Just as we really should stop talking about 21st Century Learning now that we are into the second decade of it – it won’t be long before someone starts talking about 22nd Century Learning – can we please stop describing the new English wraparound of existing qualifications as a Baccalaureate?
The Ebac has come under a hail of criticism this week, following its bullet-in-foot launch . Retrospectively assessing schools, based upon last year’s school exam results, (when the Ebac had not even been publicly mentioned) was, by any yardstick, a PR disaster. There wasn’t a state comprehensive to be seen in the newly-defined league tables. But even quite a few of the independent schools came out of it badly.
Independent schools, and many sixth-form colleges, are left wondering why we have to create a new programme, when the already popular International Baccalaureate works perfectly well for them. The Ibac has built up credibility with universities and employers over a number of years because it is a distinctly different learning experience.
The new Ebac, by contrast, is attempting to gain currency through coercing student, schools and universities alike to narrow the range of subjects that a young person studies. But, even if they succeed in this venture, the learning experience remains the same. Universities and employers like the Ibac because it fosters critical thinking skills (through extended projects) cross-disciplinary skills (through its holistic approaches) and communication skills (through a range of community, environmental, social and health-based contexts). Let’s not kid ourselves that a new clustering of existing GCSEs will develop any of these skills, it won’t. Where the Ibac encourages 8 subject areas, the Ebac favours only five (and is heavily prescriptive within those: no Religious Education in the humanities, no IT in the sciences). It also, as John White’s piece in the TES points out, bears a striking resemblance to the 1868 Taunton report for a curriculum for ‘middle class schools’. Personally, I think he’s missed the mark by a couple of centuries: the underlying desire seems to be for a return to a form of 15th century scholasticism, last enjoyed by English monks.
Such is the force of ministerial pronouncement, however, that, despite the cack-handed launch, schools are already gearing themselves up to radically alter course. One school, featured in the TES, claimed that OFSTED had told them that their next inspection would focus entirely on Ebac subjects. So much for schools self-determining their student offer.
The additional tragedy is that the new National Curriculum Review is determined – before any consultations have taken place – to have a slimmed down set of compulsory subjects. So, we will see subject pitted against subject – all competing to be inside the tent – and it’s not going to be an edifying spectacle. This morning’s Guardian had a selection of letters offering a foretaste of the debate in the coming weeks. The Government’s ludicrous attempt to justify the inclusion of Ancient Greek as a modern foreign language, on the basis that Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, studied it, was predictably countered by a reader pointing out that a future Zuckerberg would not be allowed to study computing in the UK, as it doesn’t count as a science subject within the Ebac. Michael Gove’s criticism of the current History curriculum’s ‘failure’ to specify the study of any historical figures, other than slavery abolitionists Olaudah Equiano and William Wilberforce is ill-informed, according to Daniel Whitall, of the Black and Asian Studies Association. He reasonably argues that these names were specified because so few teachers knew how to teach black British history, while the names of past Queens and Kings no longer needed to be named, so institutionalised had their place in the curriculum become. Ministerial criticism of the lack of specificity in the inherited curriculum seems to be completely at odds with their initial desire to respect teacher’s professionalism and free them from previous constraints.
This aimless debate, of what subjects should be considered ‘core’ and what content should be taught, inevitably breaks out when politicians become embroiled in curriculum reviews. The pendulum swings back and forth, between over and under prescription. Ministers yearn for all of us to experience the benefit of the education they were given, without having the first idea of how to impart it. Because the biggest determinant of what students learn isn’t curriculum – it’s the classroom, stupid. Pedagogy is what will determine whether a young person will remember the Tudors in ten years time, or not. And the absence of a true aims-based curriculum means that politicians are content to drill into our kids the subject facts they deem to be important, for just long enough to get good enough results in the exams that bring about an improvement in PISA rankings, thus justifying their demands for ‘more rigour’.
And what about the poor learner in this? Doesn’t it matter that they’ve been turned off the subject in the process, and seen their natural desire to become independent learners quashed through over-prescription, with schools coercing them into subjects they weren’t interested in studying in the first place?
Perhaps the most telling comment came in today’s Guardian letters page. The Chair of the Better History Group defended the National Curriculum Review in its facts-based approach: ‘It is the lack of knowledge that the government wishes to address through its review….what young people do with their knowledge of History is entirely up to them.’
But isn’t this the heart of the problem? If we can’t see how young people can apply such knowledge, if we’re not prepared to guide them in how to put such knowledge to purposeful use, then we’re de-skilling the teaching profession, because students in a connected, digital world can find such knowledge within a couple of mouse-clicks – what they need to do is to learn how to apply it, and how to connect it to other disciplines.
But there’s worse to come. Through narrowing and over prescribing what is to be taught, and how it is to be examined, we’re condemning a whole generation to the drudgery of forced schooling, just when the previous administration had acknowledged that we needed to loosen the reins, in order to get students re-engaged with their learning.
If we thought student disengagement was rising to worryingly high levels in recent years, this is just the start of it.