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 rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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