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

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The English Baccalaureate (EBacc) is 10 years old 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 Beck, consultant senior leader at Sacred Heart of Mary Girls’ School in Upminster, secondary sector representative on NAHT’s National Executive committee and vice-chair of its Secondary Council, shares his views on the EBacc.

One size does not fit all as far as a rigid, prescribed hey stage four subject and qualification combination is concerned, although it could be appropriate in some contexts. EBacc has had a significant impact on the choice of A levels, as the majority of KS4 students choose to take subjects that they studied at GCSE. Consequently, in terms of the percentage of entrants at A level in 2019, subjects such as music (-6.4%), performing and expressive arts (-16.9%), theatre studies (-9.2%), design and technology (-5%) and media/film and tv studies (-13.8%) have declined.

At GCSE level in 2019, the majority of non-EBacc subject entries have also declined by 8.7% overall to less than a million, even though entries for art and design subjects (+ 9.5%) and business studies (+6.1%) did increase. The overall pattern for these subjects does not bode well for a country renowned for its arts and creativity, and it appears to be causing issues for the inclusion of pupils of all abilities and disabilities in the state education system where creative and practical subjects have been important catalysts to success and well-being, particularly for those experiencing physical, emotional and mental health issues.

Head teachers and principals are already subject to letters of advice from healthcare professionals requesting that the needs of an individual student are not being met by a GCSE curriculum that is so rigid, particularly with regard to the compulsory study of a language.

It might be salutary to note that the Russell Group universities softened their approach to those subjects not deemed ‘facilitating subjects’ in 2019, when they recognised the complexities of subject choice and the differing backgrounds and needs of students since they first published Informed Choices in 2011.

As an association, NAHT believes that EBacc as it stands should go because the subjects it comprises are too narrow and are not the only subjects that are rigorous, demanding and good preparation for later life. It is also opposed to the current government targets for EBacc, but it agrees that it is right that schools should be able to personalise the curriculum and determine which pupils take the whole EBacc and for whom it would be inappropriate, in accordance with the curriculum principles set out in the new Ofsted inspection framework.

NAHT also agrees that every student should have the opportunity to take the full suite of EBacc subjects if they want to, but that the vast majority of students in every school should not be forced to. What is vital is that school leaders are empowered to determine the curriculum and provision that is appropriate for their schools and its students. However, it does seem contradictory that such a principle is championed by the Ofsted inspection framework on the one hand, yet the same inspectors will also judge a school on the percentage of its of students that are studying the complete range of subjects that make up the EBacc – a rigid and unwavering system that narrows choice and personalisation and leaves little time for subjects outside of its core.

EBacc could remain an option in the secondary sector, but, if it does, it should not be compulsory for all, or even the majority, and it should embrace a much greater breadth of curriculum choice.

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

First published 09 December 2019