Any way you slice it, the EBac is a problem

28th August 2015 at 01:00
As new GCSE performance measures take hold, a deputy head asks how schools can weather the storm and protect undervalued subjects

When it comes to judging schools' performance, it appears that all subjects are equal but some will now be more equal than others. The enforced English Baccalaureate (EBac) is on its way and this is going to present schools with some serious issues.

I'm a deputy headteacher at a 12-form entry secondary in Hampshire. We are a comprehensive in the truest sense, with an incredibly broad intake. Each year, we have 350 students sitting GCSEs but also more than 100 studying for other qualifications, such as Cambridge National Certificates and the NCFE's V Certs.

The EBac is going to make that mix difficult, if not impossible, and the breadth of the curriculum we offer will be seriously curtailed. The Department for Education did not mention this, of course, when it announced the EBac. Instead, it proclaimed that the compulsory measure was essential because it dictated the study of the core academic subjects (English, maths, history or geography, the sciences and a language) that were most valued by universities and employers. The policy is also promoted as a tool of justice, ensuring social mobility while preserving the highest standards of academic achievement.

In some respects, the EBac is an extension of E D Hirsch's work on cultural literacy, of which former education secretary Michael Gove was so fond. The theory is straightforward enough. It holds that to be culturally literate is to possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world, and that certain information is more important than the rest. The breadth of this information extends across the whole curriculum and, in the view of the theory's supporters, constitutes the only guaranteed way of narrowing the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers.

The problem with a knowledge-based approach is that it can quickly become little more than a list of facts. Why must pupils know the date of the Great Fire of London, for example, and not the dates of the Battle of Trafalgar or the French Revolution, which arguably had a more significant impact on Western culture? Why are An Inspector Calls and Anita and Me included but not To Kill a Mockingbird? Why geography and not religious studies?

The rhetoric of the EBac is loaded, with minsters being "unapologetic" about expecting every child to receive a high-quality core academic education. But is that what the EBac really describes? Would we seriously argue, for example, that a pupil who chose to combine maths, English, the sciences, Spanish, history and graphic design would have a significantly better education that one who studied maths, English, the sciences, fine art, music and psychology?

Schools can resist the EBac at the cost of never being considered outstanding by Ofsted. But how much of a choice is it to be forced to trade recognition of excellence for ideological acquiescence? Regardless, it may not even be possible to fulfil the obligations of the EBac. Here's how I see it playing out.

Motivating students and teachers

In my school, the phrase "collective endeavour" summarises our moral purpose and culture of high expectations. But the compulsory EBac and the Progress 8 performance measure are making it increasingly difficult for school leaders to persuade staff who teach qualifications outside the EBac that their contribution to school performance is equally valued and significant. And how can teachers convince pupils of the value of vocational qualifications (or even non-EBac GCSEs) when every performance measure seeks to marginalise them?

Staffing needs

This is going to be the major issue of the EBac. In a relatively large school such as the one I work in, we would need to find a at least 10 extra language teachers to make delivery viable. Where are these staff going to come from? Having had several years of the government telling the profession about the importance of teachers possessing expert subject knowledge, we suddenly face the inevitable and unenviable prospect of non-specialists delivering subjects across the EBac. A major rethink is needed if we are to staff computing and physics courses with the type of high-quality graduates that the profession needs.

Narrower choices

What incentive is there for schools to offer, for example, the study of both history and geography at GCSE? Will art, drama and dance continue to get the same proportion of curriculum time when they aren't sufficiently rewarded? This year I have witnessed first-hand the huge benefits for some of our pupils of studying for vocational qualifications in performance skills and ICT. But these options will not be financially viable once the EBac takes hold - especially as more time will be needed to deliver the reformed subjects effectively.

Colleagues at other schools tell me that they are being forced to increase curriculum time for core and EBac subjects at the cost of one or more additional options. In this scenario there is a very real danger that pupils' education will be suffocated rather than liberated, while independent schools remain free to offer considerable opportunities beyond these measures. With the contribution of creative industries to the economy estimated at pound;36 billion, there are economic as well as ideological reasons to be concerned.

Vocational education under threat

And finally, what about the three optional subjects students will be able to take under Progress 8? These are the EBac's poor relations in terms of performance points, consisting of the remaining GCSEs and vocational alternatives.

Few would disagree that Professor Alison Wolf's 2011 report on vocational education was a necessary corrective for a broken system. For too long there had been a prevailing attitude that vocational education was a second-rate, easy option for the lowest achievers. This view was reinforced by the perverse performance table incentive of "equivalence" between qualifications, which was, in reality, pure fantasy. The number of these supposedly equivalent qualifications taken by pupils up to the age of 16 increased from 15,000 in 2004 to 575,000 in 2010.

But now only a handful of reformed qualifications count, and more rigorous, useful qualifications have been introduced. Despite having been bolstered with greater breadth and examined components, these new qualifications are being pushed out to the fringes beyond the EBac. So much for that added rigour. Are we then to assume that the recommendations of the Wolf report have failed?

Put bluntly, the EBac continues to stigmatise vocational education. At worst, it is a restrictive, imposed diktat about curriculum choice that ignores the needs of local communities. The enforced EBac fails to recognise that vocational studies can be an essential part of a broad curriculum, providing invaluable opportunities for young people to develop their potential and apply their knowledge in a real-world context. Where I live, post-16 vocational education is flourishing, with engineering and other technical courses providing much-needed skills to the local economy, fuelled by the Royal Navy and a growing enterprise zone. Is this development of vocational education and skills really so undervalued? Although only a minority of our pupils choose vocational routes, the impact on the local economy is highly significant.

Challenging authority

Paulo Freire, the noted Brazilian educationalist whose stance has been criticised by schools minister Nick Gibb, perceived the traditional school model as little more than a process of depositing selected knowledge into an ever-revolving audience of passive pupils. In this type of system, teachers are seen as the epistemological authority, and any pre-existing knowledge that pupils might have is entirely ignored. One of Freire's main objections to this approach is that it deprives pupils of the opportunity to challenge received wisdom and develop their own contrary perspectives.

The introduction of a compulsory EBac must lead us to question whether the profession is ready to embrace the spirit of Freire's revolutionary pedagogy in debating and challenging such a measure. If it isn't, the impact of the EBac could be as damaging as the bleak picture I've painted.

Nigel Matthias is a deputy headteacher at Bay House School in Hampshire

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today