Marcus Gheeraerts 'De Lieure & de la Tortuë', 1578
By the time you read this the Ebacc consultation will have closed. We’ll be a little nearer knowing what government thinks we should do, but nowhere nearer doing it. May I share some thoughts, dear readers?
First: to what problem was Ebacc the solution? Gove believed that state schools were sloppy about knowledge so enforcing a core of academic content would put this right. This was at a time when GCSEs or ‘equivalents’ had been bent out of shape by the pressure of the performance tables. Knowledge is fundamental to teaching and academic rigour should be the norm. So far so good.
Second, the subjects (English, maths, two sciences (see below), hist or geog and a modern foreign language)? People got terrifically agitated about the omission of RE and you’d think I would too, as a theologian. I used to argue that RE is a universal entitlement which everyone ought to be doing so it didn’t need including. I'm now persuaded that it should.
Third, bizarrely, if you do triple (separate) science, you have to do all three for two of them to count. That’s just barking. What’s wrong with doing chemistry and physics? Sort it out.
Fourth, languages. Take a deep breath. Tackling a foreign language is a hallmark of being civilised and languages rewire the brain in a particular way. I know some outstanding languages teachers, whole departments of them, but we’ve made a real pig's ear of languages education in the UK and we need to pause, reflect, plan, fund and start again.
Why? We don’t have many languages teachers because we made languages optional at GCSE years ago. That meant fewer young people with languages A levels, fewer undergraduates und so weiter. Then there’s the British antipathy to the foreign tongue, so we behave as if languages were an unnecessary luxury. We beat ourselves up for not being like the Dutch and the Germans, but motivating a young person to learn globally dominant English is different to motivating them to learn a language for which they might not see a ready and pressing use. We should teach Mandarin and Arabic widely but that’ll take a generation and some serious funding to get the teachers. Worth it if the result is an outbreak of global understanding?
But it gets worse. We need to overhaul how we examine languages because we do it really badly. GCSE languages are about the hardest of them all and the same paper is used for native speakers as for ab initio learners. Making any progress is hard even for acquirers of average speed, let alone those who take longer. We need a total redesign of assessment in languages so we can actually measure what children know, rather than what they don’t know. It’s a really depressing experience for a gloomed youth if, after a shedload of work with a gifted teacher over 2, 3 or 5 years he ends up with an F or a G. No Ebacc for you, chum, no matter how hard you’ve worked.
Which is my fifth point. Hiding under its umbrella of aspiration and rigour, the Ebacc is outrageously unfair and a denigration of slow and steady learners. There are two ways of solving this. If Ebacc was a progress rather than a threshold measure then it would encourage all learners to have a go at some hard stuff. If it was assessed at level 1 as well as level 2 we might have an education system that embraced rigour, knowledge and integrity for all. What does it say about us if we only value the swift? What does the fable say?
Year 11 are deep in the alternative reality of maths. There’s a joke doing the rounds from the States: ‘math, the only place in the world where someone buys 60 watermelons and no-one wonders why’. Today’s question considers Joe who bought a hot dog, a coffee and a cheese sandwich (and a prescription for statins), then Sita who buys two unspecified snacks followed immediately by Sam who wants a saxophone. Sam’s in the wrong shop: he needs geography or business as well as maths and he needs music to be valued too. For the government as well as year 11 there is much work ahead.