X Close

IOE Blog


Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


The Ebacc effect pushes pupils into more academic subjects – that's a good thing

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 1 August 2014

Tina Isaacs 

Teenagers across England are waiting nervously for their GCSE, AS and A Level results. Now new figures have shown more of them are choosing to take more “academic” subjects, such as the humanities, languages and sciences, until the end of school – an effect attributed to the new English Baccalaureate (Ebacc) of five core subjects introduced in 2010 by Michael Gove, the former secretary of state for education.
The Joint Council for Qualification has published an analysis of the subjects UK teenagers chose to take at A level and AS level in 2014. Its analysis points to some dramatic changes both for GCSE qualifications taken by 16-year-olds in 2013 and AS level qualifications taken by 17-year-olds in 2014.
GCSE entries for geography, history, French, German and Spanish all increased markedly from 2012 to 2013 – up 19.2%, 16.7%, 9.4%, 15.5% and 25.8% respectively. AS entries in geography, history and Spanish – all Ebacc subjects – increased significantly between 2013 and 2014, as the graph shows. AS science entries increased as well, albeit less dramatically.


The EBacc effect

These increases are chalked up to the first signs of the “EBacc effect”. This is the fallout from the policy to include a measure on school league tables showing the proportion of 16-year-old students at each school who achieved good grades (A star to C) across five core subjects. These subjects are English, mathematics, science, a language other than English and history or geography.
The EBacc effect is real, and to my mind, mostly a good thing. Since its inception, state schools have been entering more and more students onto these GCSEs. In 2013, government figures showed 35% of state school students were entered on programmes that could lead to an EBacc up from 23% in 2012 (in independent schools the figures are much higher). Of those students, 23% achieved the EBacc goal in 2013, up from 16% in 2012. Language entries, which had decreased sharply since 2004, increased to 48% of students.
This “Ebacc effect” has now been shown to continue on to AS Level, because students are likely to continue with these subjects they did at GCSE. Given the uptick in parallel AS subject choice, more students will fit the profile that selective universities are looking for: students who choose “facilitating” subjects, which largely parallel EBacc subjects.
This means that more and more students are enrolled on courses that will give them the most flexibility in choosing their futures, taking subjects that have both the breadth and depth to prepare students to progress in further or higher education, for work, for family life and for social and civic participation.

Driven by pressure on schools

So why have I qualified my enthusiasm? It’s because these increases are largely due to the perceived (and, starting in 2016, real) accountability pressures schools perceive themselves to be under, rather than a fundamental philosophical shift towards providing all of our students with the curriculum provision they deserve.
Because schools are accountable for their students’ performance on qualifications, the notion of a broad and balanced education (to use a somewhat hackneyed phrase) only seems to apply to higher achievers. In England, there seems to be a policy consensus that lower achievers need a skills-based rather than a subject or knowledge-based curriculum.
The underlying assumption, unfortunately shared across the political spectrum, seems to be that up to 50% of children have a “style of learning” that is simply not compatible with the academic grind of GCSEs and A levels. Consequently – in the conventional wisdom – such students need more applied or vocational qualifications.
But if there’s a worthwhile set of knowledge, skills and understandings enshrined in EBacc subjects, then shouldn’t all students be pursuing them? Michael Young at the Institute of Education has pointed out that until quite recently, government policy on education systematically marginalised knowledge. He argues instead for a curriculum for all that is built around substantive content but is based on the understanding of important concepts and universal values that all students should be treated equally and “not just members of different social classes, different ethnic groups or as boys or girls”.

The right direction

The EBacc effect may be a pull in the right direction. The new accountability measures for 2016 that feature the best eight GCSE subjects could be a further incentive, but these are still high-stakes measures that will provoke some schools, understandably, to try to game the system. The unintended consequences could be that schools pay less attention than they already do to lower achievers in their efforts to chase their slice of an already cut pie.
For now, I’m reserving judgement because; a) I think the shift to base accountability on the best eight GCSEs is going in the right direction and; b) we don’t really know how schools will change their students’ subject entry patterns. And so many other changes are happening simultaneously.
For both GCSEs and A levels the level of demand has increased, examinations have reverted to being linear rather than modular and the way the GCSEs will be graded has changed. At the moment, we cannot predict if these changes will also have an effect on which subjects schools offer all of their students, not simply the top half.
Tina Isaacs does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

5 Responses to “The Ebacc effect pushes pupils into more academic subjects – that's a good thing”

  • 1
    John White wrote on 1 August 2014:

    I agree with Tina that we need ‘a fundamental philosophical shift towards providing all of our students with the curriculum provision they deserve’. But I don’t think that Michael Young’s notion of ‘powerful knowledge’ is helpful here. It adopts Vygotsky’s assumption that the traditional subjects of the school curriculum provide knowledge built around ‘theoretical’ concepts that go beyond commonsense ones. I question this, especially in regard to history, foreign languages and literature in http://www.newvisionsforeducation.org.uk/2012/05/14/powerful-knowledge-too-weak-a-prop-for-the-traditional-curriculum/
    A good deal of what is learnt in maths is an understanding of new concepts. But is this true of learning the French, German or Spanish highlighted in your article? Here we basically learn new ways of expressing concepts we have already.
    If we are talking about areas of factual knowledge, I would have thought understanding the nature of our own society had more going for it than MFL, but that isn’t an EBacc way of thinking. I could elaborate…
    In any case, why only knowledge-acquisition as an aim? It would rule out swathes of aesthetic education for a start.
    We need to go further back to first principles in deciding what a decent curriculum for all might look like. – As Michael Reiss and I did in our (IOE Press 2013).
    But philosophizing is not enough. Removing the tightening stranglehold of examinations (and EBacc) on what schools can offer is an urgent priority. I discuss this in published by IOE Press in a few weeks.

  • 2
    John White wrote on 1 August 2014:

    Strange omissions in my first message. The books referred to are
    Reiss and White An Aims-based Curriculum 2013
    White Who needs examinations? A story of climbing ladders and dodging snakes ?September 2014

  • 3
    dodiscimus wrote on 2 August 2014:

    There are two approaches to delivering ‘the curriculum provision [children] deserve’; allow schools freedom to choose by removing accountability measures based on data, or use accountability measures but work very hard to avoid perverse incentives. Successive government for a long time have taken the second approach but without worrying too much about the perverse incentives. To their credit, the current administration have made some significant changes to reduce perverse incentives, although as you point out the rate of change doesn’t leave much room for evaluating the outcomes. The first approach is the ideal but equally it’s not hard to see why this is a difficult road for the DfE to travel.
    However, on a more fundamental point, I understand where the Hirsch Core Knowledge Curriculum idea, and presumably Michael Young (not familiar) is coming from, but there is a big question to be asked about how far along that road each young person needs to go. So for example, is it acceptable that not all children study both history and geography after the age of 13 – have they all acquired the “worthwhile set of knowledge, skills and understandings” by that point? I’m a pretty well-educated, thoroughly middle-class university lecturer who did both history and geography to 16 but I cannot communicate in another language at all – is that a problem? And is it acceptable that significant numbers of young people don’t study any STEM subjects after 16 if doing A-Levels? Everyone will have different opinions on these questions so it seems to me that it is not clear-cut that between 14-16 all children should be spending most of their education on EBacc knowledge, skills, and understanding – most probably should because of the doors that close if they don’t but not if it’s the difference between miserable teenage years ending in conflict and failure, and life-enhancing teenage years spent learning new skills successfully. The proviso is that the EBacc stuff needs to be genuinely available later in life for those who want to catch up.

  • 4
    Jennie Golding wrote on 3 August 2014:

    At least part of the argument for the EBacc is that these are genuinely ‘facilitating’ subjects, for both HE and much employment, in terms of the transferable skills and knowledge ‘big pictures’ they offer, although there is certainly a need for an informed debate about whether this is so, and if so, for whom. At least some of the AS increases cited, though, must surely owe something to the Russell Group coming out of the closet and specifying their (long-inferred) valuing of such a range of subjects. This might (or might not) derive in part from the weight of tradition, although they make rather more compelling arguments. Is it too much to hope that we might now see HE departments following this up with a clear statement that eg ‘students of Chemistry will benefit from having studyied mathematics at A Level’ and reflecting that in their admission policies, or are we to continue pussyfooting around that in order to accommodate Admissions officers or vice-chancellors desperate to fill every last place no matter how ill-prepared the young people concerned? Our present course appears unfair to the students concerned, and ill-advised in terms of developing national potential.

  • 5
    claire wrote on 8 August 2014:

    My main problem with the EBacc is the fact is excludes a number of students. My daughter is 17 and has really bad dyslexia – she would have struggled with many of these subjects – yet excelled at arts. There’s no consideration for students who have specific learning needs or just aren’t academic – they risk being left behind