GCSE Curriculum narrowing under EBACC

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GCSE entries to subjects outside the Government’s EBacc school performance measure slide

The number of entries from students in England taking GCSEs in subjects that are not included in the EBacc – the school performance measure introduced in 2010 by then-Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove, in one year has fallen by 11.1% from 2017 to 2018, while the number of entries in EBacc subjects has risen by 4.5%. A group of organisations representing subjects outside the EBacc is warning that this narrowing of the school curriculum risks producing ‘factory-farmed kids’ who lack a broader range of vital knowledge, skills and interests. It follows concerns cited last week over a decline in entries to non-EBacc subjects at A level, with a drop in overall entries of 7.79% in design and technology and 22.4% decline in religious studies.

The EBacc requires that pupils take English language and literature, maths, a modern language, a science (including computer science), and history or geography at GCSE. Schools are measured on the number of pupils that take GCSEs in EBacc subjects and these subjects are prioritised when schools are compared in relation to the amount of progress pupils make. At least 70% of a school’s score comes from results in EBacc subjects. The Government’s target is for 90% of all GCSE pupils to choose the EBacc subject combination by 2025. It is unsurprising therefore, that most school leaders prioritise these subjects in the timetable, sometimes allocating more time for teachers to complete GCSE courses in EBacc subjects than for those not included in this measure. Subjects outside the EBacc therefore can often be either completely excluded from the 14-16 curriculum or find themselves competing for space in a single timetable slot.

However, leaders of six subject organisations representing religious education, art and design, design and technology, citizenship, and drama are concerned about the dangers of a narrower curriculum caused by schools feeling under pressure to force pupils to take subjects they are less interested in or have less aptitude for. As a result, pupils are not being allowed to explore other vital disciplines that create balanced, rounded individuals who are prepared for the challenges and demands of modern life.

Rudolf Eliott Lockhart Chief Executive of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales (REC) said, “While the Government’s ambitions to produce pupils with an ability in a core set of subjects are laudable, the unintended consequence of the EBacc measure is that essential knowledge and skills are being lost and we risk producing factory-farmed kids, who are compelled to take a narrow range of subjects simply to satisfy Government targets.”

Ben Wood, Chair of the National Association of Teachers of RE (NATRE), adds: “The EBacc fails to recognise the value of the knowledge and skills beyond its core disciplines and, as there are only so many hours in a school week and school leaders understandably concentrate on what is being measured, students’ choice is being restricted.”

The group points to major employers, which have publicly stated the importance of broader skills. Google, for example, used to hire only computer scientists with top grades from elite universities. But, after examining its employee data, concluded that the eight most important qualities of success were in fact those associated with broader skills, including critical thinking, insights into others, creativity, and problem solving. The company subsequently broadened its recruitment policy to include humanities majors, artists, and MBAs.

Liz Moorse, Chief Executive, The Association for Citizenship Teaching (ACT) adds, “Recruiters such as Google are recognising that, while STEM subjects are important, wider knowledge and a broader skillset are equally important in a modern democracy and multicultural society.

“It’s vital that we safeguard against a narrowing of the curriculum that will leave students educationally impoverished, employers limited in their choice of candidates, and our society culturally worse off.”

Tony Ryan, Chief Executive, The Design and Technology Association, said: “The very nature of our subject is often misunderstood. At its best, D&T takes knowledge gained elsewhere on the curriculum, adds context and subject specific content and allows students to apply themselves to solve real problems, thus enhancing peoples’ lives. The application of this 'design thinking' is a high order skill set that is increasingly demanded within business and industry and which has to be taught and practiced.

“In a world increasingly dominated by technology, robots, artificial intelligence and virtual reality. A recent report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) identified the three skill sets deemed most important for employability as being; complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity. These same skills can be found at the very heart of every design and technology department.”

Lesley Butterworth, General Secretary of the National Society for Education in Art and Design (NSEAD), commented, “A young person who has achieved this qualification in art and design has a portfolio of skills and knowledge fit for purpose for the challenges of the 21st century. Participation and engagement in art, craft and design at this level of education gives a unique and meaningful experience, developing transferable skills and personal expression, building confidence and self-esteem and signposting to career paths in the creative, cultural, digital media and heritage industries.

“Engagement in art, craft and design gives young people a stake in the future.”

Chris Lawrence, Trustee for National Drama, added: “Learning through drama is a natural human process engaged with at a very early age - our brains are 'wired' for it. We recognise it as a powerful pedagogy and a creative process that provides a compelling means of exploration, expression and making meaning. Through it we learn what it is to be a human being. We believe that restricting its availability to children, such as in the current EBacc, deprives them of a means to further develop their human potential.”

School Leadership Today
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