No Bacc for the future: 'It's time for a new approach'

The EBacc was established on a set of false premises, says Tom Richmond. Now it's time to broaden the curriculum

students in exam hall

“The EBacc is made up of the subjects which the Russell Group says, at A level, open more doors to more degrees.” 

This phrase, still visible on the Department for Education (DfE) website, has provided the enduring foundation that underpins the English Baccalaureate performance measure for secondary schools. 

In case you are not familiar with it, the EBacc records the percentage of pupils who enter and pass their GCSEs in all the following subjects: English language and English literature; mathematics; either history or geography; a language (modern or ancient); at least two of the three single sciences (eg biology) or combined science.

Informed choices

Soon after the EBacc was announced in 2010, some schools started telling pupils that it “would be an essential requirement for elite universities”. This was based on a document called Informed Choices, produced by the Russell Group, an organisation representing research-intensive universities. 

First published in 2011, Informed Choices aimed to help students “see which advanced level subjects – which we call ‘facilitating subjects’ – open doors to more degrees and more professions than others.” 

The list of facilitating subjects included mathematics, English literature, physics, geography and languages. The overlap between these A-level subjects and those included in the EBacc was hard to ignore. 

That said, there remains no empirical data to support the relative value of these subjects over alternative courses. The Informed Choices guide even stated that students had to balance the option of choosing facilitating A-level subjects against other considerations, “including your potential to get good grades”. 

Nevertheless, the DfE clung on to facilitating subjects as a crucial justification for the subjects it included in the EBacc. 

Rounded education

This position will soon become defunct, as the Russell Group has recently announced that it is discarding its list of facilitating subjects. Instead, a new interactive website will allow students to select different degrees, and see which A-level subjects they may need to study first. 

The Russell Group admitted its Informed Choices guide had led to “misinterpretation”, not least because “universities, like many employers, value a rounded education”. The demise of the concept of "facilitating subjects" is therefore a serious blow to the credibility of the EBacc.

Critics have also claimed that the EBacc narrows the curriculum and hurts creative-arts subjects. For many years, the DfE responded to this accusation by referring to an unusual statistic: the percentage of pupils who take at least one arts GCSE, which increased from around 45 per cent in 2012 to 50 per cent in 2015. 

However, this was largely driven by schools switching from non-GCSE courses, such as BTECs, back to GCSEs following the removal of thousands of vocational qualifications from the league tables. 

After this switch had worked its way through the system, it has been a very different story. The percentage of pupils taking at least one arts GCSE has fallen every year since 2015 and now stands at 44 per cent – its lowest level since 2010. A rebuttal to EBacc detractors has thus evaporated.

Next, we come to the Coalition government’s claim that the EBacc would boost social mobility by improving the academic prospects of disadvantaged pupils.

The evidence does not appear to support this assertion. Schools that have increased their EBacc entry rates have largely achieved this through more entries from pupils with a mid- or high-entry profile at age 11. Researchers have also suggested that the EBacc risks “deprioritising the educational experiences of those for whom it is inappropriate”.

What’s more, some schools enter large numbers of pupils for EBacc subjects, only for the vast majority to fail their examinations. Whether this represents a good use of precious curriculum time and resources is highly debatable.

Fending off critics

Ever since the EBacc’s controversial introduction in 2010, successive government ministers have consistently fended off its critics using a small repertoire of arguments. Over the last nine years, these arguments have slowly toppled like dominoes. There is no causal relationship between EBacc subjects and university entry, arts subjects have been in decline for years (in some cases, dramatically so) and the EBacc has been of little or no benefit to more disadvantaged pupils. 

In light of these findings, our new EDSK think tank report published today – called A Step Baccward – recommends that the EBacc and its associated targets should be scrapped immediately. History, geography and the sciences have prospered since 2010, but the decrease or even disappearance of many other subjects from the school curriculum over this same period is a worryingly high price to pay for such changes. 

Given that subjects sitting outside the EBacc have been struggling for so long, it is now time for a new approach to school performance measures that goes beyond fighting the battles of 2010, and instead focuses on what needs to happen in 2019 and beyond.

Tom Richmond is director of the EDSK think tank, and a former adviser to ministers at the Department for Education

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