Well it's over now. The General Election has been done and dusted for over a month. I don't know which of us was more shocked and disappointed at the result, me or David Cameron. Leaving aside some of the more sinister features of this Tory majority (is 36% of the vote a majority?) government, like abolishing the Human Rights Act and the behind-the-scenes machinations of TTIP, some education policies have started to emerge blinking into the sunlit uplands of Cameron's brave new England. I won't mention Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, as they've been comprehensively written off by Sir Michael Wilshaw anyway (see https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/speech-at-the-future-of-education-inspection-launch).
The stand-out announcement was that of the Return of the EBacc. In a flurry of press coverage, it was reported that Secretary of State Nicky Morgan, aka "Gove-in-a-dress", would be "compelling" schools to enter all pupils for the EBacc suite of subjects, namely English and maths, a science, geography or history, and a language. There is no doubt that in the period following its retrospective introduction, the EBacc did arrest the slide in numbers taking a language to GCSE to some extent, so one should not be too churlish. At first glance this seemed like a draconian announcement - all must, without the most should and some might. Then the worms began to slither out of this recently opened can.
There are languages departments up and down the country which have contracted substantially in the wake of falling numbers post 14. Where are the teachers coming from to cope with the sudden expansion in Key Stage 4, and at a time of crisis in recruitment? Oh, hang on, we'll just recruit more native speakers to make up the shortfall, presumably the kind that will be welcomed here rather than subject to some arbitrary interpretation of EU freedom of movement of labour regulations.
But just a second, where does it say that the EBacc will be compulsory? I quote from Nick Gibb's speech:
In due course, we will also set out details of our expectation that secondary school pupils should take English Baccalaureate subjects at age 16.
Hmmm. "Expectation". "Should". It doesn't smack of rigorous compulsion, nor does it say all secondary pupils. So what exactly do they intend? Is anybody the wiser? Of course lurking in the background is the scarcely veiled threat that if your school doesn't enter pupils for the EBacc you can expect to be downgraded by OFSTED. This is very worrying. The Secretary of State will be deciding what grade your school should get based on whether or not your pupils are examined in a certain basket of arbitrarily-defined subjects derived from personal prejudice? Whatever happened to an independent inspectorate, operating without fear or favour?
Speaking of whatever happened...whatever happened to Progress 8? First there was the EBacc, then Progress 8 was introduced as the defining measure that would drive the league tables. The EBacc would be a "softer measure", whatever that means. Now, nobody seems to be talking about Progress 8 any more. Has it been abandoned? If not, how will it work vis-á-vis the EBacc? Does anyone know?
What about the students in all of this? According to Gove-in-a-dress, these subjects will set every child up for life. (I didn't see her interview with the Sunday Times of 14.06.15 as it's paywalled, and I refuse on principle to put any money into Murdoch's pocket. Here's the Guardian's take on the interview: http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/jun/14/schools-gcse-ebacc-ofsted-nicky-morgan) She wants every child to be entered for these subjects in order to achieve this vague objective of being "set up for life". (How is that defined? Just asking.) Presumably entering for the EBacc subjects is enough, then. Entering and failing them all shouldn't be a problem. How will independent schools react if vast legions of state school pupils suddenly start vying for the top jobs in law, finance, the judiciary, politics? Will they just stand aside with an "After you, dear boy"?
Don't get me wrong - I am not against any of these subjects in their own right, and I defend to my last breath the right of every child to a broad, balanced curriculum which enables them to build cultural capital and a sound knowledge base. I am deeply worried by the way in which this has been perverted into an ideological crusade based on selective interpretation of evidence, prejudice and anecdote. *
It is certainly true that in languages we have suffered in the past from "gaming" and "guided options". But simply shoe-horning every child into a GCSE examination is plain wrong-headed. It is yet again the wrong answer to the right question. We had over the years developed alternative accreditation routes in languages that offered different challenges to different groups of pupils and were no less rigorous for doing so. Despite all of this imaginative work, the likes of Asset Languages, CBLC, NVQ Units, Edexcel Vocational French GCSE and ABC Units were swept away by Gove's myopic resistance to anything that wasn't GCSE. (I did once send him an Asset Languages Intermediate French Reading paper and asked for his comments on its "rigour". Needless to say, he never replied.)
So now we're left with a potentially catastrophic one-size-fits-all assessment and the prospect of trying to motivate disaffected Year 11 students again. All very well for Nick Gibb to pronounce on this. He'll never have to do it. And yet he must have a brain the size of a planet, because he knows the difference between a performance measure and an accountability measure. (Hint - it's approximately the same as the difference between "over-firmly denying" and "lying")
*Nick Gibb talks about how good 15 year olds in Shanghai are at maths. He doesn't mention the "tiger mother" syndrome, the sweat-shop over-coaching that gives Chinese pupils 14 hour days and deprives them of a childhood, and the fact that most pupils in China leave school at 14. The 15 year olds are the ones whose parents have the money to keep them on and the sharp-elbowed desire to see them "succeed". He also conveniently omits any reference to adolescent suicide rates and incidences of self-harming. Be careful what you wish for.