Three steps to avoiding meltdown in a world of compulsory Ebac

Peter Kent

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Upheaval on an industrial scale. Another huge dose of pressure on children in a high-stakes education system. The death-knell for creative and technical subjects.

This is the less-than-resounding welcome given in some quarters to the Department for Education’s plan to insist that every pupil takes GCSEs in five prescribed English Baccalaureate (Ebac) subjects.

There is, however, a compelling logic behind the move. The government’s point is that the children who take GCSEs in these subjects are more likely to get good jobs and go to top universities than those who do not do so, and that equality of opportunity for everybody, from whatever background, is dependent upon this common starting point.

There is plenty of time in further education colleges, sixth-forms and universities to specialise, the argument goes, but children should be able to keep their options open for as long as possible, and ensuring that they have a broad and solid academic base at 16 means they will be able to survey the horizon in front of them with confidence.

Despite the criticism, there is an opportunity here for school leaders to work with the government to sort out the detail and achieve these goals in a constructive way.

So, here are three steps that could move us closer to the government’s vision without causing meltdown in schools:

Step one: flexibility

The plan is for all children to take GCSEs in English, maths, science, geography or history, and a language. However, that does not leave a lot of room in timetables for other important subjects. What about music, drama, art and design, religious studies and design and technology, to name a few?

What about if students want to take two languages, or triple (rather than double) science or two humanities subjects? How should these count in their Ebac “score”?

And why are geography and history the only alternatives for the humanities element of the Ebac subjects? Isn’t religious studies, for instance, equally as valid?

There is also a balance to be struck between the subjects the government says are important and what young people actually want to study. If their choice is too restricted we run the risk of them being less engaged and doing poorly. One size does not fit all. Some young people are superb linguists, others excellent scientists; some gravitate towards the creative arts, while others thrive on technical skills.

The choice of GCSEs we offer them should cater to these different strengths and interests, while providing the broad-based high-value grounding that the government wants to see through Ebac.

The key is flexibility. Let’s establish a core of Ebac subjects, but a core that is possibly a little wider than the narrow field currently envisaged, and in which children have some freedom to choose. We can all agree that everybody should take GCSEs in English, maths and science, but beyond that, is it really a problem if one student takes geography and French, while another takes triple science and religious studies?

And let’s also be careful about what happens to creative and technical subjects outside of the Ebac suite. We need to make sure they are not accidentally squeezed out.

Step two: recruitment

The government must address teacher-recruitment problems urgently. The issue is so serious that it could easily scupper the entire Ebac plan before it gets anywhere near lift off.

There are big shortages in English, maths, science and language teachers. This is hitting schools now. Ofsted statistics show that 82 per cent of schools in England are judged good or outstanding. That is brilliant news, but it is a fair bet that some of those in the “requires improvement” category are only in that situation because they cannot find the maths and science teachers they desperately need.

Imagine how much more serious this problem will become if every school is required to teach every pupil a language up to GCSE level. Language teachers are in desperately short supply as it is.

The problem is that the current teacher supply model is no longer able to cope with the needs of schools. It has to be revised, and this work needs to be done with the Ebac requirements in mind.

Step three: support

It has hopefully become clear by now that a great deal of work is needed both at government level and at school level to introduce the sort of system envisaged. Schools will also have to overhaul their timetables and communicate all these changes to their pupils and parents.

The government intends to enforce its plan through the prescriptive measures of performance tables and Ofsted inspections.

Support and help, however, would be more effective. This is not the special pleading of a vested interest. The reality is that the biggest obstacles are practical ones, and working together to overcome them is a better approach than the big stick of top-down government.

We need to move away from the “them and us” transactional relationship that has too often characterised the interaction between government and the teaching profession in the past, and instead work together to come up with a practical plan that delivers the best possible outcome for pupils.

In other words, let’s talk. 

Peter Kent is a headteacher and president of the Association of School and College Leaders​ 

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Peter Kent

Peter Kent is a headteacher and president of the Association of School and College Leaders

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