'Ensuring that the EBacc doesn't narrow the curriculum must be a key priority for Justine Greening'

19th July 2016 at 11:19
It is vital all young people have access to rigorous and academic qualifications which suit their needs in 21st-century Britain, says a headteachers' leader

Many have written with advice to our new secretary of state, Justine Greening. The focus has rightly been on funding reform, assessment and the recruitment and retention of teachers. These are indeed some of the major challenges in the English education system.

But let’s not forget about the classroom – the daily experiences of our children and young people and what we want them to learn. A broad and balanced curriculum has been a cherished principle of our society for at least the last 30 years. 

The school curriculum should create the space for children and young people to grow. It should be broad and deep, embracing knowledge, skills and qualities. It should suit the school context and build character and resilience, inspire and enable young people to achieve and be successful, rounded people.

The curriculum is the sum of all the experiences that a child or young person has at school or college. It is not just a series of inputs – a framework of subjects to be taught over a defined period. However, the government’s aim that at last 90 per cent of secondary pupils should be entered for English Baccalaureate subjects is in danger of reducing the curriculum to exactly that, a narrow framework that must be rigidly followed by almost every child.

The EBacc is a performance measure for schools awarded when pupils secure a grade C or above in English, maths, history or geography, the sciences and a language. The problem with this framework of subjects is that it narrows and potentially squeezes out the creative subjects. And this is at a time when our creative and cultural industries are the fastest growing of the UK economy, and the creative arts will play a significant role in economic growth in the future.

The principle of core academic subjects being crucial to a young person’s future and the equality of opportunity this offers, is absolutely right. It is a social justice issue. However, there has been a conflation between a core academic curriculum and the narrow range of subjects in the EBacc.

Following the reform of GCSEs there are other equally valid, rigorous and beneficial subjects that young people could study which would also improve their life chances and maintain broad options post-16.

It is a worry that there has been a decline in the take-up of creative subjects at GCSE level in the past year. This demonstrates the detrimental effect of the exclusion of these subjects from the EBacc.

So, a key issue for Justine Greening as she decides how to deal with the matters in her inbox, is making sure that EBacc does not have the effect of skewing or narrowing curriculum design. To be blunt, EBacc is not a good measure on which to judge schools in any case. Accountability measures should be based not on raw attainment but on the sound principle of the progress that pupils make. Indeed, that is already happening with the introduction of Progress 8, a new headline measure, which, as the name suggests, measures the progress children make in eight subjects. This measure retains the focus on core academic subjects and allows for curriculum breadth. 

We have already said we would be very happy to work with the government to make sure that all young people have access to rigorous and academic qualifications that suit their needs in 21st-century Britain. We invite Justine Greening to take us up on this.

Leora Cruddas is the ASCL’s director of policy 

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