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Expert Comment: English Baccalaureate Certificate abandoned

Tuesday 12 February 2013

Dr Anthony Archdeacon, Lecturer in Education at Liverpool Hope, looks at the implications of Michael Gove's climb down.

The announcement on 7th February that Michael Gove has abandoned his ‘EBC’ scheme to completely overhaul the way public examinations are conducted at GCSE and A level was met fairly universally with relief. Amongst the few who might have been annoyed at the announcement, or at least the timing of it, were those teams from the three main awarding bodies which had been put together in the last five months to bid for the potentially lucrative prizes on offer. At great expense, task forces had been assembled to bid for sole ownership of Maths, Science or English examining. Staff were seconded or experts newly employed for the purpose, all frantically trying to devise proposals based on only a leaked, and clearly half-finished, curriculum document widely circulated as a photocopy late last year. The futures of AQA, OCR and Edexcel were apparently at stake.

With Pearson’s money behind them, Edexcel sent their team out to one of Mr Gove’s favourite ‘high performing jurisdictions’ - those that perform well according to the international comparisons of PISA tables - Singapore. As they fly back long-haul from Singapore, no doubt those Pearson employees will be wondering whether this is the future of curriculum development: knee-jerk reactions to the individual passions or prejudices of individual ministers. In the end, common sense prevailed. One could say that the checks and balances of the Commons Education Select Committee and Ofqual were there to ensure that it did, but this does not excuse the waste of time and money that this episode has caused.

At least as disturbing on 7th February was the release of the new draft curriculum. What will perplex many is how a two-year review of the curriculum ostensibly seeking to update our national curriculum for the 21st century could produce a consultation document of such overwhelming dullness. The Expert Panel report published December 2011 defined education as “the product of interaction between socially valued knowledge and individual development”. And the outcome is a 220 page document dominated by lists: check-lists of things you need to know. In the case of the core subjects English, Maths and Science it specifies what you should be taught not at different stages of development but at different ages: if you are old enough, you are ready for it. The document sketches other subjects in a cursory way, and in a style often redolent of a bygone era, as with History’s aim to understand “the achievements and follies of mankind”.

Many may well, in spotting items that they agree with in these lists, see this document as an achievement rather than a folly. No doubt it is right that children in Year 1 should be able to identify the best material for a gymnast’s leotard. But the real issue is whether the purpose of a curriculum document should be to define socially valued knowledge. As a strategy for curriculum reform it has the advantage of appearing simple and easy to grasp, but of course the question of how you establish what is socially-valued knowledge is by no means simple in an ethnically diverse country that shares in both a global culture and a global economy. And like the ideas of E D Hirsch from which this approach has been borrowed, such a philosophy of education can be seen as either empowering or oppressive. Hirsch’s idea of ‘cultural literacy’ was after all little different from Bourdieu’s Marxist notion of cultural capital, and yet the former has been appropriated eagerly by the political right.

Since the Great Debate over a proposed national curriculum began three decades ago, developments have oscillated between radical change and ‘back to basics’ approaches. There are always some things worth going back to which might have been forgotten in the rush forward, but a curriculum for schools cannot only be looking back: it must be anticipating the needs of young people in a world which is changing more rapidly than ever. Hirsch’s seminal 1980s work on cultural literacy was sub-titled “what every American needs to know”. The real issue for our curriculum now is surely what everyone will need to know in the future.



A Archdeacon 2013-02-10

 

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