Thursday, 20 January 2011

EBacc to basics

You have to be amused about the whole EBacc thing, predominantly because a red rag has rarely so transparently been waved at the educational establishment with such little substance behind it. The spitting fury is palpable, from teachers and teaching associations of the "new" subjects suddenly downgraded, to the Heads of the best private schools who suddenly find themselves at the wrong end of league tables they never anticipated. But all this sound and fury is laughably unnecessary. Gove doesn't mean what people think he means by introducing the EBacc.

Presume for a moment that a bunch of advisors a few months back, who spent years in opposition denigrating Labour's target-driven culture, and recognising that brutal cuts in all sections of public spending were unlikely to promote raised achievement in difficult schools, had a meeting trying to work out how, by the 2015 election, to paint the ConDem government an educational success. You need a target that sounds nothing like the other targets. And referencing the past is always sound territory for Conservatives, so do that too. Where you'd start is where many teachers start a GCSE course: with a difficult, traditional baseline assessment on which they help students little, so as to get an idea of the natural lie of the land, uninfluenced by support or later political interpretation. And in the case of Gove's advisors, that would take the form of this question: how can we select a criterion which is currently very low, so everything counts as progress? Dare I say drama teachers might use a difficult traditional play as the baseline assessment at the start of year 10, or English teachers a challenging textual extract for analysis? Quite. All those Gs and Fs would be a good place to start: not so much things can only get better as the only way is up.

So only one in six students got the EBacc? And very few at top schools? Perfect. Even if there were a mass revolt, or even mass disinterest, there'll still be enough careerists, traditionalists and downtroddenly-obedient teachers to rapidly and dramatically swell the rate of uptake once they focus on this measure. Progress will be effortless and government able to claim credit for "restoring rigour to our educational system" (allegedly, whenever Tory Press Officers open a Press Release email template, the subject line autocompletes the word "Restoring" as the opening word.) But, cynicism aside - dare I say it as a centre-leftist and a teacher? - what's wrong with the EBacc as an idea?

There are two obvious responses: one, that it forces children to do subjects they hate, with little modern real-world relevance (honestly - how many geographers do we think UK PLC needs?), and problematic behavioural consequences in thousands of classrooms; and second, the protest that applying the statistic retrospectively to compare schools is unfair. The former is genuinely problematic, because it's about real education, and we'll come back to that; the latter, merely PR, and easy to dismiss. The cacophonic cries of "unfair / it's retrospective" are pointless: these claims are predicated on a target-obsessed mindset from speakers literally unable to see wood for trees. "But we worked so hard to skew our curriculum to the targets about A*-C!" goes the underpinning non-philosophy; "it was all rubbish and now it's worthless rubbish! That's not right or fair!" Well, nor was rigging your subjects to suit a league table, so quit pretending you're on a moral high ground - you're in the mire and now you simply have to wade to another point of it.

But, dear me! - all this kerfuffle from the right as well as the left. The terrible state of British education! So few educated well! Actually, since so few got the EBacc - since the outcomes are so low, it will be generally disregarded by most parents as an invalid comparison of real quality even if it marks an interesting point of note about the recent drift of education. As it happens, back in the Dark Ages when I left school, these traditional subjects were all you could do - ironically my GCSEs do form an EBacc, despite my now teaching subjects outside of it. A saner response is taken by my own head, who stops short of the word boycott but expresses general indifference to the publication event, indicating that his first priority is subject relevance to particular pupils. Good for him. It's quietly conspicuous that the options grid this year now discretely maximises the chance of pupils, however accidentally, selecting an EBacc combo (doesn't it sound like a Subway sandwich?), and doubtless we shall all landslip gradually and quiescently into the being-forced-to-count-against-it swamp over several years, but the expression of hope from some heads that there might be a general consensus to pay no attention to it (or better yet, to actively publish to their parents a rationale for ignoring it) is admirable in its disinterest - even if unlikely to come to anything other than the squished compliance so engrained in teachers' genomes. In the end, this profession does whatever it's told.

This is not to say that Gove doesn't have a point: these traditional subjects are indeed underdone; it would indeed be better if we had a little more of this kind of knowledge in society. The question is whether a focus this explicit and narrow will so dramatically hack back the new technology-type subjects that we'll be unable to staff the only kinds of jobs Britons are still likely to get in this day and age. As with much Tory education philosophy, it is hard to escape the sense of an initiative genuinely positively-intentioned (even for the most deprived) but designed at such a lofty Olympian height in the public school clouds that its effect at ground level will be massively ineffective at best - or heavily counter-productive. The "engagement" issue with comprehensive pupils ("but we have to do courses they'll enjoy!") may well be pandered-to too much, but shifting them forcibly onto the EBacc is only likely to produce a raft of hybrid courses (please await "IT History", "BTEC Geography of Sport" and "Maths Travel and Tourism") to avoid the behavioural car crash that would follow from forcing vocational-type students back into more academic-type lessons. The EBacc, ironically, will damage and devalue the vaunted purity of the subjects it aims to promote.

It will be adopted, though. The clever trick of the EBacc, and why it will succeed in dominating debate and forcing schools (in time) to adhere and be interested is that sheer narrowness of its list, creating an artifical debate. Notice that only Geography and History are permitted as Humanities. Cue a predictable debate (already now starting) where The Telegraph attempts to row religion back into the frame. This is likely to end with RE included as an equivalent option, thus affirming Gove's "flexibility" and "responsiveness." But it is unlikely those framing the original plan anticipated anything other than allowing this in when pushed anyway; it is less likely that Citizenship, for example, will be permitted to count, as this is a subject born and bred under Labour - no matter how much more relevant it is to the modern world and young people than RE. A sham debate will cover the absence of a real one. English Literature might be permitted the same exception, where Media Studies will not, although this government doesn't seem massively enamoured of books; Music and perhaps even Art might be allowed to slip in somewhere (as traditional arts), although Drama teachers will remember the 1988 curriculum's erasure of the subject from existence and would be wise not to hold out any hopes. By playing in a general sense to the traditional assumptions of a mostly educationally backward-looking populace (who, en masse, almost all did only these traditional subjects, but not for the reasons enshrined in the EBacc) Gove easily hands the fight over to becoming the teaching profession versus the traditionalist press - leaving himself a free hand to tinker, unobserved, in more specific ways elsewhere - while all the time watching the EBacc rate rise. Clever boy.

Of course the presented argument for the EBacc - that these other subjects are less challenging than the traditional ones - is simply not true. As anyone who's ever examined knows, a gargantuan industry exists around standardisation of difficulty between subjects - and it works. (Cynics might suggest that the public-sector cull will destroy this effective process and thus genuinely require a return to old subjects. Hush my lips.) Media cherry-picking of select questions for political comparison is a classic fallacy of argument from single example and simply cannot prove the superiority of one subject over another: they are cross-standardised, and it does work. But nonetheless, Gove is in some ways right: it is certainly true that "new" subjects like Media Studies, Psychology, ICT and BTEC Sports have proliferated - for all their genuine relevance to students, and (more importantly) relevance to real-world employment futures - beyond the real need for them; it is difficult to challenge the rightist assertion that schools are using such courses to bump themselves up the tables unrepresentatively. It is true that we could do with more students knowing a little more history, culture and grammar - Gove and The Telegraph are right in this. It is irrelevant that the measure is retrospective, and complaints to this effect more likely damn the complainer than the Secretary of State or his advisors or press cheerleaders. It is futile to suppose the measure will be ignored or go away. If anything, as yet another measure amongst increasingly many (GCSE A*-C, A*-C inc English and Maths, EBacc, CVA...) it will rightfully inform those bothered to interrogate the figures in the round about the nature of a given school; schools are free to explain which targets they pursue, how and why - and if overall success rate clashes with EBacc rates, forcing a thoughtful choice between relevance and traditional status could be a good thing indeed. The EBacc certainly mustn't be the Holy Grail - but it's a good idea - if used right.

The choice, as usual, is in the hands of the profession; will we be so moronic as to mangle all wider aspects of education for this one Crufts hoop, just as we did when the A*-C including English and Maths score became focal? We needn't. You can sell success in many ways - and forge it in yet more. If there is a brutalisation of relevant education for young people just to chase the EBacc percentage, teachers and Heads will have only themselves to blame. Don't hold your breath.