Will the EBacc lead to a narrowing of the curriculum? Ex school minister wants to bring back 1908 exams...

Francis Gilbert's picture
I debated the issue of the English Baccalaureate at the Spectator's schools conference this week with the ex-schools minister Nick Gibb, an Oxford classicist, and Anthony Seldon. The debate was perhaps most notable for the argument I had with Nick Gibb, which I've already blogged about here. The substance of it is worth considering in depth because I believe it gets to the heart of the problems with our school system today. First, I recommend that you watch/listen to Gibb's speech (below); I believe it's important because although Gibb is not an education minister anymore, there's no doubt that he's very close to Gove. It's not quite clear why he stepped down. His views are Gove's "told straight"; Gove has rhetorical gifts that Gibb doesn't quite have and, as a result, comes across as more reasonable and less contradictory than Gibb, but I believe he shares many of Gibb's flaws. Gibb states boldly in this speech that he wants to return to a "fact-based" curriculum and yet never states whose facts he wants taught. There are billions of facts; one needs discrimination to choose which ones should be taught. There's a strong argument that teachers should be empowered and trusted as far as possible to decide what facts are appropriate to teach. After all, the government has given this power to teachers in free schools and academies, why not in local authority schools? Gibb also gets tangled up in the speech about the teaching of the arts; he begins by prescribing the EBacc as a remedy (English, Maths, Sciences, MfL, a Humanities subject) but then suggests that arts subjects should be taught as well. At least, that's my reading of what he says, and it was Seldon's feeling too; we both exchanged glances when he started talking like this. It's quite confusing and inconsistent and suggests that the government feels very vulnerable about this issue. Gibb spoke lovingly about an exam he'd unearthed from 1908 which seemed to be all about listing capital cities; well, yes, this may be appropriate in certain contexts, but again I feel teachers should be trusted about they feel is appropriate for their pupils.

This is Gibb's speech.


My talk started the session. First, I showed this video about the wonderful creative curriculum at Gallions school:


Then I spoke:

My full PowerPoint is here:



I was quite nervous and feel I skipped quite a few points, but I think my passion came across for a creative curriculum. The statistics show that arts subjects are being dropped in schools as heads try and meet the demands of the EBacc. After the session, a headteacher said that this was the schools' fault not the policy's but I would beg to disagree; many schools, feeling vulnerable of being taken over by a chain or forced to convert to academy status, are desperate to keep the heavy squad from the DfE away and are "gaming the system", playing the game so that they're not in the firing line. The atmosphere of distrust and fear that the government is dreadful but it's clearly something that Gibb is happy with; he believes that he and Gove know best, better than experienced teachers. All their talk about freedom is pretty phoney; it's classic "double-speak" to coin Orwell's phrase, it suggests one thing but means in reality the absolute opposite. I had quite a long chat with Gibb after the session, apologising to him for being rather abrupt, but reiterating my central point that I don't feel he's in a position to adjudicate on what's right to teach in schools. He was very friendly and actually seems less insecure than other opponents I've annoyed. I quoted Mick Waters' statistics about the disappearing arts subjects in schools and he retaliated with the barb: "He was the guy that got us into this mess in the first place; he was the architect of the disaster 2007 National Curriculum!" So I'm not sure Mick is going to be policy advisor to the government in the next few years!

I have to agree with Gibb that I'm not a great fan of the 2007 curriculum; the English NC regulations are eye-wateringly complex and vague, and even by Waters' admission, not followed at all. I wasn't a huge fan of the Dearing NC curriculum (1992) but it looks like it's been the best so far, certainly better than the narrow thing that Gove has come up with in draft form, and easier to navigate than the 2007. How much money, effort and time we'd have saved if we'd stuck with it and possibly adapted it a little! This is what happens when politicians meddle; money is wasted, teachers are hassled and pupils don't benefit.

Gibb seemed quite affable though and invited me to discuss the issues further over tea! I wonder if he'll follow through!

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