Conor Ryan sees good news – and big challenges – in new research on the EBacc.
Next month, hundreds of thousands of young people will learn their GCSE results. Their schools will be judged for the first time not on the proportion gaining five good GCSEs, but on the more complex Progress 8 measure (as well as English and Maths results). Crucial to the Progress 8 score will be the numbers who achieve the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) – English, Maths, two sciences, languages and history or geography.
In January, I blogged about some of my concerns about how well the changes will be understood by parents and employers, and that the challenge of gaining eight decent GCSEs could make it much harder for schools that have struggled successfully to improve the numbers gaining five good GCSEs, including many academies.
So, to some extent today’s research brief, Changing the subject, by Becky Allen and Dave Thompson at Education Datalab, is encouraging. The brief looks at what happened to schools between 2010 and 2013, including a group of 300 ‘curriculum change schools’ that substantially increased the proportion of their students taking languages, humanities and science subjects.
It shows that pupils at those schools – including disadvantaged students – benefited from the changes. Encouragingly for the government, there was some narrowing of the gap between rich and poor students, and an improvement in the numbers taking A-levels and other post-16 qualifications. Moreover, there was no adverse impact on English and Maths results.
That is all to be welcomed. What seems to have happened is that pupils of average ability at the age of 11 who might not previously have taken the full range of EBacc subjects are now being encouraged to do so at these ‘curriculum change schools’. The report also shows that if disadvantaged students were entered at the same rate as other students of similar ability, another 11,000 would be doing languages and 15,000 more taking humanities subjects. Triple science take-up had already been improving as a result of changes made a decade ago, and continues to improve, but there is still a 5,500 shortfall based on ability.
There are other issues raised by this study. The Government has set a target that 90% of all students should take the EBacc. As evidence that this is possible, they cite a handful of successful academies in London. But the reality is that even in these curriculum changers – keen enthusiasts for the reform – take-up is nowhere near 90%. 57% take a language, a considerable improvement from 26% previously. But some schools that forced all pupils to take a language have had to switch course. One head told us: “Results plummeted and a high level of disaffection was the result. By making the language element optional I now have students in year 10 taking French who want to study it and I expect to see results rise.”
What that suggests is that a goal of perhaps 70% would still be hugely ambitious, but would be more realistic. There is then the challenge of finding enough good specialist teachers, particularly for languages, physics and chemistry.
At the heart of the debate is some confusion over how best to ensure that disadvantaged students reach their potential. Those who argue that everyone – or nearly everyone – should take the full suite of EBacc subjects see this as the best way to ensure that able students don’t lose out. And as these schools show, there is real potential for growth in take-up. The gap we have identified is one such group, and these 300 schools should be a good benchmark for other schools.
So, tens of thousands more students could and should be doing the EBacc subjects. That would make sure that able students aren’t losing out. But equally we need to ensure that students not taking the EBacc – more likely to be a third than a tenth of students – have a rigorous technical baccalaureate as an alternative. With the recent Sainsbury review likely to lead to strong reforms in this area, this could be a valuable entry route for such students.
Today’s research brief is a valuable insight into what’s been happening with the EBacc. But it also provides food for thought as schools await their first Progress 8 results next month.
Read Becky Allen’s take on the research at the Education Datalab website here.