The English Baccalaureate - Education Committee Contents


The English Baccalaureate (EBac) was first announced on 6th September 2010 by the Secretary of State for Education; further details were announced through the Schools White Paper of November 2010. The EBac has two principal functions: to act as a new performance measure for use by parents and the wider public, and as a certificate of achievement for individual students. To achieve the EBac, a student would need GCSEs (at grades A*-C) in English, mathematics, at least two sciences, history or geography, and a modern or classical language. The EBac performance measure records the percentage of each school's population which achieves the award. The EBac was applied to the 2010 league tables, and revealed that around 15.6% of students that year achieved the EBac.

The Government appears to have three main reasons for creating the EBac. The Minister of State for Schools said that the EBac is a "key component" of the Government's approach to narrowing the attainment gap between the richest and the poorest students. It is also designed to ensure that all students have access to a broad, academic curriculum, and within that to increase uptake of particular subjects. Finally, it contributes to the Government's clearly-articulated desire for more performance measures and more publicly available information about schools.

Much of the evidence we received—in itself an unusually high volume of submissions for a Committee inquiry—focussed on concerns around one or more of these stated objectives. However, there were also concerns about the manner of the EBac's introduction: without consultation, but with retrospective application to the 2010 performance tables. We recognise the tension between the lack of consultation concerning the EBac's introduction, and the Government's aspiration to afford greater autonomy and respect to the education profession. We therefore recommend that, in the future, the Government should aim to give appropriate notice of, and undertake consultation with key stakeholders and the wider public on, any new performance or curriculum measures. We welcome the recently-launched review of the National Curriculum and understand the Government's wish to introduce reform with all speed, but regret the launch of the EBac before the curriculum review was completed. Finally, in our chapter on the EBac's introduction, we recommend that the Government should assess the extent to which the EBac's name might cause confusion: it is not a baccalaureate as generally understood.

The Committee fully supports the Government's stated intention to improve the attainment of the poorest young people. However, the evidence is unclear as to whether entering more disadvantaged students for EBac subjects would necessarily make a significant contribution to this aim. Concentrating on the subjects most valued for progression to higher education could mean schools improve the attainment and prospects of their lowest-performing students, who are disproportionately the poorest as well; other evidence, though, suggests that the EBac might lead to a greater focus on those students most likely to achieve it, and therefore have a negative impact on the most vulnerable or disadvantaged young people. It is essential that the Government confirms how it will monitor the attainment of children on free school meals in the EBac. We also recommend that the Government should provide further international evidence, and analysis of it, to inform debate on the merits of the EBac: the evidence we received does not suggest a link, in other countries, between the prescribed study of certain academic subjects and improved attainment and prospects for poorer students.

The choice of subjects included in the EBac has been one of the most controversial aspects of its creation. We acknowledge that certain academic subjects studied at A-level are more valued by Russell Group universities than others. We encourage the Government to examine carefully the evidence presented to us and to reconsider the composition of the EBac on conclusion of the National Curriculum Review. Academic subjects are not the only path to a successful future, and all young people, regardless of background, must continue to have opportunities to study the subjects in which they are likely to be most successful, and which pupils, parents and schools think will serve them best.

We agree with the Government that more performance measures, including those showing the progress made by every child, would be very welcome, and acknowledge that the EBac might sit amongst such measures. We are concerned, though, that the existing EBac is not yet part of a balanced score-card which gives equal weight to the progress of every child. Publishing unique learner numbers would enable the analysis of entry for, and attainment in, particular subjects and combinations of subjects within a school, and we recommend that the Government considers this move. The Government needs either to remove or revalue qualifications appropriately within the performance tables, and we therefore welcome the Government's response to the Wolf Review with regard to vocational qualifications and their league table tariffs. However, we remain unconvinced that the EBac is an effective way to redress the perverse incentives generated by existing performance measures. We are also concerned that an EBac certificate might give too much emphasis to one performance measure in a balanced score-card, and for this reason suggest that plans for certification should be shelved.

The volume of evidence for this inquiry was unusually large: over 360 written submissions in additional to a subject-specific campaign of more than 340 letters based on a common template; we have examined that, and other, evidence in detail. While we saw significant support for the principles of a broad and balanced curriculum, the evidence we received was mainly negative about the EBac as it currently stands. We think that the Government is right to say that all children should have access to a broad and balanced curriculum up to the age of sixteen, including traditional, academic subjects, and that the attainment gap between rich and poor can, and should, be narrowed. The evidence available does suggest that the list of subjects contained in the EBac is, broadly speaking, representative of those that have the highest value to the individual in keeping their options open. However, our inquiry has uncovered significant concerns about the exact composition of the EBac, the impact the EBac will have on students, and the manner of the EBac's introduction. We urge the Government to keep the EBac under careful scrutiny, to review the subjects in it, to consult more widely with the public on how best to measure students' and schools' performance, and to take seriously the lessons to be learnt from the EBac's introduction.

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Prepared 28 July 2011