English baccalaureate ‘creates problems for motivation and behaviour’

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A large majority of teachers blame the Ebacc for narrowing the range of subjects being taught at GCSE. Photograph: David Jones/PA

The government’s English baccalaureate is stifling pupils by forcing them to take subjects they do not enjoy, in some cases creating problems for motivation and behaviour, according to a survey of schools funded by the National Union of Teachers.

The survey of 1,800 NUT members, carried out by researchers at King’s College London, found a large majority blamed the Ebacc – which is a school performance measure – for narrowing the range of subjects being taught for GCSE examinations, with creative and vocational subjects being squeezed out.

First introduced in 2010, the Ebacc is a government-mandated suite of GCSE subjects that includes English, maths, sciences, foreign languages, history and geography. The Department for Education has previously said its aim is for 90% of pupils in England to be eligible for the Ebacc.

But according to the NUT survey, teachers say the push towards the suite of more traditional, academic subjects has led to fewer schools offering subjects such as music, drama or design and technology, and giving pupils fewer options.

“The government should take this report seriously. It uncovers significant problems with the Ebacc and shows the profession does not support the attempt to steer all schools towards a narrow range of subjects,” said Kevin Courtney, general secretary of the NUT. “The demands of Ebacc are driving creative and vocational subjects out of the curriculum and are harming students’ motivation, engagement and appetite for learning.”

Around 84% of teachers surveyed reported a decrease in vocational subjects being offered, while a similar proportion said there had been a decrease in examination entry rates in creative subjects.

One music teacher told the researchers: “Excellent candidates for artistic subjects have been actively discouraged from taking arts courses and told to do triple science and Ebacc instead,” while another said it was “harder to get higher ability musicians to consider GCSE [music] as an option”.

But the survey also revealed a welcome surge in take-up of modern foreign languages, with 59% reporting an increase in entries. Since foreign languages were removed as a compulsory subject by the previous Labour government there has been concern at the fall-off in numbers entered for GCSEs.

Entry rates in geography and history have also increased, according to 69% of the mainly classroom teachers surveyed. But one history teacher told the researchers: “Students are pressured into the Ebacc with the result that they are now taking subjects that they ‘dislike least’. This has led to demotivated pupils and more behavioural issues for subjects like history and geography.”

The Department for Education has defended the policy by arguing that “there is time for most pupils to study other valuable subjects in addition to the Ebacc, including religious studies, arts subjects or vocational and technical disciplines”.

The survey also found distinctions between the types of schools affected by the Ebacc, with struggling schools more likely to have cut back on choices offered to pupils. “We found a significant correlation between the Ofsted rating of the schools and how their curriculum offer had changed, with teachers working in schools categorised as ‘inadequate’ or ‘requires improvement’ more likely to report that students had a reduced number of GCSEs to choose from,” the researchers noted.

The survey also found teacher dissatisfaction with a new accountability measure, known as progress 8, and with the reformed GCSE examinations in English and maths which will be sat for the first time next summer.

The teachers’ concerns emerged as a new report by Prof Alison Wolf – the author of an influential review of vocational education – is published, which is highly critical of the “dysfunctional” state of tertiary education in England.

According to Wolf, the perverse incentives created by £9,000 tuition fees and student loans in higher education has significantly downgraded the role of shorter and more cost-effective sub-degree courses and are likely to cost future taxpayers billions of pounds to meet the costs of unpaid student loans.

“If the Treasury’s worst predicted GDP outcomes of Brexit occurred, real graduate earnings would be reduced for a limited number of years. That could increase the public cost of providing student loans to just one annual cohort of English undergraduate students by as much as half a billion pounds,” the report, published by the Education Policy Institute, claims.