Campaign against the retrospective English Bac gaining momentum

Fiona Millar's picture
Here is an interesting article from the Sec Ed website about the government's sneaky move to make the English Bac retrospective. It quotes John Townsley, a leading figure in the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, and a head of one of Gove's new academies, calling for the government to think again.

Elsewhere in the TES, Brian Lightman, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders also urges Michael Gove to do one of his now familiar U turns, reflecting criticism of the English Bac we have seen articulated on this site. The arguments against seem to be hardening around what is left in and out of this new wrap around qualification, and the ongoing exclusion of RE and other more practical, but also challenging and stimulating subjects like Art, Music, Drama or applied languages and science.

Above all the decision to make it retrospective is seen as hugely unfair for schools that couldn't possibly have known three years ago when pupils were choosing GCSE options, that they would be judged by a completely different benchmark.

Definitely time for Mr Gove to think again on this one.
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Francis Gilbert's picture
Fri, 07/01/2011 - 18:25

I couldn't agree more strongly with the sentiments expressed by teachers up and down the country. It's very unfair for the Bacc to be introduced retrospectively and quite frankly farcical for "dead languages" to be put on a par with Modern Foreign Languages which are "living" languages: you can't go on an exchange trip to Ancient Rome. Furthermore, the logical conclusion of including subjects like Biblical Hebrew but excluding many Arts subjects and RE and PE is that these "dead" languages are more important than these vibrant, living subjects.

Andrew Old's picture
Fri, 07/01/2011 - 20:21

I think it comes down to whether you think education is meant to "stimulate" (Fiona) and be "vibrant" (Francis), or whether you think it is supposed to make children smarter. If it's the latter then ancient languages are always going to be taken more seriously than Drama or RE.

As for the EB being retrospective, this seems like justice to me. Every headteacher who screwed over their students with dumbed-down subjects in order to gain a couple of league table points is going to be exposed. I can only imagine you two are so hostile because it will expose state comprehensives more than grammar schools or private schools. But I guess you can comfort yourselves with the fact that a lot of Academies will get caught out too.

Laura McInerney's picture
Sat, 08/01/2011 - 15:14

Andrew, I'm not clear on your argument in the first paragraph. Do you mean that ancient languages will always be taken more seriously than Drama because they will make children 'smarter'? The problem with this is your definition of 'smart'. There are many interpretations of that word and I'm not at all convinced that learning Latin makes one 'smarter' than learning Drama. After all, I have seen Latin lessons where children coloured in comics of latin-speaking characters and vaguely attended to any serious learning. On the other hand I've seen Drama lessons where students seriously considered the symbolism of Shakespearean monologues and evaluated how best to bring them to life on stage. That's because there is nothing inherently intellectual about Latin above Drama, it's much more about how it is taught and where in the learning taxonomy it is pitched.

My main problem with the retrospective EBacc is that it is unfair on students. For example, at school I learned far more in RE than Geography or History due to my excellent teacher, and my interest in terrorism and religion (due to the impact of the Warrington bomb on my area when I was 10). Given this my choice is not surprising or 'non-academic', and it was extremely helpful in my later study of PPE at Oxford. However, if I was 17 this one choice would have cost me an 'EBacc' even though my grades were considerably higher than my peers who did history or geography. Not getting the Ebacc could potentially impact future university or job applications.

It is for these reasons that I believe the future benefits of an EBacc are debatable. But arbitrarily handing out prizes to students who did nothing but flukily pick the 'right' subjects is downright unjustifiable.

Laura McInerney's picture
Sat, 08/01/2011 - 15:18

I deleted from the above that I had chosen to study RE GCSE, and this is what would have cost me the EBacc. Seems Gove's enthusiasm for eradicating RE is even seeping into my typing!

Andrew Old's picture
Sat, 08/01/2011 - 18:21


Yes, I do think that GCSE Latin (as opposed to Latin colouring) will do more to make kids smarter than GCSE Drama. (or for that matter the vocational variation on it). Obviously that doesn't necessary have to be true for each individual lesson, but as a course of study it's hard to miss.

With regard to RE GCSE and history GCSE, frankly I know which discipline I'd rate as a better way to learn about terrorism, particularly IRA terrorism. That said, as RE is a compulsory subject anyway it shouldn't be an either/or situation.

P.S. Don't get me started on Bloom's Taxonomy.

Nigel Ford's picture
Sat, 08/01/2011 - 20:24

Andrew, a few years back now, my daughter passed GCSEs in Eng Lang, Eng Lit, Maths, Double Science and French. She also passed Dance, Drama and RE (as opposed to Latin, History and Geography). She got 10 passes in total.

I really don't see whatever path she'd chosen, that having that particular combination of passes would or should have been detrimental to her prospects.

Laura McInerney's picture
Sat, 08/01/2011 - 21:07

I wasn't necessarily talking about Bloom's taxonomy. There are other hierarchies of learning, and I think we are all agreed that some things you do at school are more difficult than others, or else how do you come to the conclusion that Latin is more difficult than Drama?

I didn't need to know what terrorists in the past had done. I'd just lived through it. I wanted to understand whether the religious beliefs they claimed were at the centre of arguments held up to scrutiny when you looked at the actual religion, as well as escaping being taught by inferior Geography & History teachers.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sat, 08/01/2011 - 23:52

I am a bit mystified about Andrew's assertion that Latin makes you smarter than Drama. As Laura says, on what criteria? I'm not sure you can have league tables of subjects like this. It's a nonsense: drama is one of the oldest subject disciplines there is.

Laura McInerney's picture
Sun, 09/01/2011 - 00:50

There actually *is* a sort of league tables for subject difficulty. I'm led to believe the Durham Studies have been influential in Tory thinking, and the 2008 study on the relative difficulty of subjects is available here:

A few caveats:
- There are various different measures used to test the difficulty, but many of them look at student aptitude scores on maths and vocab/spelling and then look at the average correlation with grades. Students with low scores often get much higher in some subjects suggesting that these are 'easier' but, unsurprisingly, these subjects tend to draw on a different skill set - e.g. drama or art. Nevertheless, it usually is the case less 'academic' students (in the maths/english sense) do tend to find these subjects 'easier'.
- Secondly, the Coalition seem to have failed to notice that citizenship and ICT are 'harder' than english, maths, and geography. It does, however, maintain their argument that MFL is hard.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sun, 09/01/2011 - 09:53

Thanks for this Laura. I hadn't seen the Durham research before, but looking over it makes me think that this illustrates the problem with quantitative research methods being used to "measure" the relative difficulty and therefore "quality" of subjects. As you say, the "skill sets", the abilities needed in Drama and Art are very different from those in Science and the Humanities, and not really comparable. I worry that subjects that involve the "body" -- ie movement, voice, performance -- are being unfairly downgraded and too much emphasis is being placed on "intellectual" subjects. Subjects like Drama, Music, Dance and Art require very different "intelligences" but are not as easy or hard as other more "academic" subjects. They are just very different. I know, for one, that Music is wonderful at developing flexibility of thought, instilling a sense of routine, enabling children to multi-task (read music and play at the same time). It's quite frankly farcical to say that it can be compared with Science.

Andrew Old's picture
Sun, 09/01/2011 - 13:25


Schools are hardly the only determinant of somebody's prospects. However, I don't hesitate to say that it would be better *academically* to do another academic discipline rather than a hobby like drama or dance.


Glad to hear you weren't referring to Bloom, however, I do wonder what "taxonomy of learning" you were referring to.

Secondly, I assumed you wanted to *understand* and know about the terrorism you experienced rather than simply have an opinion about it.

Thirdly, while the dumbing down of exams is probably the most obvious issue with the curriculum it is not the only issue. Citizenship GCSE might well be difficult but unlike, say, history or geography, students studying it at Key Stage 4 (i.e. almost all of them) aren't generally expected to take the GCSE.


Are you actually talking about "drama" or just studying plays? It is hard to see the former as an academic discipline at all, let alone one of the oldest.

Bob Wolfson's picture
Sun, 09/01/2011 - 17:19

1. What we mean by 'harder' depends on what we expect youngsters to do in their exam. The Latin I studied for O and A level required a great deal of rote learning, together with some understanding of grammar. I am not sure why this is 'harder' than a drama course that might require me to understand emotions, learn lines, place a particular interpretation on a role, and act in company with other people.
2. There is no philosophical basis - taxonomical, epistological or otherwise - to what is in and what is out of the EBacc. The selection is a largely personal one of 'what the Secretary of State thinks is a good thing'.
3. The result is hugely anomolous - no RE; any single science is acceptable (surely we'd expected an educated young person to have a grounding in each of the major sciences?); no requirement for ICT, which will be the major working tool of the century etc etc
4. No emphasis on what we expect young people leaving school to be able to DO - like work with others, present their views or findings coherently both orally and in writing, evaluate their own learning and identify how to improve it etc etc. But those are all 'S' (skills) words that were word checked out of the White Paper.
It's all a bit depressing!

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sun, 09/01/2011 - 18:37

GCSE Drama embraces the writing, acting, and studying of plays, a "discipline" which the Ancient Greeks possibly initiated. Sophocles wrote "Oedipus Rex" -- a play studied by GCSE Drama students -- and Aristotle started to theorise about their structure, themes and forms in "Poetics".

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sun, 09/01/2011 - 18:39

Like Bob, I too did O and A Level Latin; it involved much rote learning and mechanical translation exercises. I don't feel it benefitted me hugely, despite the fact that I won the school prize for it twice!

Laura McInerney's picture
Sun, 09/01/2011 - 19:44

I think we're being unfair. Latin is clearly a helpful subject. I never studied it, but most of my uni friends did and they were able to work out phrases in philosophy that I didn't know and they had a better understanding of language than I did that helped with creating clear sentence structures.

On the other hand, I did drama. I used a lot of the skills I picked up to write speeches, take part in debates and these helped me become college president.

The point is that *both* subjects are helpful, both can be 'easy' or 'hard' it really depends the depth that you go into. There's no point arguing that Latin is some terrible subject when there are circumstances where it is quite helpful, but I also find it weird to say that drama is somehow 'easy'. I have plenty of friends who would find it difficult to read a play and the embody a character from the clues in the text but would find it a cinch to memorise Latin phrases, and vice versa.

Laura McInerney's picture
Sun, 09/01/2011 - 19:50

Andrew - on the learning taxonomy front the developmental psychologists such as Vygotsky, Skinner & Piaget all developed 'taxonomies' of learning, though they may not have called them that they certainly argued about what tasks were more complex and the order they would be achieved. Then there's Bloom, but there are also challenges to him through Anderson's Learning Taxonomy (my preferred one), and SOLO taxonomy based on Bateson's Levels of Learning.

Frankly, they're all just ways of talking about the fact that when we learn we are doing a variety of complex things. *Anything* can be made harder or easier by varying the complexity of the task, though psychologists may disagree about which bits come first. This is why I believe Drama can be harder than Latin. Where I DO agree with you is that the GCSE Specifications have not always encouraged rigorous thinking or teaching. But that's as true of science as it is of Citizenship.

Andrew Old's picture
Sun, 09/01/2011 - 20:39

I did both GCSE drama and GCSE Latin.

One consisted of playing party games and doing skits, the other expanded my vocabulary massively and gave me the only proper education in grammar I ever got.

Laura, I can't help notice that a lot of what you are claiming are taxonomies are actually theories that are even older and more discredited than Bloom's. I will try to have a look at the ones I haven't heard of.

Laura McInerney's picture
Sun, 09/01/2011 - 21:44

Anderson's is newer, SOLO too. I agree taxonomies are debatable, but they all get at the point that there are various ways of learning and 'thoughts' come in different guises. Frankly I don't care for the idea of 'hierarchy' although I've done one or two Geoff Petty exercises that did help convince me (e.g. The Jabberwocky Problem on p.6,, apologies for annoyingly large font).

Is it fair for me to think that your dislike of drama is rooted in your school experience? I would be interested to know if your opinions would have been the same had you had a better drama teacher, and a worse Latin one.

I wish to register myself as a proud English Bacc failure. I did not do History or Geography, preferring instead to do Additional Mathematics and Music. Is there a website somewhere where all us EB failures can get together to trumpet this achievement? It's not just the retrospective aspect of this that is irritating. Some students know what they want to do from an early age and they should not be penalized because they want to focus on it, rather than conform to Gove's dippy agenda.

Nigel Ford's picture
Wed, 12/01/2011 - 14:13

I'm glad I'm in such select company as Professor Shaw.

Kath Richardson's picture
Wed, 12/01/2011 - 14:31

My quick comment on this is that restricting the availability of subjects and therefore decreasing choice is bad for all students.

All subjects can be made easy or hard, more 'academic', 'rigorous', 'practical' however you define these words.

I want my children to make a wide variety of choices, to be able to enjoy Science and Drama, and learn different skills and challenges in each. They both are useful and teach students different things.

Otherwise we might as well just have one subject and leave it at that.

Alison's picture
Wed, 12/01/2011 - 15:43

I think I am an E Bacc failure. I did English Lit English Language ,Maths History, Geography, Latin, French, Russian and Biology. Only one science. I think you need two for the E BAcc? I really regret not learning to type ( it wasn't available at my school) as I now have to struggle to type every day but find myself never speaking Latin...

Toby Barrett's picture
Wed, 12/01/2011 - 15:47

Another person who didn't get their English Baccalaureate here; I never did get on with French or Latin. However, despite being such a failure, I have managed to go on to get an MSc and become a College Lecturer.

Paul Shakesby's picture
Wed, 12/01/2011 - 18:23

Our academy yesterday issued a statement regarding the English bac
Please read it at

Michael Tidd's picture
Wed, 12/01/2011 - 22:27

I'm another EBacc failure - because my school offered a combined Humanities GCSE instead of separate History and Geography. Of course it stood me in good stead for my career as a primary school teacher, but what does that matter?

Francis Gilbert's picture
Wed, 12/01/2011 - 23:38

I found it laughable that Gove was saying on the radio today that his English Bacc was imitating what happened on the Continent; as far as I can see the French Bacc is much more wide-ranging than this one.

Sharon's picture
Thu, 13/01/2011 - 04:16

Another EBacc failure here. I did English (x 2), Maths, double science, sociology, RE, and French but chose IT over history.

Just as well this meaningless qualification wasn't around at the time or I'd have been written off as a failure at 16 rather than going on to get a first-class degree and a postgraduate qualification. But fortunately I had some excellent teachers who spotted I had aptitude in IT and encouraged me to take the subject. Just as well, as I now work in the web industry.

Interestingly, I regularly send members of my team on drama-type courses in order to improve presentation skills, and clearly IT skills are a must, so from and employer point of view these skills are really valuable. The exclusion of both from the EBacc in favour of subjects like Latin is quite baffling IMHO.

Mark's picture
Fri, 14/01/2011 - 20:25

I only did 5 'O' levels (1975) - English lang, maths, physics, french and latin. Despite gaining an A grade in each, I'm a Bacc failure apparently. The easiest exam was Latin by a mile - just the one piece of unseen translation, no oral and the rest of the paper learnt by rote. Its use to a civil engineer? Err....

Jane Eades's picture
Fri, 14/01/2011 - 22:12

I am also a Bac failure. I failed Latin and hated Geography and History (all 3 were taught by teachers with handy ruler action). I have always had a poor memory and those subjects were dependent on rote learning. However, I did end up with 8 "O" levels: 2x English, 2x Maths, 3x Science and 1 Language.

The Government's action is like entering people for a 5000 metres race for which they train assiduously. They then run the race and it is announced after it has finished that the winner was the person who ran the fastest first 100 metres.

Gove seems to insist that his own education is the bench mark that the whole country should aspire to. That is precisely the reason he is so, so wrong. My education in the '50s was very little preparation for the 21st century, neither is Gove's a model for the future. We need to look forwards, not backwards and focus on enabling the future generations to learn. After all, when I was at school, the computer was an abacus and log tables and my Dad was working on a project to reproduce speech at a very primitive level.

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