Saturday 27 August 2011

EBacc nonsense

There have been no posts for the past two weeks as I've been away on holiday. In that time both he "A" level and GCSE results have been published and the media have indulged in their annual orgy as to whether standards are really rising or so called "grade inflation" is making our young people's qualifications not worth the paper on which they're written. The present Education Secretary is encouraging this nonsense by his introduction of the so-called Ebacc into the debate. The Ebacc is a flawed and counter-productive concept for several reasons:

1. His prescription of what constitutes a "good" set of GCSE subjects was introduced after the current cohort of students had made their subject choices. Criticising them and assessing their schools by a new standard of which they had no warning is clearly illogical and unfair.

2. The French baccalauréat, on which the Ebacc pretends to be modelled, is a school leaving examination normally taken around the age of 18 rather than 16 and is a university entrance qualification. The International baccalauréat (Ibacc) is at a similar level.It is either highly misleading or hugely pretentious to give our 16+ examination the same name. (Incidentally, when I was at Port Moresby High School in the 1970s I tried to introduce the Ibacc but it fell to the ground through opposition from both parents and students since it required the study of a foreign language up to 18. Our Papua New Guinean students would have had no problem with this - most were fluent in at least three languages anyway - but the Australian parents and pupils were as insular as we British.)

3. The prescription as to what constitutes a "good" set of subjects is highly personal, highly contentious, and probably subject to fashion. I attended the kind of traditional selective grammar school that seems to be Michael Gove's ideal but would not have gained the Ebacc, and neither would anyone else, since the choice we had to make at 14 was between physics and chemistry or geography and history: one of either wasn't on the time-table.

4. I am sceptical about the division between "essential" and "optional" subjects. Mathematics is generally placed in the first category but, apart from a modest mastery of basic social arithmetic I can't see why generations should be forced to learn to solve quadratic equations and measure the height of a cliff from a boat out at sea using trig ratios if that is not their bent. Until the 1950s the one subject that was regarded as absolutely essential for logical thinking and the mark of a civilised person was Latin(plus Greek as well for earlier generations). Good fun for those who like that sort of thing but now seen to have been sailing under false colours.

5. Although as a teacher of economics I've always been rather doubtful of the value of business studies in schools, I'm not really confident that the division of subjects into "hard" and "soft" is legitimate. "Media Studies" gets a lot of stick but it seems to me that if it is legitimate to study English literature (novels, plays and poems)why should it not be legitimate to study film, radio, television, newspapers and other media. Given the pernicious influence the press has on our politics a rigorous academic evaluation of it seems to me to be highly valuable.

When I trained as a teacher in the 1950s we were taught that, whereas the French eduction minister could dictate exactly what page of the algebra book all French children in "troisième" would be studying at ten o'clock on a Tuesday morning, we in Britain had the superior approach of trusting our schools and teachers to know what is best for their pupils. Surely, rather than misguided and ill-informed dictation from the top, this is the ideal towards which we should be returning.

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