Children, like governments, know how to get their way. They know that teachers are stuck with them for a definite period of time, so if they keep on whining there’s a chance the teacher will bend to their will just for a bit of peace. Hence, if Hubert doesn’t want to sit next to Doris he will moan every day about how she smells and what a torture it is to sit by a girl while repeatedly pointing out that a chair by an open window, and his best friend, is conveniently empty.
Likewise, if schools minister Nick Gibb believes we should force children to study a random set of academic subjects that he’s decided are the best ones, despite there being no evidence to back him up, then he’s going to keep on making speeches telling us how right he is until we see the error of our ways.
But teachers know that to give in to Hubert is perilous. Once he gets the seat he wants, he will start making greater demands. You, meanwhile, have sound reasons for your seating plan.
Gibb, in the spirit of Michael Gove, plans to make every child study the subjects of the “English Baccalaureate” – English, maths, science, a modern foreign language and either geography or history – until they are 16.
If he is given an easy ride, this will only buoy a belief that arguments no longer need to be won with teachers; they can simply be battered into them over five years.
On its own the English Baccalaureate – or EBacc – sounds perfectly benign. English, maths and science have long been accepted as a core set of subjects, and all children learn languages, history and geography to 14, so why not extend to 16? But we could say that for lots of things. Why not stick RE in there? Or drama? What about ICT?
In a 2,500-word speech last week all about the importance of the Ebacc subjects, Gibb never once made the case for why languages, geography or history deserve this special treatment.
He said studying them was a matter of “social justice”. But it’s really not. He said only 10% of children pass the EBacc subjects in some deprived areas, while in other equally poor areas that figure hits 30%. But those numbers don’t tell us anything. In some deprived parts of the country, mainly in the north, poor children do badly at most GCSE subjects. In other deprived areas, mostly in London, they do well in them all. If you looked at figures for how many kids passed a combination of, say, English, PE and art, you’d also see an achievement gap.
Gibb seems to believe that some children are being denied the chance to study these subjects, quoting teacher Tom Bennett, asking: “Is there anything more sad than the sight of someone denying children the right to an academic curriculum?” But analysis shows that in 2013 only 69 mainstream schools did not offer EBacc subjects to pupils. The idea that children are being robbed of opportunities in our schools is simply untrue.
There aren't enough language and humanities teachers out there to make this plan work
What is true is that religious education numbers have dropped dramatically since the EBacc was introduced, and arts are likely to be hit in the coming years. Gibb admits this – “there are several valuable subjects which are not included” – which raises the question: why not? No answer is forthcoming.
So we await sound reasons for this policy. Then there’s the problem with recruitment. Teacher shortages are already panicking headteachers and, put simply, there aren’t enough language and humanities teachers out there to make this work.
As one head said to me last week: “We cannot get good language teachers in our area. They don’t exist. So what will I do? If we’re forced to teach every pupil a language, our results will be so terrible our Ofsted rating will be bad, and if I choose to ignore the policy, the government will ensure our Ofsted rating is bad.”
Gibb can bang on about social justice but secondary schools are facing a barmy situation. Children who don’t want to study a subject will now have to be taught it, in many cases by a teacher unfamiliar with the topic, even though we have seen no evidence as to why these subjects must be compulsory.
Good teachers know that giving in to weak arguments simply because someone won’t stop making them is perilous. Hubert needs to be told that he’s stuck with Doris, and the Conservatives should be told in upcoming consultations, loud and clear, that many subjects are valuable. Teachers should not roll over and accept otherwise.