'What on earth has happened to the government’s EBacc consultation?'

It's nearly a year since the consultation closed. Surely – as a Christmas present to schools, teachers and students – ministers should tell us what they really think about the English Baccalaureate

Suzanne O’Farrell

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As the Christmas holidays begin, it is perhaps a good time to ponder one of the education policy mysteries of 2016: what on earth has happened to the government’s English Baccalaureate consultation?

You remember it, I'm sure: opened in November 2015, closed in January 2016. Nicky Morgan was education secretary. It proposed that 90 per cent of pupils should be entering EBacc from 2020 onwards.

Since the consultation closed at the beginning of the year, however, there has been nothing. A lot has happened in the meantime: Brexit, a new prime minister, a new education secretary. But on EBacc, silence.

It is particularly concerning for schools whose pupils study three-year GCSE programmes, because the children who will sit their exams in 2020 begin those courses next September. They will be choosing their options next term.

Questions need answering

However, schools still do not know the answers to a number of questions. Will there be any more flexibility in the choice of EBacc subjects? Will the government stay with its highly ambitious (and unrealistic) goal of 90 per cent of pupils entering EBacc? Does it intend to judge schools over both EBacc entry and achievement rates?

Teachers really do need to know the answers to these questions when they are helping their pupils choose their GCSE options, so a government response is now a matter of urgency.

Consequently, one of the top items on our Christmas wish-list is some swift action over this issue which shows that ministers have listened to the concerns of the teaching profession.

For starters, the 90 per cent goal is just not possible. On the language element of EBacc alone, there are simply not enough language teachers in England to achieve that target. There is no point in setting up a system which will immediately fail to achieve its stated objective. Schools also know the interests and abilities of their pupils better than the government does and they must be left with more flexibility over how many children are entered for EBacc.

Then there is the issue of how schools will be judged. It is a vast improvement that performance is now measured on the progress that children make rather than on GCSE grades alone. It takes into account different academic starting points and is much fairer. So let’s not go down the road of schools being judged on how many pupils pass EBacc. That would be a hugely retrograde step and would severely disadvantage schools which have a higher proportion of pupils who start with low attainment.

In the absence of an EBacc response, school leaders and teachers will carry on making the best of things, as they always do. But it really is important that we hear from the government as early as possible on its plans. Perhaps education ministers could make it a new year’s resolution.

Suzanne O’Farrell is curriculum and assessment specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders

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