Reasons for EBacc Subjects (and reasons why I don’t agree)

*If you are looking for basic info on the EBacc (e.g. subjects included, how it affects certification) this post about ‘what is the ebacc’ might be more appropriate). If you want to know the reasons for the subjects included, read on!*

Schools must now publish on their websites the % of pupils passing the ‘English Baccalaureate’ – a set of 5 GCSEs that must include English, Maths, Science, a Modern Foreign Language and either History or Geography.  While I agree with Eng, Maths & Sci, I remain sceptical on MFL and entirely bemused by the inclusion of ‘History or Geography’.  I’ve never fully understood why this group of subjects was chosen and below are some of the reasons I have heard for the choice and why, so far, I have found them entirely unconvincing.

1. The Russell Group universities say they are facilitating subjects: Which means you need to do two of them at A-Level in order that you are in the best position to get onto an RG course. Two of them. Not five of them. And only if you want to go to an RG uni.  And only at A-Level. The booklet is quite clear that GCSE subject choices rarely come into it. Furthermore, why do the Russell Group name these EBacc subjects as being the ‘facilitating’ A-Level subjects? Given that the people sitting in these universities are highly able academics one might presume that their view is based on research showing that doing these subjects gives an extra edge while studying for a degree. But does that research exist? Not as far as I know and I have asked about it a lot.

2. The reason the RG say they like them is because these are the core subjects needed for admittance onto degree courses.  The argument goes like this: If you want to study Maths at degree, you need Maths A-Level (and ergo GCSE maths), but to do Media Studies you don’t need Media A-Level.  Okay, how about this: To do Geography AT OXFORD you do not need Geography A-Level. If you can cope at Oxford without it, I am pretty certain you can cope anywhere without it.  To read Music at Oxford what do you need…. That’s correct, music.  But is Music a facilitating subject? No.  Is it in the EBacc?  No.  So we are keeping Geography and not Music in the EBacc on the basis of…..?

3. These are the subjects done at 16 by high-performing countries.  No they’re not. I’ve covered this in more detail here, but trust me on it, they’re not.

4. The EBacc subjects are more rigorous.  Nonsense. The research by Coe at the CEM Centre on which GCSEs are hardest (often mentioned by the sorts of people who like to argue that there are ‘rigorous’ and ‘non-rigorous’ subjects) show that ‘IT’ and ‘Business Studies’ are tougher than Geography, Citizenship is harder than Double Science and almost anything is more difficult than English GCSE.

5. The EBacc subjects are naturally ‘academic’ and develop important critical thinking and writing skills not found in other subjects.  Incorrect again, any subject can be critical and involve writing. My Film Studies A-Level essays are here. Download one, read it and see if you still have the nerve to say they didn’t require critical thinking and strong writing. On the other hand I have seen some exam board’s Science GCSE coursework completed in a manner befitting a cook following a recipe rather than a child learning.  ‘Academicness’ is not inherent to a subject, it is the content covered in the course that counts and there’s no evidence at all to suggest EBacc subjects are the ones pitching above the others on that front.

5. It’s what the private school kids do.  Well, they also snort cocaine at higher levels and suffer more eating disorders. On its own, this isn’t an argument.

6.  It’s what the private school kids do *and* it is the reason they get into top unis at a higher rate and therefore all state school kids should study these subjects too. Two things are wrong here. One, anyone who thinks the types of subjects private school students study is the the reason why they get more top uni places is either being wilfully ignorant or massively naive. Private school kids bag top uni places for lots of reasons, including but not limited to: Them getting better grades, applying at higher rates, being better prepared for interviews, having more help with personal statements and a tendency for being more articulate. If subjects studied plays *any* part in their success rates it is very, very far down the list.

Secondly, even if I do assume the ridiculous and agree that private school students get in “because of their chosen subjects”, it is still not necessary that every state school student should do them too. At one time the reason why many private school students got into top unis was because their parents were friends of the Master (or Bursar, or some other archaically-named figure). Was the necessary follow-up to this that everyone was encouraged to use personal connections as the best way of elbowing their child into university?  No. Society instead decided that such prejudice was not in the best interests of the wider public and discouraged bestowing advantage in such ways.  In the case of subjects might it be equally pertinent to suggest the universities change their outlook rather than accepting the idea that EBacc subjects are somehow inherently better, when – in fact – there is still no evidence at all that shows this is true.

That’s the end of the points.  This blog remains open for any other challenges. I am willing to have my mind changed on this, I genuinely want to understand where these EBacc subjects come from and I hope that they are not as arbitrary as they seem, but so far all reasons used to justify their inclusion have failed to do that.

21 thoughts on “Reasons for EBacc Subjects (and reasons why I don’t agree)

  1. But what about arguments about intrinsic importance of subjects? I would argue that we undervalue history, geography and languages. Just look at other European ed systems to see how out of kilter we are.

    Coe’s research is about grading, not inherent difficulty level or rigour. At GCSE MFL is hardest in terms of grading, but that does not necessarily mean languages are the hardest subjects. Difficulty level depends on what you include in the spec.

    Thanks for the blog post.


    1. Hi Steve – thanks for the comment. Actually a surprising number of countries don’t have History to 16 at all in their curriculum, or it is only taught as part of a general ‘humanities’ course. That was one of the interesting findings of Appendix 3 of the National Curriculum Expert Panels’ review of high-performing countries’ curriculum.

      On what basis would you say that history and geography are intrinsically more important than, say, art or IT?

      1. ICT can be learned within other subject areas and my opinion is that an understanding of humanities teaches you more about the world, your culture, your environment than art.

      2. In my view Citizenship teaches just as much about the world, culture and environment as History and Geography do. Thinking about it, I would also say that’s true of Business Studies and Media Studies too.

  2. I think the answer nay be more prosaic. The subject choices are basically a copy of the IB. Without the wider choice of humanities. For an IB you need maths, science, first language (english), foreign language and a humanity. Plus one more of your choice, plus theory of knowledge plus community service but EB doesn’t have those “extras” but I would guess it was an attempt at credibility by association. IB is taken at 18 of course though and you split subjects between higher and subsidiary levels.

    1. It’s the Humanity option I have the issue with. As you say, IB is much broader.i do also think the ‘extra’ bits of IB are vital if you are looking at a fully rounded curriculum. EBacc is a weak shadow.

  3. I’m not really sure what the problem is here. Pupils take 9/10/11/12 GCSE courses so there is plenty of scope for subjects other than these five. I guess when comparing schools, it is important that the thing being compared is fixed, simply to make the comparison more valid, so a selection of ‘core’ subjects for comparing performance is needed. Maybe these ones are incorrect; which few would you suggest?

    As for the significance of the subjects, Geography as it stands at GCSE doesn’t seem worthy, but this is more due to what the course has become than the subject itself. History at GCSE seems mainly concerned with 20th century events and given that the repercussions of said events are still playing out, I think it is far more important that children have at least some knowledge of this than almost anything else. I’m a scientist and I think that history has a better case for being ‘core’ than my own subject, itself distorted at GCSE level.

    Languages are an area where we are embarrassingly behind other nations, especially for our most educated. It is a myth that everyone in Germany or France can speak English, but I have never met a university student in either country that couldn’t speak English to a workable level, indeed it is often a requirement for undergraduate courses. Perhaps schools could branch out to include Chinese, Arabic, Russian etc.

    Have you ever worked in an independent school? I have and find your wrongheaded generalisations about drug use and mental illness distasteful. The students I have known have almost exclusively been very pleasant, well balanced young people. They got their excellent grades and well deserved university offers by working very hard, very long hours every day, for years. But it is also fair to say that many independent schools don’t offer media, ict, citizenship etc. and that most families I’ve known tend to go for the five subjects you mention, amongst others, by choice. It is also very common to do IGCSE instead in several subjects, usually mathematics, sciences and English, and these qualifications are widely seen as more demanding.

    1. If comparison is the purpose I would stick with Eng, Maths and Science, and have only one exam board for each. Surely once we start getting into different languages or a choice of humanities or different exam boards the comparability element is lost anyway?

      As I say at the outset of the blog, I would keep English, Maths and Science, and can accept there is some logic to MFL being there. Beyond that I would make it an ‘any further two GCSE’ requirement (which is actually a little tougher than the current EBacc).

    2. Bright kids, in my experience, are generally expected to study triple science and English Literature. If they are then also required to take the remaining ebacc subjects, this actually comprises 8 or 9 GCSEs, depending on whether they take both Hist & Geog or just one. This leaves timetable space for 1 or 2 more at the most. Pupils will be forced to make very difficult choices. The restraints that so many compulsory subjects will put on timetabling from a logistical point of view may well constrain their choices further.

  4. They are not generalisations. The incidence of both, though particularly eating disorders, is higher at independent schools, just like the incidence of violent assault is higher in state schools. That doesn’t mean everyone in a school does them, almost all pupils I have worked with in every type of school are pleasant and hard-working, but it does mean that the more common occurrence of something in the independent sector isn’t necessarily grounds for copying it.

  5. The EBacc falls into the category of “Minister’s whim” reflecting a personal view. It wasn’t even wrapped in a justification for a ‘broad and balanced curriculum’.

    Readers in England will be aware that Citizenship Education was a Minister’s whim and Blunkett even took on Crick, his university tutor, for old times sake. Maybe, a case of right deeds, wrong reasons. If Citizenship Education falls of fthe national curriculum it will be politician’s revenge.

    Curriculum-making is a contested process.

    It’s time for the education profession to seize the initiative and worry less about short-term, here today, gone tomorrow politicians.

  6. As this blog feels like it was formed out of numerous twitter discussions between us I feel I owe a proper response!

    You accept the principle of an academic core that most young people should study to the age of 16. As far as I can tell this is universal to every education system in the developed world. In this country it is English, Maths and Science. Though, because of the way the accountability system works a significant minority of young people don’t take double or triple science GCSE.

    This is a smaller core than any other country (that I know of). This is, in our analysis, one reason why we have such a large “opportunity gap” between rich and poor. Most middle class children study a wider range of academic subjects to 16 which ensures a wider range of post-16 choices and a greater liklihood of progression to university. Too often, especially over the past ten years, poorer children have been sent down routes at 13/14 that have diminished their options at 16 and subsequently. Our basic principle is that unless the national expectation for young people is broadly in line with what middle class parents expect of their offspring we have little hope of closing the opportunity gap.

    While we didn’t want to compel schools or young people to take a wider range of subjects when, in some cases, it may not be appropriate, we did want to challenge schools to ask questions about whether as many young people as possible were taking a wider range of academic courses that would give them more options post-16.

    The actual impact of introducing the Ebacc has been to very significantly increase the numbers studying a modern language, to increase the numbers studying history and geography and to increase the numbers taking double or triple science instead of BTEC or single science. I think all of these things are likely to increase the number of young people from poorer backgrounds taking facilitating A-levels for Russell Group and 1994 Group universities. And this is a good thing.

    As for the actual choice of subjects I don’t really understand your scepticism re: MFL as it falls foul of your own list of arguments. MFL IS a part of every other country’s academic core (with the notable exception of the USA). An MFL GCSE IS also a requirement of at least one Russell Group university (UCL). And MFL subjects cluster at the top end of the CEM study you quote on which subjects are hardest.

    Which leaves History and Geography. As you say, while every country does include humanities in their core, this requirement is structured in a variety of different ways. However, they DO all have a humanities element. Roughly speaking newer countries (Singapore) tend to include more civics and older ones more history. Presumably this is because they have less of their own history and a less organic sense of nationality and citizenship (or subjectship!) In any case we don’t have a widely respected joint humanities course or citizenship GCSE – though it’s possible we may do in the future. That leaves history and geography. (RE is almost never included in other countries’ “cores” – often for reasons of church/state separation – but it is, of coure, uniquely, legally compulsory to 16 in this country anyway).

    While there’ll always be some subjectivity at the margins of any “core” I think that, in the Ebacc we now have a core that’s comparable with the rest of the world and will help close the opportunity gap.

    1. Cheers Sam, great reply and very helpful in understanding government thinking, though I continue to disagree that History and Geography GCSE deserve any wider respect than Citizenship, Humanities or Economics GCSEs. Where that respect is given it is far too often done mindlessly and not on the basis of the actual specifications and content of the course, and putting History and Geography into the EBacc without proper justification has simply encouraged that mindlessness.

      As for languages I’m personally as happy for it to be there as not, but like you say the evidence is there to support its inclusion and so I’ve never battled about it.

    2. This does seem to be agreeing that there is a degree of subjectivity in the subject selection for the Ebacc, which is one of the main criticisms that has been levelled against it.

      I’m not someone who believes that the SoS should not have such influence on education (if not, then what would the post be for), but I do think that where decisions are not evidence based, but the arguments far contain too many instances of “I think” and single institution examples, then there should be a little more openness about the rationale, and perhaps a little more listening going on when engaging in discussion about it. Perhaps this is a start.

      On MFL, it is the case that many other countries don’t exactly have an MFL requirement, they have a requirement to study English. Often the reason for this is that those countries are too poor to be able reprint post 16 and HE texts in their own languages so they require students who intend to study at this level to learn English in order to do so.

      There is also a lot of confusion about the exact status of the Ebacc. Apparently its not an accountability measure, but a performance indicator. Here it is described in not so many words as being a core curriculum. The SoS indicates he may add Computing to it if robust enough qualifications can be created. School have to publish the Ebacc percentages on their web sites.

      If DfE wants schools to be accountable on this measure then they should say so, explicitly. To me it seems that the current situation is an attempt to get the Ebacc adopted by acclamation, then to berate those schools that are falling below an arbitrary level which has yet to be announced (cos that’s what all SoS’s do).

    3. I largely agree with Sam not only about the case for a core post-14 entitlement, but also that it should be made up of English, Mathematics Science[s], humanities and languages. I also agree that this should be a core rather than an entitlement (ie other elements need to be built onto it). I agree with his (empirical) observation that an expectation of mother tongue, Mathematics, Sciences, a foreign language (normally, of course, English) and some version of humanities/civics is almost universal. I’d make the argument on slightly different grounds than Sam: it is to do with seeing universal upper secondary education as delivering a core entitlement for progression, for core (labor market valid) skills and for the essentials of general education. There is room for disagreement about whether the 5 GCSEs which are caught into the EBacc actually deilver this, but the basic principle of a post-14 curriculum core for all seems to me to be secure. Insofar as the EBacc has done this, and has addressed some of the quite dreadful KS4 curriculum structures whihc were emerging, it is a good thing.

      Where I disagree with Sam is that this best way to secure this is through a tweak on the accountability framework, which is what the EBacc is. There are several reasons for this. The first is that I have never understood any educational grounds at all for supposing that a choice between maps and chaps – or Geography and History makes sense. We are one of the few countries which posits this choice and it is a failure of curriculum structure (and partly of assessment) which has got us there. That’s a minor point. The second and more substantial point is that _because_ the heavy lifting on the EBacc has been done by accountability measures rather than curriculum, the consequence is to put in a new dividing line: it is quite right that there has been an increase in GCSE entries for EBacc subjects, but schools are not incentivised to entrer (or indeed offer) EBacc to those who are unlikely to get the 5 – in fact, evidence on the ground would suggest the opposite. So the principle (which I think is a good one) of a core post-14 entitlement is being lost on the altar of the 5-results measure. I understand that government now wants to nudge schools to new behaviours rather than to prescribe but this seems to be to be socially invidious. I think understanding English, Maths, Science(s), language, humanities matters for all, and not simply for those progressing to more selective universities (incidentally, and a different matter, it might be better to talk of “more selective university programmes” rather than the Russell Group, since it is a fact that it is more difficult to get into many non-Russell Group programmes than some Russell Group programmes)

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