So yesterday I blasted the Daily Mail in passing for its ‘moral panics’ … Yes I’m at it again, but today it’s the turn of the Telegraph to face a rant in response to its swooning over Michael Gove’s publishing of league tables data for certain subjects – those making up the EBacc. For the Telegraph, the subjects, listed as ‘English, maths, a science, a language and a humanity’ are the ‘serious subjects’ which will ‘in future form the nucleus of the syllabus’. Firstly, it’s worth pointing out that when the Telegraph says ‘a humanity’, what it means is History or Geography. In other words, goodbye to Religious Studies and any other social science. Forget art, music, IT … none of it is worth anything apparently. If we use his measure, we reach the headline statistic of the day: ‘just one pupil in six achieved decent grades in worthwhile subjects’. Again, the line which has been drawn by the Telegraph is extraordinary. If it’s not any of the above listed subjects, they’re not ‘worthwhile’, or as the Telegraph helpfully explains, ‘soft subjects requiring minimal academic ability’. What an astonishing polarisation! Even if you broadly agree with redirecting attention to academic subjects from vocational subjects, surely it should be clear to all that there is no way such a simple polarisation can be drawn between subjects, and certainly not with so few passing the validity test.
The Telegraph continues by saying ‘The results confirm what many have suspected for years – that schools have been cynically playing the system by encouraging pupils to take non-academic subjects in order to inflate their results artificially and improve the school’s standing in the league tables.’ and that Gove has rightly laid responsibility ‘at the door of the last government.’ Firstly, league tables were introduced by the Tories in 1988, so quite clearly it’s not all Labour’s fault, but secondly, is the problem of schools manipulating their position in league tables through subject choices now resolved? Gove has simply switched the focus to his narrow ‘traditional’ subjects, drawing a larger hoop for schools to jump through than the previous focus on English and Maths. For all his talk of giving schools freedom, he seems to be increasing the prescription from the centre as to what schools should teach, and all that will happen is that schools will divert their attention to ensuring students achieve the EBacc at the expense of other subjects. The Telegraph claims that this will force schools away from doing large numbers of vocational subjects, and this may well be true, but in reality it just reverses the problem – only a very narrow range of subjects will now be valued by schools. Ultimately, it’s a problem with league tables themselves, which inevitably encourage schools to manipulate themselves into higher positions, regardless of the measure.
The Telegraph continues with a particularly strong (although hardly new) statement – by doing this, Gove has ‘naturally incurred the wrath of the educational establishment, a strong indication in itself that he is doing the right thing.’ So if teachers think it’s a bad idea, it must be a good one. Are teachers not allowed any credit in what they think educates children the best? Gove’s Education White Paper from late last year placed such focus on teachers it was called ‘The Importance of Teaching’. Why, then, is a negative response from teachers so strong an indication of his idea’s validity? The implication is that it will have annoyed teachers who could otherwise manipulate their position in the league tables successfully. But again, all he has done is refocus manipulation attempts on a narrow range of subjects at the expense of everything else.
Teachers have another very good reason to be annoyed with the EBacc – its retrospective introduction. Children who took their exams last year, before the EBacc existed, are now being told whether or not they have achieved it. Surely this cannot be fair? Gove says that he is doing it in order to illuminate the state of the education system, but this simply implies he is using a whole year group of children to simply make a political point at the expense of their educational futures. How were they to know that unless they took History instead of Religious Studies they would fail the English Baccalaureate? Or that taking Music instead of German would mean they hadn’t taken enough ‘worthwhile subjects’? But no, clearly these children should have known better than to dare take a subject that wasn’t in a tight-knit group of subjects that would be prescribed from the top down months later.
Sad times …