The English Baccalaureate is a new school performance indicator – the joint brainchild of Messrs Gove and Clegg whilst in coalition. It is linked to the GCSE examinations and is designed to measure the percentage of pupils at school achieving five A* – C grades in “core” subjects; Maths, two Sciences, a modern foreign language, English and either Geography or History.
The term baccalaureate is a misnomer, for unlike its European equivalent, it does not in itself qualify a student for university entrance. To enter a UK university, students will need this qualification as well as three good A levels. A more accurate and honest comparison is with the pre-GCSE matriculation certificate, once the almost exclusive prerogative of the grammar schools, which were and remain highly selective. Unsurprisingly, then, the new indicator has been much criticised by teacher’s unions, heads of schools, and professional commentators in the TES. They view the new initiative as elitist and backward looking.
The aims of the new system are to stem the decline in the numbers of 16 year olds studying languages and science, and to provide all children throughout the UK, irrespective of aptitude, with a rigorous education to better fit them for “the world of work.” It is their intention to end “dumbing down”, i.e. pupils choosing an “easy” range of GCSE subjects rather than “hard” ones – which are more valued by prospective employers. It is also designed to replace current league tables (themselves unpopular in schools) by which academic achievement is judged. Competing exam boards are to be abolished in favour of a single examining body, setting and marking all papers. It is a reform long overdue, and to be hoped that academic standards and consistency of marking will indeed improve as a result.
Schools which opt out of the new system are not going to be eligible for an “outstanding performance” endorsement by Ofsted. This has, predictably, angered teachers. The number of subjects on offer at A level is also going to be reduced, or uncluttered, depending on your point of view. And whilst the positive expectations of this new system are highly laudable – the uniformity of marking, aiming for higher grades in the aforementioned core subjects, and setting of clearer achievement benchmarks to aid employer and university selection – it is far from certain they will be realised. In fact, the number of subjects currently offered by many schools is likely to be reduced. Vocational education is also set to suffer, just at a time when the government is keen to develop its apprentice initiatives.
The really substantive problem is that there are simply not enough teachers (and crucially, too few subject specialists) to implement the program effectively across the board. The problems of poor recruitment and retention of academically qualified staff in the very subjects the government seeks to make mandatory are particularly acute ones, while school budgets will remain quite inadequate as long as austerity economics continue. Which, for the foreseeable future, they certainly will.
Terry Jones taught History to adult students taking Foundation courses at a College of Higher Education prior to their entry into full-time degree courses at Warwick and Coventry Universities. Since taking early retirement, he has travelled widely in Eastern Europe, pursuing a life-long interest in 19th and early 20th century European history. He has been a GCSE and "A" level tutor with OOL since 1996.