On EBaccs, sham consultations and the soft bigotry of narrow expectations - RSA

Blog: On EBaccs, sham consultations and the soft bigotry of narrow expectations

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  • Education
  • Curriculum
  • Higher education
  • Schools

When I was on my oblivious way to my own EBacc, my History teacher taught us about the plebiscites used by Napoleon III to retain power. Voting was more or less compulsory and the question asked was something like: ‘Do you want Napoleon III to continue to rule the republic, or do you want France to descend into chaos, anarchy and destruction?’

The Government’s consultation on the EBacc, launched last week, is of course not as corrupt as this. In some ways, it’s worse. Over the weekend, I had a revealing Twitter exchange with the DfE’s Chief Analyst Tim Leunig, and architect of some of the more sensible changes to school accountability since 2010.

Is Tim Leunig right? The government’s own consultation principles state that “there may be a number of reasons to consult: to garner views and preferences, to understand possible unintended consequences of a policy or to get views on implementation.”  It doesn’t clarify whether manifesto commitments can transfer straight to implementation mode – my guess is that some do, and some don’t. 

The principles also ask that the “purpose of the consultation process should be clearly stated”. The EBacc consultation “invites views on the Government’s goal that the vast majority of pupils should be entering the EBacc.”  However, the six questions asked simply don’t give the chance to share your view on the basic principle of whether the EBacc should be used in any way as an accountability or performance measure for schools. The questions suck you into the detail of implementation; the danger is that any response will be interpreted as tacit acceptance or even support of the overall policy.

The problems and potential impact of the EBacc have been articulated especially well by journalist Laura McInerney, head teacher Tom Sherrington and the SSAT’s Bill Watkin. From a political perspective, the policy seems to bring discord where there could be harmony. They may undermine the Government’s largely positive changes to accountability via the Best 8/Progress 8 measures and in ensuring that all GCSEs have similar levels of rigour and difficulty. As the consultation states: “Progress 8 reflects the Government’s commitment to pupils studying a core of academic subjects as part of a broad and balanced curriculum.”  Correct, so what’s the need for the EBacc too?

The rationale in the document is strange and weak. Words are wasted justifying the need for pupils to study English, Maths and Science to 16, despite the zero opposition to this, and the fact that this is already becoming compulsory to 18. We are reminded of the important work done by Alison Wolf and acted on by Government to slash and burn hundreds of poor quality, too-easy vocational qualifications which schools used to push pupils towards because they counted as GCSE equivalents. Again, this has already happened with little opposition.

The actual contested element of the EBacc is this: The government believes that languages, History and Geography are more important and valuable for pupils’ futures than all other GCSEs. It is this issue where a rationale is required - and where the document fails to deliver. It mentions that 65% of employers value languages, but does not compare this with other areas of learning they value. It uses the ‘facilitating subjects’ excuse, even though this is a very narrow view of university entry and the need for the EBacc is refuted by many universities themselves.

The consultation’s international comparisons go way beyond selective, towards dodgy use of data. They are not wrong that “countries such as Finland, Germany and Poland, and education jurisdictions such as Shanghai, the provinces of Victoria in Australia and Ontario in Canada all provide education in core academic subjects until at least 16.”  Yet they fail to mention that the arts are also studied to 16 in all of these places. More fundamentally, most of these countries leave external examinations to age 18 anyway. The boldest claim of all, that a rise to 90% of pupils taking the EBacc will support “increasing the productivity of the British economy”  is an evidence-free assertion, probably plucked at the last minute from a civil servant or special adviser.  The assertion that Arts GCSE participation has increased since 2010, contested by the Cultural Learning Alliance, is disingenuous. Surely a success indicator of the EBacc policy is that other subjects decline in popularity?

Former Education Secretary Andrew Adonis always asked a simple question of education reformers about any education policy or practice: ‘would you want this for your child?’ In the case of the EBacc, I’d be completely relaxed about whether my kids studied Psychology or Sociology instead of History of Geography. I would love them to become fluent in a language at some point, but there are many better ways to achieve this than a stodgy GCSE. As well as continuing with the arts, I hope they have the chance to continue with at least one practical area of learning, regardless of whether it links to their future vocation.

Question One of the consultation asks this: What factors do you consider should be taken into account in making decisions about which pupils should not be entered for the EBacc?”  The only fair response to this, although tautological might be this: ‘Any factors relating to the interests, aptitudes, and future learning and career ambitions of each individual pupil should be taken into account.’

The History teacher who taught me about Napoleon also said that ‘the only way to get you lot to stop smoking would be to make it compulsory’. My prediction is that the impact of the latest attempt at EBacc implementation/enforcement will be smaller than many hope or fear.  Publication of this performance measure already happens, and the DfE’s levers for control are weak. The document proposes that “EBacc entry and attainment will be given a more prominent role in the Ofsted inspection framework” – but this decision is for Ofsted to make independently, not the Government.

Michael Wilshaw has already refused to implement the manifesto proposal linking compulsory EBacc to Outstanding Status (incidentally, yet again none of the consultation questions allow respondents to challenge this proposal).  Secondary schools’ opposition to the EBacc is near-universal, so heads’ and governors’ neglect of the 90% target may become a useful badge of honour. In terms of arts-related subjects, I’d estimate that numbers remain more or less steady, with a plateauing of pupils taking one arts-related GCSE, and a decline in those taking two or more. Design and Technology may be more vulnerable, as my last blog outlined. 

More important than the impact, the EBacc is a representation of ministers’ ‘General Motors’ view of education: ‘What was good for me is good for everyone else.’  It demonstrates the Government’s soft bigotry of narrow expectations, about good learning, a good life, and ultimately a good society. The policy exemplifies a fundamental lack of trust in secondary schools to make wise decisions, in partnership with families, about every pupil’s best post-14 curriculum choices.  The Conservative Manifesto also contained the following: We believe that parents and teachers should be empowered to run their schools independently.”  A shoddy EBacc policy, and an even shoddier consultation, suggests otherwise.

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  • Excellent blog post, Joe. 

    Particularly agree with you about Languages. They're very important, but no more so than many other subjects that have been (and will be) flattened by the Ebacc. If, as this government delights in telling us, you can learn to paint or dance in your own time, why not learn a language then instead and have the option of some more art on the curriculum if that is your preference? So much for market forces, eh?

    I'm not surprised about the fakery of this consultation though, I have to say. I think the view for some time now has been that officials were long past listening mode when it came to the basic premise of the Ebacc. It has been steamrollered through.

    Perhaps this is less about global competitiveness (also, let's face it, absolutely nothing about the education of the whole child), and instead just another metric by which to fail schools, cranking up the pressure to homogenise and eventually privatise the modes and methods of delivery in education.

    The outlook for the arts in mainstream education looks bleaker with every month that passes, sadly. 

    Are parents encouraged enough by schools and other interested parties to examine this in detail and to see through some of the false rhetoric? They are certainly being sold a lie. But it's a subtle lie most would need help to unpick. I'm not sure there has been campaigning of that sort (sorry if I missed it), and now the moment has passed. Campaigning against a policy in education circles sometimes appears to have been replaced with a weary, somewhat cynical realpolitik notion that it's better to work with whatever the current trend may be and stay on the wagon, rather than argue at the level of principle and be thrown off altogether. If only the art of persuasion were not dying a death!

    That soft bigotry you mention is spot on, too, but of course like most low level prejudices, it's a process of pandering, a seductive ideal. Imagine all those risk averse parents in an uncertain world, anxious for the safest bet for their kids. I haven't seen much of an effective challenge to that fear-based view of the present and near future. And without challenge, if you don't want to think too much beyond that, the Ebacc might seem a reasonable fait accompli to many, an unarguable 'good' despite it's all-too narrow vision. It's been passed off as motherhood and apple pie. What's to argue with? Do we even need a choice? In that sense, certainly worse than Napoleon's plebiscite.