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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.

The predictive value of GCSEs and AS-levels: what works for university entrance?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 23 May 2013

Chris Husbands
Key Stage 4 and 5 qualifications are again at the centre of a controversy: which are most useful for fair university admissions – GCSEs or AS-levels? This matters because the DfE has announced that AS-levels are to become a standalone qualification, rather than the first half of pupils’ A-level results. The DfE argues that decoupling the AS in this way will put an end to time-consuming assessment in Year 12 that takes time away from teaching and learning. It is relaxed about the change, but some universities – most notably Cambridge University – beg to differ.
Cambridge has calculated that apart from the case of Mathematics, a pupil’s performance at AS-level provides a “sound to verging on excellent” indicator of Tripos (BA degree) potential across all its major subjects. STEP, an advanced Mathematics assessment, provided a better indicator in Maths. GCSEs, by contrast, were found to be less effective: around 10% of Cambridge entrants who apply with A-levels present very strong AS performance despite less impressive GCSE performance, and around three-quarters of this group are from state schools and colleges. On that basis, Cambridge claims that the loss of AS-levels will impact on student choice, flexibility and the opportunity for all pupils to apply to university with confidence.
The DfE did its own number crunching. It argued that GCSEs were accurate predictors of university outcomes in 69.5% of cases, and knowing both GCSE and AS results improved the accuracy of the prediction only slightly – to 70.1%. On this basis, it concluded that the added value of AS results for university admissions was very low. What should we make of this disparity, which was analysed in more detail by FullFact?
The two calculations are based on very different methodologies. Cambridge’s sums were based on just the students who were successful in its admissions process – a select group, whilst the DfE’s data drew on a much larger dataset – some 88,000 students. But there were also important differences in the granularity used by Cambridge and the DfE. As input data, the DfE used overall grades (A, B C, etc) secured in GCSE and AS examinations, whereas Cambridge used the much finer grained data of UMS scores on AS units. Universities routinely receive UMS scores, though few in practice make use of them. For outcome data, the DfE again used an overall score – looking at whether students in the global dataset secured a 2:1 or above in 2011, whereas Cambridge used the results on Part I Tripos examinations between 2006 and 2009. Moreover, the DfE used a single score across all subjects to see whether GCSE and AS results overall were good predictors in general, whereas Cambridge used a comparison of GCSE/AS and Tripos scores on a subject-by-subject basis.
This is complex stuff. Obviously, we all want policy to be informed by the most robust analysis possible; analysis that is as fine-grained as possible, makes full use of available records and takes account of important variables such as, in this instance, subject and institutional differences. But that is still a major challenge for policy and practice. What is also at stake is qualifications policy, which needs to serve stakeholders beyond the higher education sector.
Perhaps the elephant in the room is the continuing lack of real transparency regarding university admissions. As the debate between Cambridge and the DfE rumbled on, the Higher Education Policy Institute annual conference was hearing about just how in the dark schools feel when it comes to the admissions process – just which types of information do tutors take notice of and prioritise? Why such apparent differences across institutions? Tutors may use prior attainment at Key Stage 4 and/or 5; they may use the personal statement; they may use academic and other references; some will interview candidates and run other aptitude tests. But few universities state publicly the significance they attach to each source of information. If we had more robust data on the predictive value of different factors – at national level – that might help to pave the way for greater consistency and transparency in admissions, and help pupils in choosing which qualifications are right for them.