Bacc-ward thinking

Yesterday’s announcement about the proposed new English Baccalaureate Certificate (EBaccs) fell with a thud of doom across my heart. The familiar reprise of raising standards, ringing in my ears.  I’ve written about education before and I’ll keep doing so. For those of us in the world of work need to pay attention to the world of education with a keen eye. This is our supply chain and we should be as interested and as vocal about it as we can be about any other aspect of work.

The proposed replacement of the often criticised GCSE exams has been long coming, but where there was an opportunity to really consider reform of the pre 16 education system, instead we have remained focussed on an outdated and depressingly archaic view of performance and attainment firmly shifting the dial from education to teaching.

Those that complain that the current system is about monkeys being taught tricks have merely changed the tricks.

Two years ago I was visiting prospective secondary schools with my son. In one, highly regarded, rather grand establishment we were treated to the Headmaster strutting from side to side on the stage telling us how they intended to “turn your young men into leaders” and the value they placed on “academic attainment”. In another the Headmaster explained that they “don’t place targets on the grades they expect to get and position in league tables, but instead on ensuring that every child fulfils their potential”.

In this, we highlight the difference the former is teaching, the latter is educating. And as UK plc we need to be educating our children, not teaching them to tick boxes.

In the same way that you don’t drive a performance culture by changing the competency rating system, you don’t drive educational performance by changing the exam system. Much is broken within our education system, teachers and head teachers are demoralised to the point that recruiting head teachers is becoming harder and harder and existing heads are being asked to take on more than one school. OFSTED is once again positioning itself as the Pythonesque Spanish Inquisition and the funding of individual schools is becoming increasingly complex and yet fragile in equal measure.

Educational reform should be focussed on ensuring that EVERY child fulfils their potential, that there is an educational offering that is engaging and exciting whatever your aptitude and interest. Educational reform should be focussed on ensuring that the very best talents are drawn into the profession and that we are entrusting the future success of our children and of the country as a whole with the most able people. Educational reform should be focussed education, on developing independent learners, not on teaching the performance of tricks – however hard those tricks are.

The EBacc is not the future for progressive education in the UK. The EBacc is not new thinking, is not radical, nor – in the long run – will it be effective in raising educational standards in comparison to other countries. A radical rethink would have seen the consideration of aptitude and interest assessments at say 14 and formal exams only at 18 (the end of compulsory education), a focus on both tailored vocational and academic learning, on teachers terms and conditions and on the structure of educational establishments.

With a resonance of depressing familiarity to the HR profession, these proposals try to change the culture and performance by tinkering with the shiny controllables at the end of the process, not the really hard, thorny issues that sit in the slightly grey opaque middle but that really make a difference. We’ve missed the latest opportunity to really rethink education and we will be poorer as a country and as individual businesses for it.

PS. if you want to know, my son goes to the second school. And the thing the Headmaster went on to explain, was that their focus on individual learning and performance was the reason that they were top of the exam tables for the county…..well ahead of the other school.


  1. Johanna Ratcliffe · September 18, 2012

    Hi Neil

    My daughter will be one of the first year groups affected by this if it goes ahead – I’m worried because I remember how stressful those ‘all or nothing’ exams were from personal experience! Although as a teacher said to me yesterday with a knowing smile, ‘well at least it will give the parents a rest from completing all the course work for their children ;)’

    I like your observation that ‘Educational reform should be focused on education, on developing independent learners, not on teaching the performance of tricks – however hard those tricks are.’ Let’s hope (and hope hard) that this key message does not get trampled on in the midst of the inevitable admin and process work involved in changing over to a new system.

    • Neil · September 24, 2012

      Thanks for the comment Johanna, I really fear that the process will be all consuming and not the outcomes.

  2. Martin Couzins (@martincouzins) · September 18, 2012

    Hi Neil – you might like this post as I think you are right in concluding we have a broken education system. Be even more afraid that Andrew Adonis has written a book on education in which he calls for more powers to the private sector. The tinkering of education for decades has distracted us from what we know about how we learn and how best teachers should teach.
    The current reforming agenda for education is a red herring. The reforms are taking us in the wrong direction. Schools must be accountable to the local communities they serve, which is why the idea of giving them away to business et al is preposterous. Rewind to to pre-1902 and take a look at board schools and how successful they were – we have had success with locally accountable schools in the past. Unfortunately, they were too successful and the independent sector had them abolished. Totally agree that tinkering at the edges will not get us anywhere.

    • Neil · September 24, 2012

      The private sector and education… that is a whole other blog post…..!

  3. Roger Philby · September 18, 2012

    Neil, great post. I do believe there is also a really big issue with pre-secondary school education, our research clearly shows the impact of our current system on how people think, the way they build relationships, their levels of creativity…all the “intrinsic” stuff on this is set before Secondary school. Of course the concept of just letting children play and explore the world before their teenage years and not worrying about writing and adding up is politically too scary to face. However the research shows that if we really want children ready to face an ever changing world where their ability to adapt is perhaps the greatest asset of all then our current schooling system be it early or late is failing them miserably.

    • Neil · September 24, 2012

      As someone involved in Primary education, what I would say is that often schools are making up for a lack of support from the children’s families and having to get them up to a basic level before they leave. I totally agree with you though….and the over prescriptive approach of successive Education departments has not helped.

  4. Robert Wright (@robmwright) · September 25, 2012

    I curiously find myself simultaneously experiencing Michael Gove’s reforms to both primary and secondary education. We have two sons both at a primary that has recently been put into special measures and is therefore automatically to become an Academy. At the same time my wife and I are touring the prospective secondary schools as our eldest son will move up next year.

    The issue of academy status is a whole other huge blog post but what has struck me most has been the ferocious top-down diktat that this will happen like it or not and the complete lack of voice given to parents, kids, teachers and community. We have absolutely no say in who our new private sponsor may be.

    In regards to the new EBaccs I recall listening to the psychologist, author and journalist Oliver James explaining his youthful educational failures and triumphs. He essentially was able to fail his exams on multiple occasions (due to wayward nature and lack of application and not lack of intelligence) but was never consigned to the rubbish bin of history. His teachers supported his development and gave him numerous second chances – and lucky for him and us they did as he’s now a highly respected and readable authority on many subjects.

    The EBacc just seems so retrograde. Like an educational Becher’s Brook – everyone needs to jump over it all at once and whoever is left standing may go on to win the race (but those who stumble and break a leg ….. well you know what happens to horses when the curtain is pulled around them).

  5. Robert Wright (@robmwright) · September 25, 2012

    Can I also share one of my favourite cartoons? It’s a Michael Gove one too:

  6. Pingback: The youth unemployment challenge: Day Two of #CIPD12 « change-effect

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