EBacc exam reforms are 'class-reinforcing insanity'

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Christine Blower calls on the education minister to listen to ever-increasing opposition to his plans for exam reform.

Secondary school exams are currently being reviewed by education secretary Michael Gove, who favours replacing GCSEs with English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs).

While not being opposed to reform of the examination system, we are very concerned at the haste with which the government is rushing through this change and the direction it is taking. We are certainly not alone. 

High-profile figures have given written submissions to the NUT with their opinions on the government’s proposals for key stage 4 examination reform. Sir David Hare called the proposals “insanity, and worse – class-reinforcing insanity”, while Sir Richard Eyre asked: “What’s next? Cultural apartheid?” Julie Walters said: “Creativity is as important in education as literacy and determining somebody’s intelligence shouldn’t be limited merely to academic subjects.”

A petition has now been signed by other teaching unions and many other well-known individuals and organisations. In a space of a few weeks 25,000 people and many organisations, ranging from the Edge Foundation to the National Portrait Gallery, have endorsed it.

It is essential that, for once, Mr Gove listens to the ever-increasing list of people and organisations telling him that his plans for examination reform are simply not right. A recent YouGov survey commissioned by us shows that eight out of 10 secondary teachers feel that there has not been sufficient consultation.

A similar number of department heads and subject co-ordinators also feel that the consultation was insufficient. Teachers’ concerns were voiced by comments such as “the EBacc is in danger of leading to many schools dropping subjects such as RE, music, art, PE and DT at GCSE as they are not part of the overall qualification”.

One teacher called upon Mr Gove to “revise the definition of the subjects covered in the EBacc so that a humanity, a technical subject (such as ICT, computing, food technology), and artistic subject will all count towards the qualification”.

The current consultation addresses only part of the picture and it is not possible to comment on the technical merits of the certificates themselves until wider questions have been resolved.

Specifically we want to see clear proposals to secure the status of such subjects as the arts, music, design and vocational education at all levels of the school curriculum through to 18; an opportunity to consider the outcomes of the forthcoming review of secondary school accountability, and the review of the secondary school national curriculum before the final design of qualifications is decided. 

We also want a discussion of how children of all abilities will gain accreditation for their achievements in any new system, it has been suggested that there will be no assessment other than a three-hour end-of-course examination for most subjects.

By ignoring creative and vocational subjects as well as sport, there is a real risk that subjects of importance to the cultural and economic health of our nation will be treated as after-thoughts to the EBCs. Many young people may feel the same if their achievements are not recognised.

All in all these are ample reasons to regard the current consultation as too narrow, and as actually undermining proposals to secure stretch and rigour in academic subjects. There needs to be an extended consultation in time and content to address the above concerns before any steps are taken to implement the EBCs. It should fully engage with parents, students, governors, businesses, teachers, headteachers and others before any changes are made.

This is an issue which is vitally important. Mr Gove cannot be allowed to ruin pupils’ educational experience.

  • Christine Blower is general secretary of the National Union of Teachers. Visit www.teachers.org.uk


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