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.

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era