EBacc & the Shrinking Curriculum

Trevor Fisher writes:

When Michael Gove addressed the Spectator conference The School Revolution  in summer 2012 he marked two years in which education was quick marched into an unknown future. The third year will be dominated by the revolution in secondary exams at 16 plus where the proposals will reshape the landscape in ways which may irreversibly shrink provision and achievement. Opposition is essential.

The current programme of 16 plus exam reform was announced in the Evening Standard by Michael Gove and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg and only then given to parliament – in a nine minute statement with no effective debate  on September 17th. The proposals in effect destroy the existing tried and tested GCSE exam system. This will be replaced by a new qualification named the  English Baccalaureate Certificate in a limited number  of subjects. Only 3 subjects will be taught from 2015 (English, Maths and Science, with 2 sciences intended to be taught for the  EBC qualification). Languages, and a choice of either History or Geography will become EBC subjects at a later date making a maximum six options leading to 16 plus exams. This prescription has some similiarities to the old Grammar school curriculum but is narrower  than the O Level/CSE system predating the development of GCSE.

Non EBC subjects will apparently be GCSE certificated as non-core options, giving a resemblance to the old O Level and CSE divide, though the Lib Dems seem to believe there is no two tier system as all can take the EBC subjects. However not all will pass and it appears that those who do not pass in the EBC 6 subjects will gain only a piece of paper recording failure. Apparently there will be no GCSE in the favoured 6 options offered for the EBC.

Crucially even if  GCSE is to be continued in non-core subjects, the high stakes nature of EBC will destroy breadth as the core will drive out the non-core as schools prioritise the Chosen Six. Even grammar schools offer more than this stunningly narrow curriculum. The cultural community correctly has assumed that the non- EBC subjects are likely to wither on the vine, including all the so called ‘creative’ options. EBC is potentially destructive.

The proposals must affect sixth forms and the future of A Level, there being only one system not two. The proposal threatens to create a massive level of failure and consequent increase in resits at sixth form level. This must reduce A Level provision and thus university entrance. Is the plan to shrink the sixth form and university provision by denying passes at EBC from 2017?

 Ebacc versus O Levels

What is proposed is not a return to O Level despite headlines in June 2012. It is not O Level which drives the reforms. It is the Ebacc*. The range of O levels on offer in the 1980s was far more than the 6 EBCs, and there was no school leaving certificate of the kind issued in the 1930s which may be the Baccalaureate statement. And while by the 1980s there was an O Level and CSE exam in all subjects, this is not what will be on offer from 2015 if the reforms go ahead.

The English Baccalaureate was announced by Gove in a speech in Autumn 2010 and back dated to the summer 2010 exams. There was no discussion and no prior warning. The fact that this was policy by Diktat, rather than causing consternation was welcomed by the media, apparently convinced by the current belief that GCSE is outmoded – a key Coalition contention – and that revolutionary change was essential. It is not a view supported by evidence, which shows GCSE to be a world renowned exam system only questioned in limited circles around Westminster.

While GCSE needs improvement, scandals such as the English language grading problem of summer 2012 do not add up to a terminal crisis. Even if this were the case, it is increasingly unlikely that the processes of replacing GCSE can be attempted without serious damage to the exams system at 16 plus, particularly with a time table that gives less than three years for implementation.

The Shrinking Curriculum

The coalition gave little rationale for the revolutionary changes of 2010 and officially the Ebacc did not alter the accountability regime.  However the immediate effect in narrowing the curriculum was alarmingly clear. A survey by NASUWT in May 2011 showed that schools were shifting provision to favour Ebacc subjects, and this has been confirmed by later reports. Indeed, it was so obvious that Ebacc though not compulsory was changing the landscape that the Education Select Committee investigated EBacc** within six months of the announcement.  EBacc is now claimed by government as a major achievement as schools have moved to boost numbers taking the 6 subjects.

Immediately, however, the most crucial development is the proposal to have only one board per subject. This is putting all the eggs in one basket.  It will impact on the viability of exam boards causing loss of subject and examination skills. Once boards lose contracts they will shed staff which will worsen the risks involved in Government plans to raise the grade boundaries for passing. The DfE consultation is clear that C grade boundary for EBC will be higher than that for GCSE, making grading crises worse than 2012 increasingly likely. Bizarrely the new exams are unlikely to be trialed thus posing a rerun of the 2012 English GCSE grading scandal – but over more than one subject.

Proceeding on this basis is needlessly reckless. The plans are being rushed without adequate debate.  There is no case for destroying GCSE. It is vital that the plans are suspended for an independent inquiry into exam reform and the impact of Ebacc on education.

*The headlines on and after June 21st, announcing the return of O Level, were immediately denied by the Department for Education. Indeed, Michael Gove has never indicated he favours a return of O Level. He is committed to Ebacc.

 ** The English Baccalaureate Fifth Report of Session 2010-12, HC 851, 28th July 2011


One Comment on “EBacc & the Shrinking Curriculum”

  1. David Pavett says:

    Trevor warns against an impending change in secondary exams which may “irreversibly shrink provision”. I agree about the danger but suggest that the word “irreversible” is almost always inadvisable in politics.

    The modern Gradgrind model is striking: to the three Rs we now have to add an S (for Science). Everything else, it seems, is window-dressing. This is deplorable and damaging to young people.

    The increasingly high-stakes nature of qualifications means, as Trevor says, that other subjects will become increasingly irrelevant to the qualification process. This is what has already happened in the charter school movement in the US.

    I don’t know if this is part of a grand plan to reduce university entrance but I am not convinced that university courses are the best option for all young people currently following them. That seems to me to be a discussion yet to be had among educational progressives.

    The whole thing is a model of how not to run a national education system: diktat from the centre.

    I don’t understand when Trevor says “…it is increasingly unlikely that the processes of replacing GCSE can be attempted without serious damage to the exams system at 16 plus…”. The timetable, as he says, is absurdly short and will not allow for a proper job to be done. But whether a long run at the problem should or should not be undertaken is another matter. Everyone will have their concerns. Mine is with maths and science. I think that taken as a whole our maths programmes are a disaster. Hardly anyone retains anything except basic arithmetic (if that) from ten years of schooling. Surely that is a problem in the sort of world we live in.

    The Shrinking Curriculum phenomenon has been noted (by Diane Ravitch) as a part of the charter school movement in the US we are following the same path. The intellectual crudity behind this approach is breathtaking.

    I am not so worried about the viability of exam boards. I am in favour of closing them down and replacing them with public bodies of some sort. While strongly critical of Gove I am disinclined to get into the position of defending current arrangements. I agree on the other hand, that this must not be left to the minister and that a genuinely independent inquiry may be appropriate.