EBCs: Where is the evidence?


It is not the exam system that is broken, but the accountability regime, argues Chris Keates.

After months of speculation, leaks and misinformation, the plans for reform of GCSEs in England have finally been announced.

It was little surprise to find that the new English Baccalaureate Certificate will focus on a narrow core of traditional academic subjects and rely on end-of-course exams, abandoning coursework and controlled assessments.

These reforms mark a further shift towards the 1950s grammar school education which secretary of state Michael Gove is apparently so keen to recreate in our schools.

His decision to privilege a narrow band of academic subjects is likely to reduce the learning opportunities available to young people and place schools under intense pressure to reduce curriculum time for non-EBacc subjects.

Our evidence suggests that schools already are under increasing pressure to divert time and resources to these subjects since Mr Gove’s unilateral decision to introduce this as a measure in the performance league tables last year. The consequence has been that teaching jobs have been lost and curriculum time is being cut in critically important subjects such as art, music, RE, sport, drama, design technology, and ICT.

The changes to the exams system will exacerbate this, but equally importantly they are denying young people their entitlement to study a broad and balanced curriculum. The same is true of vocational learning, which has been downgraded by the coalition.

A qualifications and curriculum structure which is fit for the demands of the 21st century should provide young people with the skills needed for further study and the world of work and opportunities to participate in practical learning. 

These reforms will have far-reaching effects for future generations of learners, directly impacting on skills development and the health of the British economy in the years to come. It is surely right therefore, that qualifications policy be informed by a balanced and rationale debate on the aims, objectives and purposes of the qualifications system and how it might continue to evolve in future. 

Rather than engage in a balanced and rationale debate, the secretary of state has systematically sought to discredit the quality and rigour of GCSEs, creating a false impression that the system is broken. Not only are these claims without foundation, they also cruelly undermine the achievements of young people and teachers who have worked so hard to achieve year-on-year improvements.

Given that the new Baccalaureate Certificate will not be introduced until 2015, with the first students sitting the new exams in 2017, these attacks also mean that young people who will be sitting GCSEs in the next few years are now being asked to work hard towards qualifications which the government has effectively denounced as worthless. 

Mr Gove has sought to use the controversy over the grading of this summer’s GCSE English results to justify his claims that GCSEs are not fit-for-purpose and to make the case for reform.

While we have continued to press Ofqual and the awarding bodies to ensure that all affected students have had their work graded fairly, the row has exposed the need to re-examine the regressive high stakes school accountability regime and the way in which exam performance is being driven by the crude performance targets imposed on schools.

Rather than GCSEs, it is the accountability regime which is not fit-for-purpose. If we are to genuinely create a high-quality education system that works for all young people then we need to create a system which encourages collaboration and co-operation between schools and which enables them to work together to deliver qualifications through the provision of a wide range of learning options.

There is no credible evidence that the GCSE system is broken. Any revisions to the qualifications system must build on the progress and achievements already secured by schools and teachers in raising standards and supporting all young people to realise their aspirations. Such important changes which affect the life chances of children and young people must be made on the basis of evidence, not rhetoric.


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