Grammar School heads take issue with Gove over the EBacc

Fiona Millar's picture
It is always interesting to see what the other side is thinking so this document makes a fascinating read. It is the January newsletter of the Grammar School Heads' Association and suggests that , even among his natural allies, Secretary of State Michael Gove's policies are causing some consternation.

Remember that last year, Mr Gove attended a parliamentary event organised by the Friends of Grammar Schools Association at which he was asked whether he would consider the expansion of selection education, to which he replied 'My foot is hovering over the pedal'. He still appears to cling to the notion that selective schools provide an 'engine for social mobility' which is odd since on average they take around 2% of children eligible for FSM, access is determined largely by ability to pay for expensive private tuition and in the era when the grammar/secondary modern divide prevailed, around 10% of the population went on to higher education and most of them were from professional or managerial backgrounds. Even Mr Gove's cabinet colleague David Willetts has seen the light on this issue.

However, even with his foot hovering over the pedal, all is not well in the grammar school camp. It would appear that after early enthusiasm for the idea of the English Baccalaureate , a league table metric to show how many pupils achieve five C plus GCSEs in English, Maths, a science, modern or ancient foreign language, History or Geography, members have had time to reflect on how that might affect their schools and are not happy.

The newsletter reports that very few grammars have provision that is 'fully compliant', they loathe the exclusion of RE, believe the definition of the 'balanced core' will narrow the curriculum for many students and disadvantage others in terms of post 16 and post 18 choices.

There would be perverse consequences for grammar schools ( Gove is become a master at creating these). In particular, second foreign languages may disappear, grammar schools may have to remove triple science from the curriculum, 'aesthetic' subjects such as Music and Art are likely to see a significant drop in numbers, some subjects may cease to be viable altogether, leading to staff redundancies  ( remember many grammar schools are very small). That problem will be compounded at sixth form level given the draconian cuts to sixth form funding that are about to be announced. Even though it all sounds rather familiar, this tale of woe made me wonder if the larger genuine comprehensive school might, paradoxically, be the best environment for the 'academic core' to flourish, accompanied by a range of other subjects that grammar schools will no longer be able to afford.

However Mr Gove should be worried since the heads observe that grammar school resistance could 'marginalise' the whole E Bacc initiative. Claims that it promotes academic rigour would appear 'hollow to the broader educational community' if grammar schools choose to ignore it, the newsletter states.

Stirring stuff. What can we expect to see happening next? Apparently some members of the GSHA are upset that their leadership has chosen NOT to run a public campaign against the EBacc, preferring instead to to use 'dialogue' to try and influence ministers to remove the flaws ( in other words broaden it).If no response is forthcoming then it is likely that most grammar schools will choose to ignore the EBacc, effectively joining forces with a burgeoning group of heads in academy and mainstream schools who are now openly rebuffing the E Bacc or creating their own alternative suite of qualifications.

The schools that are changing their KS 4 curriculum already may be acting in haste. There may be yet another Gove U turn on the way.
Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Francis Gilbert's picture
Sat, 12/02/2011 - 17:45

I think the points you make towards the end of your piece need to be considered very seriously by the governmerrnt. The cost-effective solution would be to amalgamate/confederate small grammar schools with their neighbours and have larger schools that offer more choice, with a "grammar-style" curriculum existing within them. Obviously, the EBacc situation needs an urgent re-think. If even grammar school heads are having doubts, the whole project looks dubious. It's fascinating to note that the new School Commissioner's former school did very badly in the EBacc. Perhaps she should have a word with Mr Gove?

Richard Blogger's picture
Sat, 12/02/2011 - 19:13

"they take around 2% of children eligible for FSM, access is determined largely by ability to pay for expensive private tuition"

You take (what is apparently) a verifiable statistic (2% FSM) and place it with an unverifiable sentiment. What is the evidence that students are tutored to pass 11 plus (you imply it is the majority). Its a genuine question and figures would be nice.

Also, how does that compare to, say, house prices in the catchment areas of the best comprehensives?

I ask because your unverifiable (until you give the evidence) statement "access is determined largely by ability to pay for expensive private tuition" could be countered with the equally unverified statement "and yet access to the best comprehensive is determined largely by the ability to buy a house in the catchment area".

(Also, have you considered that FSM take up may not be a good measure? It is a very demeaning benefit and kids do not like to be seen as "poor". A better measure would be the postcode of the child.)

Nigel Ford's picture
Sat, 12/02/2011 - 20:16

As well as the state grammar schools who are troubled by the narrow definition of the e bacc and the fallout in terms of other subjects, some of the elite public schools aren't too enamoured with this concept.

Now that iGCSEs are being given the same weight as GCSEs in terms of league table status, the tables are no longer a redundant vehicle for them and they will be judged on the same arbitrary basis as their more minor cousins and other state schools.

The head of the (misnamed) Newcastle GS has called the ebacc "complete nonsense" and the High Master (fancy name for Head teacher) of Manchester GS has called it "half baked" on account that Classical Civilisation does not count towards the threshold as a humanities subject!

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sat, 12/02/2011 - 21:58

Richard, I think directing you, as I did with Charlie Ben-Nathan and Ben Taylor, to Unlocking The School Gates might help. It's a substantive piece of research carried out by Barnados into the link between school admissions and child poverty.

Here are some important quotes:

"■ Half of all pupils entitled to free school meals, are concentrated in a quarter of secondary schools.
■ The top secondary schools (on a measure of getting five GCSEs at A* to C including English and maths) take on average only five per cent of pupils entitled to free school meals, less than half the national average.
■ The social make-up of schools in England is often not reflective of the neighbourhoods in which they are based. The difference between
the number of free school meal pupils on their roll and the number of free school meal pupils in the local electoral ward is as much as 30 per cent in some schools."

The report concludes that only an LA administered, fair-banding system would begin to eradicate the social segregation that goes on with school admissions. Basically, school choice leads to social segregation.

Sarah Dobbs's picture
Sun, 13/02/2011 - 07:24

Richard - just want to refer to your question about private tuition and the 11+. You clearly do not live in an area that has reatined the grammar school system. If you did, as I do, you will know that tuition for the test is the norm. I am a teacher, and I see how the system is played. The majority of kids who take the 11+ test are tutored. When my daughter went up to year 5 I was being asked in the playground as a matter of routine
a) who her tutor was
b) if I would take on other people's kids to tutor them.
When I said I would ignore both, but said I wished to send her to our local comprehensive, people were surprised because it IS the social norm.
And every year at school in the staffroom we always have the same discussion. "Isn't unfair that blahblahblah who got a level 5 for everything did not get into the grammar, because they were not tutored, when x, y, z, who only managed a top level 3 got in because they were?"
You would not need to conduct a survey here into who was being tutored and how common it is. It would be pointless. It would be as pointless as a survey on "who has pasta for tea?" Everyone just does.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 13/02/2011 - 11:42

In the Education Bill debate, Mr Gove said, “The sad fact is that only 16% of students succeeded in securing the mix of subjects that make the English baccalaureate, when every other developed country demands that its students have that suite of qualifications [Maths, English, Science, a Humanity and a foreign language] at 15, 16 or 17.”

In pushing the EBac, Mr Gove is again misleading us by suggesting that all other countries insist on all their students taking particular subjects. However, this is not the case.

In France, the “brevet” does not include Science.

In Germany only students at the “Gymnasium” schools take the Abitur examination. It is not a benchmark for all German students – it is only for those who are academically above-average, like the old GCE Ordinary Levels. Students at Hauptschule are awarded a Hauptschule Certificate which demonstrates that students completed their secondary education until age 15 and did not drop out. There is no final examination.

How many more developed countries do not require a prescribed set of subjects?

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 13/02/2011 - 15:58

This is how the OECD describes school-leaving examinations in Finland:

‘There is a National Matriculation Exam taken at the end of upper secondary school, but its function is to certify what the student knows, not to assess the quality of his or her school. Perhaps the most frequent question asked of Finnish policy makers is, therefore, “How, in the absence of annual external assessments and any form of outside inspection, do you assure that all students in all schools are receiving a quality education?” This question comes most frequently from visitors from countries like the US and the UK, which invest heavily in external accountability systems designed to produce more equitable outcomes. Even so, their results pale in comparison to the Finnish system.’

There is a huge lesson for Mr Gove here, but he does not seem to heed it. Instead, he pushes through the EBac by saying that all major developed countries have a similar suite of subjects for school leavers. But, as we’ve seen, this doesn’t apply to France, Germany or Finland.

Janet, this is a really interesting document; thanks for the link. What do you think about how the Finnish system splits children into academic or vocational routes? Indeed the upper secondary school that is mentioned is the academic route. Can we begin to emulate Finland when we have schools trying to be all things to all people?

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 13/02/2011 - 17:24

There is much in the Finnish system that we couldn't emulate - all-age schools for all pupils, for instance, would require massive expenditure. Also, although I would welcome a fully-state funded, fully-comprehensive system, the UK has too much historical baggage for this to be implemented (long-established public and independent schools alongside the state system, for example). However, there are aspects of the Finnish system that we could emulate:

1 National core curriculum with teachers trusted to decide how and what to teach depending on the needs of their pupils.
2 ALL teachers trained in subject specialism AND teaching methodology (no untrained teachers allowed).
3 Teachers trusted to assess and monitor their pupils thereby designing a curriculum which suits individual pupils.
4 ALL teachers trained to recognise and deal with special educational needs.
5 A school-leaving certificate which shows what each pupil can do and the level of attainment. This is the business of the school, parent and child only and should not be used to judge schools.
6 A stress on problem-solving, team work and so on, as well as subject knowledge.

The aspect of Finnish education that I find encouraging is the amount of respect given to teachers. They do not appear to be pilloried in the media as our teachers here (the ones in state schools, that is). And the teaching day is shorter - Finnish children spend less time in the classroom than ours but still manage to outperform our children.

Finally, Finland's excellent education system developed slowly and carefully. Finland stresses that their system did not come about because of high-profile innovations by individual politicians (Mr Gove take note).

Urban Head's picture
Sun, 13/02/2011 - 20:46

There are lots of ways of looking at the EBacc. Is Gove trying to reassert the 'old order' so that all those schools that pulled up their 5AC with EM through breadth now go back to the bottom of the tables so making it easier for the middle classes to see which schools are full of children like theirs? Is Gove trying to find a new measure that the market will chase, will then improve and he can present as a Tory success in 5 years? Does he think we really need a more traditional curriculum? Or is it just the whim of Ministers? Lord Hill is reported to have lobbied for the EBacc to only have History in as many OECD have 'history of the nation' as a compulsory subject. Nick Gibb is reported to want to have visited one Academy, he doesnt really visit schools, and ask every child where one particular country was.

Most inner city schools are creating an EBacc stream. Years ago we called such schools dual entry with a secondary modern and a grammar entry. So are we because we know that the leading FE Colleges will start to demand it for A level course entry. The real issue is ensuring that options start as late at possible so that the segregation, which is a good word for what is going on, starts as late as possible

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.