The Headteachers’ Roundtable Alternative English Baccalaureate

Late last year, Education Secretary Michael Gove conceded that, while he was determined to stick to his timetable for qualifications reform, if a “red light” flashed, he would take account of it.

It is hard to imagine a brighter “red light’ than last week’s Education Select Committee report on Mr Gove’s cherished English Baccalaureate Certificates. The Committee dissected the challenges facing the Coalition’s most contentious education reform and concluded that there were serious concerns about almost every aspect of the proposals.

With the clock now ticking towards the introduction of the new exams in 2015, a seemingly intransigent Minister, opposition to his plans from all sides, a Labour Party policy review not due to report for several more months, it is hard even for seasoned commentators to see where this will all end.

But one group of head teachers is taking matters into their own hands and pressing ahead with a grassroots reform movement, determined to build support and consensus around an alternative vision of what education could and should be.

The  Heads Roundtable started with a handful of school leaders; drawn together via the social networking site Twitter by shared concerns about the effect of government policy would have on their pupils and frustration about the lack of a robust alternative.

Since their original meeting at the Guardian in late October last year, they have gathered more than 6000 twitter followers, met with Schools Minister Liz Truss and Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg (Michael Gove has yet to accept their invitation). A further 150 fellow head teachers responded to a detailed consultation about the future of the curriculum and qualifications. On Monday last week over 40 of those heads met in  Leeds to start thrashing out their alternative vision

“None of us really expected this to take off in the way it has,“ explained Ros McMullen, Principal of the David Young Community Academy in Leedds and chair of the recent conference. “We were just a group of heads who had never met beyond our Twitter conversations, but what we have discovered is that there is a broad and growing coalition of school leaders out there who are not “enemies of promise”.

“In fact we are amongst those who have delivered challenge, change and improvement and we want to be actively involved in shaping the system of the future on behalf of ALL our pupils to raise quality and standards for all.”

Several key issues emerged from the Heads Roundtable consultation; rejection of the EBC and of norm-referenced assessment systems (from which Mr Gove has now distanced himself); disquiet about the primary phonics, spelling and grammar tests; about the extent of political interference in reform of curriculum and qualifications and about the lack of time and thought given to major changes;  the emergence of a two tier qualifications system which will exclude a significant number of pupils and what one founder member of the group John Tomsett, head of Huntington School in York describes as the “ curriculum cliff” which may lead to some subjects simply dropping out of young people’s lives.

The groups next step is to build support for five key principles for future reform and to develop a radically different approach to curriculum assessment based on as a “real” baccalaureate framework, which is more than simply a collection of subjects, a draft for which has come from Tom Sherrington, headteacher of the King Edwards Grammar School in Chelmsford, Essex, and a new addition to the group

“I am the head of a highly selective grammar school. But the EBC is not talking to me and it should”. He explained. It is essentially a short-term response, which leaves out most of the problems while bypassing the academic/ vocational completely. There is no need to exclude some subjects and no value to the nation in doing this – art and music are as intellectually rigorous as history and geography and one should not be intrinsically any less valuable than the other “Pupils don’t always have to have the same education, but they all have to have an excellent one. “

At the heart of the Heads Roundtable alternative English Baccalaureate is a national framework designed to include all young people. “

Rather than being awarded grades pupils would build up points based scores at different levels with credits in the core subjects of English, mathematics and science and then a choice of arts, humanities, languages, sciences, technical subjects and project work

The technical routes could lead to a technical baccalaureate and there would be some large single programme units such as engineering. Extra points would be earned for personal development and service – areas like PHSE, citizenship, outdoor education, arts, and sport. Accountability would not just rest with the point score but with a full transcript of scores in all the component parts. The final Baccalaureate awarded onwards the end of a student’s school career would be a “best fit” for with no maximum score, no ceiling on achievement, no limits on aspiration and an opportunity for every student to achieve and award

The next stage of development involves thinking about how the units, which may evolve from existing qualifications, would be assessed at different levels, rather like piano grades, how they might be banked over time so students can take them when ready, building on success rather than failure and how a baccalaureate approach might be extended back to primary schools from the Foundation Stage onwards.

Involvement of headteachers in future development of policy is vital according to Alison Shaw, Principle of Seaton Burn College in North Tyneside” I came on Monday to add my voice to those of a group of Heads who have in common a desire to contribute constructively to the national education debate.” she said

“There is considerable concern currently about proposed changes to assessment and qualifications, much of which I share.  In areas of critical professional importance, like the curriculum, qualifications and assessment, the voice of Heads around the policy-making table must be part of the debate. I hope that Heads Roundtable will influence policy by engaging resolutely in the areas where they feel there is a need for greater consideration of alternative models to those currently being proposed, and by bringing to bear proper research”

The challenges ahead are clear. The groups principles and draft proposals will need specialist assessment advice and as John Tomsett explained: “Time is not on our side, so it is crucial for us to present alternatives to Mr Gove and for him to listen before schools begin to implement the ill-thought through EBC. Profound curriculum development takes years and should not be rushed to meet political imperatives. Experienced headteachers with years of experience are collaborating to offer academically challenging alternatives to the EBC; we know what we are talking about. The models we are developing are rigorous and inclusive – you can have both!”

Indeed the group believes that our schools must have both” I am now being put in a situation where I am forced to choose between the needs of my school and the needs of my pupils. “said fellow founder Vic Goddard, principle of Passmores Academy in Harlow, Essex, “And that is not right. We want to develop a system where that conflict doesn’t occur and we can do the best for all our young people.”

To support the Heads Roundtable principles, contribute to the next stage of the debate, see the results of the consultation and a more detailed presentation on the real English Baccalaureate visit www

This article appeared originally appeared in the Guardian in February 2013


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