Despite the EBC, schools can continue to offer a rounded education
Michael Gove has high ambitions in his reform of GCSE – 'to restore rigour and confidence' after 'years of continued grade inflation' by raising 'the level of challenge … to match the best in the world'. Yet not everything will change.
The new EBC qualification
The successor to the GCSE will, like GCSE, be sat by almost all students. There will be no two-stream O-level/CSE-style system, as previously flagged by Gove. Although he doesn’t like tiering, some examinations will be tiered. Priority will be given to the six Ebac subjects – English, mathematics, sciences, history, geography and languages.
The main changes include:
- a single awarding body for each of six Ebac subjects
- no modular examinations
- no coursework or controlled assessment in the Ebac subjects
- fewer re-sits; a rise in the level of demand to pass
- a ban on examination aids, such as the periodic table in chemistry or calculators in mathematics and science papers, although these might be permitted in solving higher-order mathematics problems
- a change from A*-G to, probably, 1-10
- a new name, the English Baccalaureate Certificate, or EBC.
The starting date for teaching the new EBC courses is 2015, with the first exams in 2017.
Not known yet are the critical changes expected in the accountability framework and floor targets (to be announced soon), in order to 'take account of performance in the new English, mathematics and science qualifications from 2017'.
What does this say about the government’s commitment to offering a rounded education to Key Stage 4 pupils?
The six Ebac subjects are a priority for curriculum time, but ministers expect them to take the same time as GCSEs currently take and they 'do not want the new qualifications to prevent greater breadth of study and a balanced curriculum that includes time to study other subjects'. But the detail, such as it is, suggests otherwise.
The proposals aim to 'ensure that our qualifications match the best in the world', but there is no acknowledgement that other countries are moving away from purely knowledge-based examination syllabuses towards curricula that aim to develop skills and personal qualities, such as creativity and teamwork, in young people. Only in one paragraph does the consultation paper on the proposals state that the government aims to provide students 'with the level of knowledge and skills expected in our highest performing international competitors'.
Ministers say they do not want the new qualifications to prevent greater breadth of study - but the detail suggests otherwise
The emphasis in England will be on knowledge acquisition – more algebra in mathematics, greater depth on the basic laws of science – with some choice in the set texts offered in English and the periods studied in history. On all these, the government will set out its expectations about subject content before the awarding bodies submit their plans.
The development of these syllabuses should, the government suggests, be taken forward in parallel with the planning of new syllabuses in A-levels and vocational qualifications.
What else can secondary schools offer their students beyond the academic ‘core’?
Preparation and autonomy
When GCSEs were introduced in 1988, the planning of the teaching at Key Stage 4 was rapidly followed in most secondary schools by a re-appraisal of the curriculum at Key Stage 3. Similarly, in the period leading up to 2015, schools would be wise to take the style of the EBCs and the associated examinations into account in the way in which they teach 11 to 14 year olds.
Greater emphasis will be put on learning facts and answering traditional examination questions. However, it would be a tragedy for the next generation if this is as far as curriculum change goes in the 2014-15 preparatory phase.
The greater autonomy preached by Michael Gove is not just for academies, especially in curriculum design – and particularly at Key Stage 3.
He says little about vocational education, but we know that the Wolf Report recommendations form the basis of current government policy in this area. Even though vocational course results may count for little in future performance tables, the moral purpose of improving the life chances of all young people and giving them the education that is best suited to their needs means that schools will continue to offer vocational courses where appropriate.
Skills and personal qualities
Primary and secondary schools aim to give all young people a fully rounded education and this aim can be put into practice through the design of a curriculum, in every key stage, that develops knowledge, skills and personal qualities in a planned way. Even at Key Stage 4 in the core subjects, skills built in the earlier key stages can be further developed if schools consider carefully how best to weave skills development into the teaching programme.
The warp and weft approach of knowledge and skills leaves young people better equipped for further education, life and work
Schools can develop their own list of desirable skills – the CBI list of employment skills is a good place to start. This warp and weft approach of knowledge and skills takes no extra time, but leaves young people much better equipped for the next stage of their education, for life and for work.
Implications for schools
The EBC proposals represent a big change in assessment and schools will have to look at their assessment practices and decide the extent of the change that is needed.
On curriculum, priority is already being given by secondary schools to the six Ebac subjects and this will be reinforced as we approach the 2015 starting line.
Several crucial pieces of the jigsaw are missing, notably the way in which the accountability tail will wag the curriculum dog.
Several crucial pieces of the jigsaw are missing, notably the way in which the accountability tail will wag the curriculum dog
However, these changes – after a consultation, much work on the part of awarding bodies and a general election that could change everything – do not come in until 2015. That means that three cohorts of young people will take their GCSEs first.
For them, and for the students who come after them, there is time for schools to look at their curriculum and decide, against the template of the present Key Stage 4 and the proposals for the future, how best they can give all young people the fully rounded education that will prepare them for the future.