Wednesday, 12 January 2011

The English Baccalaureate: Overnight Invention To Increase Division

Like a lot of people who take a passing interest in education stories, I was at once both surprised and not surprised to hear the government's figures for pupils achieving the so-called 'English Baccalaureate'.  It is in fact no such thing and bares minimal relationship to the International Baccalaureate which has been taught in some British schools for many years.  What this new element is, is simply a grouping of subjects, taken at GCSE level, i.e. aged 16: Mathematics, English, two Sciences, a Humanities subject and a language (interestingly either ancient or modern).  This resembles the kind of collection of subjects that pupils taking a baccalaureate  would take, but, of course, given that this approach has never been adopted in most British schools, they would never have been treated as a whole, instead students would have made individual choices of subject.  In addition, the results coming out now were taken by pupils in May and June 2010, just when the current government was coming to power and the pupils would have chosen their spread of subjects back in mid-2008 long before the coalition government was even a nightmare.

On this basis, it is unsurprising that only 1 in 6 of pupils have achieved the 'qualification' that they and their teachers had no idea that they were going to be measured on.  At 270 state schools, no children 'achieved' it, and at 1600 state schools less than 10% did.  The emphasis on 'academic' subjects (and how many state schools actually teach Latin?) is a reversal of the recent emphasis on diplomas and the desperately needed focus on vocational study that the UK has been battling to introduce for the last 150 years.

The so-called 'English Baccalaureate' is simply a way for the government to continue its disparaging approach to education, showing clearly that private schools of the kind ministers in the large part attended are 'better' than the schools that the bulk of the population attended.  As with universities many commentators have wanted a clearer divide between different schools and this is one way to show it.  It turns back all the recent emphasis on the value of vocational qualifications which the country desperately needs to raise the skill levels of the average worker to bring it in line with competitors in the EU. 

Given that the coalition government clearly wants universities to return to being institutions which only take a small elite from privileged backgrounds I have a suspicion that the next step will be to say that no-one who has not achieved the 'English Baccalaureate' will be able to progress to university.  This would reverse the attitude that certainly the Conservatives despise, espoused since the 1960s and reinforced in the late 1990s, that everyone should have a chance of higher education if they are capable of doing it.  Bluntly, someone doing a Tourism course at a post-1992 university is in fact going to contribute a great deal more to the economy than someone studying Classics at an 'ancient' university.  However, efficiency and a strong economy is of second value to the current government which is bent on reintroducing a very socially divided, hierarchical society to the benefit of the already privileged.  This creation of a fake qualification as a measure to demean schools which are doing good work in educating the bulk of the population, is another weapon in which to drive UK society back a hundred years.

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