Eton headmaster challenges EBCs, EBacc, private schools

This morning, The Guardian published an interview with Tony Little, the headmaster of Eton College, and he made a couple of interesting statements which might not tally with what many would expect from him (there are of course a huge number of statements which I could pick up on, but I’m just going to pick two).

The first one is probably not a big surprise – Little does not approve of the government’s (no-longer-existent) approach to GCSE reform.

It was a major step being taken very quickly, and all the experience suggests ‘make haste slowly’ and there’s a better chance of getting things right. The second issue was the fact that it appeared to give particular weight and prominence to certain subjects at the expense of others. Now, I can see a very good case for English and maths being a central, incontrovertible part of a core – arguably science [too] – but beyond that, I don’t see a particular need to insist on certain subjects.

This adds further credence to the notion that Gove wasn’t just upsetting the left-wing ‘educational establishment’ with his reforms, because if there’s any school less part of that kind of ‘education establishment’, it’s Eton. And Little is right – EBCs would only have been available in English, Maths and Science at first, followed eventually by history, geography and languages.  By doing this, the government effectively made all subjects that were remaining as GCSEs into second-tier subjects; not as valued as the EBCs in core academic subjects. As many people warned Gove, attempting to do this as he was intending to was simply too ambitious (and this wasn’t just crazy left-wing hippies saying this, but Ofqual and the Education Select Committee). Leaving aside the fact, as Ofqual also pointed out, that he was trying to use a single exam in each subject to assess the entire ability range of students and stretch the top end of the range; prepare students for A Levels, jobs and universities and hold schools to account. It would need to be immune from ‘teaching to the test’, and be designed such that most students could pass them. As Ofqual said, ‘there are no precedents that show that a single assessment could successfully fulfil all of these purposes’.

Returning to Little, his criticism of EBCs is welcome, but reading what he says carefully, it’s not clear that he has understood the difference between EBCs and the EBacc, or for that matter, how the EBacc works. It’s not surprising that they confuse many people – given that EBCs stands for ‘English Baccalaureate Certificates’, it’s not surprising that they’re often assumed to be the same thing. However, Little suggests at the end of the quote that he doesn’t see a need to ‘insist on certain subjects’. I’m assuming that he’s referring to the EBacc here, because it’s the EBacc which you can only get if you do English, Maths, Science, History or Geography and a language. It’s confusing though, because at no point does he say that he is now talking about the EBacc rather than EBCs. He’s certainly talking about the EBC at first because he criticises the pace of change, which can only describe EBCs given that the EBacc has already been implemented in performance tables. He seems to talk about the two things interchangeably, which suggests he hasn’t quite registered the difference – somewhat a surprise. It’s also important to point out that the EBacc isn’t compulsory, so Gove isn’t technically ‘insisting’ on certain subjects as Little suggests. In practice, though, many schools will probably force students to take the EBacc just to ensure they rank highly in the performance tables, so Little isn’t far off.

Now for the second quote:

If you’re asking me if I had a blank piece of paper and I was constructing an entire education system for this country, would I have independent schools as we have now? No, I wouldn’t. Actually, I think we’d have a system that would hark back to the 1870s, when we had democratically elected school boards – smaller than educational authorities – but in the kind of way that British Columbia still does in Canada. There, there is a good sense of local democracy infusing groups of schools, not just individual ones, and I think that’s really quite interesting.

This quote appears to suggest that Little is in principle opposed to private schools, and that the only reason he supports their continued existence is that the state sector is not as he would have it. It is in fact, somewhat surprising that he proposes a model of elected local bodies overseeing groups of schools – which doesn’t tally well with his support for free schools, and goes against the Gove model which wants schools to be independent of local government and grouped if anything into chains such as the Harris Federation.

Of course, in practice, Little is not constructing an entire education system, so this quote does not in any sense suggest that he is going to go out and start campaigning for his own school to be closed or absorbed into the state sector. However, it does provide an interesting counter-point to those who support private schools in principle. Little’s point of view seems to be that we’re stuck with them.

So, to summarise, Little disapproves of government policy (although doesn’t quite understand it) and doesn’t support private schools in principle. I wonder how many Daily Mail and Telegraph readers would be surprised by this?