Kenneth Baker: ‘We need design, art, music and drama in the heart of a new baccalaureate. The current EBacc doesn’t work’

21st-century pupils need a core of academic subjects supplemented by technical and creative skills, argues the former Conservative education secretary

Kenneth Baker

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The current English Baccalaureate (EBacc) will not fulfil the Prime Minister’s vision for social mobility and will not equip our children with the skills they need in the 21st-century economy. There is a correlation between affluence and academic success. I wish it were not so but wishful thinking will not solve the problems of deprivation and nor will the EBacc.

The current EBacc includes a narrow set of academic GCSEs – two English, maths, two sciences (with computer science not included), a modern foreign language and a humanity (either history or geography). Seven subjects, with many schools doing a third science bringing the total to eight. On average, students are entered for 8.1 GCSEs leaving very limited space for anything other than this narrow academic diet. Ironically, students with low attainment – the very group likely to be disengaged by a purely academic curriculum – are typically entered for 6.9 exams, so the narrow EBacc would become their entire focus. What works for children in the most privileged schools will not work for everyone.

We are very much in the minority in Europe and among our economic competitors making all students focus on only academic subjects up to the age of 16. Much of Europe has a lower secondary phase up to 14 which is broadly academic and then an upper secondary that introduces more technical pathways, combining practical learning with the necessary academic disciplines. In Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands, between 70-80 per cent of students have experienced technical education, while in Britain it is only 30 per cent. No wonder that all these countries have lower youth unemployment than we do.

Secondly, the current EBacc is almost word for word a curriculum that was announced by Robert Morant, secretary to the Board of Education, in 1904. Even Morant saw fit to add one technical subject – drawing! It is clear the EBacc is a classic example of old-fashioned thinking. It hasn’t worked very well for the last 112 years, so in its place we should be looking for a 21st-century approach that equips young people for the age of the digital revolution. 

Today I am publishing a proposal for a new Baccalaureate, which consists of English, maths, two sciences (one of which could be computer science), a humanity (history or geography or a foreign language), a technical subject, such as design and technology or a BTEC, and a creative option such as a GCSE in art, design, music, dance or drama.

So a foreign language would no longer be a compulsory GCSE subject, enabling those who want to study a language to continue, but not forcing hundreds of thousands of others to do so. Only 31 per cent of boys get an A*-C in a language, and only one in 10 who study a language at GCSE go on to take one at A level. Many youngsters will find it easier to get a job if they have mastered a computer language than if they acquire a modest competence in a foreign language.

It is very disturbing that design and technology, which covers electronic products, graphic design, resistant materials, systems and controls, is being squeezed out of schools. Over the last five years, entries have dropped by 27 per cent and these subjects are in danger of being lost from the curriculum altogether – significantly closing down opportunities for young people.

By studying design and technology, students work in teams, solve problems, and make things with their hands. Having got a technical qualification by 16, they are well prepared to become apprentices or go on to get a technical “A level” that would qualify them for a higher apprenticeship. This is what we do at University Technical Colleges. It is proving a very attractive career route for students leaving UTCs because at 18 they will earn a salary between £15-20,000 a year and study a part-time foundation degree at their company’s cost, rather than gathering a huge debt.

It is equally disappointing that, this year, GCSE entries in business studies, drama, art and design and music all declined from the level taken last year.

The government’s narrow EBacc is removing the creative and the technical curriculum elements that all of our young people need to succeed. What is more, we are now entering a digital revolution that will change both employment and education. As robotics and artificial intelligence take off, the digital skills and creativity as well as engineering will be increasingly in demand and we must ensure that we give every young person the opportunity to develop them.

That is exactly what my new baccalaureate offers. The opportunity for all young people to gain knowledge and experience in a core of academic subjects supplemented by the technical and creative skills they will need to succeed in our changing labour market.

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Kenneth Baker

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