Education Apr 12 2011

Why we need a ‘Better Bacc’

Link to original Guardian article

When I was 18, I went to America for a gap year.  It was the dark ages in terms of modern technology and I spent ten months without speaking to my parents, corresponding intermittently by post.  True, I had left school, but this followed teenage years punctuated by equally rare moments of parental involvement. The occasional school meeting maybe, but nothing like the intense engagement parents today have with their children’s lives.

I pity today’s parents. They seem to feel judged more than ever by their children’s achievements. Sites like Mumsnet suggest this starts from birth, when subtle pressure over the ‘right’  sleeping and feeding routines kicks in,  followed by fretfulness over how many numbers or words  their toddlers know, which primary reading  scheme levels they are on, the range of extra-curricular activities they do,  school, and even university, choice. I can’t think of a time when parents seemed so anxious and unconfident in their own instincts or their children’s abilities.

Do governments understand this? Public statements invariably focus on supporting and informing parents but these seem to mask a subliminal desire to pile on the pressure, in the secret knowledge that this will help smooth the path for more extreme reform.

Why else would ministers laud the educational success of other countries then introduce the diametric opposite here? We must be like Finland, yet we devise ever more impenetrable league tables, when Finland has none, and phonics tests at an age when Finnish children have barely started formal education.

Singapore is held up as a beacon. Yet life skills lie at the heart of its broad curriculum, while our children are now judged on a handful of exam passes in a limited range of subjects. This is laughingly called ‘a baccalaureate’ even though  it  has nothing in common with other international qualifications bearing  the same name, most of which offer varied pathways and stimulate personal growth and civic engagement.

The E Bac and the response to it threaten to become the most deadly new development parents must wrestle with. Like so many proposals it is superficially attractive, carrying in its wake the promise that schools will no longer ‘game’ the league tables using GCSE equivalent qualifications and that  all children can be swept into high status universities and academic degrees.

In fact it is already encouraging gaming of a different sort; schools all over the country are changing GCSE options in the middle of KS4, forcing pupils into twilight sessions in subjects they hadn’t chosen to study and downgrading subjects they may want to. One parent e-mailed me in despair recently to say his daughter was being forced to take baccalaureate subjects as her year 9 options against her wishes. “We feel this is bullying on behalf of the school, using my daughter for their selfish ends to boost their statistics” he wrote.

Professional organisations and even grammar school heads are now predicting where this might end, with the diminution of RE, creative arts and music, a reduced offer at A level and possible redundancies.  Some schools, like the Archbishop Sentamu Academy, are refusing to make precipitous changes and are developing  a ‘suite’ of different baccalaureates, backed by an excellent new campaign , the Better Bac, which is trying to define what a more inclusive baccalaureate might look like.

But others, like the government’s flagship West London Free School have headteachers who cheerfully boast that their curriculum may not be appropriate for all children. An honest appraisal, but unlikely to reassure parents choosing schools for ten year olds who may not have a clue of where their interests or aptitudes lie. And what about the children – should they have a say in what they might want to learn? Seemingly not.

It could all be different. We could offer a measure of school accountability that embraces the full range of what schools do well,   and demands a breadth of high quality options so that no parent or pupil feels bullied or disadvantaged. Changes in education over the last 30 years mean that most schools are good enough and most children, if they are well supported, can flourish. We should be worrying less, not more, but that needs to be led from the top, and the signs aren’t good at the moment.

To support the Better Bac see


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