The secretary of state's foreword to the DfE’s recent consultation on the English Baccalaureate begins with good rational argument, but rapidly moves into political rhetoric with the phrase "the soft bigotry of low expectations…" At first glance clever, this statement is actually snide and unhelpful. It's also obviously party political.
Into the document itself and there is a more spurious suggestion still, that: "The core academic subjects at school are the primary colours of an educated person's palette." This time wearing the metaphor of the curriculum as an artist's palette with certain subjects on it, the assertion is that there are a set that are "academic", "a basic right" and a set that (presumably) are not.
At a stroke the idea of a core academic subject has been born in English educational thinking, introduced to an educational world as if neither "core" nor "academic" might be deeply contested areas.
The EBac brings together the core academic subjects that the vast majority of young people should study to age 16. To enter the EBac, pupils must take up to eight GCSE qualifications across five subject ‘pillars’
The subject pillars are English, maths, science, languages and humanities. No arts. No design and technology. No physical education. No social sciences. No religious studies. No interdisciplinary studies. Add your own preferred ‘outrageous’ omissions to our list as you see fit – and enjoy the irony that the art-inspired metaphor mentioned earlier draws from a subject EBac has implicitly defined as non-core and non-academic.
At this stage it is tempting to think of these five subject "pillars" as Ozymandias's "trunkless legs of stone" discovered by Shelley's "traveller from an ancient land", and ultimately found to be worthless: "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains."
School leaders wanting to retain their own academically challenging, broad and balanced curricula are up against strong incentives to submit to the values of EBac and its curious pillars. For EBac will have secondary school performance measures scrutinised by Ofsted as its enforcer.
Don't get us wrong. It is right that we are thinking collectively about what should be at the core of a good education. We recently coordinated a submission from ASCL, RSA, PTA UK, Comino Foundation, City & Guilds and others to the Commons Education Select Committee’s enquiry into the purpose of education on this very subject. In it, we argued for a widely owned and stable definition of the core capabilities, knowledge and skills that all students should gain from their time at school.
At such a moment it seems timely to ask more penetrating questions about what we want pupils to learn. Are there some core knowledge, skills, and capabilities that all pupils should acquire? If so, what? Many have argued for inclusion of capabilities, including the CBI, ourselves and the Sutton Trust. The curriculum studied by Australian children for example, includes a range of "capabilities" of obvious importance: from literacy and numeracy to critical and creative thinking.
The academic core
So, where does this idea of an academic subject come from? To understand this we need to head back to the Middle Ages. Academic subjects were originally those taught at the "academy", at the small number of universities that had been founded at this time. The academic core – the Trivium – consisted of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music theory – the Quadrivium – completed the medieval core academic curriculum, with physics, metaphysics and moral philosophy added to the list soon after.
In the 19th century, with the flourishing of grammar schools, the shorthand for an academic curriculum came to be the 3Rs. But as Sir Christopher Frayling reminds us, the original three Rs were "reading, wroughting and arithmetic – in other words, literacy, making things and numeracy". Making got dropped in favour of writing.
Looking at the EBac thinking today it is as if this curriculum history never happened, as if there have not been earlier debates. The current, very modern list has emerged with a flourish and not even a backwards glance at how our thinking has developed.
If "core academic" is being used today as a proxy for being rigorous and demanding, it is logical to assume that all other academic subjects are ill-founded and undemanding. Presumably practical and vocational subjects, like the earlier wroughting, are valued even less.
Unsurprisingly many Russell Group universities are comfortable with EBac. But what about the institutions who will be providing learning for 3 million apprentices? What about those whose talents take them to universities and colleges specialising in the applied disciplines that we also need? How will EBac impact on the morale of the teachers of non-EBac subjects? To what extent will it perpetuate and entrench the academic-vocational divide?
And what of other curriculum selection criteria such as usefulness for employability and for civic life?
It’s certainly important to get the right blend of "academic" and "vocational" to ensure that all children can find their best possible life trajectory regardless of background. Only then might we want to ask whether (and which) core subjects are the best way to develop these knowledge, skills, and capabilities.
Limiting curriculum opportunities
In the list of "core" EBac subjects there is an assumption that vocational ones, and those left off the list, are fundamentally low in intellectual rigor; that we are doing a disservice to "intelligent" children if they don't opt for EBac. But with what authority is it being argued that art, social sciences, D&T, and the rest, are not "stretching"? What criteria have been used to determine that our 2016 Trivium and Quadrivium is fit for today's complex world?
Not limiting the curriculum opportunities we offer young people is a noble goal. No child should be disadvantaged by inappropriately narrow subject combinations or under-ambitious advice. Yet half of this problem was tackled by a radical overhauling of vocational offerings prompted by Alison Wolf's review.
In deciding what children should study, the RSA identified two key issues: "whether the pupil is likely to succeed in the EBac subjects, and how far studying this set of GCSEs contributes positively to their future education and career ambitions." Courses of study should be a positive choice and not a "Plan B". If a child loves art, have them study art. It's more likely to be useful to them in their future vocation than something they do for a false sense of keeping options open.
EBac, the SSAT suggests, will effectively limit choice for the majority. Pupils who would benefit from greater breadth and for whom EBac is not the best choice, lose out. Worse, even those for whom the so-called "rigour" of EBac might be best: if schools are not required to enter students they don’t think will achieve, the proposed universal benefits of a core post-14 entitlement, "is being lost on the altar of the 5-results measure." Back to the Ozymandias pillars and Shelley’s subsequent despair.
If schools are avoiding doing the best for particular pupils because of the risk associated with performance measures, then the performance measures are hindering rather than helping. In reality, manipulating children's options to keep them "open" for the sake of it can sometimes be worse advice than telling a student simply to study what interests them.
The idea of core academic subjects is an example of lazy thinking. It seems unconnected to the conversations being had in other educationally high-performing countries about what it is to be educated today. In England, we need high-quality options that are broad, rich and deep for all children, not the five restricting pillars that we are being offered.
Ellen Spencer and Bill Lucas, creators of the Expansive Education Network, are based at the Centre for Real-World Learning at the University of Winchester
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