Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Errors with EBacc haste

Tomorrow's league tables will contain a new measure. In addition to the core data on the number of students gaining five good GCSEs, with and without English and Maths, there will be a column for what the Education Secretary Michael Gove calls the 'English Baccalaureate'. This is not as yet a new qualification. Instead it is a reckoning of the proportion of GCSE students who gain a C grade or above in a combination of English, Maths, Science, Languages and History or Geography. As a fan both of the International Baccalaureate - which the education secretary is making easier to access - and of the use of performance tables to encourage change in the system, I might be expected to support this move. But I believe it has been seriously mishandled and is danger of having perverse consequences for the coalition's wider education goals. Here's why.

First, the decision to add this figure to the tables was formally announced just seven weeks ago, after students had sat their GCSEs for 2010. Schools were not given a chance to change their behaviour, to encourage more pupils to do history or French. So, if its purpose is to encourage such a change in behaviour, it is a big mistake to introduce the measure before anyone could seriously be expected to do so. It would have been more sensible to have linked it to the 2012 tables. That way, there might have been a chance for schools that had focused on other subjects to provide their students with a greater chance of doing languages or humanities. In other words, if the goal is to encourage a greater take-up of traditional subjects -not an ignoble aim - the result may be to create a huge wave of anger as schools find themselves 'named and shamed' for failing retrospectively.

Second, there is some perversity in the choice of subjects. For some reason, applied French and some applied Sciences are excluded. It may be that ministers believe that applied subjects are less worthy than traditional subjects. But, with languages in particular, if ministers seriously wish to see a re-engagement with modern languages (and the inclusion of Ancient Hebrew whilst excluding applied French seems especially perverse) then they should be encouraging the exam boards to develop an entire suite of rigorous but applied languages courses. After all, the best way to persuade a teenager the relevance of languages is to show that it improves their chances of working in the tourism industry, the City or business travel. And while reading Moliere in the original may be a noble aim, the revival of languages requires a bit more hard-headed business sense, with as one leading business figure said to me yesterday, a strong push on Spanish and Mandarin rather than French or German.

Third, the Government's attitude to the vocational remains unclear. It is true that some vocational qualifications have become overrated in their GCSE equivalence. But such qualifications are invaluable in engaging otherwise disengaged students to study, and many schools and academies use them as leverage to get students taking other more traditional GCSEs, including English and Maths. It is vital that ministers clarify whether or not they will have any value in future tables. By all means, cut the tariff - most heads would agree - but most are certainly not worthless and should not be so treated.

The real danger of tomorrow's tables is that the hasty move to a new measure obscures the genuine improvements that have taken place as a result of two programmes introduced by Labour that have been continued by the coalition. The first is the rapid improvement of academies in disadvantaged areas: many have remarkable scores using the five GCSEs incl English and Maths measure. They deserve the highest praise, not to be bashed by the press for failing something for which they were never invited to compete. The second is the rapid rise in results for the lowest achieving schools: it is likely that fewer than 100 schools will have less than 30% of their pupils getting the five GCSE benchmark, compared with half of all secondaries or 1700 schools when John Major left office. That owes a lot to floor targets, extended to 35% by Gove in his White Paper. Again they deserve praise and encouragement.

It is vital that ministers make two things clear when they publish their tables. The first is that schools will be judged on their new EBacc only after 2012 and its publication now is purely for the purposes of statisical comparison. The second is that schools that have exceeded Labour's benchmark deserve credit, and give a target date for achieving their new 35% benchmark. Unless they do, they will allow genuinely successful schools, including many of the academies they seek to extend, to be pilloried unfairly as a result of their ill-thought through decisions.

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