Bac to bac problems with this qualification

7th January 2011 at 00:00

The English Baccalaureate has attracted more comments from our secondary school leader members than any other aspects of the schools white paper. Most of these relate to the creation of a new "retrospective performance indicator" introduced this month, January 2011. It is a measure that schools had no inkling of until recently, and no opportunities to prepare for.

Although the Coalition has criticised this kind of target culture, it is now going down exactly the same route. We can expect it to drive the curriculum much as previous targets have done.

The curriculum review has sensibly been given a long timescale in which to seek evidence, and yet by including the English Bac in the next published league tables the Government is effectively pushing schools to change their key stage 4 curriculum without allowing them the time to consider whether such a move is in the best long-term interests of pupils.

School leaders have the choice of responding in one of two ways: some are saying that, in an age of autonomy, it is up to them to decide how to shape their curriculum. They highlight the tension between the promised new freedoms and this very specific level of prescription, albeit through the accountability system rather than regulation. These school leaders will consider the English Bac on its merits, decide whether or not to implement it and, if so, to which cohort. If they decide against it, they will have to be confident enough to allow their schools to be judged against other performance indicators.

Others feel they have no option other than to change their options columns straight away in order to offer this to pupils. Many of these are National Challenge schools which have already tasted the consequences of "floor targets" and the public naming and shaming that accompanied the last set. You can understand how they feel. As there will not have been an opportunity to make such changes in the context of a structured review of their curriculum, this will simply be a reaction to the new performance indicator.

Views about the merits of the Bac as a curriculum model vary. Certainly this combination of subjects is a worthwhile measure for some pupils, and giving young people from deprived backgrounds a chance to gain qualifications that will enable them to access the best universities is a worthy aim. Many school and college leaders support the idea of a basic and rounded academic curriculum and few will disagree with the aim of gaining GCSEs in English, maths and science for as many as possible.

Many strongly support the idea of encouraging modern foreign languages. However, few believe that the inclusion of Biblical Hebrew, Ancient Greek and Latin as a part of this certificate, instead of a modern language, makes any sense at all.

Many other school leaders (and I suspect a majority) are deeply concerned about the effects of this on the rest of the curriculum, the arts, the other humanities, technological subjects and PE. There is considerable anger and consternation that only history and geography are included as humanities. Religious studies in particular is glaringly absent. In the light of the global political situation, surely the objective study of religious issues should be encouraged. There are many other GCSEs, including humanities, economics and business studies, that should qualify.

Nearly all are horrified at the silence of the white paper on any aspect of practical learning and employability skills. There is a real risk of narrowing the curriculum for the most able as well as those who thrive on practical rather than classroom-based learning. There are also serious staffing implications in terms of existing staff who will no longer have the opportunity to teach their specialism to GCSE and in terms of teacher supply if there is a sudden demand for teachers of the English Bac subjects.

Whatever the "Bac" is, it is not a baccalaureate in the true sense. ASCL (the Association of School and College Leaders) has long been in favour of a qualification which, in the true meaning of a baccalaureate, would reward pupils who pursue a rounded course of study including academic qualifications, personal and interpersonal skills and work-related learning.

However, as the Department for Education's statement of intent admits, the English Bac is not even a qualification. I am far from convinced that ad hoc changes to performance tables are the best way to implement a 21st-century curriculum which will genuinely raise our standing in the international stakes.

Brian Lightman is ASCL general secretary.

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