Why Gove’s GCSE reforms are a national disgrace – and how it happened

10th March, 2018 1:11 pm

Has anyone ever heard a rational explanation for the so-called English Baccalaureate? This is the measure that is forcing our secondary schools to restrict the GCSE curriculum to a narrow band of subjects which excludes Art, Drama, Music, PE, Psychology, Computer Science, Design and other subjects deemed ‘un-academic’.

Many schools are already restricting their pupils to just one free choice at GCSE, so that they can restructure staffing to meet the ministerial demands that all pupils take the ‘full Ebacc’: English Language, English Literature, Maths, two science subjects, History, Geography and a modern language. Across the country, schools are discontinuing other subjects beyond Year 9. These other subjects are therefore also disappearing at A-Level. In other words, career choices in creative media and sports sciences are being closed off for our young people. Parents are only just beginning to realise this, although the writing on the wall has been very clear since 2013.

The EBacc was Michael Gove’s contribution to education and it has been championed by subsequent ministers and the department for education. But why these subjects? No one has ever offered an educational rationale for restricting the curriculum in this way. The only argument seems to be: “these are the subjects most frequently required by Russell Group universities”. 

This statement is simply untrue. It is based on the Russell Group’s own fiction, Informed Choices 2011, that certain subjects are more likely to get you a place at a top university than others. The Russell Group called these subjects ‘facilitating subjects’, and schools are now measured on how many of their pupils achieve high grades in two of these subjects. The list is – remarkably – exactly the same as the EBacc list.

The Russell Group intended this advice for pupils who wanted to get to a ‘top university’ but who had no idea what subject they might want to study. Statistically, more students at RG universities have the so-called ‘core’ subjects. This is not surprising: English, Geography, History, Maths and Sciences have always been vastly more popular subjects at A-Level than, for example, Music. But their popularity does not make them more academic or, crucially, more acceptable for university entrance.

There is no Russell Group university to which a student holding Music, Art and Drama could not apply. For some Geography courses at RG universities, it not essential to have Geography A-Level. In what sense, then, is Geography a ‘facilitating’ subject? Are there other university courses that would require Geography? Of course not. And in any case, why this emphasis on Russell Group universities, when there are many excellent non-Russell Group universities? But that is another story.

I have been lobbying the Russell Group since 2013 to come clean and state publicly that their 2011 list of ‘facilitating subjects’ has been widely misunderstood and that Gove’s use of this list as the basis of the EBacc was ill-judged and inappropriate. Indeed Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group in 2013, wrote to me: “we share your concerns about the DfE’s use of the idea of facilitating subjects… and that in particular this has led to the misapprehension that only facilitating subjects are valued by our universities”.

However, the Russell Group, now with a new director, has never spoken out publicly against the facilitating subject performance measure that is inflicted on our schools. Nor has the link been made between this and the pernicious EBacc, which is destroying the Arts in our schools, and consequently also in our universities.

Finally, in what sense is Geography more ‘academic’ than Drama or Music? If the perception is that Drama is just putting on shows and Music is just playing in a band, I would suggest that the lack of education is at the DfE. These are subjects that involve theory, analysis, technical skill, historical awareness, aesthetic and philosophical judgement and communication. They sustain a large research community across the globe and they support one of the largest industries in the UK.

Importantly, the Arts can be the right career choice for very many young people. It is a national disgrace that they are now being denied that choice.

Roger Marsh​ is professor of music at the University of York.

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