Beyond the Ebacc - West Midlands policy paper

Beyond the Ebacc – Choice and opportunity in schools and colleges
A policy paper from the Regional Policy Committee of West Midlands Liberal Democrats


“And the evidence is overwhelming: good schools need high-quality teaching; sufficient freedom; diversity and choice.”
Nick Clegg September 5th 2011

Liberal Democrat ministers in the coalition government rightly make great play of two aspects of education. One is the importance of early years and second is the need to invest in the most disadvantaged pupils through the pupil premium.

However, for all students, the age of 16 is critical because that is when, for the most part, they will achieve exam results which may mark them for life and will demonstrate to the wider world their educational achievement.

If you cannot demonstrate your achievements and aptitudes at this age your life opportunities become restricted. So we make no apology for focusing on the critical 14-16 age range.

Indeed we remain stuck with a system that tolerates massive “failure” at 16. Barely half of students achieved Labour’s target of five A-Cs including English and Maths. A smaller proportion is achieving Michael Gove’s English Baccalaureate – in 2011 it was just 16.5 per cent. This means that thousands of pupils who leave primary school having achieved appropriate levels at SATs “fail” to progress to recognised standards at GCSE. And there are significant gender differences in achievement.

Existing Liberal Democrat policies for this age range are bold but under-developed. Our aim is to develop the principles set out in those policies – which were “liberal and democratic”.

We recognise that those on the party front benches most deeply involved in the coalition will want to defend the English Baccalaureate. We believe we have a proposal that can adapt the Ebacc to become an Ebacc Mark 2 encapsulating liberal principles. This involves a radical new focus on extending student choice.

Those principles are not about “dumbing down” education. The very opposite. We think Nick Clegg, perhaps unwittingly, seized on them correctly in his September speech. It is the extension of “diversity and choice” that can engage young people and their teachers and create real opportunity for all – if a suitably radical approach is adopted.

Cllr Jon Hunt, chair, West Midlands regional policy committee
1. Our key proposals
2. Objectives
3. The proposal
4. What this would mean for:
- schools
- students
- local authorities
5. What this would mean and how it would be better
6. How would this be achieved?
-        resources
-        assessment
-        developing vocational education
-        examination boards
-        foreign languages
7. Policy motion for Federal Conference
8. Your comments

Appendix 1: Existing Liberal Democrat policy
Appendix 2: Modular?
Appendix 3: Some specific subject issues
Appendix 4: References
Appendix 5: Postscript

Beyond the Ebacc – Choice and opportunity in schools and colleges

  1. Students undertaking GCSEs should have real choices, allowing them to develop their aptitudes and abilities. These choices should be embedded within individual GCSEs as well as within the range of subjects on offer.
  2. There should be a core entitlement, a minimum offer, to which all students should have equal access at the time they make choices about GCSEs.
  3. So-called vocational education should not be a “second-class” offer.  Indeed students undertaking supposedly academic subjects may benefit from having access to vocational modules.

The coalition government has introduced the English Baccalaureate (the Ebacc). In some respects it seeks to broaden the curriculum offer in many schools, for instance by ensuring that students have access to foreign language qualifications. Labour’s approach focused almost entirely on the two GCSE subjects of English and Maths, used as proxies for literacy and numeracy. However the Ebacc is also leading to a significant narrowing of the curriculum. Vocational options are being abandoned or down-graded. The option of using the new functional literacy and numeracy qualifications is also being abandoned. And yet in 2011 fewer than 25 per cent of students sat the full range of Ebacc subjects.

In this paper we set out radical proposals for a Liberal Democrat government to adapt the Ebacc to achieve the above principles. At its heart is a massive extension of student choice – also allowing schools to diversify and make choices, but not at the expense of students.

2. Some broad objectives that we considered:

a)     to enable a Liberal Democrat government following the next general election to adapt coalition policy to meet Liberal Democrat objectives;

b)     To free teachers to teach using their full range of skills and imagination;

c)     To give real choices to students to learn according to their aptitudes and interests, engaging the disengaged;

d)     To enable schools to be diverse while maintaining basic standards;

e)     to develop policy to meet the aspirations of students and parents;

g) to put an end to the ‘educational see-saw’ which means that educational fads and policy-makers constantly seek to impose different but still uniform learning styles on hugely diverse groups of students.

3. The proposals

1/ The Ebacc Mark2 would become a core offer that must be available to students at GCSE level. The full precise composition of the Mark 2 is likely to be a matter of continuing debate – but it must be wider than the present Ebacc.

 We suggest maths, English, a foreign language, sciences, history or geography and one other subject. The key difference in our proposed approach is that schools and local authorities will need to work together to ensure that students have access to core subjects. It is an offer, not a requirement for study. Schools will be judged as much by the extent to which they engage students with learning and how they make the offer as by their results. And assessment of results will involve all subjects. The sixth Ebacc subject is likely to comprise a range of subjects such as RE, psychology, economics and specifically “vocational” choices. The effect is to increase the minimum number of GCSEs that students are expected to study from six to seven (assuming that science is 2 GCSEs).

2/ So far as possible all GCSE courses would include modules and options that represent practical courses of study and can be used for vocational study. We set out below some ideas about how students can be ensured access to these options. This is not a devaluing of the GCSE. At university level it is common practice. Students undertaking degree courses will have many options to choose from – and these will range from the intensely practical to the highly theoretical.

3/ Students could achieve a range of “portfolio” qualifications.
These will be achieved by collecting specific modules within individual subjects. They might involve functional skills in literacy, numeracy and IT. They might contribute to a vocational qualification, e.g. by undertaking aspects of construction or engineering in physics and maths.

Existing Liberal Democrat policy envisages students at 16 achieving a single portfolio qualification, a diploma. The present Ebacc is also a single portfolio qualification – but if it became a requirement for university admission would mean a return to the days when students had to have a foreign language in order to study science. In fact early results suggest it is doomed only ever to be achieved by a minority of students.

This proposal would allow students to achieve a diverse portfolio within the ‘gold-plated’ GCSE subjects of the Ebacc Mk2, preventing them being disadvantaged because they have taken ‘vocational’ options.

It recognises that the key objective for students at Year 10 is to achieve a clutch of GCSEs, not the Ebacc. And it deals with the criticism that anything else is “second class” – as courses of study are undertaken under the GCSE umbrella.

4/ School achievement in these subjects would continue to be published and benchmarked - although not necessarily in league table form. This because benchmarking must include a number of measures with no single measure used as an absolute standard. Local authorities, government and Ofsted should be using sophisticated measures, such as contextual value added, to ensure that schools are driving achievement and engaging all students. It is clearly no good offering students an entitlement if it is, in practice, offered sparingly and badly.

5/ Awarding organisations (exam boards) will be expected to offer a significant choice of options allowing for a diversity of aptitudes and interests. By aptitudes we do not mean ability levels - we mean critical thinking skills such as engagement with research, manual application, gathering of facts and exposition of ideas.

6/ Within the modular approach students would still be expected to demonstrate command of core skills, working to a minimum curriculum that includes functional skills and standards of literacy and numeracy. There would, in most subjects, have to be at least one standard paper undertaken by all students.

We have considered two ways in which students might be examined in this system. One is by offering a choice of papers, the other is by a choice of questions within papers. In practice awarding organisations might choose to use both methods to create diversity.

7/ There will be a need for flexibility for students and schools in accessing the 14-16 curriculum. Some students may want to change schools at the age of 14 to pursue the new choices available. Some schools may want to offer particular specialist modules, gathering students from a wide area. There is no need for the most exciting and engaging options to be confined to the school week (e.g. field trips and expeditions are often undertaken during holidays)

8/ The Open School – The creation of a national open school, analogous but not identical to the Open University, would support schools, in particular rural schools, that might struggle to offer choices. Students could have direct access to virtual teaching and teachers would also have access to on-the-spot training.

4. What this would mean….

For schools:

Many schools might feel themselves unable to offer the full range of modules. However by choosing modules they can shape their own offer.

Schools should be required to publish their choice of modules.

Schools might choose to develop a particular culture and ethos reflected in their choice of module.

For instance a school with an ASD resource base might offer a full range of fact-based options
Another school might emphasise practical study, choosing modules based on field trips, project work and laboratory work

Another school might emphasise functional skills and employability, offering GCSE courses fully integrated with vocational study.

This might lead schools to compete to make the most attractive offer but there are also opportunities for sharing of resources and creating diversity of choice across clusters of schools. Some local authorities were encouraging schools into collegiate clusters, specifically to deliver the vocational Diploma. A similar approach could be applied more broadly.

Nick Clegg’s quote about diversity, introducing this document, we suspect referred in part to the development of a new generation of specialist technical academies. Unlike the previous generation of specialist schools, these may help to demonstrate how a school can make a distinctive offer, e.g. in the field of engineers or creative media, whilst offering a full education.

For students:

All students would learn a minimum curriculum. But they would be entitled to a much expanded range of options sitting alongside the minimum curriculum. This would enhance their interest in key subjects, enabling them to develop general knowledge and applicable skills.

And, just like graduates who may choose different options within their degree course, they would get the same qualification regardless of their choice of modules within the subjects they have studied.

for local authorities:

Liberal Democrats believe local authorities should retain a key strategic role in education by virtue of
a)     their local democratic accountability;
b)     their ability to take an over-arching view of local needs.
We see them as having a key role in developing Ebacc2. Indeed the process is analogous to the vocational diplomas which required significant cooperation between schools and colleges to deliver.

Local authorities would have to be more light touch and strategic in delivering the Ebacc Mk2. However they would be challenged to ensure their students had access to the same level of choice as in other local authorities. It is critical that all schools are in turn accountable at some level to the local authority.

We considered the example of students commuting from rural areas into a single, edge of town secondary school. In many cases the rural town may support other secondary schools. The issue is transport access to enable students to access offers made by other schools.

5. What this would mean and how it might be better:

The sort of options that might emerge are (these are illustrative):

In science: history of science options, allowing students to gain a wide knowledge of scientific achievement;
modules centred on practical work and experiment, research methods, and introduction of psychological and social sciences. This might for instance include an option to undertake a project in basic engineering or fluid dynamics(plumbing) in physics;
enhanced opportunities to study biology and physiology for those interested in careers in health.

In history: options based on facts and dates suitable for students with an aptitude for memory and n interest in the broad sweep of history

Options based on archaeology allowing schools and students to undertake highly practical work and to study periods such as the Saxons and Romans.

Geography; a very similar range with options ranging from very factual study to field trips and research.

In English: fact based options about great writers, again suitable for students with an ability to master facts;
options based on creative writing allowing students with a creative bent to demonstrate mastery of poetic or literary forms;
(Note both these might incorporate different approaches to learning about Shakespeare and other greats)
options allowing students to devote more time to functional skills and practical application of literacy, recognising that functional skills must be part of the core curriculum in English (3);
the present approach to 'the anthology' of poetry – which has become controversial among students - would become no more than one option.

In foreign languages; options based on linguistics allowing students to acquire generic skills in the learning of languages;
options offering students a chance to demonstrate rigorous knowledge of vocabulary and grammar;
we do not think foreign languages should be confined to modern European languages. Quite the opposite – Chinese, Japanese, Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi are among key languages in the modern world. Classical languages can underpin linguistic and other skills.

Maths: Options allowing students to devote more time to functional skills and practical application of numeracy;
options allowing students to explore abstract ideas;
options developing the idea of “maths for” e.g. maths for engineering, for psychology, for business.
Currently maths sits alongside other subjects such as advanced maths or statistics. We recognise that some of these ideas may sit better in a Maths 2 qualification.

6. Making it Happen. How would this be achieved?

What are the obstacles? Is it government policy, the awarding organisations (exam boards) or “conservative” teaching habits in schools themselves?

The government can play a significant role. However by interfering incessantly it can also destabilise teaching quality. The present Secretary of State has had little difficulty in securing changes of emphasis in the examination system, moving away from coursework to time assessment and pressing for changes in assessment of literacy.

Nevertheless schools do currently have some choices. Why are these exercised in a limited fashion?   Is it fear of league tables? In this section we touch on issues of resources, assessment and examination boards.

Resources: the creation of a national Open School, using modern IT, would be a key factor in ensuring equal access to resources. There might still be a particular problem in rural areas where changing schools at 14 would have limited attractions? How do you resource the transport needs of students who need to access different schools and colleges, especially in rural areas?

Assessment: There are issues that will require expert analysis but they are not insuperable. Indeed universities will give the same degree to students who have undertaken a wide range of different options and courses of study. Why should this not be possible earlier on?

How do you ensure equality of assessment between modules of very different content, between say coursework and fact-based study? This is not a new issue and is currently done Europe-wide through assessment of levels of critical thinking.

How do you ensure command of core skills? Is there are a marking structure that can provide the right mix of incentives? Would a minimum standard be required in the core skills paper to achieve a C grade?

Development of vocational education:
The Liberal Democrats were the only party to sign up fully to the 2004 Tomlinson Report which called for the integration of academic and vocational education. Indeed this was expressed in the party’s 2010 policies.

We think our proposals take significant, practical steps in this direction. More work is needed to develop this. For instance, a student interested in plumbing might take the following options: maths for engineers, practical fluid dynamics in physics. For the student to achieve a basic vocational qualification, if it were even needed, would then require limited additional practical study. However these modules in themselves might provide a more than adequate basis for the student to gain a good vocational qualification post-16.

Awarding organisations
Do these need reform to ensure dynamism in the curriculum and consistency of marking?

Role of foreign languages
There is not a universal welcome for their inclusion in the Ebacc. It can be difficult for schools to find good teachers and this may act as a barrier to the Ebacc becoming a portfolio qualification. The advantage of a portfolio qualification is that achievement in basic skills, such as literacy, numeracy and IT can be demonstrated across a range of subjects.
Our proposal is that Ebacc Mk2 should be seen primarily and initially as an offer, not a qualification. Assuming the Ebacc Mk1 lasts at least the course of the present Parliament, there will be some indication of its effectiveness in reintroducing languages by 2015.

Success of Ebacc Mk1
In 2011 just 22.7 per cent of year 10 pupils “sat” the Ebacc and just 16.5 per cent “achieved” it. In spite of all the publicity around the project it was an improvement of just 0.9 percentage points.
7. Proposed policy motion

This is a policy paper drawn up by one region of the Liberal Democrats. We are grateful for the expert help, advice and ideas we have received from a range of professionals including experienced headteachers and staff in awarding organisations. We have taken key principles and explored their implications. We do not imagine we have come up with all the answers or even necessarily the right ones. We do however believe we have painted a picture of how real choice could prevent the alienation from learning of large numbers of young people who have been judged as failures through a narrow focus on ever-changing league table targets.

Motion for Federal Conference
welcomes aspects of the English Baccalaureate, such as the reinstatement of language teaching into schools and the efforts to broaden the narrow emphasis of Labour’s National Challenge;

believes the English Baccalaureate in its present form is not compatible with the party’s principles set out in the policy paper Equity and Excellence in 2009.

It, further, expresses concern that:
 many young people will remain disengaged from learning while they are confronted with a “one size fits all” curriculum at secondary school;
that the Coalition government may seek to benchmark GCSEs by a qualification achieved by just 16.5 per cent of students in 2011.

welcomes the work undertaken by the West Midlands region set out in its paper “Beyond the Ebacc – Choice and Opportunity in Education”.

believes that :
1/ diversity and choice should be for students as well as providers of education;
2/ equality of opportunity in education means all students can develop their interests and aptitudes;
3/ good teaching responds to individual students.

calls for the Federal Policy Committee to develop educational policies for the 2015 general election that continue to embed liberal democratic principles, in particular to develop proposals for an Ebacc Mark 2 and a radical revision of GCSE exam content that would:
a)     embed opportunities for vocational and practical learning in all subjects;
b)     offer GCSE students an entitlement to a broad curriculum, in particular by extending the range of subjects included in the Ebacc;
c)     guarantee a minimum curriculum that would deliver high standards of literacy and numeracy for  students sitting GCSEs;
d)     allow students at GCSE real choice in their approaches to learning and in the examination papers they sit , maximising their engagement with mainstream subjects ;
e)     enable students to acquire broad general knowledge of the world in which they live, its science and history;
f)      ensure that school curricula and the choices offered to students are not driven by narrow and selective targets but by a requirement to demonstrate real achievement by all students;
g)     enable and support genuine diversity in secondary school provision together with good teaching and school leadership;
h)     enable local authorities to take a truly strategic role to foster diversity and choice for students and to drive achievement.

Conference supports the development of a national Open School, using modern technology to provide access to resources and options for both students and teachers.

7.   Your views and comments.
We’d welcome your comments. Please add here or email to policy @

Appendix 1

Briefing on existing Liberal Democrat Policy

This is contained in the document Equity and Excellence, policy paper 89, and the policy motion supporting the paper approved at the Harrogate conference in Spring 2009.

The motion called for “a broader curriculum and better teaching.”

It envisaged a “slimmed down Minimum Curriculum Entitlement” to replace the National Curriculum.

There would be a General Diploma, to be taken by all pupils, incorporating within it existing academic qualifications such as GCSEs, A-Levels, and existing proven vocational qualifications.

It calls for “incentives to meet the needs of all pupils by replacing the Government's present GCSE target which places too much emphasis on C/D borderline pupils.”

The paper Equity and Excellence states “The Minimum Curriculum Guarantee would specify the core educational provision which every school would have to make available to each child from age 7 to age 19.”

Paragraph 3.1.3 states:
Technology, school federations, flexible teaching models, and innovative learning
practices, should enable schools and colleges to provide access to as wide a curriculum offer as
possible. Local authorities could support access to this wide range of options by publishing a single
prospectus for their locality, as currently happens in some areas for 14-19 courses.

The General Diploma proposals state:

Pupils would typically start our General Diploma at age 14, with existing academic,
vocational and apprenticeship qualifications being incorporated as its building blocks.  It would be
awarded at different grades at ages 16 and 18.  The ESA would be responsible for laying out the
framework of points awarded to each qualification block within the General Diploma. While
internal assessment could be part of some, especially vocational, courses as at present, external
assessment would remain central to these qualifications.
3.2.5 We would maximize choice, by allowing students to take both academic and vocational
courses within a single General Diploma.

3.2.6 states: “To facilitate greater access to vocational education, we would legislate to give pupils the
right to move from school to college or work-related learning provider at age 14 and put in proper
support arrangements for such pupils and the people teaching them.”

Section 3.3 deals with testing and assessment.

The principles stated in 3.3.1 are that We would overhaul the existing testing and assessment regime so that testing and assessment is focused on pupil needs, and not just on school accountability.  In doing so, we would address concerns about the quality of the assessments and the effects on standards of ‘teaching to the test’ and narrowing of the curriculum.

3.4.5 states, under the heading Measuring Progress: As part of developing the General Diploma we would introduce a new way of measuring individual standards which would take the average points total achieved per-pupil for their 8 best GCSE or equivalent results, including English and maths.  This would replace the existing target of 5 A*-C GCSEs, including and excluding maths and English, which puts excessive focus on the C/D borderline, and discourages schools from giving attention to improving the performance among both lower and higher performing pupils.

What’s in a name? The objective, drawn from the Tomlinson report, of a single qualification for all is good but the notion of a General Diploma seems guaranteed to upset university admission tutors and aspirational families. As does the notion that you cannot do better than 8 A*s at GCSE (3.4.5)

However the document sets out principles for a “liberal education.” These include a wide range of options – and, so far as possible, equal opportunity for all to achieve these options.

3.2.6 recognises in particular that to encourage mature choices and equal opportunities, students may need access to more resources than are provided in their school. The option of moving to a work-placed provider at 14 could be dropped but we agree flexibility at the age of 14 is necessary to ensure choice and opportunity .

The document does not successfully address the issue of how vocational study might be comparable with academic study under the umbrella of the General Diploma (or Ebacc). Our proposal is that some kinds of vocational activity might be included as options within the traditional curriculum e.g. engineering activities within science and maths. The issue of comparability would not then arise.

The document refers to 8 GCSEs and may mean this as a minimum target – rather than five or two. However the scoring system would make 8 a maximum for most students.  That proposal should be dropped. We therefore like the idea that our Ebacc Mk2 will encourage the study of, probably seven subjects as a minimum i.e. English, Maths, 2 sciences, 1 language, 1 humanity from group A i.e. history/geography and 1 humanity from a more broadly defined group B e.g. history, geography, Eng Literature, RE, economics etc

The concept of the Minimum National Curriculum Entitlement is essential, with emphasis on the word ‘entitlement’. Equity and Excellence does not develop it and indeed our proposals really only focus on the 14-16 range of study – so more work needs doing at other ages.

Appendix 2
Defining modular.
We think our proposal has to be called “modular” while recognising the criticisms of the present modular exam systems.

The present modular system defines each paper or item of coursework as a module which has to be passed. It is not clear how much choice students ever get over these modules. What they do get, often, is the choice to retake the same module to build up their marks or to ensure a pass is achieved. The Secretary of State for Education has declared his intention to restrict these opportunities.

We have discussed whether our proposal requires modular papers at all. It may not and this can be left open. The essence lies in students having options or choices, not just of subjects but of how they approach those subjects. There may be a range of ways of testing those options. For instance a single exam could offer a choice of questions. Take the example of history. A single paper might cover the period of Roman Britain. Some questions would invite conventional essay responses. Some might invite responses based on research undertaken and visits to archaeological sites. Some might allow the expression of knowledge of facts and dates.

Is there another word or simple phrase that could be used to encapsulate the concept?

Appendix 3
Other subject issues:

During our consultation at West Midlands regional conference a number of subjects were mentioned, with questions about how they fit in.

These include RE, citizenship, Art, music and IT.

By allowing the Ebacc Mk2 to include a seventh, unspecified subject, this is partly resolved. However students should continue to be encouraged to study more than seven GCSEs if appropriate.

Some thoughts on individual topics:
RE – there is potential controversy within our party about the content of this subject. Some courses of study already merge it with philosophy and it remains compulsory up to the age of 16
Art – Is this a subject that should be broadened to encompass some topics that have ended up as separate and popular vocational courses i.e. fashion and hair-dressing?
IT – there appears to be confusion about what is taught and its purpose. Basic IT skills should now underpin all courses of study – and should be demonstrated in all courses, as are literacy and numeracy. It would be good to see IT courses developed with a vocational bent, allowing students to gain skills in programming and electronics.
Foreign languages – there is not a universal welcome for their inclusion in the Ebacc. It can be difficult for schools to find good teachers and this may act as a barrier to the Ebacc becoming a portfolio qualification.
Appendix 4 – References

1.  Ofqual launched a consultation on September 26 2011 on reforming GCSEs
Details can be found here

The focus is on spelling, punctuation and grammar and on making the exams “linear” i.e. removing the opportunities for retakes of individual papers and preventing mid-year attempts.

2.  The Department for Education briefing on the English Baccalaureate can be found here:

3.  Functional Literacy and Numeracy – a  report of Birmingham City Council Education Scrutiny committee 2010

4. Literacy and Numeracy – a report of Birmingham City Council Education scrutiny committee 2008 (this had a particular focus on gender differences in learning styles and the “gap” in attainment)

5/ The Liberal Democrat policy document Equity and Excellence, February 2009, can be located here:

Appendix 5

“I think key to this debate is creating a system that
a) actually, really ‘grows’ students in knowledge skills,
 b) can be measured and standardised in a fair way,
 c) getting ‘the world’ to accept its outcomes as valid and valuable.”
Successful headteacher.

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