THE ENGLISH BACCALAUREATE: A PERFECT STORM AHEAD
An essay by Professor Michael Bassey, 6 December 2012
STOP PRESS ! In the House of Commons this morning (7 February 2013) Michael Gove has withdrawn his proposals for replacing GCSEs with EBCs describing it as 'a bridge too far'. A bridge, of course, needs to join two sides and that is what Gove was failing to do. He is however trying to 'beef up' GCSE. The pertinent question must be 'With education continuing to 18 why have external assessment at 16?" MB 7 February
SIX KEY GCSEs TO BE REPLACED
Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, says that GCSEs in English, Mathematics, sciences, history, geography, and languages are to be replaced by baccalaureate certificates. These will require higher standards of students than GCSEs and will be awarded on the basis of written examinations taken at the end of two-year courses.
The intention is that in September 2015 schools will begin to teach the new syllabuses in English, mathematics and science to 14-year-olds who will then be examined in summer 2017. History, geography and languages at GCSE will be replaced by baccalaureate certificates later.
Other subjects, including art, music, drama, dance, design and technology, religious studies, physical education and sports, business studies, statistics, home economics and other subjects, will continue to be taught and examined with GCSE syllabuses.
GCSE replaced O-level and CSE in 1988 and year by year the numbers of students gaining high grades increased. Some of the improvement may have been due to GCSEs becoming easier (the Government calls it ‘grade inflation’) but much of it is attributable to improvements in teaching methods, better assessment methods that test learning rather than memory (about to be swept away by our ‘reforming’ Government), and above all the sheer hard work of students and their teachers.
On Monday 17th September Michael Gove made a statement in the House of Commons announcing the partial end of the GCSE examination system, following a report in the previous day’s Mail on Sunday that ‘600,000 pupils will start EBaccs in English, maths and science from 2015’. Labour's Stephen Twigg, shadow Secretary of State, told the minister to abandon his plans and hold a genuine consultation. Hansard’s account of Gove’s nine-minute announcement and Twigg’s reply deserve a wide audience since the proposal will affect every child and the national economy - unless arrested.
Mr Gove said:
“With your permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the future of examinations and assessment in our schools. The examination which the overwhelming majority of young people now sit at 16 – the GCSE – was designed with the best of intentions [but] is no longer right for now. … We believe it is time to tackle grade inflation and dumbing down. And we believe it is time to raise aspirations and restore rigour to our examinations. … We will invite exam boards to offer wholly new qualifications in the core subject areas of English, mathematics, the sciences, history, geography and languages. … We plan to call these new qualifications – in core academic subjects – English Baccalaureate Certificates. … Success in English, maths, the sciences, a humanities subject and a language will mean that the student has the full English Baccalaureate. We expect that everyone who now sits a GCSE should sit this new qualification. … We propose the first teaching of new certificates in English, maths and the sciences in September 2015 with other subjects following.”
It was a nine-minute statement. Stephen Twigg, the shadow secretary of state, replied icily:
“I thank the Secretary of State for sending me advance copy of the statement. I appreciated having an hour to consider it, although considerably more advance notice was given to the readers of The Mail on Sunday yesterday. It is deeply disappointing that, once again, the Secretary of State’s plans for GCSEs have been leaked to the press before being presented to Parliament. Head teachers to whom I have spoken to today are angry, and rightly so, that issues affecting the lives and opportunities of their pupils have been drawn up by Ministers in secret and then leaked to selected media outlet without proper Parliamentary scrutiny or consultation with parents, teachers and pupils. … This proposed new system does not reflect the needs of society and the modern economy. … I suggest that he shelve these proposals and start a genuine consultation. Ahead of today’s announcements, what has he done to consult employers; what has he done to consult education experts; what has he done to consult head teachers?”
Twigg was right. The plans announced in a mere nine minutes are unacceptable. Mr Gove would no doubt reject that view since the Department for Education launched a consultation document on that day, seeking responses by 10 December.
“Consultation” deserves to be in parantheses because, as the following two paragraphs from the summary show, phrases like ‘restore rigour’, ‘undermined’, ‘raise the level of challenge’, ‘perverse incentives’, and ‘boost their performance’ are more of a political rant than a genuine invitation for advice.
“1.1 This consultation sets out the Government’s plans to restore rigour and confidence to our examination system at age 16, which has been undermined by years of continued grade inflation. We need to raise the level of challenge in our Key Stage 4 qualifications to match the best in the world. Raising our expectations of attainment for all students will drive up standards as teaching and learning improve to meet that challenge. High expectations are essential to creating a step change in standards and allowing us to keep pace with our international competitors.
1.2. Our proposals will restore confidence by ending the perverse incentives created by the interaction of our qualifications and accountability system. At present, schools are incentivised to boost their performance by seeking examinations in which they believe their students may achieve higher grades, and Awarding Organisations have a corresponding incentive to compete for market share by providing less demanding examinations. “
How can it be a ‘consultation’ when the obvious key question of ‘Do you agree that EBCs should replace GCSEs?’ is not asked. The first question of the ‘consultation’, not asked till page six of the document is:
“Do you agree that the new qualifications should not be called ‘GCSEs’?”
Curiously, answering either ‘Yes’ or “No’ to this negative question could be construed as agreement according to whether the respondent focuses on the beginning or the end of the question, ie ‘Yes I agree’ or “No they should not’. It is reminiscent of “Have you stopped beating your wife?” where either ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ means you have beaten her!
WHY REPLACE THE GCSE ?
The “consultation” gives three main reasons for replacing GCSEs in English, mathematics, science, history, geography and languages by yet to be designed courses leading to the new qualification certificates.
First aim: Higher expectations of schools and students
“First, we need to make sure that our qualifications are fit for purpose, provide a greater and more honest level of challenge and differentiation between students’ attainment, and that they are providing students with the level of knowledge and skills expected in our highest performing international competitors. (para 4.1)
“We will look for high expectations of the performance students need to demonstrate, rigorous demands for assessment and challenging requirements for content to ensure students will be studying a world class syllabus. (para 5.1)”
There is a clear intention that the EBCs will be more demanding than the present GCSEs. Thus:
“[The EBCs] would demand that a candidate was performing beyond the minimum levels which are currently required to achieve a C grade at GCSE – but it would still be something we believe all children with a good education should be able to achieve. (para 5.4)”
So there we have it. The DfE believes that if only children had a good education they would all be able to reach the higher grades. And they must all go for it:
“We expect that everyone who now sits a GCSE should sit this new qualification. (para 4.5)”
Moreover government is going to move the goal-posts to put more pressure on struggling schools to achieve higher standards.
“We will refocus the Department’s floor standard measures which identify underperforming secondary schools … to take account of performance in our new English, mathematics and science qualifications from 2017. (para 4.4)”
Second aim: One Awarding Organisation per subject (world class syllabuses) to stop schools ‘shopping around’
The second aim is to replace the GCSE examination boards with one Awarding Organisation for each subject so that schools can’t “shop around” for “less demanding qualifications”, nor the exam boards compete for business by developing these “less demanding qualifications”.
No evidence is put forward for either of these allegations that seem to be more myth than fact. The exam regulator Ofqual is charged with maintaining standards across the boards and the Cambridge Assessment board among others has vigorously denied the allegation of boards offering easier exams.
What will be expected of these Awarding Organisations? The DfE pretends that it will leave it to them.
“We do not believe that qualifications are best designed by Government. Awarding Organisations, drawing on the expertise of universities and learned societies, and schools and colleges, need to have the freedom to apply their professional expertise and experience, based on evidence of what is working well in the highest performing jurisdictions around the world. (para 4.3)”
Well amen to that. But whether the ‘highest performing jurisdictions’ (what a pompous phrase) are good models for England is questionable. (The obsession with the phantom of ‘world class’ is mind-boggling).
But will the DfE leave it to the Awarding Organisations? It doesn’t look likely.
“The new EBCs must ensure coverage of the key knowledge that should be expected of those who may cease to follow these subjects after the age of 16 and also areas that would be needed for progression to higher levels of study in qualifications that draw upon the subject. (para 5.17)”
“To aid Awarding Organisations in their considerations, we will set out our broad expectations for the subject content we would consider absolutely essential for these purposes, drawing on analysis of the best qualifications offered in other countries and using the consultation period to work with subject and education communities to develop appropriate content. We will be looking for Awarding Organisations to build upon these expectations by working directly with higher education institutions and learned societies to create a syllabus for each subject that is truly world class and provides an excellent preparation for further study at A-level, in Apprenticeships or in vocational qualifications. (para 5.19)”
Also the DfE will impose a structure on the Awarding Organisations.
“The qualifications should differentiate the stronger performance of those ready to progress in the subject at A-level and likely to achieve top grades, to encourage excellence and to assist colleges and universities in making decisions about entry to competitive courses. … The qualifications will grade lower levels of performance in particular to assist students who will retake these subjects, post-16. (para 5.4)”
So the ‘freedom’ suggested for the Awarding Organisations is to be limited by the ‘broad expectations for the subject content’ and a ‘structure’ required by the DfE. And what about this one:
“We will be looking for Awarding Organisations to provide evidence that the qualification they are submitting is world class. (para 5.21)”
Are the existing Examination Boards going to engage in this cut-throat bidding with the phantom expectation of ‘world class’ provision based on the DfE’s ‘broad expectations for the subject content’?
“We expect that a range of Awarding Organisations will submit newly developed qualifications that meet the new conditions. (para 8.3)”
What will happen if they all decline?
Third aim: Toughen up the assessment methods
Assessment is to be 100% by end-of-course examinations wherever possible.
“Our preferred approach is to remove internal assessment [which replaced coursework in 2009] from all six English Baccalaureate subjects. … We intend that EBCs should be assessed 100% by externally marked examinations. (para 5.10)”
The insistence that for most subjects assessment be based on end-of-the-course written examinations is contrary to the wisdom that has developed over recent years that other forms of assessment give much more specific and individualised support to student learning. The ability to write successful essays on unseen topics in the space of a couple of hours is required of journalists but few others. Most people are not good at this.
The consultation document says that examination aids should only be permitted in rare instances.
“Currently, students are permitted to take examination aids into some examinations, including calculators for mathematics and science papers, periodic tables in chemistry and source materials in history and geography. We believe that the use of such examination aids should be restricted wherever possible, to allow students the best opportunities to demonstrate their true abilities and competence. (paras 5.14 and 5.15)”
The reason that examination aids, course work, modules, and resits were introduced was that they not only gave candidates a better chance to demonstrate their calibre and potential, but also enhanced their learning for understanding rather than learning for soon-forgotten regurgitation, notwithstanding the extra work it gave to their teachers. These changes enabled more students to gain successful grades: this was not the ‘grade inflation’ that the consultation paper attacks, but a legitimate opportunity for what might be termed ‘grade expansion’ – ie more candidates who were able fairly to demonstrate their ability when there was less emphasis on writing answers under the stress of examination conditions.
Unfortunately, due to the pressure of performance targets and league tables, malpractices occasionally occurred. But the elimination of these does not require ill-thought out and wholesale change.
PUBLIC STATEMENTS OF CONCERN
Mr Gove does not believe in listening to teachers’ representatives. If he did, this is what he would hear:
“What is being proposed is, blatantly, a two tier-system. Pupils who do not gain EBacc certificates will receive a record of achievement which will be seen to be of far less worth by employees and colleges.” Christine Blower NUT
“It is wholly inappropriate, overtly prescriptive and does not suit the needs of young people or potential employers in the 21st Century. Important subjects such as music, art, RE and IT have not only be downgraded but those who teach them are facing redundancy.” Chris Keates NASUWT
“The plans for GCSE replacements are hugely simplistic and fail to recognise the complexity of learning and teaching. The government has failed to think through how qualifications and the secondary curriculum need to work together to develop the knowledge and skills young people need.” Martin Johnson ATL
“Our fear is that the focus on a limited range of subjects will be to the detriment of disciplines like music and religious studies, which are no less rigorous but which could see provision reduced as schools focus on the EBacc combination.” Russell Hobby NAHT
The responses of the teachers’ unions and associations to the “consultation’ are not yet in the public domain, but an open letter from myself and 21 fellow professors of education to the Prime Minister is. It refers to a ‘perfect storm’ ahead.
“We express grave concern at the way in which major educational changes are being introduced which we believe will harm the prosperity of our nation and limit the life-chances of our young people. A perfect storm is brewing in education and we believe you need to act quickly to prevent it engulfing our schools, restricting the young, and seriously damaging our economy. We refer to the replacement of the GCSE in certain subjects by what are to be called English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs). …
“There are many concerns being voiced. Here are some of the more serious:
· The creative disciplines such as art, music, drama, and dance are excluded from contributing to the ‘Full English Baccalaureate’.
· The craft, design and technology disciplines including home economics are excluded.
· Physical education is excluded.
· Religious studies are excluded.
“These are all subjects that for many years have had a firm place in the curriculum of secondary schools, each leading to a GCSE. Also in recent years the subjects business studies, statistics, media/film/TV and social studies have become popular, and these are also excluded from the Baccalaureate.
“They are not being excluded from the school curriculum but by being excluded from the EBC framework will be perceived as second class subjects and students and their parents will begin to doubt the wisdom of choosing them. Thus the life chances of young people will become limited.
“These EBC-excluded subjects will not be contributing to the ‘performance target’ of the percentage of students in a school or academy achieving the ‘Full English Baccalaureate’. Because of the way that league tables affect schools (which we consider to be a managerial device that has long since passed any usefulness it may have had), managers will necessarily devote resources and curriculum time to the EBC-core subjects and seek to appoint more teachers for them, to the detriment of the other subjects.
“The EBC will have a knock-on effect on sixth form teaching and, in total, will grievously affect the contribution that our education system makes to both the cultural life of the country and to the creative and innovatory development of our economy.
“A number of critics have seen the EBCs as promoting a two-tier system of education. We believe it is much worse – a three-tier system consisting of:
· Those who obtain the ‘Full English Baccalaureate’ – which will become the admission ticket to universities;
· The second class who have EBCs in some subjects but not sufficient for the ‘Full English Baccalaureate’;
· The third class who have not gained any EBCs and leave school with only ‘a record of their achievement in each curriculum area’. [At present 99% of students leave school with GCSE certificates graded from A* to G]
“When parents realise that their children are being classified in this way, when industry begins to find that new recruits lack the creative and design attributes that an entrepreneurial society needs, when young people feel they have been deprived of broad opportunities for study that previous generations enjoyed, when the less academically able recognise that the ‘record of achievement in each curriculum area’ is worth little compared to the erstwhile GCSE awards in the lower grades, and when teachers lose their jobs because the subject they teach has been downgraded and fewer are needed in that subject, there will be widespread outrage: the educational equivalent of a perfect storm.
“The intention that there should be only one examination board franchised for each EBC subject for a five year period will throw the boards into chaos. Those that don’t get the franchise will wind down their staff and next time round find it difficult to make a realistic bid. …
“Too much is rapidly being changed without effective discussion. Certainly, like all systems, our education can be improved, but it needs to come from a developed consensus among the many who have a stake in it: teachers, young people, academics, business people, writers, artists … and politicians. With Raising the Participation Age to 18 the focus of educational debate should be on how worthwhile study will be provided for those who hitherto have not stayed on in school. Otherwise this too will be an element of the coming storm.”
The arts world has been particularly vociferous in realising that art, music, design, drama, and dance are being demoted in the school curriculum.
“Government has decided to ‘reform’ the [educational] system in a way that could seriously damage the creative future of this country. … Children need to develop their imaginations and exercise their visual skills and emotional creativity. Learning through and about the arts enables young people to make, learn and express themselves.” Nicholas Serota Tate Director
“It is vital that the Government take on board that the creative industries are important to our economy and that we must recognise that within education.” Andrew Lloyd Webber
“The UK is one of the greatest creative nations in the world – remember the Olympics this summer? But if art, design, music, drama and dance are squeezed to the edges of the curriculum, Britain’s creative economy could be destroyed within a generation. We cannot let this happen.” Martin Roth Director, V&A Museum
“Our writers, artists, designers, dancers, actors and architects are the envy of the world. Arts education should definitely not be marginalised or censored.” Lord Rogers architect
In addition a number of faith groups and the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education have expressed concern that Religious Education is excluded from the EBC subjects.
The CBI has said that, while welcoming high value qualifications, these should be at age 18 not 16. It seeks a pause by Government in order to consider the fundamental issue of the role of examinations before age 18.
Ofqual, responsible for examination standards, is critical of the technical practicality of the proposals. “Our first concern is that the aims for EBCs may exceed what is realistically achievable through a single assessment. … Our second concern is the proposal that EBCs sit at the centre of the secondary accountability system. … Our third concern is about introducing completely new qualifications and removing provider competition at the same time.” Letter of Glenys Stacey, Chief Regulator to Mr Gove 19 November 2012
Yes, a perfect storm is brewing.
STAY AT THE GRINDSTONE UNTIL SHARPENED
The Raising the Participation Age legislation of the previous government will require young people up to the age of 18 to be engaged in some form of education in school or elsewhere. What the government should be consulting on is the steps that schools and academies can take to ensure that all pupils benefit from this change. Yet all that is put forward is that students who
“are not secure in English or mathematics at 16 [will] continue to study for these qualifications.” (para 4.5)
The fact that they may be utterly bored at lessons in grammar, spelling, punctuation and simple computations is not mentioned. Young people are being seen as commodities to be improved and their teachers as factory operatives following managerial instructions.
THE UNSTATED AIM OF THESE CHANGES: THE HIDDEN AGENDA
The “consultation” document states at the beginning that it
“sets out the Governments plans to restore rigour and confidence to our examination system at age 16 (para 1.1)”
But who actually wrote it? There are no names attached. Yet the word ‘we’ features over 60 times:
“We intend … We are determined … We do not believe … We will refocus … We expect … We have already taken steps …”
Phrases like ‘a more honest level of challenge’, ‘accountability frameworks to incentivize schools’ and ‘the highest performing jurisdictions in the world’ suggest that it was Michael Gove, Secretary of State, who drafted the paper.
It is well known that he has no objection to schools being run on a for-profit basis. He has already supported various privatization measures affecting aspects of education. On 29th May 2012 the Guardian carried an article by Jeevan Vasagar reporting on the education secretary’s evidence to the Leveson Inquiry:
“MICHAEL GOVE OPEN-MINDED OVER STATE SCHOOLS BEING RUN FOR PROFIT There are some of my colleagues in the coalition who are very sceptical of the benefits of profit. I have an open mind. I believe that it may be the case that we can augment the quality of state education by extending the range of people involved in its provision.”
One doesn’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to see that two of the major proposals in this document could lead to the privatization of schools.
· the EBCs will be more demanding than the GCSEs (para 5.4)
· the level for identifying underperforming schools will be raised (para 4.4)
The result of these measures (if enacted) will be that more schools will be castigated as ‘failing to meet government expectations’.
This could lead to a future Conservative government privatising these schools in order ‘to meet government expectations”. Sell them to a commercial enterprise with a free hand to improve them. The new ‘owner’ could then sack teachers who did not follow strict demands about teaching, hire new non-union staff on lower wages (easier because of widespread unemployment) who were prepared to work as educational technicians under managerial direction, rather than as professional teachers committed to the appropriate development of the young, and expel substantial numbers of ‘difficult’ pupils in order to meet the government targets. And in the process take a profit from taxpayers. Wow!
I fear that this is the hidden agenda of the English Baccalaureate. Mr Gove is in a hurry so that if the Conservatives do not win the next election the structure for future privatisation will be in place for when they are next in power.
 House of Commons, Hansard column 653 17 September 2012  ibid column 654  Department for Education Consultation: Reforming Key Stage 4 Qualifications, 17 September 2012  Christine Blower, General Secretary, National Union Of Teachers, 21 September 2012  Chris Keates, General Secretary, NASUWT, September 2012  Martin Johnson, Deputy General Secretary, Association of Teachers and Lecturers, 17 September 2012  Russell Hobby, General Secretary, National Association of Headteachers, 5 October 2012  Michael Bassey and 21 co-signees, www.tinyurl.com/Badbac  Nicholas Serota, Tate Director, The Guardian 2 November 2012  Andrew Lloyd Webber, House of Lords, Hansard column 1614, 19 November 2012  Martin Roth, Director, Victoria and Albert Museum, Museums Association conference, Edinburgh, 9 November 2012  Lord Rogers, architect, The Guardian, 3 November 2012  Department for Education Consultation: Reforming Key Stage 4 Qualifications, 17 September 2012  idem  Jeevan Vasagar, report in The Guardian 29 May 2012