The world is a harsher place for young people exiting school. The three-fold increase in tuition fees, a political u-turn accompanied by little apology to Britain’s young people, has seen an approximate 7.7% decrease in university applications in just one year. Even if it amounted to a so-called graduate tax, it has created a climate of drastically depleted academic aspirations. And of those who have graduated in the past five years, many have had to come to terms with the saturation of the jobs market.
Now another radical change has come about, the English Baccalaureate (EBacc), and it will make it even harder for a young person to succeed: all for a good purpose in the eyes of the government, of course. It is another part of the government cap on the aspiration of today’s young people, which has been especially damaging to the poorest. First, there were cuts to public services and education which saw library closures, the closing-down of youth centres and a decreased investment in schools. Libraries play a huge role in developing literacy, but the government nevertheless went about cutting their budgets. The EMA, which enabled thousands of poor children to attend sixth-form, was abolished. Kids had to make do with less, making hard times harder as their parents’ real incomes shrunk. Now Gove’s EBacc seeks to raise standards. It will certainly be harder to achieve the top marks than it was under GCSEs, but for whom will it be hardest?
There are a number of serious issues with the EBacc. Perhaps Gove is a romantic who believes compulsory French will increase children’s future prospects by knowing the language of love, but perhaps this nation’s future would benefit more pragmatically from Spanish or Chinese. Secondly, the Dyslexic association has warned that it would be illegal for Gove to introduce a qualification that would discriminate against dyslexics, whose struggle with exam environments is not a reflection of their intelligence, or how hard they worked. The exam emphasis would have a detrimental effect on the performance of all students with learning disabilities. Most serious are the comments from those in education, including Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers. They have suggested it will create a two-tier system, in which far more children will leave school without any qualifications at all. Certainly no credible, less academic route has yet been offered for those who will not suit the exam emphasis of the EBacc.
Unnervingly, Gove seems poorly educated about education, and astonishingly in need of French practice as his recent announcement in parliament, ‘vive lE difference’ would not score him well in an EBacc exam. Education is not just how well you can sit exams, and if it were, most intelligent people would disengage from school very early on. For those with learning difficulties and from under-privileged family backgrounds, the EBacc is unlikely to recognize much of their intelligence at all. It is simply false to assert they will learn more in the process of preparing for the EBacc, just because it is exam focussed. School is about developing the whole individual, and learning valuable skills including in-depth research, interpersonal skills, creativity and problem solving, something that only coursework forms of assessment draw out. Exam success can be bought by a spoon-fed approach to teaching and focussed learning, something the private sector has always had the ability to achieve, whereas state run schools are far more challenging learning environments, sometimes with six times the class size.
After considering how exactly Michael Gove’s EBacc intends to change standards, and the effect this is likely to have on education, it is not difficult to be appalled at how discriminatory the system will be on future minds. We should dread the effect the EBacc will have on the prospects of those who leave school with little or nothing to show for it. GCSE grades were inflated, but the EBacc is not the solution. It will not reward hard work or develop potential. It is more designed to burst kids’ bubbles and deflate aspiration. And has there not been enough of that from this government?