Uh-Oh Levels: England's teachers are right to fear the impact of the EBacc

Michael Gove's critics have been accused of blindly slating anything he proposes without fully listening. Yet this latest policy, grounded in a blind obsession with a return to the 'good old days' of education, could trap the next generation of teenagers within discriminatory structures that have long been opposed.  

James Appleton
20 September 2012

It has become fashionable to accuse Michael Gove of trying to create a ‘two-tier’ education system. Any time there is a new policy announcement, the idea has barely been enunciated before the cliché is rolled out. This applies most recently to the introduction of the English Baccalaureate, an exclusively exam-based certificate to replace GCSEs beginning in 2015. As Susan Elkin blogs for the Independent, “most of the education establishment is so busy automatically loathing him and finding fault with his every word that they forget to listen to what he is actually saying”.

Isn’t this unfair? After all, this is a man who was lauded when, despite having been through private education himself, he stood up in front of an audience of leaders of independent schools and told them that the dominance of privately educated individuals in every aspect of society is a “deep problem” and renders Britain “profoundly unequal”. Okay, it wasn’t the most compellingly stated argument – citing the lead singers of Keane and Coldplay is hardly the best way of exemplifying injustice – but he gets points for saying it, right? Except that, in this respect more than any other, Michael Gove is the epitome of the modern Conservative Party: talking the progressive talk while walking backwards.

Let us consider these latest proposals. The English Baccalaureate – lovingly dubbed the EBacc to make it sound like some sort of charming infectious bacterium – consists of a single certificate that initially focuses on the ‘core’ subjects of English, Maths, Science, a language, and the arbitrarily coupled Geography and History. Crucially, the certificate does away with the current modular structure of GCSEs, abandoning coursework in favour of synoptic exams at the end of the two years.

Gove has observed the following problems with the current GCSE system: grade inflation has made it difficult for employers and universities to distinguish between high achievers and has left a discrepancy between the value of GCSEs in any two given years; the coursework requirement is easily manipulated, by students and teachers alike; and there are many ‘soft subjects’ available which are given the same value on a grade sheet as any other. These concerns are all valid. But to use them as justification for the sweeping changes he has announced is like citing I Just Called To Say I Love You to write off Stevie Wonder’s whole back catalogue.

Proposed solutions to these problems are incorporated into his plans, thus making them falsely seem palatable. The EBacc certificate will be awarded by a single exam body, thus removing the competition element of creating exams which has been woefully under-regulated by Ofqual for many years. The hope is that without examining bodies attempting to make themselves more attractive to schools, any artificial inflation of grades will be eliminated. This in itself is reasonable and long overdue; grade inflation is an inevitable consequence of the existence of multiple examination boards.

From this point in, however, the proposals become more worrying. The emphasis on so-called ‘core’ subjects is much discussed. What is concerning is the implication that, if you are not proficient in these subjects, you are stupid. It is a return to a stigma that has in some ways subsided, and which harks back to the days of the 11+ when a student was narrowly pigeonholed as either academically intelligent or ‘other’. What is really necessary here is better advice in schools. The charity African Caribbean Diversity discovered, as founder Brenda King told me in 2010, that one of the primary reasons that so many areas of society lack diversity is that students at schools with high proportions of ethnic minorities go down the wrong path from as early as Year 9 – they “don’t have the information to make the right choices.” By the time they want to head off to university or into work, it’s too late to change those choices. Nevertheless, the choices should still be available and, if anything, strengthened so that a wider range of students get the credit they deserve for their talent and hard work.

Of biggest concern, though, is the removal of coursework. Yes, it can be cheated, and yes, perhaps it tests the totality of one’s knowledge less well than an exam with an unseen question, but it also feeds into a narrow demographic of students with a certain set of skills. Moreover, it specifically disadvantages vast swathes of others: students with anxiety issues are likely to struggle; those with troubled home lives are less likely to be able to devote themselves to revision in the same way as many with more settled backgrounds; and the British Dyslexia Association has already raised fears that teenagers with learning difficulties will be “marginalised”.

This is an act of discrimination with no justification. To denigrate coursework in this manner is absurd. It is better preparation for university and many jobs, where essays, projects, discussion and revision of drafts are heavily emphasised. It encourages students to think laterally and originally, and it allows them to bounce their own ideas off their teachers. They will be able to see their completed projects with examiner’s comments in order to improve. Crucially, having one bad day does not potentially limit the opportunities available for the rest of a child’s life.

So back to the start: is Michael Gove trying to create a two-tier education system? The answer is no. He’s not trying, but he is succeeding. The problems above can be addressed without changing the entire framework of secondary education, they are little more than a convenient smokescreen for Mr Gove to exercise his obsession with ‘traditional’ forms of education that served him so well and that he is convinced are flawless. A lack of understanding of the challenges that face less privileged students is to blame, and since he is a stubborn minister more concerned with forging a legacy than improving education, it is an ignorance he is happy to embrace.

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