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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] ...is 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.