Wednesday 20 July 2016

Bacc to the future

I've blogged at the Sutton Trust website about new research on EBacc progress today.

Next month, hundreds of thousands of young people will learn their GCSE results. Their schools will be judged for the first time not on the proportion gaining five good GCSEs, but on the more complex Progress 8 measure (as well as English and Maths results). Crucial to the Progress 8 score will be the numbers who achieve the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) – English, Maths, two sciences, languages and history or geography.

In January, I blogged about some of my concerns about how well the changes will be understood by parents and employers, and that the challenge of gaining eight decent GCSEs could make it much harder for schools that have struggled successfully to improve the numbers gaining five good GCSEs, including many academies.

So, to some extent today’s research brief, Changing the subject, by Becky Allen and Dave Thompson at Education Datalab, is encouraging. The brief looks at what happened to schools between 2010 and 2013, including a group of 300 ‘curriculum change schools’ that substantially increased the proportion of their students taking languages, humanities and science subjects.

It shows that pupils at those schools – including disadvantaged students – benefited from the changes. Encouragingly for the government, there was some narrowing of the gap between rich and poor students, and an improvement in the numbers taking A-levels and other post-16 qualifications. Moreover, there was no adverse impact on English and Maths results.

That is all to be welcomed. What seems to have happened is that pupils of average ability at the age of 11 who might not previously have taken the full range of EBacc subjects are now being encouraged to do so at these ‘curriculum change schools’. The report also shows that if disadvantaged students were entered at the same rate as other students of similar ability, another 11,000 would be doing languages and 15,000 more taking humanities subjects. Triple science take-up had already been improving as a result of changes made a decade ago, and continues to improve, but there is still a 5,500 shortfall based on ability.

There are other issues raised by this study. The Government has set a target that 90% of all students should take the EBacc. As evidence that this is possible, they cite a handful of successful academies in London. But the reality is that even in these curriculum changers – keen enthusiasts for the reform – take-up is nowhere near 90%. 57% take a language, a considerable improvement from 26% previously. But some schools that forced all pupils to take a language have had to switch course. One head told us: “Results plummeted and a high level of disaffection was the result. By making the language element optional I now have students in year 10 taking French who want to study it and I expect to see results rise.”

What that suggests is that a goal of perhaps 70% would still be hugely ambitious, but would be more realistic. There is then the challenge of finding enough good specialist teachers, particularly for languages, physics and chemistry.

At the heart of the debate is some confusion over how best to ensure that disadvantaged students reach their potential. Those who argue that everyone – or nearly everyone – should take the full suite of EBacc subjects see this as the best way to ensure that able students don’t lose out. And as these schools show, there is real potential for growth in take-up. The gap we have identified is one such group, and these 300 schools should be a good benchmark for other schools.

So, tens of thousands more students could and should be doing the EBacc subjects. That would make sure that able students aren’t losing out. But equally we need to ensure that we are not entering students not taking the EBacc – more likely to be a third than a tenth of students – have a rigorous technical baccalaureate as an alternative. With the recent Sainsbury review likely to lead to strong reforms in this area, this could be a valuable entry route for such students.

Today’s research brief is a valuable insight into what’s been happening with the EBacc. But it also provides food for thought as schools await their first Progress 8 results next month.

Saturday 2 July 2016

The need for reassurance

I've posted my reflections on what needs to happen for Europeans living in Britain on my Facebook page.

It is now more than a week since I heard the referendum result whilst in the beautiful Cork town of Kinsale. My anger and disbelief clearly made me a part of the so-called metropolitan elite, though I never knew the elite had 16 million members. Yet what I really felt was that I - like perhaps three million other EU citizens living in Britain - was not just a stranger in the country I made my home 32 years ago, but that a large proportion of the people in my adopted country were giving us all a collective two fingers.

What has happened since then has done little to shake that view. I have spoken to other EU citizens living in Britain this past week, and many of them are deeply worried about their futures. Some have families here, all are massively net contributors to the UK economy. Yet not one of the people who aspire to be prime minister has said anything to reassure these people or their families about their futures. At the extreme end, we have seen vile and vicious racist attacks on community centres, and xenophobic taunts to schoolchildren and people going about their everyday business who happen not to fit into the narrow acceptability of their bigoted tormentors. And to be fair such acts have been condemned, but - aside from the statesmanship of Sadiq Khan and Nicola Sturgeon - too few would be leaders have been ready to say that those who are here and working or long term residents are here to stay, that they are valued and welcome.

Rationally, I know I probably have little to fear as an Irish citizen. The Irish government is far more actively working on behalf of the 500,000 Irish born In Britain and with far more sense of what needs to happen than any English politician seems to have shown towards those who live and work in this country, those who keep its health and education services going, those who contribute more on average to our economy that those who would tell them to go. I can get dual British citizenship and the Common Travel Area in these islands may hopefully - though who really knows - survive in some form. But emotionally that is not how it feels at all.

It is not good enough to say that three million people who have made their lives in this country will be pawns in a negotiation over Brexit, as some implied this week. After all, their lives and those of their children will be blighted by fear of the unknown for several years. They need to know that a government that disgracefully denied 2.5 million of them - we Irish did get a vote - any say in their own futures during the referendum (as well as excluding 16 and 17 year olds) has at least got their back for the future. I have yet to hear anything saying that those who work here, and whose families have a stake in this country, are not to be kicked out if the political chess game goes the wrong way in the years ahead.

We have reached this point by accident, apparently. Quite clearly few of those who created this mess seem to have expected us to leave. There is a lot that needs to happen in the years ahead to save our economy, to support Scotland and Gibraltar, to preserve an open Irish border. But let us not make pawns of so many people's lives in the process. They need to know their futures. Whoever emerges from the current political shambles has a moral duty to give them the reassurance they deserve, and to do so quickly.