How the EBacc risks shutting out the poorest students

Equality of access to academic subjects is a positive goal, but the strategy is redundant if the mos

It's not about good grades anymore it's now about what you got those good grades in. This year's GCSE results face additional scrutiny against the new EBacc benchmark: A*-C achievement in the five "core" academic subjects -- English, maths, science, a language and either history or geography.

Never mind how schools have performed. This is an indicator on which the government is failing.

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..." But 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. 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 student judged to be unlikely to get a C not only risks failing to add to the league tables -- they are a potential distraction for teachers from the EBacc target. So students may now be being ushered into academic GCSEs to boost EBacc performance, as Michael Gove hoped, but the A*-C benchmark means that others will also be ushered out.

In theory, greater opportunities for those with who have fewer are at the heart of the EBacc. In July the Schools Minister stated that "[The E-Bacc] 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. But this is not the message the EBacc is giving.

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 prioritising league table needs over students'.

The House of Commons Education Committee found little evidence 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.

Anastasia de Waal is director of family and education at Civitas.

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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage