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Don't EBacc learning into a corner

Educationalists warn that the English Baccalaureate is leading to a narrowing of the curriculum, with pupils at risk of becoming 'factory-farmed kids'

Posted by Julian Owen | September 18, 2018 | People, policy, politics

The number of entries from students in England taking GCSEs in subjects not included in the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) – the school performance measure introduced in 2010 by then-Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove - fell by 11.1% from 2017 to 2018. In the same period, the number of entries in EBacc subjects rose 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 recent concerns 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 assessed on the number of pupils taking GCSEs in Ebacc-related courses, with at least 70% of a school’s score coming from results in these subjects. The Government’s target is for 90% of all GCSE pupils to choose an 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 EBacc GCSEs. Subjects outside the EBacc can often be either completely excluded from the 14-16 curriculum, or find themselves competing for space in a single timetable slot. 

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

Rudolf Eliott Lockhart, Chief Executive of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales, 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.” 

The National Association of Teachers of Religious Education 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, it concluded that the eight most important qualities of success were 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 of the Association for Citizenship Teaching, said: “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.”

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