Moving Beyond the EBacc – A Curriculum Fit for the 21st Century

Caption: “I sat Gove’s EBacc and look where it got me!”

I am not necessarily angry at the demise of the GCSE; however, I am annoyed that Gove appears to be spurning his undeserved privilege to create a truly world class qualification in the place of GCSEs that can make us all proud. Gove’s EBacc isn’t finalised by any means – but surely the misguided proposal of a sole final three hour exam for a national English qualification could not possibly be the totality of any qualification to ready students for a complex and rapidly changing modern world. Expecting a qualification with a concluding three hour examination as its only method of assessment to ready students for their diverse and highly technological future is like asking a giraffe to climb a tree to ready it for survival on the barren plains of the Serengeti! Gove appears to avidly ignore a wealth of educational evidence, and the myopic prejudices of Gove and Gibb look set to squander any hope of a modern qualification for English, the Humanities and beyond, that is truly fit for purpose.

There are a range of examinations, both nationally and internationally, to draw upon to create the best qualifications for our 11-16 year olds that is fit to prepare them for their complex future. Gove appears to eschew such research, evidence and expertise, and he appears to stubbornly rely upon his conservative prejudices – he may praise certain qualifications, but he refuses to learn lessons from them. So what current options do we have for which to build an ideals set of qualifications? We have the GCSEs (labelled as wholly discredited, mostly by people whose knowledge is slim and their prejudice fat); the iGCSE (a favoured preserve of Private schools); the International Baccalaureate – at both Middle Years and Diploma (praised repeatedly by Gove), as well as a host of internationally renowned qualifications. I would ask a series of questions about how our assessment for this curriculum stage, and our curriculum more broadly, would be composed to best suit the skills and knowledge required for the future:

Where is the place for Project Based Learning?

The PISA report, one of Gove’s sacred tracts, revealed how assessment models that embed project based learning are the way forward for successful assessment models. I have quoted this in my diatribe against Gove’s Ebacc before (https://huntingenglish.wordpress.com/2012/09/16/an-angry-response-to-gove-levels/), but it bears repeating. PISA found in the ‘framework for assessment’ aspect of the report that:

” “problem-solving competency” can be developed through “progressive teaching methods, like problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning” and project work. “The Pisa 2012 computer-based assessment of problem-solving aims to examine how students are prepared to meet unknown future challenges for which direct teaching of today’s knowledge is not sufficient,””

This approach is not a new phenomenon, but it is a manner of assessment that is rich in a diverse manner of skills: from independent research; to reading a complex range of sources (from the Internet to ancient literature) and synthesising ideas in a logical structure; to extended writing with a real purpose and a real audience; to a final oral presentation which is ‘testing’ in the most rigorous and rewarding manner. In IB schools, 11-16 year olds already undertake such projects, like in the Southbank international school in London: http://www.southbank.org/personal-project.html. Should we not seek out the assessment celebrated by the very international body Gove so clearly heralds?

Where is the place for Speaking and Listening?

A three hour exam is all well and good as a simple measuring stick, but our children will need to exist in a social world where they will also need to communicate successfully in a myriad of ways still unimaginable to us now. They need to be highly flexible in their capacity to communicate with different audiences and in different contexts – in a truly globally connected world. The current GCSE model of three oral assessments in English, includes a drama performance, a group discussion and an individual presentation. It is imperfect, but it is wholly appropriate to lending credence to the central place of oral communication in any and every assessment model. Gove could warmly remember his days as President of the Oxford Union if he were to come to a state school like mine (he would dread this I’m sure!) and listen to some highly enlightened current debate. Only this week my Year 11 English group have been arguing about the nature of fame, Warhol’s ‘fifteen minutes’ and the importance of role models in our contemporary world. Yes, a final examination does not exclude the central position of discussion in our pedagogy, yet every student and teacher in the land will be under pressure to teach to the test – keep your dogmatic league tables Mr Gove and you will continue to see teaching through the eye of a narrow test.

In the International Baccalaureate Diploma there is an oral presentation and an oral commentary (recorded for and moderated by the IB) in the A1 English aspect of the course. These form nearly a third of the overall assessment for A1 English for one of the most renowned and rigorous qualifications across the world. The oral commentary is a developed response to literary texts and it is highly challenging. Is such an assessment model not fit and proper for our students? Would it not hone a whole host of skills and inject a much needed diversity into our proposed Ebacc assessment model?

Where is the place for multi-modal writing and technology?

Gove is a self-professed traditionalist, and as an English teacher, I would debate heatedly the importance and relevance of Shakespeare in any modern English curriculum. I may draw the line at Gove’s liking for Dryden, but I have a keen preference for the classical canon. That being said, we live in a rapidly changing world where media literacy and multi-modal texts must be combined with the best of the traditional canon of knowledge. This isn’t pandering to create a curriculum for ‘enjoyment’; the reading of film, a critical analysis of the web and a skilful knowledge of texts that combine all of the above, are crucial skills for a future when the written word will continue to synchronise with technology in ways we cannot fully comprehend.

Once again, project based learning can encourage the use of tools of modern technology in a real and innovative fashion. Seeing students be creative with iPads, smart phones or computers to create films, applications or presentations, truly celebrates a multitude of skills appropriate for the future when technology will surely be integral to learning and living.

Where is the place for extended writing not completed in exam conditions?

Now, let me set the record straight, neither old fashioned coursework, nor the new controlled assessment system is ideal as a mode for assessment. Crucially; however, the role of extended writing produced in a series of drafts, and honed and crafted, is just as valid as any examination approach to extended writing. If the issue is the ‘gaming’ of the system that occurs with coursework, as so famously exposed through examples like the honourable Prince Harry and his Private school art teacher; or the limiting of curriculum time created by the stultifying controlled assessments, then learn from those errors and make the assessment better! Create an independent piece of extended writing that is offered in a portfolio approach, where proposals are recorded, drafts are retained etc. We may even come to recognise the value of crafting writing with research, deep thought and revisions, rather than celebrating the reductive time constraints of the exam model. Again, the IB Diploma has this enshrined in the Extended Essay aspect of the qualification. It allows for an independence of thinking and exploration we would surely seek to foster in all our students – whilst honing a range of skills simply not possible in an exam-only model.

How do we get our students to ask and answer questions that can’t be tested?

The exam-only model is clearly reductive. It is easily measurable, quantifiable and scalable (and sellable to bloated exam boards!) – therefore it is the default model for education systems around the world. Crucially, however, continental systems still manage to embed philosophy and critical thinking at the heart of their curriculum. In the IB Diploma, for example, TOK (Theory of Knowledge) explores knowledge and thinking in rich and diverse ways. Time is found to explore and critique knowledge in a way comprehensively ignored in our national curriculum at 11-16. It is this deep learning and thinking that helps foster citizens who can think flexibly and be able to apply their thinking skills in innovative and creative ways.

Finally, I would ask a broader question: why are independent schools, and their students, given the privilege of choice, when our state schools are hampered by that behemoth that crushes all breadth and richness of curriculum provision – school league tables? I will admit it is my very personal bête noire – but whilst schools are forced to supposedly raise standards in a system which fosters a heightened narrowing of the curriculum to achieve ‘success’, how will we ever see the required diversity of curriculum provision needed for the future of our children? How can a system that actively promotes competition over collaboration, in a survival of the fittest to scramble up the league table to relative safety from the attack dogs of OFSTED, ever work in raising standards for all? With such a pervasive culture of distrust and narrow judgements, how will schools enjoy the freedoms to innovate and enrich? With such crushing judgements awaiting schools, it is no surprise when cheating ensues, when good practice is ditched at the alter of expediency. I am not condoning such corrosive behaviour that impacts negatively upon students, but I understand why it is going on when the conditions for growth and development for state schools are as fruitless as Osbourne’s scorched earth economic policy.

When will we corral the experts in the field of education to create an English qualification fit for purpose in preparing students for a changing world? When will we be led with courage and the foresight to let schools collaborate in local unison to create assessments fitting for our children and their futures? To bastardise a political phrase: we must be the change we seek. We must forge a vision of a future proof curriculum that we can be proud to teach and make Gove and his colleagues stand up and take notice. Parents, teachers, school leaders and unions must unite in this cause. It is crucial to the very future of our nation in a globalised world where economies of scale mean that Britain must create a highly innovative and creative knowledge economy. It begins with education. It begins with an evidence based curriculum fit for purpose. It begins with us.

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About huntingenglish

I am Director of Learning and Research at Huntington Secondary School, York. I have taught English (including a bit of Media Studies) for over a decade. If it is tragic and gothic, laced with humour and bitter truths then I'll teach it! I have had the great privilege to have written a book, 'Teach Now! Becoming a Great English Teacher', edited by the brilliant Geoff Barton, and I am writing another for Routledge, entitled, 'The Confident Teacher'. I am Project Lead of the RISE (Research-leads Improving Students' Education) Project. An EEF funded randomized controlled trial to evaluate if and how a Research-lead can improve outcomes for students. I am a proud member of the Institute for Effective Education (IEE) Executive Board at York University. I am also a proud member of the ResearchEd Advisory Panel. I write regularly for the TES and Teach Secondary magazine. My first book, 'Teach Now! Becoming A Great English Teacher' was released by Routledge in 2014 and my next book, entitled 'The Confident Teacher' will be out at the end of 2015.

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