Once upon a time, in a far-off country, the government and universities became very concerned that not enough people from less privileged backgrounds were going to universities to study for degrees in mathematics, engineering, science, law, medicine, modern languages and other such disciplines.
At first the government accused the universities of discriminating unfairly, but the universities said that in order to study these demanding degree courses, students needed certain A level subjects and to have passed them at high grades.
A solution was found: a group of powerful universities published a list of subjects: mathematics, further mathematics, English literature, biology, chemistry, physics, history, geography and classical and modern languages.
These subjects became known as the “facilitating subjects” and it was suggested that if students had achieved well in two of these, or even one with two other relevant subjects, then they would be better equipped to compete for a place at a “good” university.
A year or so later a list was published of all the schools and colleges in this land which offered A level courses. Each was given a percentage score for the proportion of students achieving at least AAB grades in three of these facilitating subjects.
The media and politicians vilified many schools and colleges, stating that almost a quarter of the country’s schools and colleges had failed to produce any students with the top A level grades sought by leading universities. Teachers were confused.
Nowhere had it ever been mentioned that achieving three of these A level subjects was a prerequisite for entrance at any university and no-one had ever advised them that schools were to be measured and found wanting according to these new criteria. The fact that only two (out of 2,540) schools in the country had more than 70 per cent of students achieving this new target, and only 16 more than 50 per cent, underlines the education world’s ignorance of any such hurdle (you can read SecEd's coverage on this issue here).
A very worrying story. However, the longer-term consequences of such an event are an even greater cause for concern. A few years earlier, the government had, without warning, introduced a new performance measure for 16-year-olds. It involved achieving grades A* to C at GCSE in English language, mathematics, at least two science subjects, history or geography and a foreign language.
Schools were ranked according to the percentage of their pupils who successfully attained this outcome. Soon many schools narrowed their curriculum choices and insisted that all pupils chose subjects which were in this group.
Other subjects such as religious studies, drama, art, music, business studies and design technology were treated as less important and sometimes were not offered at all. Was this for sound educational reasons? I think not.
The subjects which were given privileged status are all good subjects in themselves, but are they the only good subjects? In our school we require all pupils to study the core of English, mathematics, sciences, a modern language, a humanities subject and a practical or creative subject, but a humanity might be religious studies or classical civilisation and all have to choose at least one from art, drama, design technology, ICT, music and PE – and there is still space on the timetable for additional subject choices.
If we were to look five years ahead, would we find that (even with the u-turn over plans for fully-fledged EBacc examinations), most schools only offer the EBacc subjects at GCSE and the “facilitating” subjects at A level – will all other subject choices have vanished? Is this what a world-class education is to comprise?
I hope that many schools will stick with a broad curriculum, well-matched to the talents and interests of their pupils – but if this is at the cost of being denounced in the press and being labelled “failing”, how many will have the courage to do so?
Will a school fail its Ofsted because it has not restricted its curriculum and driven all its pupils through the same hoops? I have no desire to deny access to universities to those from less privileged backgrounds, but is this the best way forward? The future is beginning to look even more Orwellian than before.
Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London.