The English Baccalaureate: three different responses

We examine three possible responses to the challenge of the Ebac in relation to Year 9 options

The world today seems very different from last year. This time last year we were dealing with the effects of volcanic ash clouds, coalitions were something that European governments formed - not ours - and England cricket teams did not win by an innings in Australia! In education I don't think any of us foresaw the English Baccalaureate (Ebac) or predicted that performance data would be published retrospectively. In fact 18 months ago many of us were wrestling with an entitlement to 14 lines of Diploma learning that had the potential to reduce the number of students studying GCSE option subjects and in some cases decimate subjects altogether.

Suddenly we are in a situation where we are being judged on how many students study and are successful in history, geography and a modern foreign language. In most schools we cannot greatly affect those figures until summer 2013, when our current Year 9 students are examined. To make matters worse many schools reduced their staffing in these curriculum areas. Many of us will have read about the school that last year made language teachers redundant and is now trying to recruit for those very same positions.

Many school leaders have wrestled with their position in relation to Year 9 options and the Ebac. This has been fascinating to observe, with the three main responses that have emerged from schools perhaps mirroring the major leadership models that we use to tackle many issues.


Compulsion is the response which has been the hardest for many schools to implement but is likely to have the greatest impact on results. A number of schools have returned to having an options block comprising modern foreign languages and have created a humanities column from which students must choose either history or geography. The real difficulty for many schools though has been in staffing. The sudden creation of all these extra classes has required more specialist teachers. Some schools may have had the necessary staff already; having perhaps redeployed them to teach other subjects, the schools moved them back to teach their original specialism. For schools that did not replace such staff when they left or in some circumstances were made redundant, however, it has meant looking for new staff. I would also imagine in these days of financial belt-tightening that staff in other curriculum areas may have been ‘let go'.

This is the solution that has been favoured by the high-performing secondary schools and grammar schools because their students are most likely to achieve the Ebac measure. In addition, some would argue that the students at these schools and possibly their parents may be more compliant in accepting this forced change.

Free market

The response at the other end of the spectrum has been to almost ignore the Ebac and continue as before. This could be for a huge range of reasons. For example, some school leaders may feel that they have developed a curriculum that suits the needs of their students. They believe that the broad range of subjects offered will give the children the skills required for the future and improve behaviour through increased student achievements. Other school leaders may have made no change because they have decided that we could have a new government in four years' time and the Ebac may disappear even quicker than the Diploma. Some school leaders may have taken the principled decision that the Ebac is not a qualification for students but a construct to judge schools and hence why should they force students into something which has no value to them. Finally, school leaders may have decided that they are just not in a position to make any staffing changes so have to keep the curriculum as it is.


The third response is the one that I chose to use in my school. It can be best described as a Nudge, which is also the title of a book by Thaler and Sunstein. The premise behind Nudge is that we, as leaders, act as ‘Choice architects'. Rather than forcing people into doing something, we create the environment where more people will make the choice we would like them to.

In terms of an Ebac option system the Nudges at my school have included:

  • explaining to parents and students at options evenings and in options letters what the Ebac is and for which students it is more appropriate
  • manipulating the options blocks so that the column featuring history and geography does not also contain a very popular subject that only appears once in the options columns, such as GCSE PE or triple science.

We could have produced a Nudge options brochure, broken down into sections for the Ebac curriculum, the options and perhaps wider studies - this final section could have encompassed compulsory subjects which are not part of the Ebac, such as PSHE, citizenship and physical activity.

The Nudge response is likely to be the one chosen by comprehensive schools with students with a range of abilities. After all, there is little point in forcing students to study the Ebac subjects if they are unlikely to get a grade C in all of them or if forcing them to do so leads to an increase in behavioural issues.