Bac to the future

By | 30 September 2010

We would all be in favour of raising standards in education. But why does it government seem intent on making it harder to appear to do well?

Apparently Michael Gove, education minister, now intends to tag five of the GCSE (or equivalent) subjects – English, mathematics, a modern foreign language and a humanity – and declare that A* to C grades in these subjects will constitute The English Baccalaureate. This mini-collection will then distinguish its holders from the riff-raff with great grades in the wrong subjects. Who invented those? How dare they?
You may be old enough to recognise the new Bac. It used to be known as GCE, and pupils of less academic ability took the CSE.
Old grammar schools, which used to whittle their intake – the academic top 30 per cent at 11 – down to the six per cent likely to go to university by streaming them into GCE and CSE classes at 14, did so because universities then demanded certain things, which teacher training college, for instance, and polytechnics, did not: English and maths, a modern foreign language, a science – familiar?
But all of that was university-led. Now it appears you need the elite list for life itself. Getting all pupils in all schools up to this particular scratch may prove difficult, and is it fair anyway?
The problem now, surely, is that schools are judged on the performance of all pupils as if all of them were equally academic. And, let us add, interested – being a bright mathematician does not mean you’ll care for French, and vice versa.
Had there been league tables in my school days, cohorts of differently equipped pupils would not have been judged by exactly the same yardstick.
One of the great myths which politicians seem to believe is that every child is simple raw material, capable of doing well in every subject, if taught well enough.
There is no doubt that teaching has improved. Schools now have higher expectations of all their pupils, and a will to find what a child does really well and build on that so that confidence increases and esteem rises and suddenly a pupil can do that which you both thought was impossible.
But judging all schools by the number of all of their pupils who can excel in an arbitrarily selected list of academic subjects which takes us back about 50 years surely cannot be the way forward.
Does not government have an obligation to provide an education for children which recognises their differences and provides well for them all to reach a fulfilling adult life without presuming it must be an academic life? It is possible Jamie Oliver would be a happier millionaire cook, entrepreneur and changer of the world if he had the English Bac, but I have my doubts.
In an ideal world, we would all shine in English and maths and French and physics (actually, wait for the day when Russian and physics score more points than French and biology). But that ideal world would also have everyone able to run 100 metres in 10 seconds, or clear a metre and a half high jump. And that isn’t going to happen. You might train to run faster, but some things really are beyond your control.
And unless you want a completely disenfranchised under-class of young people for whom school offers entirely the wrong diet, branding them failures when they are simply not academic enough for geometry or Russian, then surely the bright and shiny Bac is not the way to go.
In the end, every smart lawyer needs a plumber, and the woman CEO would kill for a really good hairdresser, neither of whom will be clutching a Bac. And there are worse ambitions than to become a WAG. The Premier League surely demonstrates that some talents are worth more than academic aptitude.
• Hilary Moriarty is national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association and this guest editorial is written in a personal capacity. Pete Henshaw is publisher and editor of SecEd.
Originally published at;category_uid=115;section=Opinion

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