Lord only knows?

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There was extensive gnashing of teeth when the menacing Lord Gnasher recently spoke in the House of Lords.

The Most Excellent Earl of Clancarty had secured a short debate in the House of Lords to ask what effect the EBacc requirements will have on ensuring that children receive a balanced and rounded education in schools. In his opening speech he said:

“Children will not necessarily be excited by everything. Real social justice is to treat children as individuals who are open to a variety of possibilities. The narrow and, crucially, uniformly set EBacc curriculum…leave very little room, if any, for art, music and drama, or other subjects, including technological courses.

The EBacc is a flawed measure. It should either be radically reformed, or dropped entirely.

In this sense, an EBacc without the arts should be unthinkable; a core curriculum without the arts will not raise standards but lower them. Students being able to make connections between disparate subjects is not only part of the learning process; it will be that innovation that fires the future… Finally, a rounded education treats the main areas of education as being of equal value.”

Other excellent contributions to the debate included:

Baroness Morris of Yardley (Lab): There is nothing to stop schools doing art, drama and all those things… However, the reality is that schools are not doing so and are losing the facilities needed. The teachers are not being recruited. The time is not being made available.

Baroness Pinnock (LD): The business leader said that what business wanted was soft skills in young people entering the world of work. He defined these as the ability to communicate, to collaborate, to co-operate in a team, to be critical and to work on projects—none of which he felt would be developed in young people through the EBacc diet.

Altogether, we are proposing a narrow diet for our young people when they face the world of work which is opening up. I beg the Minister to reconsider what he is offering.

Lord Freyberg (CB): our creative industries account for one in 12 jobs and have been the fastest growing sector in the UK economy, increasing by 15.8% since 2011 to 1.8 million jobs and contributing some £84 billion to the UK economy. …our country is already crying out for a combination of creative—in particular, design—and technical skills.

…a recent report, commissioned by the Creative Industries Federation, highlighted that countries such as China, South Korea and Brazil have learned from our success and are investing heavily in their creative education because they, too, can see the economic value of culture.

Lord Aberdare (CB): I am also struck by the lack of focus on digital skills in the EBacc proposals. The report published last February by the Digital Skills Committee, on which I served, argues that digital literacy should be taught as a core subject alongside numeracy and literacy and be embedded across all subjects and throughout the curriculum, but it seems to appear in the EBacc only in the guise of computing as an optional science subject.

Lord Watson of Invergowrie (Lab): Only 39% of students took the EBacc in the past academic year. Yet already there has been a significant effect on other subjects since 2010—most notably, on what I argue is the key subject of design and technology, for which there has been a 29% drop in take-up. The curriculum should not be driven by the needs of the minority who are going to the most selective universities.

And then it was the turn of the The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State from the Df-ingE to respond:

Lord Nash (Milton Abbey Independent Boarding school and Oxford, Corpus Christi, studying Law, Con.). Yes, that’s the same Lord Nash who in April 3013 was co-chairman of the governors who appointed an unqualified teacher as headmistress at the new Pimlico primary school ahead of its opening in September. Further criticism followed when she resigned after four weeks in the job…:

“I welcome the chance to explain our thinking behind the EBacc and to share what we are doing to ensure that all pupils, regardless of their background, have the right to a balanced and rounded education that opens doors to their future, prepares them for realising their potential in adult life, whatever their ambitions may be, and…responds fully to a child’s natural curiosity, which is so important.”

It’s just a pity Lord Gnasher didn’t instead welcome the chance to listen, consider and respond to the  thinking behind the specific challenges of the EBacc raised by the natural curiosity of the rest of the Lords, which were so important. And there’s a big difference between children ‘having the right to’ and ‘being forced to’ take the ivory tower academic EBacc subjects.

We must realise the appallingly low base that we started from in 2010. In 2010, many pupils, often those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, were being denied a basic education in the core academic subjects.

This is just political rhetoric. The phrase ‘appallingly low base’ is meaningless point-scoring over the previous Labour party administration, and is a gross mis-representation. Meanwhile All Change Please! has yet to see the objective evidence of actual ‘denial’ of a basic education in core subjects (i.e. where a child capable of achieving a good pass in an academic subject has been forced to take a different, less-academic subject instead).

You need to give pupils from a disadvantaged background the core suite of cultural knowledge they need to compete with pupils from a more advantaged background. This has been acknowledged across the board.

This has also been challenged across the board, and most would agree that high levels of problem-solving creative and technical skills are what are now required to be competitive. Cultural knowledge on its own is not enough. It’s worrying that future engineers can arrive at top Russell Group universities with a string of A grade GCEs but no previous experience of problem-solving.

..on average, pupils in state-funded schools enter nine GCSEs and equivalent qualifications, rising to more than 10 for more able pupils.

Everyone else agrees the average is 8 GCSEs. Only the Df-ingE claims it is 9. And that means half the children do less, and they are the ones who will particularly suffer as a result of being denied access to a wider range of subjects. It’s the academically-less able who will be the losers, not the more able.

I certainly do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Young of Norwood Green, that we should abolish accountability measures—all the international evidence is that autonomy and accountability is the right balance.

Lord Young of Norwood Green: I did not say that we should abolish them but that I was in favour of them.

Lord Young is quite correct – indeed he didn’t say that. It was the Earl of Clancarty who said he wanted to abolish them, citing Germany as having a highly successful education system that does not have them. Perhaps in future Lord Gnasher should pay closer attention to what’s actually being said, and by whom?

And where exactly is this autonomy of which you speak? Such as in 90% of children must be entered for exactly the same subjects, for example?

A head teacher said: ‘The EBacc is not appropriate to the modern world. It is not appropriate to modern learning.’ Oh dear. It sounds like the sort of person who would say that you don’t need knowledge because you can look it up on the internet.

Now this isn’t clever political debating, it’s just cheap Daily Mail spin. “You don’t need knowledge because you can look it up on the internet” said no head teacher, ever. As All Change Please! keeps pointing out, we have yet to work out what knowledge we now need to have stored in our long-term memories, but it’s certainly not the unnecessary excesses demanded by the EBacc.

“Modern cognitive and neuroscience makes clear that you need knowledge to develop skills”. 

And you also need skills to develop and understand knowledge. But Lord Gnasher probably doesn’t have any practical skills, so he wouldn’t know that.

I know that the noble Lord, Lord Watson, wants evidence. He mentioned ED Hirsch; if he would care to look at the effect of the Core Knowledge curriculum on the “Massachusetts miracle” in schools there, he would see what an effect such a curriculum can have, particularly on disadvantaged pupils.

Yes, and he would also see the problems that the fact and recall-driven, one-size fits all ‘pub-quiz’ curriculum is causing due to its inflexibility and lack of relevance to most teenagers. And its rigid structure and right or wrong approach that is doing little to prepare today’s children for the reality of the very messy world they will quickly discover when they leave school. Meanwhile the ‘Massachusettes Education Miracle’ to give it its correct title (the Massachusettes Miracle is something quite different), has been dis-credited with suggestions it had been adopted primarily to attract extra funding, and it is one of 15 US states now holding back on further implementation based on the emerging evidence that over four to five years, test scores are declining and students are unprepared for college-level work. Strange that Lord Gnasher didn’t mention that, isn’t it?

I am quite sure we can have 90% of pupils taking EBacc; I have absolutely no doubt.

Indeed, there may be no doubt we can, but that doesn’t mean we should, does it? Taking is not the same as doing well in. So it’s not surprising that he didn’t mention that the majority will achieve very low GCSEs grades, mainly because there is going to be a massive shortage of suitably experienced and qualified EBacc subject teachers. Not to mention the fact the Earl of Clancarty mentioned, that according to the ASCL 87% of secondary school leaders are unhappy with the EBacc proposals. But Lord Gnasher probably had his fingers in his ears at that point. And his eyes wide shut.

Well Lord Gnasher, thanks for the insights into your firm, unwavering grasp of the situation. It’s good to know that there’s an unqualified teacher making an important contribution to the work of the Df-ingE, and we can only hope that you’ll be resigning soon, just like that headmistress from Pimlico did.

And finally, in true tabloid style, All Change Please! says…

It’s not the subject you study that’s important, what matters is how good your teacher is. It’s better to be taught an arts or technical subject well, than to be taught an academic subject poorly.

Image credit: Flickr/Paul Downey / D.C. Thomson&Co Ltd.

3 comments on “Lord only knows?

  1. All very good points. It’s not like we didn’t warn them of the mistakes being made years ago. The fools in charge still don’t have a clue!

  2. “Being denied”, as if! It makes me so angry when people who have no direct experience of things impose their own narrow view of the world on others, using all sorts of fake impassioned language to do so.

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