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The EBacc 10 years on: should it stay or should it go? Case study one

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The English Baccalaureate (EBacc) is 10 this year. GCSE students are deemed to have achieved EBacc if they obtain a good pass in English (Literature or Language), mathematics, a science (individual or combined), a language (ancient or modern) and a humanity (defined rigidly as either history or geography).

Stuart McLaughlin, principal of Bower Park Academy in Romford, gives his perspective on appropriate curriculum provision at key stage four.

My vision for education has always been based on the premise that I want to transform the life chances of every student and ensure they are fully life-ready by the time they leave secondary school. To this end, learners need to be equipped with the qualifications, skills and attributes necessary to be competitive throughout their adult lives. Clearly, the curriculum has a vital part to play in this. 

Throughout my years of headship, until very recently, I always had the view that the curriculum, especially in terms of the qualifications offered, should reflect the needs of the local community. Consequently in 2005, when I was head of a school in Brighton serving a very deprived area, our curriculum had a strong vocational emphasis. I managed to secure £100,000 of funding to install an industrial training kitchen and hired a chef to teach NVQ catering.  

Since then there have been many changes to the qualifications framework, with the demise of many vocational qualifications, especially non-GCSE ones. However, as someone who has always been the head of schools serving deprived areas, I thought an academic curriculum would not suit my community of learners and was reflected in the options choices on offer.

When reading Michael Young’s book Knowledge and the Future School, I realised a rigorous academic curriculum was intrinsic to delivering my vision of students who were truly life-ready and able to succeed in a very competitive world. I was doing students a disservice by offering them a less academic curriculum compared to students from more affluent areas. Many of the students that attend my schools were already disadvantaged compared to those from other backgrounds.

I now realise that by offering them a curriculum that lacked academic rigour, I was further disadvantaging them. For example, they would be at a disadvantage when competing for academic A level courses or applying to the best colleges and sixth forms. They may not be in a position to attend Russell Group universities when the time came. Whereas the students attending schools where an academic curriculum was offered would have more choice about their future pathways.   

I wanted to place my students on an equal footing with all their peers and, hopefully, create greater social equity. Consequently, we have changed our curriculum offer to be more academic and rigorous, with:

  • a three-year KS3, including a full range of arts subjects to ensure breadth and balance;
  • a strong focus on developing core knowledge and building schemata throughout both key stages;
  • all students studying either history or geography or both in KS4; 
  • the majority of students expected to study a language at GCSE; 
  • a focus on quality first teaching of a challenging curriculum with high expectations of students’ attitude to learning.

In summary, by offering a more academic curriculum, our students will gain the qualifications that open the doors of opportunity for their future life. If students want to pursue a vocational career, they can still do so post-16 – the curriculum we now offer would not prevent that. However, they can also follow a more academic route too, whereas this may not have been available to them before.

You can read more school leaders' views on the EBacc - see case study two and case study three

First published 09 December 2019