Quo vadis? What do we do with the E Bacc now?

Side table by Elsie, the product is the manifestation of the learning.

It was with some relief that I read the report produced by the House of Commons select committee on education, published on 28th July.  If you want the full version rather than my potted summary you can find part I, the meaty bit on this link,  http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/education-committee/publications/  The committee has come to a number of important conclusions though I have to admit to a lingering regret that they did not fully understand the significance of some of the arguments that have been raised here.  In brief, they conclude that the E Bacc, as the government chose to call it was not thought out thoroughly before it’s introduction, that it was of questionable value as a measure of progress in education, that it was miss named, having no correlation with the International Baccalaureate, that it would have the effect of constraining the curriculum and that the subjects included in it were an arbitrary selection. ( If you are new to this blog you might like to have a read through, “Turning back the clock.  Education policy in the UK”,  “Why we need a curriculum review” and “So what is an academic subject”, all earlier posts.)

In general I find the report a comforting read but there are few positive indicators for design education.  They do not recommend the Technical Baccalaureate proposed by some as a parallel qualification, recognising that it will serve to perpetuate the bipartite view of education that values the academic more highly than the technical.  Design Technology as a subject rates little more than a mention and has not figured strongly in the debate in spite of some excellent representations by DATA and others.  This in spite of the evidence that it is becoming more popular as an option subject and more successful in terms of exam performance.  Most of all in spite of the potential benefits to our economy by encouraging and developing the subject still further.

There seems to be a consensus emerging that technical and vocational education have been the root of the problem as far as devaluing the curriculum is concerned, with a strong feeling that schools have pushed vocational courses, which attract points in the league tables but which are not accepted as university entrance qualifications.  Michael Gove is very fond of quoting other national education systems to support his arguments, though not always with justification as the report points out.  He seems to have missed the point, the compulsory core that he proposes to use as a success measure is not echoed by our competitors and as I have already suggested some of the most successful systems are moving toward the thinking behind our current national curriculum with an emphasis on skills of application and creativity, not simply academic knowledge.

The problem, of course, is not the many excellent vocational courses that have provided pupils with a valued and realistic alternative career route over the years, the problem is that in an attempt to measure school success we have allowed ourselves to be trapped into playing the points game.  League table success can influence parental choice, which in turn influences the number of pupils coming to the school and hence the budget.  To misquote an old friend, “Once you have them by the budget you have got their attention.”   I can think of at least one school which has made extraordinary progress in just this way.  They have invested heavily and creatively in vocational education.  The impact on the pupils, the school and the area is astounding.  Pupils who were demotivated, believed profoundly in their own capacity to fail and saw little hope for the future are now engaged with different styles of learning that allow them to succeed, not because success is any easier but because they believe they can do it.  The result is a re energised staff, a student body with self belief, school leavers with valid qualifications and a sense of hope for the future.  Does that not sound like a success story?  Some of those students will go on the degree level studies, though I suspect that few will have the confidence to apply for Oxbridge admission in the short term.  What really matters is that the school in question has been turned around and most important of all the pupils have had a fantastic education.

On the other hand some schools have been shameless in their pursuit of points, quite deliberately taking on courses that will gain points even if they have no genuine value for the pupils.  I would like to think that professional would never do that but given the choice between my school contracting and a neighboring school expanding would I be tempted?   Oh, yes!  So perhaps the problem is the system that measures school success by points?   Perhaps you get what you test for?  Perhaps a more subtle scheme of measurement is not beyond the bounds of possibility?  I know that an almost univerrsal response by visitors to my school is that there is a lovely atmosphere around the place.  I know that colleagues in further education tell us that they can tell that a student has been to our school, that there is something positive about them.  So the big question is does my school do a good job, and the answer has to be a resounding, “Yes”.  Are we always on the look out for a better way to do something, for more positive ways of working with our pupils, yes of course.  Will the E Bacc prove to be one of those ways?  No it will not.  It has already reduced the number of pupils who are studying Design Technology and as you will realise I believe that to be a mistake, both for the well being of our pupils and for the future of our country.

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