I wasn’t in favour of the English Baccalaureate when it was launched, but then at least it was optional for students. Now, education ministers have set a target. Their ambition is for 90 per cent of 16-year-olds to take exams in all five pillars of the EBacc: English, maths, science, a foreign language and either history or geography.
This arbitrary target makes no sense either in principle or in practice.
While I accept that young people should have a solid core curriculum up to the age of 16, I have never understood why history and geography are considered to be more important than (say) religious education or why foreign languages are prized above all the arts, creative and technical subjects put together.
Parents and teachers understand the value of art, music, drama and dance in developing children’s creativity, independent thinking and social skills. The government’s own figures published in January estimate the creative industries are worth £76.9 billion to the UK economy and account for 1.7 million jobs. So why isn’t an arts subject included in the EBacc?
The same disregard is shown to hands-on subjects, including all technical qualifications – not to mention design and technology GCSE – even though there are huge gaps in the UK’s skills-base that call for a good baseline in exactly these kinds of subjects.
Hands-on learning also introduces students to concepts used in the world of work, and to a wide range of careers such as those being celebrated at this week’s Skills Show in Birmingham.
Compelling students to take GCSEs in subjects for which they have little aptitude and even less enthusiasm does not treat them fairly. Nor does it address our economy’s skills needs. It merely sets young people up to fail.
Foreign languages are a perfect example. Yes, we need better preparation for a multilingual future, but we are going the wrong way about it. Other European countries start at five or six, and so should we. But forcing all young people to take a GCSE at 16 before we get the foundations right is little better than a sticking plaster. If the government goes through with this, we will revisit all the problems of disengagement, low morale and poor results that we saw before 2004.
There are also big practical problems with Nicky Morgan’s 90 per cent target. As we know from the published performance tables, high-attainers are far more likely to take all five pillars of the EBacc than middle and low-attainers.
The actual entry figures in 2014 were 70 per cent, 31.5 per cent and four per cent respectively. The percentages of students actually achieving grade C or above in all five pillars were lower still, at 55 per cent, 12.7 per cent and 0.6 per cent.
Low-attainers tend to enter fewer exams: fewer than seven, on average. To hit the 90 per cent target, many will end up on a pure EBacc diet, regardless of their individual needs, talents and ambitions. Perversely, only high-attainers – who currently take more than 10 subjects each, on average – will be guaranteed the luxury of studying extra subjects.
Adding all this together, I really do not see how the government could meet its 90 per cent target, even if it were the right thing to do.
Come what may, I am convinced that insisting on an arbitrary EBacc target will harm the prospects of hundreds of thousands of individuals, every single year.