in the core academic subjects at key stage 4 in any government-funded school."
The fact is, performance measures dictate the curriculum at key stage 4 in most schools.
The curriculum at key stage 4 has been a matter of debate throughout much of the last 40 years and we haven’t got it right yet. Insisting on 90 per cent of 16-year-olds doing Ebac subjects isn’t the answer, either as a curriculum or as a performance measure. The Ebac is clearly intended to be both – and it is wrong on both counts.
Governments do not know what is best for every child in the country. While I strongly support the need for governments to set out a framework for the school curriculum (after consulting the teaching profession, parents, employers and others), ministers should always resist the temptation to get into the detail – but they never can resist.
Nor should they set arbitrary measures, such as the performance measure that 90 per cent of 14- to 16-year-olds should study Ebac subjects. How on earth do ministers and civil servants pretend to themselves that this is the right figure for every school? How did the conversations go in the DfE in coming to this decision?
"Well, minister, your manifesto said that 100 per cent of pupils should study the Ebac, but 20 per cent have special educational needs, so perhaps we should make the requirement 80 per cent."
"Good point, Cholmondley, let’s compromise on 90 per cent."
Thus is policy made.
At least there is a consultation about this, which gives schools the opportunity of explaining how they try to find the most appropriate curriculum for every young person at key stage 4; how STEM has become STEAM (with the addition of the arts) in many schools, with the importance of the arts being recognised for its value in terms of career prospects as well as a broad and balanced education; how difficult it will be to recruit modern languages and physical science teachers to teach the increased take-up of these subjects.
At the very least, the consultation needs to send a strong message to the government that the choice of Ebac subjects should be less prescriptive and more flexible, so that schools can tailor the curriculum to the needs of every young person.
In the early days of the Ebac, a senior civil servant stated in the public domain of a Westminster Education Forum that "students should take the GCSEs that are right for them, whether they are within the EBac or not" and that the Ebac "will not be used as an accountability trigger either by the DfE or Ofsted" (TES, 15 July 2011). How times have changed.
The consultation paper recognises that the 90 per cent figure is not appropriate for university technical colleges (UTCs), studio schools, further education colleges or special schools. So why should it be right for the large variety of other schools? What has happened to the government's wish for diversity between schools? And, more importantly, why should it be right for the wonderful variety of pupils in our schools?
Schools have already reacted to the Ebac by changing their curriculum at key stage 4, with a few even taking the extreme measure when the Ebac was first introduced of changing the subjects of some pupils during year 10 in order to increase their Ebac figure. More will be driven by the accountability measures into narrowing their curriculum. Yet another perverse incentive will have entered the system, driving school policy in the same way that the 5 A*-C GCSE performance measure can drive schools into an undue concentration on the C/D borderline at the expense of improving students’ C grades to B, or A grades to A*.
The world has moved on a lot since I took my O-levels, but the government view of the curriculum harks back to that era, when I could not study arts or technology subjects if I wished to be deemed well-educated. There are plenty of performance measures by which the quality of work in schools can be judged. So I hope that secondary schools will concentrate on the ones that matter to them and reject the Ebac as an anachronism that, like so many other education reforms, will pass into well-deserved obscurity before it has affected the lives of the many young people for whom it is unsuited.
John Dunford is chair of Whole Education, a former secondary head and general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders