I am an eternal optimist, and as such I believe that there is some value to the new English Baccalaureate. However, this is only true if it is used to recognise achievement rather than highlight the lack of it. Many schools fear it will be used as another measure to brand them as failures, and are angry that the goalposts have shifted. This is just another cycle in the endless story of data and education.
For those who don’t know, the new UK governing coalition has introduced a new yardstick against which to measure school success. This is, the proportion of students who, at the age of 16, achieve a grade C or higher in their exams in all of the following:
- A foreign language (modern or classical)
- A humanity
Previous published measures included the proportion of students gaining 5 or more exams in any subject at a grade C or above, and the number gaining 2 or 3 or more grade C’s plus the same standard in English & Maths.
Inherently there is nothing wrong with any of these measures. In fact they were all brought in to reflect various different ideas about what represents a ‘good’ outcome. I similarly believe there is nothing wrong with the new English Baccalaureate measure. Any new piece of data tells you something new, helps suggest areas of particularly good practice, and opens up new questions.
So how should these data be used? Ideally, as a package of measures, publicly available, along with contextual information, and an internal self-evaluation by the school. It is reasonable to be able to compare these measures against other schools, but only if equal weight is given to each piece of data. The culture set by the government should then be to highlight and recognise schools with particularly outstanding achievement and ethos and supportively challenge other schools to share, collaborate, and learn from these schools.
The concept of “awarding” the baccalaureate suggests that it should mark out particularly hard work and excellent achievement:
“If you get five GCSEs in those areas, I think you should be entitled to special recognition,” Gove said.
This was the excellent spirit in which the education secretary announced the new award in September in The Guardian. His aides followed with:
The education secretary was not seeking to tell pupils what exams to take, but the baccalaureate would be a way of rewarding those who took a wider range of subjects.
These are all positive statements. Unfortunately the spirit in which the English Bacc. was launched hasn’t entirely been maintained:
“We are publishing more information which shines a light on the last Government’s failure to give millions of children access to core academic knowledge in other subjects”
(Michael Gove in the Daily Mail, 8th January 2011)
Data should be used to highlight good practice and raise aspirations, but never for a witch-hunt . I would love our government to follow the classroom example and aim for a ratio of at least 5 pieces of praise to each negative statement made publicly. I genuinely believe that a culture of positivity and innovation coupled with tough challenges and high aspirations will make an order of magnitude more difference than league tables, criticism, and persecution.
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