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Ed Watkins: The narrow scope of the English Baccalaureate undermines Michael Gove’s credentials as a liberalising reformer

Ed Watkins Ed Watkins is a music teacher in South London and Deputy Chairman of Dulwich and West Norwood Conservatives.

In his recent ConHome article on school reform Michael Gove identified two benefits from the introduction of the English Baccalaureate: that it will help pupils access places at the best universities and that it will open doors to the most exciting careers. The English Baccalaureate will mandate all bar three options at GCSE: English, Maths, double Science, a language and History or Geography.

At the moment GCSE equivalence is afforded to vocational qualifications. My own school provides a sad example of the consequences, with only half of Year 11 taking science GCSEs and the rest doing an easier vocational qualification. Everybody is forced to take an internally assessed ICT qualification which gives the students 2 A*-C passes despite taking the same amount of time as Maths GCSE. Needless to say the pass rate is 100%. A year later 11 of the 19 people taking Computing at AS-level actually failed. Many teachers will cheer Mr Gove for abandoning the equivalence lie.

The principles lying behind the English Baccalaureate are therefore grounded in a sensible solution to a problem. Those principles have, however, been applied in an arbitrary manner in the selection of subjects. Why History but not R.E.? Why Biblical Hebrew but not Art? Why Geography but not Music?

Compare Geography more closely with Music and the decision makes even less sense. Both have difficult written papers that include essay questions; both have a coursework element (stronger in Music); both require pupils to learn a large amount of new terminology; and both require pupils to gain knowledge as well as skills. For Music GCSE, the Edexcel board examines the ability to read music, demands a good level of written communication, involves the use of Italian terminology and tests understanding of works by Handel, Mozart, Schoenberg and Bernstein. If grappling with Schoenberg’s use of hexachords as an alternative to the use of major and minor keys isn’t academic then the Mr Gove must have redefined the word.

As Conservatives, we should all be wary of the power of government being used to promote the personal prejudices of the men and women in government. In this case it is quite right that the government should encourage rigorous study of subjects and enshrine that principle in the English Baccalaureate. What it should not do after that is shut out subjects in which rigorous study does take place, where the students are made to work hard while gaining skills and knowledge.

We should not be happy to see a world in which our own government has prescribed 70% of the post-14 curriculum (80% in many church schools where R.E. is compulsory) with so little room for recognising academic achievement outside its narrow boundaries. When schools only gain recognition for results in the subjects currently in the English Baccalaureate then all the other subjects, subjects which give the best schools their life blood, will suffer.

The best private schools have, of course, realised this. Eton, Westminster, Winchester and Wycombe Abbey all have music departments that are central to school life. No-one working in a comprehensive school will be under any illusions about the chances of this happening in a state school where music results have no impact on the headline league table figures.

Mr Gove says he wants to help pupils access places at the best universities. What about a Grade 8 pianist with straight A/A*s at GCSE who studied English, Maths, Latin, Greek, French, three sciences and Music? That student would not get the English Baccalaureate. That student did get a place at Oxford. Could anyone seriously suggest that the student did not have a good academic education? Surely that, if nothing else, tells you that Mr Gove’s restrictive application of the principles behind the English Baccalaureate needs to be reconsidered.


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