The EBacc: Five things to remember

Written by: Tom Middlehurst | Published:
Nine in 10: The government wants 90 per cent of students to take academic GCSEs that would qualify under the English Baccalaureate league table measure (Image: iStock)

The consultation on the implementation of the English Baccalaureate closed in January and, as we await the outcome, discussion as to its strengths and limitations continues apace. Tom Middlehurst urges us to keep in mind five points

1 The EBacc has a history

In early 2013 the then secretary of state for education Michael Gove stepped back from his proposal to introduce “EBacc Certificates” in place of GCSEs in English, maths, sciences, history, geography, and languages.

Hailed by many as a “u-turn” at the time, Mr Gove’s Parliamentary colleague Nick Gibb instead described the changes to the reforms as “a tweak”. Three years’ later on, we can see how much the Conservatives’ thinking in this area has changed, and what the implications might be for future dialogues and school practice.

The EBacc is a new performance measure, indicating the percentage of key stage 4 students who are entered for, and achieve a good pass in, a core academic curriculum of English, maths, double science, a language and history or geography.

Current plans are to report it alongside other measures including the new baseline measure Progress 8, Attainment 8, the percentage of students achieving a “good pass” in English and maths, and destination data.

The requirement that schools should enter all students for the EBacc subjects, or else be unable to receive Ofsted’s highest judgements, was a key part of the Conservative manifesto last year.
Following the election, the Department for Education issued a consultation on the implementation of the EBacc containing two important changes from the manifesto.

First, “all students” had changed to an aspiration that 90 per cent of students would be entered “in time”. Second, a reclarification that no one piece of data is ever a limiting factor during Ofsted inspections.

The government wants pupils who are currently in year 7 to be “the first to benefit from this new expectation”, meaning that the 90 per cent goal will be first applied to the cohort being entered for GCSEs in 2020.

The Department’s consultation closed in January and we expect their response sometime this Spring. However, debate about the EBacc has not ceased, with SSAT member schools telling us it remains a key leadership issue.

2 The EBacc will mean cuts to some subjects in some schools

Both the schools minister Nick Gibb and chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw have dismissed the notion that implementation of the EBacc will put some subjects, including the arts, technologies, and vocational courses, at risk.

Sir Michael argues that good schools will continue to offer a broad and balanced curriculum at key stage 3 and 4 and enter more students for the EBacc subjects.

However, as SSAT’s work with schools has shown, on a 25-hour school timetable, with an average cohort of 200 students, it is unfeasible for schools to put on more than eight classes per-period for a given cohort.

When you require all students to choose either history or geography for one of their options, and a language for another, schools will inevitably have to reduce their curriculum offer to make this sustainable.

This will affect smaller, already vulnerable schools, more greatly. Furthermore, there are concerns that while strong schools will find creative solutions to offer broader GCSE options, weaker schools will find this more of a challenge.

Therefore, as we continue to implement these reforms, we need to be clear about what impact they will have on school behaviours.

3 Students won’t ‘take’ the EBacc

In the media, and in the government’s own rhetoric, there has been a shorthand to talk about students “taking” the EBacc. However, the EBacc is not a qualification – nor is it a formal set of qualifications for an individual.

Remember, Michael Gove stepped back from the notion of EBacc Certificates. Rather, the EBacc is a school and system-level accountability measure.

The government’s aspiration that 90 per cent of students gain GCSEs in English, maths, the sciences, history or geography and a language is a national target – and one that it is hoped we will reach only “in time”.

As such, it is unhelpful to think about individual students “taking” the EBacc – all this does is pass the pressures of accountability onto young people and families.

There have been no calls from the business world – and only a limited interest from universities – for young people to leave school with the EBacc GCSEs (in fact, quite the opposite), and therefore is the EBacc something that students really need to consciously “take”?

4 We can’t claim non-EBacc subjects are rigorous and that the EBacc is too hard

Some opposition to the EBacc has at once focused on the narrowness of the subjects included, while also commenting that a full range of EBacc subjects may prove “too hard” for some students.

Such arguments are self-defeating: if we want to promote the rigour, sophistication and intrinsic value of subjects not included in the EBacc measure, it is extremely unhelpful to then “admit” that the EBacc subjects are, indeed, harder.

At a recent roundtable on the future of arts education, prominent arts practitioners called for the need to “slay the dragon” that arts are easy and “soft” subjects.

If we really believe this, then let’s not undermine it by claiming that history, geography and languages are intrinsically more difficult than other subjects. Instead, it is more helpful to focus on the reasons why the EBacc is not right for all.

5 The EBacc just isn’t right for some students

The government is clear that the EBacc is a key vehicle in its campaign for social justice. There may be some truth that, historically, some young people in some schools were not stretched enough or encouraged to choose academic options. We must be very clear that low prior attainment and social disadvantage should never be a reason for not entering young people for EBacc courses.

All students, regardless of their prior attainment, predicted grades, past experiences, or socio-economic background (or indeed any factor), should have the opportunity of studying history, geography and languages if that’s right for them.

If we suggest that lower ability students are unsuited to the EBacc, we limit their curriculum entitlement – and reinforce the notion that history, geography and languages are indeed harder GCSEs (see point 4). And if we suggest that more disadvantaged cohorts are less suited, either implicitly or explicitly, then we undermine social mobility and social justice.

Just as Apprenticeships must not be seen as the preserve of a certain kind of student, so an EBacc should also be deemed suitable for any kind of student who shows the necessary aptitudes and interests. These are, indeed, the bigotries of low expectations.

In SSAT’s response to the EBacc consultation, we make the point that the decision about whether or not to encourage a student to choose EBacc options must be based on the school’s knowledge of the interests, aptitudes and passions of the individual.

It may be that it is right that a low-ability, Pupil Premium-entitled boy does not study either history or geography, but equally for a high-achieving middle-class girl to study English, maths, double science, history, music, English literature and business studies (but no language).

The point is that this decision should never be dictated by a student’s prior attainment or their parent’s income – but by what is right for them. To suggest otherwise is to undermine any challenge to the EBacc.

  • Tom Middlehurst is head of public affairs at SSAT, the Schools, Students and Teachers network. A full list of blogs on the EBacc written by Tom and his colleague Bill Watkin, including SSAT’s response to the EBacc consultation, can be read at

Further information

Consultation on Implementing the English Baccalaureate (now closed, but proposal documents still available), Department for Education, November 2015,


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