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Gove performs dramatic U-turn on EBacc

7 February 2013, Christopher Walters

Michael Gove, the education secretary, has this morning announced a dramatic U-turn on his widely condemned English Baccalaureate (EBacc) policy. This means that the coalition government’s proposed English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs), which were due to replace GCSEs in ‘core’ subjects from 2017, will now no longer be developed.

Recent days have seen Gove respond increasingly angrily to critics of the EBacc, claiming that the Labour party and other opponents of the policy believed that children from poor families should ‘stick to the station in life they were born into’. But it has now emerged that the education secretary’s aggressive defence has in part been fuelled by behind-the-scenes pressure from the Liberal Democrats to scrap the policy, in addition to the barrage of publicly voiced opposition from teaching unions and organisations representing the arts, sport and religious education.

Introduced 18 months ago on an agenda of bringing rigour back into secondary education, the EBacc has been popular with the Tory faithful and some parts of the right-wing press, but universally unpopular with education experts and arts organisations. Much of the criticism has been to do with the confusing nature of the policy, which was initially introduced 18 months ago as a league table performance measure – rather than a qualification – and given to students who score a C or above at GCSE in maths, English, two sciences, a language and history or geography.

Then, last year, Gove announced plans to make the EBacc into the backbone of his secondary education policy. GCSEs in the EBacc subjects would be replaced by more rigorous EBCs, with less coursework and more emphasis on end-of-course exams. The EBacc itself would remain a performance measure, but tabulated from EBC rather than GCSE scores.

With a drive to raise the profile of the EBacc and a raft of new EBC qualifications promised, Gove hoped that the EBacc would force schools to prioritise what he saw as the ‘core’ subjects of secondary education. But the education community bit back, claiming that there had been little or no consultation before the implementation of the policy and arguing that non-EBacc subjects and learners with special needs would be marginalised.

Soon there was widespread opposition among arts organisations, curated by an effective ‘Bacc for the Future’ campaign set up by the Incorporated Society of Musicians. And while Gove countered that there would still be room for arts and technical subjects to be taken alongside the core EBCs, teachers responded that schools would be likely to enter students for more EBCs and fewer non-EBacc subjects in order to maximise their chances of each student achieving the EBacc.

Nor has there been much support for Gove’s vision of what constitutes ‘core’ subjects. The education secretary’s list has been slammed by education experts for being entirely backward looking, with much criticism for the exclusion of the arts and technical subjects such as design and technology and computing. Last week’s hurried inclusion of computer science in the science category did little to convince critics that the EBacc subjects were being chosen on a rational basis or that the original list had been properly thought through.

Today’s announcement may represent the result of successful lobbying from the EBacc’s opponents, but it remains unclear whether the non-EBacc subjects are likely to fare any better under the new arrangements. The EBacc as a performance measure is likely to remain, despite the fact that GCSEs will now no longer be replaced by EBCs, and schools could still be pushed towards driving numbers of candidates for subjects which fall into a contentious category of ‘core’ subjects.

Deborah Annetts, chief executive of the Incorporated Society of Musicians and coordinator of the Bacc for the Future campaign, said: ‘This is good news for children and good news for education. We must learn from the last six months of consultation and ensure we work together to create high quality and rigorous GCSEs and A levels with appropriate assessment fit for the 21st Century. Creative subjects such as art, music and design and technology need to stay at the heart of education so that we can develop talented youngsters to feed our creative industries and generate growth.

She added: ‘The voices of the creative industries and education sectors have been listened to, and we welcome this. We will now be looking closely at the new proposed national curriculum for music and work with the government to ensure that we have a national curriculum, GCSEs and A levels fit for the future.’

Virginia Haworth-Galt, chief executive of the Federation of Music Services, said: 'FMS welcomes the government’s decision not to replace GCSEs with EBCs at this point in time. While it is vital for young people to achieve qualifications in core subjects like English, maths and science, there has been concern amongst some music educators that the EBacc was too narrow in focus, at the expense of other more creative subjects. The government’s National Plan for Music, along with protected funding for music over three years, is recognition of the key role music can play in children’s academic, social and cultural development.'

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