I wonder how many people know what the English Baccalaureate (‘EBacc’) is. In fact it is the proposal by Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, to introduce an overarching qualification at the age of 16. Some people, I know, are working under the misapprehension that the EBacc is a separate qualification, a different course or exam instead of GCSE, much like the IB (or International Baccalaureate). The EBacc is nothing of the sort. To get the EBacc, you will simple have to get a grade C or above in a predefined list of subjects at GCSE: English, Mathematics, at least two sciences, either history or geography, and any one language, ancient or modern. So 6 grades at C in these subjects, and you are deemed to have achieved the English Baccalaureate.
What is the reason for this policy? The government hopes that the EBacc will become a prestigious threshold to have crossed, and that schools will be motivated to want to get high proportions of students passing the EBacc. So much so that they are going to publish in January the numbers who got it in summer 2010, before any of us knew it even existed. Why? Because they want to establish a core of ‘traditional’ subjects which all or most students do for GCSE, and, particularly, because they want to try to restore the place of languages (ancient and modern) to the school curriculum.
Personally, and for this school, I am broadly in favour of the general thrust of this proposal, but with some caveats. Firstly, I think that making everyone do either history or geography is too narrow. There are other subjects generally categorised as ‘humanities’ which should be in this category as well, not least Religious Studies. Apart from the fact that everyone at Bennett does RS GCSE, it is a fast growing an popular subject across the country, and I think it is vital, given the huge role faith and religion play in the lives of so many and in global affairs, that as many students as possible have the chance to study the subject, whatever their own personal commitment. I know that there are many in the Churches and outside who are now pushing for RS to be included in the English Bacc.
The most problematic component of the EBacc is the requirement to take a modern or ancient language. Until 2003 it was compulsory to study a language to GCSE, and so almost all did. Last year, only around 40% of students did one language right through to GCSE. Because the government wants this figure to increase, but because it doesn’t believe, on principle, in fixing the curriculum nationally, the only way it can influence the situation is by creating a new ‘qualification’ which it then hopes everyone will want to achieve.
As a linguist myself, and as someone with a commitment to the classics and Latin in schools, I am in favour of promoting these subjects. I think, well taught, that they have the potential to enhance enormously students’ intellectual development and overall awareness. They can be practically useful as well, even in an increasingly English speaking world. An important part of belonging to the human family is knowing what it is like to try to communicate in a foreign language, and being able to see your own language and culture as it were ‘from the outside’.
But do I want to force everyone to take a language to age 16? Probably not. I think that for some students languages, for whatever reason, seem difficult and inaccessible, and learning them is demotivating. It doesn’t of course have to be like that, and I do think we need to work towards increasing the take-up of languages, but I think that if across the country we force absolutely everyone to take a language to GCSE straightaway from 2011, without developing awareness and improving teaching methodology, we have the potential for difficult times ahead. Taking a GCSE course in a language is one thing; staying focussed and motivated and passing it two years later is quite another.