More duff info in DfE media spin after broadside against EBacc by former Tory education secretary

Janet Downs's picture
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Sir Kenneth Baker, former education secretary from 1986-89, fired a broadside against GCSE reforms in England in a letter to the Telegraph on 18 August.  He said the EBacc was ‘“squeezing out” technical, cultural and creative subjects from secondary schools.’

The Department for Education (DfE) hit back:

Since its introduction in 2010, the percentage of pupils taking EBacc subjects at GCSE has risen from 22% to 38%...’ 

This statement is misleading.   The EBacc didn’t apply when pupils took GCSEs in 2010.  It was introduced as a non-compulsory school performance measure in 2011.

It was not until July 2015 that schools minister Nick Gibb said there would be an ‘expectation’ that all pupils should take EBacc subjects at age 16.  In November 2015, Nicky Morgan, then education secretary, repeated this saying she wanted ‘to see at least 90% of students entering the EBacc’.

It appears, then, that the DfE has taken the date when a non-compulsory measure was first mooted and applied it retrospectively to show dramatic improvement.  This isn’t new, of course, Gibb used the same dodgy ploy last year.

It is correct to say, however, that there was a significant rise in pupils taking GCSE exams in EBacc subjects between 2012 and 2013 when the proportion rose from 23% to around 35%.   But this might not solely have been caused by a move to EBacc which was, remember, non-compulsory at the time.

Following the Wolf review of vocational education in 2011, Michael Gove, then education secretary, removed many vocational exams from league tables and reduced the equivalent value of those remaining.   Schools quickly switched back to GCSEs.  This boosted GCSE entries particularly in science subjects which count towards EBacc.

Let’s recap:

1         A non-compulsory school performance measure, the EBacc, was first proposed in 2010.

2         The removal after 2011 of many vocational exams and a reduction in the equivalent value of those remaining caused entries for GCSEs, particularly sciences, to rise in 2013.

3         In 2015 schools were told they were expected to enter 90% of pupils for all EBacc subjects.

4         Despite EBacc not being made compulsory for most pupils until 2015, ministers and the DfE apply the EBacc measure retrospectively to 2010 to claim improvement in the proportion of pupils taking EBacc subjects.

The only meaningful comparison is between 2017, when the first cohort expected to sit exams in EBacc subjects took their GCSEs and today.  The data* shows a slight fall from 40% to 38%.

It’s right that pupils should follow a broad, balanced curriculum until age 16.  But this doesn’t necessarily mean they should take GCSEs at this age.  Far better to move towards graduation at 18 via multiple routes.  This would remove the excessive emphasis on GCSEs and allow all young people to show their individual achievements at various levels not just in a narrow range of academic subjects.

*See FFT Education Datalab for graph.

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