Opinion: 'Sure, the EBac suits the requirements of top universities, but one size does not fit all students'

3rd September 2015 at 15:20
The decline in design and technology is illustrative of the damage that could be wrought by the EBac becoming compulsory

Design and technology teaching is a world away from what it was in the old days when I was at school.

Students taking design and technology GCSE nowadays have to understand the entire design process, using skills such as research and analysis, evaluation and problem-solving.

These are precisely the skills that employers in all kinds of fields constantly tell me are needed. This is a GCSE that not only prepares young people for careers in specific design and engineering-related trades and professions but also for much more.

The reason for mentioning this is that the number of candidates taking these GCSEs in England has plummeted over the past five years.

In June 2010, just over 270,000 candidates took design and technology – 5.5 per cent of the total number of GCSEs sat. This June, the number was about 192,000 – 4 per cent of the total.

Why has this happened? It is certainly not because school leaders have decided on a whim to abandon design and technology GCSE.

The most likely answer is that it is being crowded out by the growing emphasis on traditional academic subjects.

In 2010, ministers introduced the English Baccalaureate (EBac) to measure schools on the performance of students taking GCSEs across five core subjects: English, maths, science, history or geography, and a language.

Now the government has decided to go one step further and make the EBac subjects compulsory at GCSE for every student, starting with those who begin secondary school this month and will take their exams in 2020.

In a survey conducted by the Association of School and College Leaders, 87 per cent of respondents opposed this move, with many expressing concern that it would crowd out other subjects.

The Department for Education, however, described it as a “myth” that the EBac was having a negative impact on the take-up of creative and vocational subjects and highlighted an increase in the number of candidates choosing art and design GCSEs since 2010.

The take-up of art and design has indeed risen, from about 172,500 to about 181,000 in England during that time, but other subjects have suffered.

The most significant is design and technology, where numbers have fallen by nearly 80,000 over the past five years. But GCSE drama is another notable casualty, with about 10,000 fewer candidates.

Unsurprisingly, the take-up of EBac subjects like geography, history and Spanish has increased.

It is good news that pupils are taking these subjects if they enjoy them and benefit from them, but it seems clear a price is being paid elsewhere.

Our concern is that the introduction of the compulsory EBac will accelerate the decline in other subjects. We are pleased that ministers are planning to consult on this plan in the autumn, and we hope this will lead to them building more flexibility into the system.

Students already have to take GCSEs in English, maths and science, and we are not arguing against that, but if the government insists that every student should also take geography or history, and a language as well, there will inevitably be less room in the timetable for other options.

Of course students will still be able to take other subjects, but there is a finite number of hours in the day, and the EBac dictates where the priority lies.

This increased emphasis on academic subjects will be fine for some students, but not for those who want to focus on technical or creative GCSEs. It is not good news either for the many employers who want these skills.

The EBac certainly suits the requirements of the top universities, but is it fair or sensible to place so much emphasis in this direction? We need to help young people play to their strengths and interests, not propel them all down the same narrow route.

One size does not fit all students, nor does it fit the needs of the economy.

Brian Lightman is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders



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