The EBac is not the way to engage all pupils or give them the skills they need - and it's not classist to say so

17th June 2011 at 01:00

The most controversial two syllables in the education policy terrain at present are probably "EBac" ("teacher pension cuts" being five). However, whatever your view of the Government's English Baccalaureate - or, indeed, its retrospective application to last year's exam results - its introduction has been helpful in generating discussion about what all young people should know. It has stimulated reflection, and a honing of educational rationales, in response.

The RSA's legacy and contemporary priorities mean that we have "issues" with the EBac. We have a long tradition of challenging the hierarchised dichotomy between vocational and academic, skills and knowledge. We have always argued that young people need both. And we also see the need to address the interests and local needs of young people to enable their learning.

The design of the EBac is based on a (traditionalist) set of assumptions about what knowledge is important, which reflects long-standing hierarchies of subject area. That the Government showed little acknowledgement that such assumptions might be debatable is telling. However, its responses to challenges have raised important issues of entitlement to, and engagement with, high-status knowledge.

Let me deal with engagement first. Many excellent schools have been adept in their re-engagement of working-class pupils via a rich and diverse curriculum offer (old-style academies were a notable success story in this regard). The value of some of these qualifications has been queried by ministers and in Professor Alison Wolf's recent review of vocational education. Of course, these courses need to be fit for purpose, and to ensure the opportunity for progression. Yet no one can question the worth of valuing what young people can do, and the benefit of such recognition in encouraging the idea that education can be for them.

Often young people feel excluded from decisions as to "what knowledge counts", and alienated by a curriculum that appears to have little relevance to their lives. At the RSA we have addressed these concerns via our area-based curriculum, which draws on the local area to make the national curriculum relevant. A fundamental part of this is our method of working with a diverse range of people - including the students, parents, local businesses and charities - on co-creating the curriculum. This approach gives value to the existing knowledge of young people, and their networks, while also giving value to a local area.

However, such local approaches raise the second issue at stake here - that of entitlement, and whether it is desirable to have a global offer equally available to all students. Many claim that a global entitlement curriculum ensures equal access to prestigious educational and career routes. When challenged that the EBac will switch off working-class young people from education, schools minister Nick Gibb will always retort, "Are you suggesting that working-class pupils can't learn Latin?"

But this debate is not about ability. Rather it is about culture and social structure, wherein the generational experiences of educational exclusion and segregationist practices of schooling in some parts of the country have sent the message to young people that academic education is not for them.

A more serious argument is that not giving working-class kids access to those most prestigious subjects limits their opportunities to access higher education and top career routes. This is an extremely important issue, and we welcome the review of careers services as long overdue. It is vital that young people understand the implications of their curriculum choices, and the ways that such choices have the potential to constrain further educational and occupational routes later on. And as Professor Wolf's report points out, it is precisely young people from working-class backgrounds who are disadvantaged by a lack of guidance on subject options; middle-class families are able to draw on their networks and educational experience.

This problem of inadequate information does not require the EBac as its solution. Rather, it could be addressed by greater transparency from employers and higher education institutions with regard to access credentials, and by improved, earlier information to young people and their parents about the implications of curriculum choices. This is what we would argue for. The plan to create an all-age careers service may be an important step forward in this regard.

In our 21st-century environment, where soft skills, initiative, innovation and adaptability are often as important as specific knowledge, it is vital that the curriculum addresses such demands. Recognition that the national curriculum did not necessarily address this need has led to the development of a range of curriculum offers that better meet the need for knowledge and skills.

So elevating particular subject areas (beyond the generally agreed English and maths) is misguided, especially those areas that do not appear to speak directly to contemporary society. It will neither engage young people - especially not those already disenfranchised - nor provide them with the skills they need for successful employment and citizenship.

We need a flexible curriculum that addresses both the civic and economic demands of 21st-century life. This involves both knowledge and skills, and the fostering of curiosity and criticality. Young people need a wide and engaging curriculum, but they also need to be fully informed as to the consequences of their curriculum choices, so that we avoid schooling for inequality.

Professor Becky Francis is director of education at the RSA (Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce).

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