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Summer’s here and it’s time for exam questions. Here’s one from me: Out of a representative sample of over 1650 school leaders undertaken by a highly reputable and independent body not a single respondent agrees with the Government’s headline curriculum reform.

Discuss the probability (a) that the Government is right and every single one of the school leaders is wrong; (b) of a policy succeeding when those who have to implement it think it will damage the interests of the children they are trying to educate.

Primarily, I suspect, to grab headlines and impress those people who still think state sector teachers are corduroy jacket wearing Trotskyites, the Conservatives made a number of radical education policy commitments in their manifesto. Drawing on the work of Bill Watkin at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust I have already highlighted the massive problem with one of these – the requirement for pupils who fail to meet primary schools targets to retake and pass primary tests in their first year at secondary.

Today, drawing again on the estimable Bill, and SSAT, I want to explore another manifesto pledge which is to be speedily enacted – the compulsory EBacc.

A survey by SSAT published today reports the views of over 1600 hundred secondary school leaders on the policy to force every pupil (apart from some of those with a registered special need) to take GCSEs in maths, English, science plus a modern foreign language and either history or geography, and to reinforce that policy by requiring OFSTED to withhold or remove the status of ‘outstanding’ from any school that fails to conform (it is worth noting that the Government has also announced that even some ‘good’ schools may now be subject to compulsory changes in leadership or governance).

The results of the survey contain a number of important points but it is worth noting that:

Out of a representative sample of over 1650 school leaders undertaken by a highly reputable and independent body not a single respondent agrees with the Government’s headline curriculum reform

Before anyone concludes that school leaders are viscerally opposed to academic excellence and to pupils being stretched it is important to note that most of the school leaders are already promoting the EBacc and agree that all children capable of achieving it should be encouraged to do so. Implicitly, they would be happy for OFSTED to include in their inspections questioning whether all children who could to EBacc are doing it. There are, therefore, consensual ways to continue to expand EBacc uptake. This may be why…

Out of a representative sample of over 1650 school leaders undertaken by a highly reputable and independent body not a single respondent agrees with the Government’s headline curriculum reform

There are two main problems with compulsion. First, it will force pupils who are unlikely to achieve EBacc to spend their time fruitlessly failing to learn a language, history or geography when they could instead be gaining essential maths and English competencies or important vocational skills and qualifications. Compulsory EBacc is the final nail in the coffin of any hope that any time soon we might emulate other successful national school systems, or listen to the views of UK employers, and balance the academic and vocational offer in schools.

Second, it will also in many schools be the death knell for a wider GCSE offer. Expect to see further declines in (obviously completely irrelevant) subjects like arts, technology, RE and PE.

This is on top of the contempt for professionalism implied by Whitehall controlling the offer made to pupils in every state secondary school in England. I have just attended an event here celebrating the third year of our joint programme with the UCL Institute of Education to support teachers in designing own curricula (not so much swimming against the tide and as surfing the tsunami).

A clear majority of school leaders tell SSAT they simply won’t make EBacc compulsory even if it means they can’t be graded outstanding. But such collective determination often collapses under the pressure of school competition and the threat of OFSTED. If not doing EBacc comes to be seen as equivalent to having special needs (a piece of stigmatisation I am sure elements in the press will be delighted to promote) pressure from parents will also increase. So most schools will probably buckle even though…

Out of a representative sample of over 1650 school leaders undertaken by a highly reputable and independent body not a single respondent agrees with the Government’s headline curriculum reform

Who knows, perhaps this will be the moment when school leaders will rise up and man (staff?) the barricades, more likely it will simply increase stress, hasten retirement and make it even more difficult to fill vacant leadership posts.

By the way, although the Government has in the past made much of its commitment to evidence-based policy making and funded the work of the Education Endowment Fund, there is no evidence whatsoever that this radical and highly destabilising measure will achieve its stated goals of raising standards or increasing social mobility.

Most Whitehall policy fails (a bold statement I know, but one I am happy to verify) but it isn’t always possible to know which ministerial schemes are going to prove to have been misguided, unrealistic and counter-productive. This policy, however, has failure written on its sleeve. Although, of course, when it does fail it’s a safe bet the finger of blame will be pointed back at the phantom army of bearded school revolutionaries.

Just in case you think I am being overly negative, there are much better alternatives to compulsory EBacc emerging. Perhaps the most promising is the English National Baccalaureate being spearheaded by Tom Sherrington from Highbury Grove, who just spoke at the aforementioned RSA event.

Tom wants to create an unstoppable force for change by hundreds of schools working together to do things differently. He may have a chance because, and do tell me if I’ve said this already…..

Out of a representative sample of over 1650 school leaders undertaken by a highly reputable and independent body not a single respondent agrees with the Government’s headline curriculum reform

 

 

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