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EBacc should be based on entry, not performance, to achieve its goal

anastasia de waal, 25 August 2011

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This year’s GCSE results face additional scrutiny against the new EBacc benchmark: A*-C achievement in the five ‘core’ academic subjects. How schools measure up aside, the government is failing on this indicator.

The Coalition Government argues that ‘The EBacc is there to make sure that every single child gets a chance to study the core academic subjects…’ However, by basing the EBacc on A*-C performance the least advantaged students may not get the chance to study EBacc subjects at all.

Schools’ response to previous A*-C benchmarks has shown that league table pressure can lead them to discourage students deemed unlikely to achieve a C from taking non-compulsory subjects.

In Civitas research one South-East London teacher outlined practice in her school, where students predicted less than a C were actively prevented from taking particular GCSEs:

‘When it came to options, the Director of Learning… made lists of students who were not allowed to do history. The other departments also published lists of kids who they didn’t want. So on Options Day, where the students and their parents come and talk to you, I had to say I’m afraid that that subject is not suitable for you.’

The EBacc will not only fail to address this scenario, it could potentially exacerbate it by shifting the purpose of course entries entirely to securing the EBacc A*-Cs. A student judged to be unlikely to get a C risks both failing to add to the league tables and distracting teaching time away from the EBacc target.

In theory, greater opportunities for those with fewer are at the heart of the EBacc. In July the Schools Minister stated that ‘[The E-Bacc] …is about closing the attainment gap between rich and poor and about increasing opportunity’.  Yet, in light of the current correlation between lower exam performance and free school meal eligibility, those students liable to be excluded from EBacc subjects are disproportionately likely to be poorer. The focus on a C or above means not only that ‘risky’ students may not even get the chance to try for a good grade but that the value of doing the course itself is undermined.

A significant percentage of D, E and F grades are achieved in compulsory English and maths: we can assume that taking the course, despite not gaining an A*-C, is still valuable. This is not the message the EBacc is giving.

Michael Gove is attempting to play the league tables to what he considers to be educational advantage. However, league-table wise, entering students for the EBacc courses is only ‘worth it’ for schools when they are a safe bet in terms of gaining a C or higher. Students may now be being ushered into academic GCSEs to boost EBacc performance, as the Government hoped, but the A*-C benchmark means that others will also be ushered out.

If the government is to realise its ambition of every student having a chance to study core subjects, the EBacc should be based on entry for courses. This would not only ensure that ‘underperformers’ do not miss out, it would also lessen current pressures to deploy questionable performance-boosting strategies. Furthermore, it would contribute towards a move away from having to prioritise league table needs over students’.

The House of Commons Education Committee found little evidence to suggest that the EBacc would help the most disadvantaged. The A*-C focus is a key impediment. Ensuring equality of access to academic subjects is a positive goal; but the strategy is redundant if the most deprived lose out.

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