Should the English Baccalaureate education system be reformed, and how?


  • Picture of Mark Hewlett FRSA
    Mark Hewlett FRSA

“We need to develop learning of all types from abstract theorising, empirical scientific research, creative thinking, and their practical applications.” Mark Hewlett FRSA puts forward his case for a reformation of the English Baccalaureate (EBACC) for the 21st century, and asks for Fellows to respond with their views.

Current national curricular practice judges students and schools by scores in formal tests of a limited range of subjects. I believe we need to introduce a reformed EBACC system based on RSA values, to encourage schools to provide a broad, balanced, challenging curriculum, designed to equip young people with the skills, knowledge, imagination and personal qualities needed for their fulfilment and the national interest.

In definition, a Baccalaureate (EBACC) is a framework of subject areas in which students are required to have successfully studied by a given age. It determines how students and their schools are judged; which can directly affect their future life prospect. In my opinion, to get our Baccalaureate right is the best way to get our National Education right.

Our current system puts far too much focus on a limited number of subjects, English; Maths; two Physical Sciences; Geography or History; and a foreign language are considered the ‘core subjects’. Requiring high grades at these in GCSE can marginalise subjects of vital importance to our economic, social and cultural future. For example the arts; design; technologies; engineering; business and financial education; law ; politics and government; Personal, Social and Health Education; Citizenship, Thinking and Research Skills. While everyone would agree on the value of elements of the current Key Stage 4 education system, notably, English and Maths, it’s priorities must be reconsidered.

From the great and good in the arts worlds such as Simon Rattle, Paul McCartney, Grayson Perry, to creative artists in all media, well summarised by Michael Morpurgo, arguing for young people to have positive creative fulfilling experiences to release their talents, inveighed against the current remorseless drive to narrow exam performance. Equally important are views of the Business Community: the CBI complains that pupils leave school and university ill-adapted to engage usefully in employment. As Lord Baker, former Secretary of State for Education argued for an end to ‘academic snobbery’ that subjects exacerbates our weaknesses, and has left our economy short of the skills and imagination we need.

With reference to the past RSA Campaign for Capability project, we need to develop learning of all types from abstract theorising, empirical scientific research, creative thinking, and their practical applications.[1] This should be done with a view to ensure young people are equipped with the knowledge and skills they should possess to be competent effective individuals in all aspects of their present and future lives, in domestic/family contexts, in employment and as responsible citizens.

In response, below I have outlined a framework which I believe meets RSA’s criteria of a balanced relevant curriculum:

  • ENGLISH - oral and written, including high levels of functional literacy: ability to understand the welter of legal, financial, tax, public information, political etc data that affect daily lives.
  • MATHS - While we must invest in developing the abstract conceptualising that expands our understandings in many spheres, we must develop the “functional numeracy”, which enables people to competently run their lives at home and work , (as in 1 above).
  • PHYSICAL SCIENCE - including elements of Medical/Life Sciences Biology/anatomy/physiology, including sex education; physical and mental health education; chemistry, geology/physical geography, physical anthropology, physics etc; the rationale/philosophy of scientific enquiry.
  • TECHNOLOGIES AND DESIGN - including applying science to all aspects of our lives from Information technologies, Architecture, Engineering, Building, to domestic creative crafts.   
  • EXPRESSIVE ARTS - Literature, drama, dance, visual art, sculpture, film/TV/audio-visual of all types – enriching people’s lives and contributing to our economy.
  • SOCIAL SCIENCES & CITIZENSHIP - Essential concepts of economics, business education, human geography, political science, British law and constitution; psychology, social anthropology, history.
  • PHILOSOPHY, ETHICS, RELIGIOUS EDUCATION - the rationale of science. How to think
  • TWO OPTIONS – to encourage students to pursue their special enthusiasms and talents to the highest degree, and these option should have equal status/recognition with the above.

Would you like to respond or share your views?

What do you believe should be essential components of a new national sytem, or to help create an agreed EBACC? Fellows are welcome to email me to discuss, at [email protected].

Mark Hewlett FRSA:
RSA Fellow since 1990, member of RSA Advisory Board, during publication of our “Manifesto for Change: Education for Capability; What should our young people learn?” based on fundamental thinking about what our education system is for.

MEd and PhD assessor. Lectured widely on Curriculum and Education Management in UK and Abroad. Publications include “Curriculum to Serve Society, How Schools can work for people”, “Measuring School Performance” (1985).innovating input-output statistics and criteria for external school evaluation (1986) – taken up by Government, now OFSTED.   


Idea presented in “Opening Minds – manifesto for change” campaign, published under, “What should our children learn?”, (reflected in the Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education in England and Wales. (Author was on the advisory board for past RSA Campaign for Capability/Opening Minds project.)

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