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EBacc: the key to a rich curriculum for all pupils

Guest Post
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In today's guest post, Hywel Jones tells us why he believes the EBacc has consolidated the arts in the secondary curriculum. Hywel is the headteacher of the West London Free School. 

The detrimental impact of the EBacc on the arts has been the focus of much debate over the past few months. The argument goes that encouraging pupils to take the EBacc subjects has narrowed secondary school arts provision, with art and music suffering the most.

I disagree. I think these claims are based on false premises: for start, they ignore the actual GCSE entry statistics since 2012.

It's true that many schools have altered the time allocation for art and music at KS3 and KS4 to meet the demands of the reformed GCSEs in other subjects. However, this has not led to a drop in pupil entries for both subjects. In fact, entry rates for 2013-15 have shown a steady increase for both subjects. Take art, for example. Entries increased by over 11,000 between 2013 and 2015 – the time when many schools adopted an EBacc-compliant curriculum.

My argument, then? That instead of narrowing provision for the arts at KS4, the introduction of the EBacc has consolidated their rightful place on the curriculum. How has this happened? It’s all down to the way curriculum leadership has changed over the past decade.

In the years preceding the introduction of the EBacc, curriculum leadership mainly focused on boosting key performance indicators. On my journey towards headship, attending many professional development courses based on this premise, I often felt that the role of school leaders was simply to identify qualifications that would lead to a visible improvement in raw and value-added attainment. I even dropped out of one senior leadership qualification course in protest at the educational values it was promoting: any consideration of the quality of a school’s curriculum was ignored, and instead it was treated like no more than a set of qualifications. I remember feeling very frustrated.

Pupils of all abilities and socioeconomic backgrounds should be able to attend schools that allow them to study a modern foreign language, an ancient language, history, geography, religious studies, computing, classical civilisations, music and fine art until the age of 16. This wasn’t happening in the early 2000s, when schools chased that key performance indicator of 5A*-C and entered pupils for qualifications that were divorced from the conventions of subject specifity and were instead designed around core skills-based competencies. Subjects that I believe should form the bedrock of a comprehensive secondary education were closed off to pupils at the early age of 14. True, skills like digital literacy, teamwork and self-reflection help prepare pupils for the workplace, but they also served to reduce the scholarly conventions of a subject-based curriculum for pupils under 16. Frustratingly, this was never debated the way the EBacc is being debated today. Yet I believe that the introduction of the pathways programme led to a quick marginalisation of the arts and humanities. The EBacc, in contrast, has had the opposite effect, especially at KS4.

I worry that some schools today continue to deny pupils access to a rich, scholarly curriculum. It might well be dressed up as an alternative pathway, but the league table and inspection incentives for this approach to the curriculum are all too clear. This can happen where the curriculum is treated like a list of qualifications, rather than choices about subject content that schools have made with staff, governors and parents. 'Subject' becomes synonymous with 'qualification', as the emphasis on outcomes overrides the value of the knowledge generated by studying a broad range of subjects through to age 16.

You also find this approach to curriculum leadership where people believe that the need to be 'employable' is, for some pupils, best addressed by a skills-based, vocational curriculum from KS3. This thinking implies that the principal aim of secondary education is to create young people who can function in the workplace.

I don’t dispute the sentiment behind this aim. We all want our pupils to hold down a job in the future. However, the main purpose of the curriculum to the age of 16 is not to make our pupils employable. Instead, I think it should be our duty as school leaders to ensure that all children, regardless of their prior attainment or socioeconomic background, have time to engage in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Vocational education can wait until students turn 16. The introduction of the EBacc has created an environment in which debate about the importance of the arts and humanities has grown, not lessened. This can only be a good thing.

I’m proud to lead a school that has a crystal-clear view of what a curriculum should look like: that is, a classical liberal education for pupils of all abilities. We focus on the EBacc because we believe all pupils should have access to the arts and humanities until they reach 16. Art and music are a central part of our curriculum at KS3 and KS4 and the GCSE uptake reflects this, as do the high number of pupils learning to play an instrument and the range of co-curricular art and music clubs. At the same time, we ask pupils also to study history and/or geography with a modern foreign language.

Recent arguments have suggested that the arts and the EBacc are mutually exclusive. However, I would argue that they're complementary, and that together they comprise part of a knowledge-rich curriculum for pupils of all abilities.

Members of The Key for School Leaders can also read our article with case studies from schools that have altered their curriculum to deliver EBacc subjects.  Another of our articles links to tools for auditing arts provision in a school.

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