Introduction of EBCs - seriously weak and probably failing

Fiona Millar's picture
It didn't come as much surprise to me last night to hear that Ofqual is now expressing serious concerns about the Coalition government's planned EBC qualifications in English, mathematics, science, history, geography and languages ( consultation on those here). In a letter to the Secretary of State,  sent several weeks ago but released yesterday after its existence was revealed at the Education Select Committee, the exam regulator sets out in some detail what is wrong with the current proposals.

There now appears to be a formidable coalition questioning the very existence of  exams at 16 and also challenging the nature of the EBCs. Headteachers from maintained, academy and fee paying schools have aired their concerns, the CBI has weighed in, as have representatives of the creative industries and performing arts. All of these groups have legitimate worries - some of which I outlined here. The over riding fears are that the proposals will inevitably narrow the post 14 curriculum, but also have a knock on effect on KS3 and KS5 if schools choose, or are forced, to wind down their art, music, technology and drama departments. There is some evidence that this is already happening. Without a clearer idea of what accountability measures will run alongside the EBCs - and this is as yet very vague - it is hard to know what perverse incentives might result over the longer term. But there is clearly a risk that  pupils will be offered less choice, and fewer opportunities to pursue pathways that meet their individual needs.

There are also fears that young people with SEN will get excluded from the new qualifications - at the moment those who aren't able to take the new exams will be fobbed off with something called a "Statement of Achievement" - and that the proposals are being rushed through in a way which could lead to chaos.  Developing new robust, well tested qualifications is a lengthy business - often taking 6-8 years. However the EBCs are scheduled to be in schools by September 2014. In the intervening period there needs to be a response to the current consultation,  publication of the KS4 curriculum and a consultation on that, decisions about the EBCs content with a possible consultation on this as well ( remember the statutory consultation period is 12 weeks).

Then the awarding bodies will need to develop the qualifications - I recently met a senior figure at one exam board who explained that they are already trying to do this but as he put it "in the dark". Ofqual will need to accredit the qualifications and a competition will need to be carried out to determine which  will be  made available to schools. The consultation states that there should only be one qualification in each subject and exam boards will need to slug it out to win the right to offer the chosen one.The Ofqual letter released yesterday reveals serious concerns about this latter point. If competition between exam boards is to be eliminated, some providers may lose subject specialists and then be unable to develop A levels in the subjects for which they had not secured the EBC. "The system would lose a large amount of subject expertise" state Glenys Stacey, Chief Ofqual regulator. She recommends that this competitive process be put to one side for now.

But this is not the most worrying aspect of her letter, which questions whether it is realistic for one single assessment, without tiers, coursework, modules, and reliant on a terminal exam, to do all the things that the government states it should, and whether the new system can successfully hold schools to account.

The consultation on KS4 reform states that the new qualifications should be of high quality, be internationally respected and able to meet the needs of the whole ability range, stretching the top end, engaging those of lower ability. They should also  develop the skills and knowledge needed for employment and further study, encourage better teaching , provide a signal of achievement to employers, colleges and universities and hold schools to account.

But Ms Stacey says: "Our first concern is that the aims for EBCs may exceed what is realistically achievable through a single assessment...our advice is that there are not precedents that show that a single assessment could successfully fulfil all of these purposes."

And ther is more! She goes on  "In the short term ( and following every subsequent EBC competition) the new qualifications will not provide a good basis for school accountability in the year they are introduced, because there will be predictable variability in outcomes at school level; some teachers will adapt and prepare better than others for the new qualifications. The GCSE English experience this year shows starkly how school acceptance of outcomes can be damaged when unexpected variations occur. We believe that parallel strands of accountability testing are needed, at least in English and mathematics, that can run across the transition period and provide evidence of changes in the underlying quality of teaching".

Finally she points out that "first class qualifications with the characteristics you are looking for in EBCs will be significantly less reliable in the technical sense (ie the consistency of repeatability of results from one assessment to the next). Good marking of structured essay questions is quite subjective and can never be entirely captured in structure mark schemes. This variability will make EBCs less suitable for accountability measurement, which requires highly reliable tests with minimal susceptibility to marking challenge. We therefore advise that consideration be given to broadening the base of secondary school accountability measurement."

It is a pretty damning indictment. No wonder Mr Gove didn't want to volunteer this information himself yesterday. No -one seems to want these new exams, they are being rushed ( probably to suit the political timetable and the date of the next general election) they aren't fit for purpose and there may be a negative repercussions throughout the education system.

But let's not forget the most important point - strangely not included in Ms Stacey's letter. This isn't just a debate about the technical merits of one type of assessment method vs another, or a vehicle for political point-scoring ( always Mr Gove's default position). This is about changes that will impact on the lives of tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands of young people.

Ms Stacey's last paragraph explains that she is copying the letter to Sir Michael Wilshaw, Chief Inspector at Ofsted.

I suggest he applies the same same rigorous standards to this shambolic process that he does to schools and give us his own judgement. As far as I can see at the very best it has  serious weaknesses, but a more realistic assessment is that it is failing the pupils whose lives are most likely to be affected.

NB For anyone who is concerned about EBC and the future of the 14-19 phase, please read this consultation which has been prepared by the Heads Roundtable Group that I wrote about in the Guardian in October. Deadline is on December 10th - same day as the government consultation closes. Please respond to open up the debate to alternatives to current organisation of curriculum and assessment.


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Francis Gilbert's picture
Thu, 06/12/2012 - 15:50

It would astonish me after all of this criticism that Gove presses ahead. Has Stacey killed off the EBac?

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 06/12/2012 - 16:44

According to the Guardian, Gove told the Education Select Committee that he would overrule Ofqual:

'Nonetheless, it seems Gove remains undaunted. He told the committee he would be willing to overrule Ofqual and press ahead if he believed the changes were right: "If they still had concerns and I still believe it is right to go ahead then I would do it, and on my head be it."'

This attitude may appear tough his supporters - but to his growing number of detractors it appears dictatorial, inflexible, dogmatic and rather frightening. And to think there are actually people who think Gove would make a good PM. He's proving disastrous for English children and he would be dangerous if he were ever to enter No 10.

terrywrigley's picture
Thu, 06/12/2012 - 22:59

I agree, everybody should respond to this consultation. I'm afraid even many of the opponents haven't got to grips with the document, which is extremely vague and misleading in parts.

The GCSEs are to be replaced by English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs) in some "core academic subjects" (4.9) and by something different and as yet unnamed in other subjects (4.7).

Passing the new EBCs will be harder than a GCSE grade C (5.4). Let us assume a B (it could be an A?), around 40% manage this in English or in Maths. Considerably fewer will get the full English Baccalaureate (EB) since this will require getting an EBC in English, English Literature, Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, a Language, and History or Geography.

Almost everybody is supposed to be entered for the EBCs but the majority will fail. They will get a grade not as a certificate but to tell them how badly they did and whether it's worth retaking later.

This is going to lead to massive demoralisation. It belies the claim in the consultation document (3.2) that they aim to retain 'universality', as with the GCSE . The introduction of GCSE as a common qualification at age 16 reflected the fact that everybody gained a full secondary education (11-16), and mainly in comprehensive schools. Abandoning it signals the demise of universal and normally comprehensive education.

Beyond this, the EB marginalises all kinds of studies (creative arts, ICT, design and technology, religious education, vocational options, as well as understanding contemporary society, politics, media, and so on.

Candidates will be mainly assessed through timed written exams. Ironically, the iGCSEs allow up to 50 percent coursework (teacher assessed and moderated by the exam board). I wonder how the government will stop schools entering students for iGCSEs (which the DfE has recently recognised for its accountability statistics) rather than the EBCs.

David Price's picture
Fri, 07/12/2012 - 13:30

I wish I shared your optimism Francis. He's already said he will overrule Ofqual if he feels like it. His determination to have his legacy in place before the end of the current parliament seems to be over-riding everything (including listening to others and plain common sense).

Incidentally, I heard today that University of Lancaster has told it's Music lecturers to stop accepting applications for Music from next year. And yet Gove denies that the narrowness of Ebacc is affecting arts subjects!

Despite the best intentions of Heads Roundtable, and all the groups Fiona mentions, I fear the only people he will really listen to will be the electorate. Where is the parental opposition?

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 07/12/2012 - 14:20

Even the Telegraph shows misgivings about the proposed EBCs. A retired independent head, Tommy Cookson, despite being rather starry-eyed about academies, said he'd had letters from parents worried about EBacc, in particular:

1 The syllabus is unknown.
2 The standard is unknown.
3 How the content will be decided.
5 How the deadline of 2015 is to be met.
6 Whether there are sufficient number of teachers qualified in EBacc subjects.

In conclusion, Cookson wrote:

"For those parents whose child is coming up to GCSE age, there are still many questions. It can quite reasonably be asked why the Government has not allowed for a longer period of consultation on what could be a once-in-lifetime overhaul of our secondary education system."

He and his parents are not alone in being concerned about the headlong rush to "reform" the exam system. Cookson explains Gove's impetuosity:

"One answer is purely political. Michael Gove is doing what he can while he can. If he acts quickly, he will entrench his reforms before the next general election in 2015... The age-old problem with educational policy is that it isn’t suited to the short-term solutions that come with the electoral cycle of politicians. It does much better when it evolves at a steady pace over longer periods of time."

Fiona Millar's picture
Fri, 07/12/2012 - 18:32

Here is the response from the National Children's Bureau to the consult ion. - calling for a broader suite of subjects to be included and for more time to be spent developing the assessment.

terrywrigley's picture
Fri, 07/12/2012 - 21:49

Please sign the NUT's joint petition urgently (supported so far by NAHT, NUS, Musicians' Union, Equity and many key individuals).
Gove is planning a two-tier system which will give most candidates a fail grade, to be registered on a 'statement of achievement' rather than an English Baccalaureate Certificate. It will reward only the highest attainers and condemn the rest. (See my earlier comment.)

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sun, 09/12/2012 - 17:46

Yes Terry, someone else pointed out that Gove said that he'll overrule Ofqual, but I thought the whole point of Ofqual was that it adjudicated whether exams were fit for purpose. How can he do that?

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