Important NUT research on the secondary curriculum

The NUT has just released King’s College research on the effects of government policies on the secondary curriculum. Based on a sample of 1800 secondary members and in depth school case studies, key findings show   amongst other things:

  • 74% of teachers consider the Ebacc requirements are dramatically narrowing the curriculum.
  • 84% worry that the excessive pressure of exams is taking its toll on young people’s well- being and mental health.
  • Three quarters of teachers believe that the new ‘one size fits all’ GCSEs will be less suitable for low attaining students and have made the curriculum uninspiring and anachronistic.
  • A general lack of confidence in ‘Progress 8’ – Government’s latest attempt to measure students’ progress and hold schools accountable for it, with widespread opposition to using unreliable KS2 SATs data as the basis for measuring progress at  GCSE.
  • 92% reporting their workload has increased as a result of the changes
  • Increased concern about job insecurity as the non-Ebacc subjects are scaled down or become no longer available as a learning option, particularly as a result of funding cuts.

Download  full report   here                                 thji9s7ysr


EBacc gets stuck?

Last week the Department for Education released provisional performance data for Party Faithful Attend The Annual Conservative Party Conferencesecondary schools.*

The data includes the number of students ‘entering’ and ‘achieving’ the EBacc, Michael Gove’s flagship qualification designed to restore ‘rigour’ to the curriculum.  For the former it’s 39.6% of all state funded students, up from 38.6% for 2014/15 and still nowhere near Nicky Morgan’s 90% target for 2020.   For the latter, the figure’s 24.5% (compared to 24.3% last year) in other words less than 1 in 4.

The problem for the EBacc continues to be the modern foreign language requirement- last year two thirds of students did not enter a language, compared for example, with just 1 in 5 who did not enter either history or geography and 1 in 10 not entering science. (With English and maths, the subjects making up the EBacc) This year there have been 7% falls in French and German entries   -though a slight increase in Spanish.

The DfE has been keeping rather quiet about EBacc recently and has not published the results of the consultation undertaken last year. Instead, it’s focusing attention on the progress-8  attainment measure – where it is possible for students to be able to maximise scores without a foreign language, though their performance in English, maths and three listed EBacc GCSEs must be included.

For Gove’s critics, rather than a step forward, EBacc was part of a return to a narrow, backward looking and elitist learning

– a way of imposing a grammar school curriculum without having to bring back the grammars. 

In the  future, if never able to properly establish itself in the majority of schools,  the  EBacc might serve as  a  necessary precondition for becoming one of Theresa May’s  ‘selective’ schools?


The EBacc and Progress 8


There will be a new headline performance measure for secondary schools from September 2016.  Schools will no longer be ranked according to the number of students passing achieving 5 A* to C GCSEs. Instead, Attainment 8   data will record the average score for their year 11 students across 8 subjects.  More significantly they will have to publish data for Progress 8   – a new value added measurement.  The Department for Education has invited schools to ‘opt in’ and provide Progress 8   data for 2015 – over 300 have done so[1].  As well as Attainment 8 and Progress 8 data, 2016 performance tables will also include the percentage of students achieving grade C in English and mathematics as well as the English Baccalaureate. 

For 2016, a   student’s   Attainment 8   is calculated on the following basis. 1 is equivalent to a grade G at GCSE with 8 equivalent to an A*[2].  Mathematics is double weighted, as is English, provided   the student has also been entered for English Literature.  The student is then scored on three EBacc subjects and then three other GCSE or recognised vocational qualifications.  Individual subject scores are totalled and then divided by 10 (because of the double weighting).  A student scoring 4.5 in 2016  for example would be performing between a  D and a C in their individual GCSEs

A   student’s   Progress 8   score will take on more significance. Performance levels at the end of KS4   will be compared with those at the end of KS2.  A student producing  a positive value- added return will be performing above the level expected by students with an equivalent  KS2 performance  and this will be expressed as a positive number [3]  A school’s Progress 8 score will be the average score for its student cohort.  For all mainstream students it will be expected to be at least zero.  If a school is 0.5% below its ‘floor standard’ the school may come under scrutiny by Ofsted

 What are the implications of Progress 8?

The government argues that because the new system is based on eight subjects it is broader than the EBacc and could mean the creative arts subjects are no longer squeezed out of curriculum. Also, because a student can include three vocational subjects in their score, it could represent a move away from a ‘one size fits all’ academic education in the way that Ofsted’s Sir Michael Wishaw appears to want[4]  In response to this however, a number of concerns can be identified.

Firstly, not completing the EBacc, will make it very difficult to record a positive progress 8 score.  Schools will recognise this and concentrate resources accordingly. Secondly it’s unrealistic for Year 11 subject targets to be based on English and maths tests completed in Year 6.  Progress 8 does not necessarily increase the chances of artistic and creative non-EBacc subjects returning to the curriculum. Schools will be reluctant to reintroduce these as it is likely results will be included in students’ scores immediately without there being the space for new courses to become properly established. Progress 8 is unlikely to encourage schools diversify their vocational provision. Instead they will continue to concentrate on the subject areas where they have expertise.  To count in performance tables, vocational courses have had to take on many of the characteristics of academic qualifications. A student completing a non-recognised vocational course will score nothing[5].

Progress 8 will lead, almost inevitably to a further increase in the role of data and of those responsible for collecting it, in driving the curriculum.  For example, data managers may insist that every student is entered (even if not properly prepared) for English Literature, to enable the doubling of their English score. Finally, Progress 8   can only increase in workload stress and cause a performance management nightmare with individual student attainment targets replacing group averages. In most schools, all of a student’s GCSE results will be included.

There are lots of unresolved issues surrounding Progress 8 on which teachers will need to remain vigilant. 


[1] For a list of schools that have, see

[2] The numerical calculations will change when the new 1-9 GCSE grading system is introduced from 2017.

[3] See the DfE  Guide (page 16/17) for details of this calculation

[4] Michael Wilshaw speech to Centreforum 18/01/16                                     

[5] The numbers of vocational qualifications that qualify for performance tables have been severely reduced and no longer count as ‘multiple’ GCSEs. See:

The rise and fall of vocational education

thFull-time vocational education courses developed in colleges and school sixth-forms in response to increased staying on rates from the 1980s.  They were seen as alternatives to academic learning and offered through training organisations like City & Guilds and BTEC now long since subsumed into larger examination awarding bodies.  They concentrated on particular occupational areas, particularly those in the growing service and business sectors. They also included a number of ‘generic’ or ‘soft’ skills like ‘team working’ and ‘personal development’ which, it was argued, were now essential in the changing workplace.  Delivered through assignments and projects.– the ‘new vocationalism’  as it became known, was generally considered to be a progressive pedagogy with many young people liking to learn this way.

Vocational qualifications also became an integral part of the KS4   curriculum –the first stage of a ‘vocational pathway’ proposed by Sir Ron Dearing as part of his review of the National Curriculum in the 1990s. The current  University Technical Colleges (UTCs)  directed by Kenneth (now Lord) Baker, which offer specialist 14-19 education  are a continuation of this approach.  Though designed to help in the transition to work,   Advanced Level   vocational qualifications have been used for entry to higher education – to the ‘new’ universities, rather than elite institutions.   Vocational qualifications  have also been included in school league tables, counting as several GCSEs. As a result, many schools made them an additional part of the curriculum for students who had chosen academic courses.

Officially equal in status to academic qualifications, research continued to show that it is lower performing students who are enrolled on vocational courses. Vocational qualifications have also   been criticised for lacking ‘rigour’ with the Wolf Review –commissioned by the Coalition – concluding that many lower level  vocational qualifications were ‘worthless’ in terms of increasing employment opportunities. It argued that young people would be better off learning in the workplace and doing apprenticeships.

The Coalition and now the Conservative government have been very harsh on vocational qualifications. To be included in performance tables and in the new ‘TechBacc’   they have had to meet certain requirements in relation to their content and the type of assessment they use. The old style BTEC qualifications loved by many teachers will no longer exist. Students on construction courses for example, are now required to study trigonometry and Pythagoras, with new Ofqual rules requiring a minimum 0f 25% external assessment.  The number of eligible qualifications has also been reduced. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, except that it’s likely to alienate many of the young people more engaged through  the vocational approach.

In other countries, vocational pathways have been linked to apprenticeships and employment training, in the UK this has not been the case.  Though employer representatives and Ofsted have called for more emphasis on vocational learning and a move away from a ‘one size fits all’ academic curriculum, there is certainly no evidence individual employers consider applicants with vocational qualifications to be more qualified for work.  On the contrary, research shows that, with a few exceptions, it’s the traditional academic subjects that have continued to have much greater status and attract the highest returns in the labour market.

Also, as the occupational structure changes and people are likely to  have a number of very different ‘careers’ during their working life, that’s if they are the lucky ones and are able to secure work at all after a new wave of digitalisation,  it’s questionable whether any specialist vocational study from a relatively  early age has any  benefit.  If vocational courses are to remain on the school curriculum it is important that they are part of a broad general education that covers a range of learning experiences. It also important that as well as just teaching how to, they cover a variety of issues about ‘work’ –its social context and changing nature.



As A-level juggernaut rolls on, is it really ‘university or apprenticeships’?

aslevelsWith A-level results announced earlier in the day, UCAS reported 409 000 successful university placements –   up 3% against A level results day in 2014 and including 362,000 students accepted to their first choice. The 5% increase in 18 year olds and a 2% growth in those 19 has been at the expense of older students. There’s also been a fall in those registering as part-time students. These increases have been helped by the removal of the admissions cap as universities increasingly chase students, but they also confirm that, despite the fees and despite new plans to axe maintenance grants for the less well off, what used to referred to as the ‘academic route’ is, at least in the eyes of young people, increasingly the only route that provides at least some security in a world of precarious employment and the ‘graduatisation’ of even routine jobs.

Yet within minutes of A-level results being announced, Schools Minister Nick Gibb went on television reminding young people that the government had also provided apprenticeships as alternative to university, that two million have been created since 2010 and another three million are promised by 2020.   Because apprenticeships are considered a good thing across the political spectrum, supported by both business leaders and trade unions as ways of rebalancing the economy, restoring the importance of manufacturing, maybe even returning to ‘how things used to be’?  

Current problems with apprenticeships continue to be glossed over by most though. First of all, a school leaver with A-levels is going to find it hard to find a Higher Level Apprenticeship – a qualification that is equivalent to at least the early years of a degree – and might also include some university attendance. Data from the Skills Funding Agency (part of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills) shows just 12,300 starts between August 2014 and April 2015. While this is more than 25% up on previous periods, only 700 have been by those under 19. There are more Advanced Level Apprenticeships, but during 2013/14, less than a third, just 35,600 were under 19. Small fry compared to the 250 000 plus who enrol for A-level. Many young people who do start apprenticeships also have academic qualifications that are at least equivalent to the apprenticeship level at which they start and so are not progressing. The majority of apprenticeships are still only at intermediate Level (equivalent to the GCSEs the majority of school leavers already have) last for 12 months and generally don’t offer automatic progression to an Advanced scheme.

Despite government promises, a lot needs to be done before young people really have a choice between the academic and the apprenticeship route.

CBI’s curriculum proposals. A step forward, but big questions remain


The CBI’s John Cridland has re-opened the debate about the 14-19 curriculum.   


Cridland has called for GCSE to be abolished within 5 years ‘High-stakes exams at 16 are from a bygone era’ and, in a further swipe at the Gove/Morgan examination reforms, for the status of vocational learning to be upgraded.  ‘For too long, we’ve just ‘pretended’ to have a multiple route education system. Yet in reality there has been only one path the system values – GCSEs, A-levels, University.’

Cridland’s comments put him closer to Labour’s Tristram Hunt and his Tech-Bacc,  but also to Tory, Lord (Kenneth) Baker, the instigator of University Technical Colleges.  Cridland also calls  for a more flexible ‘personalised’ curriculum allowing academic and vocational study to be mixed and which would provide ‘Great teachers in classrooms with the freedom to deliver great, innovative teaching harnessing new approaches and technologies’.  He also wants much better careers advice, closer links between employers and schools and the restoration of the careers service.

The GCSE used to be considered the ‘teachers exam’ because of its emphasis on coursework and because it was available to all. Those days are long since gone and as a result, many would support Cridland’s calls for abolition.  Yet on the other hand, there is no reason why some form of assessment at 16 shouldn’t continue, but within a much broader baccalaureate framework providing the main certification at 18.

Cridland’s proposals for vocational education are less clear and much weaker. On the one hand he wants to include more work experience  and like many others in the UK, including Baker and Labour’s Lord Adonis, looks to Germany for inspiration.  At the same time he wants vocational courses to also have the ‘gold standard’ A-level label – even though  the most successful vocational course so far, the GNVQ   was reinvented as  a vocational A-level in Labour’s Curriculum 2000 reforms, but failed to establish itself  as entries dropped to a few thousand.

The main problem with Cridland’s approach and that of Baker and Hunt for that matter is it’s refusal to be critical of ‘academic’ education in itself – only to say that it’s not suitable for everybody. Thus. ‘For many – including me, and most Ministers – that path was the right one. But for many others, it’s not’.   Isn’t this just another way of saying that ‘vocational qualifications are all right for other people’s children…’ ?

A serious analysis of qualifications has to consider the part played by what sociologists call ‘powerful knowledge’. Labour governments have been trying to improve the status of vocational qualifications for years but haven’t succeeded.    Powerful (academic) knowledge has long been upheld by elite universities –where few if any ‘vocational’ students are ever admitted.  It’s powerful knowledge, not it’s vocational or practical content that secures jobs in the City or leading roles in business.  

Not surprisingly this isn’t addressed by Cridland, (MA, History, Christ’s College Cambridge) yet until it is, differences in status between different types of knowledge will also continue.  We could make a start by calling for a general diploma with a mandatory core of academic and vocational study, in otherwords, without different routes or  ‘pathways’ and then  campaigning for  it to be the main entrance qualification across higher education.

Better careers advice should also be encouraged, but has to be in the context of expanding job opportunities themselves. The problem for most young people isn’t that they make the wrong choices –but that there are little in the way of alternatives.  In an economy becoming ever more sharply divided into ‘lovely’ and ‘lousy’ jobs and where people are as likely to be overqualified than lacking skills, there’s no real evidence, at least not yet, that doing an apprenticeship, that’s if you are lucky to get one, will ever allow you to earn anywhere near as much as if you have even a reasonable degree.  

The countries where the differences between academic and vocational learning are smallest, are invariably countries where the level of inequality has always been lower and where vocational and technical education has traditionally been part of a defined route into employment.  Cridland’s proposals should be welcomed by educational reformers, but they still leave as many questions as answers.

New league tables bed down Gove’s curriculum

still running the show?
Still running the show?

Last week’s secondary school league tables began to bed down the first of Michael Gove’s examination changes for 14-19. The 2014 tables excluded performances in resits or in BTEC style vocational qualifications –and gave further prominence to  English Baccalaureate subjects.   As a result many schools found that though their overall performance in exams had improved, they’d slid down the league  and  more are  ‘failing’. By 2016 the tables will be rank schools according to the ‘eight’. This will be performance in the EB plus three other subjects deemed sufficiently ‘rigorous’ (read ‘academic’ with end of course written examinations).

Much of the media attention given to this year’s tables however has been hogged by the top private schools –largely  because they’ve continued to do the old ‘unregulated’ syllabuses for International GCSEs (IGCSE). No longer allowed in tables,  many privates are  now also  failing

The tables have not been designed to regulate these schools however, but to impose a ‘grammar school’ curriculum across the state sector and  more importantly to create new categories of failure and of course,  the option of imposing further sanctions on those that don’t make the grade. 

With the current Secretary of State Nicky Morgan now promising new ‘11 plus’ requirements if the Tories are re-elected,  we’re moving even further to an education system based on regimentation and social control rather than encouraging innovation and social aspiration. This is appropriate for a society where social mobility has gone in to reverse and high rates of youth unemployment have become the norm.