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Robert Hill FRSA explores this week’s schools performance tables and plans to assess results against the new English baccalaureate; he is not impressed.

It is absurd to invent rules for a race after the event has been run. Not even the powers that be of Formula One motor racing, which has done some pretty weird things in its time, have attempted that.

The definition of humanities is hopelessly narrow (no recognition of religious education, for example) and the list of qualifications included has been exposed as arbitrary. But it is neither the timing nor detail that is the problem.

What is the English baccalaureate meant to be achieving? Theoretically, it was intended to signal a return to a stronger emphasis on academic subjects, giving all children, and poor children in particular, the chance to go to university. While I agree that some teachers and some schools are guilty of limiting rather than expanding their students’ aspirations and expectations; this is not the answer.

The English baccalaureate will disempower and disincentivise many more students than it will help. Thousands of students will feel obliged to study subjects which they are not interested in or do not have the fundamental skills to tackle. I agree that the equivalence of some vocational options in terms of their GCSE value may not be rigorous enough. But reform, rather than excluding them wholesale from a baccalaureate model, would surely be a more rational response.

Why do we have to go back to this binary divide between academic and vocational pathways? The ineptitude and narrow mindedness makes one weep. The English baccalaureate starts at the wrong point. It starts with a nostalgic prejudice about a type of schooling from a time when just 3 per cent of young people went into higher education; rather than an analysis that looks forward to what young people need to equip themselves for the future.

A baccalaureate system should be based on identifying the knowledge that students need to have and the skills they need to acquire if they are to succeed as effective and capable learners, citizens and employees.

Within this, there needs to be a prescribed core but with lots of linked options that will excite and engage young people in learning. We then need to devise a series of qualifications that assess at different levels how well students are developing their knowledge and skills. You might end up with something that looked a little like the diploma proposed by Sir Mike Tomlinson!

So what’s to be done? First, schools and school leaders should have the courage to continue to advise their students to adopt courses and subjects that stretch them but are right for their personal development. It’s a question of morality. The learning needs of students must come before the position of schools in a flawed league table.

Second, headteachers are much more powerful than they realise. If as a class they tell Mr Gove (to use Winston Churchill’s famous phrase), “Up with this we will not put” they can force the government to think again. At a stroke the coalition has alienated just about the whole school leadership cadre: a very foolish thing to do. School leaders need to be true to their name – to do what it says on the tin – and be leaders on this issue.

Robert Hill FRSA chairs the RSA’s Opening Minds steering group and works with the RSA’s education team.


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