David Thomas has worked as a Head of Maths at a central London comprehensive school and as an adviser at the Department for Education.
Alice Barnard’s article on this site last week argues that the Party’s manifesto policy of 75 per cent of children studying the EBacc (the combination of English, Maths, Science, a Humanity and a Language at GCSE) is stopping us preparing our children for the future.
She believes both that these subjects are outdated, and that they are beyond the grasp of many students. Its conclusion is that we should therefore abandon our children’s entitlement to study an academic education until the age of 16.
However this argument is based on three misunderstandings: of the future, of how to prepare for it, and of how to make it more socially mobile.
First, the future. Whilst it is clear that the world is changing, the change is not as radical as this argument would have us believe. It quotes the statistic that 65 per cent of today’s primary school children will work in jobs that haven’t been invented yet.
This common assertion, which I am yet to see with a source, has been made in some form for decades. The problem is that there is no sign of it being true. Consider the jobs of today: how many of them did not exist a decade, or even a generation, ago?
The World Economic Forum, who also quote the 65 per cent figure (again without sourcing), have done some research on the top ten jobs that didn’t exist ten years ago. These jobs are mostly either old jobs re-labelled (such as “driverless car engineer”, a.k.a. car mechanic; or “uber driver”, a.k.a. taxi driver) or incredibly niche jobs (such as “YouTube content creator”, or “millenial generation expert”).
The exceptions, such as “big data analyst”, are computing jobs best prepared for by an academic study of traditional subjects such as mathematics. The jobs of the future seem evolutionary rather than revolutionary.
The debunking of this argument is even written within yesterday’s article. It quotes the biggest areas of growth in the UK economy (aerospace and pharmaceuticals), and discusses the anticipated shortage of engineers. These are three career areas best prepared for by studying the EBacc.
Even if it were true that our children are going to work in jobs that haven’t been invented yet, the best preparation for them would still be to study a traditional academic curriculum until the age of 16. Whatever future we face will be the evolution of our current world, and so the best way to understand it is to understand the make-up of our world today.
This means understanding how it works (science and mathematics), where it came from (history) and how to communicate with the other people who inhabit it (English and languages). The alternative is to second guess the future, to design an untested curriculum on a hunch, and to hope that it turns out okay for the children we risk on it.
The alternative proposed, a focus on the “three Rs” of reasoning, resilience and ‘readiness for work’, risks a vacuous curriculum that leaves children prepared for no future at all. None of these skills can be taught directly – what would you do in a ‘resilience’ lesson? Rather they are acquired through learning the demanding content of a rigorous academic curriculum. How better to learn to reason than to grapple with the great problems of mathematics and history, or to learn resilience than to practise it as you begin to try speaking in a foreign language?
The EBacc curriculum provides a platform for these softer skills that are truly important in the workplace, as well as being in and of itself a valuable body of knowledge. It is knowledge that, if one does not possess it, makes accessing opportunities in the future a significant challenge. And that is the biggest problem with this argument against the EBacc: the assertion that an academic curriculum will harm social mobility.
I read yesterday that the EBacc is “setting students up to fail”, particularly those from the most disadvantaged households. This is “the soft bigotry of low expectations”: the well-meaning but misguided belief that we should lower the bar for children from more disadvantaged backgrounds.
The EBacc is only setting disadvantaged students up to fail if you believe that they are not capable of learning the very basic knowledge at the core of our society. If you believe that they cannot write about poetry, or learn our nation’s history, then you are right to find them an alternative education.
But if you believe this then you do not believe in social mobility. Social mobility means teaching all children the knowledge they need to access society, and preparing them with the foundations to grasp the opportunities they find in the future. If we deny disadvantaged students this entitlement then they will be left behind for the rest of their lives, as their wealthier peers who do possess this elementary knowledge continue to overtake them.
Removing our focus on the EBacc because of a false view of the future would harm the students who need it the most.