'We shall live to regret the EBacc. The damage to other subjects is already being wrought'

The Conservatives may have watered down their EBacc target. But it's still too high and other subjects are already feeling the effects, argues one celebrated headteacher

Call for Ofsted to do more to promote creative subjects

It’s a curious time for anyone working in health or education. In many ways, our public services (like everything else government-run) are on hold, certainly holding their breath and awaiting pronouncements from whichever government is elected on 8 June. In the meantime, public servants such as medics or teachers are frustrated and frequently ham-strung by ministerial and departmental silence while the machinery of government is in “purdah”.

I’ve complained often enough about governments’ insistence on pushing through one initiative after another in education. But, right now, maybe I need, not for the first time, to misquote Oscar Wilde: there’s only one thing worse than government running every aspect of education – and that’s government not running it.

One of the results of this political stasis is that we’re all subject to speculation about what will follow the election. If the Tories win, their manifesto promises to water down the EBacc target from 90 per cent of pupils entering by 2020 to 75 per cent by "by the end of the next Parliament", with 90 per cent of pupils by 2025. This might sound like an improvement, but it’s still way off the mark.

I’ve sounded off about this so many times: I must be at risk of repeating myself. But don’t forget that the shape of this curricular imposition was not determined by experts meeting to negotiate the relative merits of different areas of study. The EBacc was, according to possibly apocryphal rumour, drawn up by Michael Gove and his advisers one Saturday evening, because he needed an idea to impress Andrew Marr with on the Sunday. I’ve never had reason to disbelieve that story.

As it happens, as an example of a balanced range of subjects, EBacc is not bad. The damage is done only when it becomes mandatory, curtailing flexibility and choice. In truth, most of that damage has already been wrought, because government has no need to enact legislation to get its way. It’s already close to achieving its goal merely through imposing benchmarks and floor-targets (through Progress 8) on schools so that few will dare not to put their students through the EBacc. There’s more than one way of skinning a cat, as policymakers know.

Unsurprisingly predictions now suggest that there’s going to be soaring demand for teachers in EBacc subjects, but anticipate the requirement for those in other subjects, particularly the creative ones, dwindling.

Who’s surprised? I’m not: but I am dismayed. The dire predictions of the defenders of creative subjects will indeed come to pass. Scarce resources are being diverted from them to those deemed more important by virtue of their inclusion in the EBacc. Thus is a subject hierarchy effortlessly but arbitrarily created, to the detriment of those at the bottom of the heap.

I fail to understand how any UK government can consciously relegate creative subjects.

The creative industries are bringing vast sums into Britain. Pinewood and other studios, plus British CGI wizards for special effects, now constitute a major centre for filming Hollywood blockbusters. London’s art galleries and theatres provide a richer and more varied cultural life than, I think, any other city in the world. London remains, by the skin of its teeth, the musical capital of the world: though, with funding slashed and fewer and fewer opportunities for children outside the independent sector to become high-level performers, it must soon forfeit that accolade.

Both the potential earning power of creative subjects and their vital role in children’s emotional and expressive education will be sacrificed on the altar of an ill-conceived notion of “standards”. The EBacc was born from a narrow old-school/grammar-school view of the academic, from a sentimental attachment to a bygone model of education long abandoned by the best schools.

We shall live to regret this. But, by the time policymakers wake up to the fact, the damage will be done: the road back will prove arduous, if not impossible.

Dr Bernard Trafford is headteacher of the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne, and a former chair of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at @bernardtrafford

To read more columns, view his back catalogue

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