An EBacc/ABacc English Curiosity

A morning Twitter discussion highlighted this curiosity:
In order to count in the EBacc statistics a student needs to get an English Language GCSE or an English (combined) GCSE. English Literature, on its own, can’t count.
In order to count in the ABacc statistics a student must get three of the Russell Group ‘facilitating subjects’. English Literature is one. English Language is not. (see p.15)
This means that we think at 16 it is most important that children study Language but at 18 we suddenly value Literature. Surely this can’t be right?
Given also that a common defence of the EBacc is that its subjects reflect the ‘facilitating subjects’ of the Russell Group, I’m confused. Why is English Language in the EBacc over English Literature if Literature is the one the Russell Group believe keeps your options open most widely, and also is the one that counts towards a school’s “ABacc measure”.
Any ideas?
[PS – big thanks to @miconm and @danielhugill for prompting me to check this]

Can I go to university without the EBacc?

NB: If you’re looking for an explanation of what the EBacc actually *is* try my other post explaining it here. If you want to know about university EBacc requirements, read on
In a word ‘Yes’. There is no university that currently requires you to have passed, or even studied, all the subjects in the English Baccalaureate in order to get onto their courses.  Most universities expect to see a C or above in English and Maths, and commonly there is some preference of A-Level subjects they want you to have studied (e.g. History A-Level if you are going on to do History, or Maths for Engineering) though even then there are regular exceptions [one of my favourite stories is of the current Fulbright scholar who did Mathematical Physics at university having studied neither Maths nor Physics at A-Level].
The subjects in the EBacc are the ones most often required by universities (though – as far as I know – no-one is asking specifically for all 5) and they are the ones that many admissions tutors prefer to see.  However, the most important place to go for information is the universities own admissions website.  You can find this by googling the university name plus “admissions”, or by using  Go to the page for the subject you are looking to enter for to see if there is anything specific to your course.
A note on MFL at UCL: It is not the case that you must have a modern foreign language to study at UCL. Their website clearly states that you must have English and Maths GCSE C grade or above (this is the case for most university courses), but that they will not disadvantage anyone who did not study foreign languages at school.  If you do not have a C grade or above in MFL they will require you to take a half-credit course at university (as part of your regular tuition – there’s no extra cost) so that you can develop your language skills further.
Hence: do not panic if you do not have all EBacc subjects. Worry if you do not have maths or English GCSE. Look carefully at A-Level requirements, but otherwise – as far as the EBacc is concerned – you have nothing more to think about.

A Further Word on Geography in the EBacc

My feelings on subjects included in the EBacc are fully laid out here, but my basic gripe is that the ‘humanities’ requirement which includes just Geography or History makes no sense.  Humanities isn’t defined that way in any major university, in any other country, or in the International Baccalaureate.
One argument is that geography is more ‘traditional’, or respected, or well-known. It helps people get the sort of ‘common knowledge’ that helps us all compete equally. Except, that’s probably not true.  Looking at the term ‘geography’ in books over the past 100 years compared to some other topics and we see a different pattern of what is ‘common’:

It’s not that I hate geography; I really don’t. It’s just that I don’t see how it can be claimed as being more important than other subjects, or more rigorous, or more useful or – to be honest – even more traditional or historical.  Right from 1880 it is subsumed under other subjects in terms of popularity and it never really improves even despite the fact it is a school subject for so long.
The national curriculum subject Citizenship – for all its terrible name – combines politics, economics and sociology – some of the most prevalent terms in non-fiction literature over the past century. Psychology is also the most prevalent of all these topics, and yet the government has entirely cut funding for new psych teachers. Denying people the study of the topics that have most interested and developed throughout the 20th century seems a bizarre way to me to try and improve our school system.

What is the English Baccalaureate? (Or EBacc, for short)

The “English Baccalaureate” is (currently) a set of subjects that, if taken at GCSE, add up to you getting the ‘EBacc’.  So far the EBacc exists as an idea rather than as a certificate, but plans are afoot to ensure that any student who achieves a C grade or above in all of the required subjects also gets an EBacc certificate to prove their status.
Which subjects count?
In total you must achieve a C grade or above in the following five GCSEs or iGCSEs

  • English or English Language
  • Maths
  • Science (you need two grades, so either: core plus additional, double award, or two of the single sciences)
  • A Modern or Ancient Language
  • History or Geography

If you get an AS-level in one of these subjects instead of a GCSE, this can be substituted in and act as a GCSE for the purpose of achieving the EBacc.  Some alternative certificates are occasionally allowed; further guidance is available on the DfE Website.
What is the benefit of the EBacc?
The main proclaimed benefit is that it keeps the widest number of options open.  To study these subjects at A-Level you would usually be expected to have taken them at GCSE, and they are the A-Levels that arguably allow you to study the widest number of subjects at university (though this is debatable). Currently no universities require the EBacc for entry to their courses and though many say they have no plans to change this, in education one can never be too certain that the goal posts won’t move quickly.
EBacc vs. IB Middle Years
A number of schools are questioning the value of the English Baccalaureate over the International Baccaleaureate – a qualification with a much broader spectrum of subjects and which is highly regarded across the world. The IB is considered rigorous but also adept at providing a wider skills base as students are involved in health and social education, community projects and learn about technology.  These are notably absent from the English Baccalaureate, although students do still have other GCSE options open to them if they wish to supplement the core.
Offering a more ‘exotic’ qualification has sometimes been difficult for schools as they struggle to find trained teachers, and textbooks/resources can be more expensive however I have heard almost entirely positive things from the parents of students who have studied for the IB.  Students tend to find both the IBacc and the EBacc difficult, so their ‘like’ of the subject is often dependent on how much they appreciate having their brain challenged!
What about EBCs?
Recently the government announced that subjects in the English Baccalaureate are going to be made ‘more rigorous’. This involves getting rid of modular exams and coursework, and adding more content. To reflect the fact that the subjects in the EBacc are more rigorous than GCSEs they will be renamed to ‘EBCs’, that is English Baccalaureate Certificates. However, do not confuse the EBCs with the overall EBacc.  EBCs are single subjects that you will sit in the five EBacc subjects. If you pass them all THEN you will get an EBacc Certificate.
Frankly, it’s currently a little complicated. Hopefully as plans progress they will make the names less confusing.

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.

A Letter To Future Education Ministers: Could Curriculum Review Look Like This?

Dear Future Education Ministers,
Here’s an idea.  Why not set up a committee called “The Curriculum Review Panel” [I know it sounds familiar but bear with me].  It would re-write sections of the curriculum each year, or in rolling blocks. For example, for 2 years they could do the curriculum for 9-11 year olds. Then 2 years on one for 12-14 year olds. Once we get to 16 then you can start again at the beginning.
This would mean the curriculum is constantly open to new ideas but each year groups’ curriculum is only updated once every 10 years or so. That might seem a long time but it allows teachers to become experienced in the knowledge they are expected to impart and it’s also the length of time Hong Kong uses to consider its curriculum.  HK is a country that you refer to a lot as a “high performing education system” so I’m sure it will be okay.
This Panel would have 5 members – including a Chair.  When a new Government is appointed they are allowed to select ‘3 new members’ (and boot off 3) but must retain 2 members appointed by the previous Government. If you win another Parliament then you can change 3 members again – meaning you would then have a board fully selected by you (after all, you’re clearly doing an okay job).  It would mean that for the first Parliament at least you still had people who remembered what has happened previously and can provide context. Sure, it might be difficult for everyone to work together but avoiding the damage of curriculum shock in schools is a good idea and there are tricks below to help prevent things getting too nasty.
When curriculum are published (draft or otherwise) they would be collectively presented but each ‘panel expert’ is allowed to publish their own narrative about the findings, how it was decided and whether they think it is justifiable. These documents should be rigorously academic, part of the experts published corpus of work and form part of the public consultation on the curriculum. This will help the public know what the opinions are of each expert and judge how in line it is with their own beliefs, their party, etc. However, in terms of curriculum content a ‘majority rule’ is sufficient for a decision in the curriculum – i.e. if 3/5 feel a certain approach is best, this is the one included.  Though some experts may be unhappy about what is included, they must accept that their view was the minority and must be satisfied that they have been able to put their concerns into the public arena through their published narrative but that democratic sway was not in their favour on this occasion.
A tricky question now: What would stop the current Government making things so unbearable that the experts from the previous administration decide to leave the panel? And if they do, who will replace them?  It’s surely not a good idea that in the first administration all 5 are selected by the current government.  I therefore wonder if it might be possible to have a ‘List system’ whereby the previous administration publishes a ‘list’ of preferred candidates such that if an expert decides to leave then they will be replaced by the next person on the list.  In fact, the ‘list system’ could be something that all parties – in advance of a General Election – declare for scrutiny. That is, each party would have to name, say, 20 individuals in rank-order preference that would be asked to the Panel if a space was available. These 20 could also be the ‘ad-hoc’ list and could be called on for advice on various matters – maybe subject specialisms, etc – and this advice would also be publishable. In doing so this would help people know before voting in the General Election who is likely to be on the curriculum board and what values they hold.
You also might ask: What is to stop a Government putting any old random on their Expert list?  Nothing. But they can do that now. Anyone can advise on National Curriculum.  However, if the list system were to go ahead people would know in advance who they were getting and if people felt it important for certain people to be on the list (perhaps teachers) or certain people to be off the list (perhaps people with a commercial interest) then noise could be made to that effect which might encourage political parties to carefully consider their list choices.
As a politician this change would, of course, make me jumpy.  What if they say something I don’t like and I have to go with it?  Well, dear politician – YOU get to pick them. If YOU pick the experts then I suggest that YOU should trust their outcome.  Aha, thinks the politician, so if I just pick people who I know are sympathetic to my view then I can get the answers I want?  Perhaps. But remember, each person will need to make their own statement justifying their professional opinion about the curriculum. Their professional (possibly academic) reputation is on the line. It may be more tricky to ‘guide’ them than you think – and this is a very good thing.  After all, you are selecting them to be your ‘expert’ not your lacky.
The benefit in schools is that it would mean a more gradual change of curriculum rather than the current half-a-decade “all out” which is not only confusing for teachers and pupils, but is also *expensive* and so far has meant only incremental improvements. And sure, there would be in-fighting. Yes, it would still get tumultuous and political. That’s the nature of being involved in education. But perhaps these curriculum decisions might also be transparent, considered and done on the basis of rigorous argument – none of which would hurt anyone.
Please feel free to take this idea and run with it,
Laura (Miss) Mc