Today the Education Select Committee publishes its report on the introduction of the E-Bacc. Michael Gove’s English Baccalaureate, or ‘E-Bacc’, consists of GCSEs in English, Maths, Science, a language and History or Geography. Looking at who has been passing these subjects not only demonstrates the decline in some academic subjects; it also lays bare a concerning gulf between rich and poor. We know that of the 80,000 children on free school meals, fewer make it to Oxbridge than from each of six independent schools. Looking at children’s school attainment through the lens of the E-Bacc makes one of the reasons for this a little clearer: Poorer children are just not being steered towards the subjects that top universities require.
In 2010, fewer than one in six pupils achieved passes at C or above in the complete set of E-Bacc subjects. And among the poorest – those on free school meals – it was one in 25.
Children at strong schools, with well-informed parents, continue to be guided to include key academic subjects in the GCSEs they take. But some others have been steered instead towards well-meaning alternatives which often promise more than they deliver.
It is difficult to blame the schools; these were the incentives governments (of both hues) set. Ever since league tables were introduced, canny schools have found ever cannier ways of working their way up them. Keen to show policy success, successive Education Secretaries have given them a leg up.
Short-course half-GCSEs and double awards helped. So too did modularisation and re-sits. (A side-effect is that the average secondary school now spends £96,000 a year on exam entries.) Once vocational qualifications started counting towards the GCSE tables, their number grew like crazy. The worry is that many of these were not ‘vocational’ in the sense of actually helping you get a job.
Last year’s GCSE tables show 75% of pupils got five or more GCSEs at grade C or above. If you strip out non-GCSE ‘equivalent’ qualifications, that figure drops to 56%. These qualifications will in future be removed from the GCSE tables.
With the E-Bacc the government is going further. It formalises a set of premium subjects which help keep your options open. There is ample room in the curriculum for other subjects on top.
So what can we learn from the Select Committee’s Report? Secondary school teachers who contributed to the committee’s inquiry had a number of criticisms of the E-Bacc.
Some were upset about a lack of consultation or because their own subjects were not on the E-Bacc list. Heads were alarmed at the arrival of a new measure, inconsistent with the incentives they’d been previously given.
Some of the complaints about the way the E-Bacc has been introduced make some fair points. It will be worth double-checking the exact composition after a period of time. More important, we need to be sure that this is not another measure that will over-focus on students at the C/D borderline, to the detriment of those both at the top and the bottom of the ability scale.
But none of this undermines the fundamental importance of the E-Bacc and indeed, a report from the union NUSUWT demonstrates that already, in a survey of schools, a quarter had increased science and language provision. Looking at how we need to raise our game with our international competitors, this is surely a good thing.
And whilst some teachers many be lukewarm to the E-Bacc’s introduction, the public (who are also parents, grandparents, employers and co-workers) seem to take a different view. In two separate YouGov opinion polls, the public were asked which subjects should count most in the league tables. The responses were remarkably similar to the E-Bacc list.
Perhaps even more striking was that these responses were largely replicated in those with the most recent experience of school, and biting edge experience of finding a job: the 18-24s.
In the cold, uncomfortable light of reality, some subjects have generally always been valued a bit more than others. That was fine so long as most pupils were also able to access a common basic academic core, with the differences mostly among the ‘options’ subjects. But now they aren’t, and the system has conspired to tell them (and especially the disadvantaged) that any GCSE combination is worth as much as any other. But in the world outside the school gates, colleges, universities and employers know different.
If we continue to tolerate this two-tier system of subject choices for rich and poor, we are denying our poorest children the keys to our top universities and chances in life. That cannot continue. It is time to tell the truth to the next generation.