'The government cannot continue to insist on a narrow, academic school curriculum for all pupils'

9th November 2016 at 14:59
Mary Bousted
A curriculum which is over-reliant on pen and paper, timed exams and memorisation will not suffice for the 21st century, writes one union leader

Just over a year ago, on 3 November 2015, the Department for Education (DfE) launched an English Baccalaureate (EBacc) consultation. The deadline for responses was the 29 January 2016.

According to the government’s own consultation principles, the DfE should have responded to the EBacc consultation in a ‘timely fashion’, which is deemed to be within twelve-weeks.

Yet, a year later, and as I write, there has been no government response to its EBacc consultation.

Nor have education ministers given any reason for the delay in publishing its response to this important proposal which has such far reaching consequences for teachers and their teenage pupils.

Schools have been left in limbo.

School leaders, who are grappling with inadequate budgets, need clarity to plan their staffing requirements. Yet they have no answer to the question of whether their school will be judged on the performance measure of 90 per cent of their students taking the Ebacc subjects of English language and English literature, maths, two sciences, a modern foreign language and history or geography. 

What is not in doubt is the immediate impact of the EBacc proposal (and, at present, this is all it is, a proposal).

There has been an 8 per cent decline in the number of students doing creative, artistic and technical subjects at GCSE since 2015, and a 1.7 percentage point decline in 2016, in the number of state school students taking at least one arts-based GCSE, according to DfE figures released after this year’s GCSE results.

It is not hard to imagine why education ministers appear to be so loathe to publish the teaching profession’s views on the EBacc. Apart from Nick Gibb and certain elements of the "New Blob", the majority of respondents are likely to believe that the EBacc is a very bad idea, with a curriculum which bears a remarkable resemblance to the school curriculum of an earlier age – 1904 to be precise. A curriculum which required pupils to study English, maths, science, a foreign language, history, geography and drawing.

Indeed, this comparison shows that our forefathers were, indeed, more enlightened because they considered art (drawing) to be an essential element of a broad and balanced curriculum.

Out of kilter

Lord Kenneth Baker, secretary of state for education at the time of the introduction of the first English national curriculum in 1988, and a trenchant critic of the current EBacc, proposes a broader EBacc. He proposes one that includes technical and creative subjects.

He has written: “We cannot educate our young people as if it is 1904. As robotics and artificial intelligence take off, creativity, engineering, problem-solving and digital skills will be increasingly in demand. We must ensure that we give every young person the opportunity to develop them.”

Lord Baker is absolutely right when he argued, in a recent TES interview: “It’s more important for young people to understand a computer language than to have a smattering of French or German or Spanish. If you follow this mad policy - it’s the last bit of Gove – of having academic subjects, you’re not going to have any apprentices [aged] 16–18.”

It is clear that the EBacc is out of kilter with the government’s target for three million apprenticeships by 2020. This target can only be met if secondary school pupils experience technical and creative subjects as part of a broad and balanced curriculum so that they have the knowledge and experience of these subjects prior to making decisions about their careers at age 16 and 18.

The problems created by a narrowly academic curriculum can be seen in the current apprenticeship figures.

Although apprenticeship numbers surged, with 2.4 million people starting apprenticeships between 2010/2011 and 2014/15 (a doubling on the previous five year period), this increase is due to the large volume of those going into apprenticeships in low-skilled, low-paid sectors, such as customer services, retail, administration and care where there is little or no wage premium for completing an apprenticeship.

If UK productivity is to improve, as it needs to, (Germany, France and the USA are each about a third more productive than the UK) then more emphasis needs to be placed on middle and higher level technical routes.

The situation is so desperate that James Dyson is taking the matter of the technical skills shortage into his own hands through establishing the £15 million ‘Dyson Institute of Technology’ to, in his words, “tackle head-on the dearth of skilled engineers in the UK”. (A shining example of putting your money where your mouth is.)  

The decline in the number of pupils taking creative and technical subjects will, moreover, cause immense damage to those highly profitable companies that use creative, artistic and science skills, which, even in 2011, had a turnover of £500 billion in the UK.

We desperately need some joined-up thinking about our education system.

We cannot continue to insist on a narrow, academic school curriculum for all pupils, and then expect them, when they leave school, to be knowledgeable about and open to the possibilities of technical, vocational and creative careers.

All pupils, those who are academic and those who are more practically orientated, need to learn subject specific knowledge alongside the practical applications to which knowledge can be put.

All pupils need to make, to create and to communicate. A school curriculum which is over-reliant on pen and paper, timed exams and memorisation will not suffice for the 21st century.

We are letting down our young people if we do not, in school, introduce them to potential areas of employment which will enable them as individuals, and ourselves as a nation, to escape from low-skilled, low-paid jobs which are the underlying cause of the UK’s poor productivity.

Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the ATL union. She tweets as @MaryBoustedATL

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