EBac: ‘With what authority is it being argued that art, social sciences, D&T, and the rest, are not “stretching”?’

By Ellen Spencer and Bill Lucas

This article originally appeared in TES 11th February 2016 


The idea of ‘core academic subjects’ is an example of lazy thinking, argue two education academics

The secretary of state’s foreword to the DfE’s recent consultation on the English Baccalaureate begins with good rational argument, but rapidly moves into political rhetoric with the phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations…” At first glance clever, this statement is actually snide and unhelpful. It’s also obviously party political.

Into the document itself and there is a more spurious suggestion still, that: “The core academic subjects at school are the primary colours of an educated person’s palette.” This time wearing the metaphor of the curriculum as an artist’s palette with certain subjects on it, the assertion is that there are a set that are “academic”, “a basic right” and a set that (presumably) are not.

At a stroke the idea of a core academic subject has been born in English educational thinking, introduced to an educational world as if neither “core” nor “academic” might be deeply contested areas.

The EBac brings together the core academic subjects that the vast majority of young people should study to age 16. To enter the EBac, pupils must take up to eight GCSE qualifications across five subject ‘pillars’

The subject pillars are English, maths, science, languages and humanities. No arts. No design and technology. No physical education. No social sciences. No religious studies. No interdisciplinary studies. Add your own preferred ‘outrageous’ omissions to our list as you see fit – and enjoy the irony that the art-inspired metaphor mentioned earlier draws from a subject EBac has implicitly defined as non-core and non-academic.

At this stage it is tempting to think of these five subject “pillars” as Ozymandias’s “trunkless legs of stone” discovered by Shelley’s “traveller from an ancient land”, and ultimately found to be worthless: “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains.”

School leaders wanting to retain their own academically challenging, broad and balanced curricula are up against strong incentives to submit to the values of EBac and its curious pillars. For EBac will have secondary school performance measures scrutinised by Ofsted as its enforcer.

Don’t get us wrong. It is right that we are thinking collectively about what should be at the core of a good education. We recently coordinated a submission from ASCL, RSA, PTA UK, Comino Foundation, City & Guilds and others to the Commons Education Select Committee’s enquiry into the purpose of education on this very subject. In it, we argued for a widely owned and stable definition of the core capabilities, knowledge and skills that all students should gain from their time at school.

At such a moment it seems timely to ask more penetrating questions about what we want pupils to learn. Are there some core knowledge, skills, and capabilities that all pupils should acquire? If so, what? Many have argued for inclusion of capabilities, including the CBI, ourselves and the Sutton Trust. The curriculum studied by Australian children for example, includes a range of “capabilities” of obvious importance: from literacy and numeracy to critical and creative thinking.

The academic core

So, where does this idea of an academic subject come from? To understand this we need to head back to the Middle Ages. Academic subjects were originally those taught at the “academy”, at the small number of universities that had been founded at this time. The academic core – the Trivium – consisted of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music theory – the Quadrivium – completed the medieval core academic curriculum, with physics, metaphysics and moral philosophy added to the list soon after.

In the 19th century, with the flourishing of grammar schools, the shorthand for an academic curriculum came to be the 3Rs. But as Sir Christopher Grayling reminds us, the original three Rs were “reading, wroughting and arithmetic – in other words, literacy, making things and numeracy”. Making got dropped in favour of writing.

Looking at the EBac thinking today it is as if this curriculum history never happened, as if there have not been earlier debates. The current, very modern list has emerged with a flourish and not even a backwards glance at how our thinking has developed.

If “core academic” is being used today as a proxy for being rigorous and demanding, it is logical to assume that all other academic subjects are ill-founded and undemanding. Presumably practical and vocational subjects, like the earlier wroughting, are valued even less.

Unsurprisingly many Russell Group universities are comfortable with EBac. But what about the institutions who will be providing learning for 3 million apprentices? What about those whose talents take them to universities and colleges specialising in the applied disciplines that we also need? How will EBac impact on the morale of the teachers of non-EBac subjects? To what extent will it perpetuate and entrench the academic-vocational divide?

And what of other curriculum selection criteria such as usefulness for employability and for civic life?

It’s certainly important to get the right blend of “academic” and “vocational” to ensure that all children can find their best possible life trajectory regardless of background. Only then might we want to ask whether (and which) core subjects are the best way to develop these knowledge, skills, and capabilities.

Limiting curriculum opportunities

In the list of “core” EBac subjects there is an assumption that vocational ones, and those left off the list, are fundamentally low in intellectual rigor; that we are doing a disservice to “intelligent” children if they don’t opt for EBac. But with what authority is it being argued that art, social sciences, D&T, and the rest, are not “stretching”? What criteria have been used to determine that our 2016 Trivium and Quadrivium is fit for today’s complex world?

Not limiting the curriculum opportunities we offer young people is a noble goal. No child should be disadvantaged by inappropriately narrow subject combinations or under-ambitious advice. Yet half of this problem was tackled by a radical overhauling of vocational offerings prompted by Alison Wolf’s review.

In deciding what children should study, the RSA identified two key issues: “whether the pupil is likely to succeed in the EBac subjects, and how far studying this set of GCSEs contributes positively to their future education and career ambitions.” Courses of study should be a positive choice and not a “Plan B”. If a child loves art, have them study art. It’s more likely to be useful to them in their future vocation than something they do for a false sense of keeping options open.

EBac, the SSAT suggests, will effectively limit choice for the majority. Pupils who would benefit from greater breadth and for whom EBac is not the best choice, lose out. Worse, even those for whom the so-called “rigour” of EBac might be best: if schools are not required to enter students they don’t think will achieve, the proposed universal benefits of a core post-14 entitlement, “is being lost on the altar of the 5-results measure.” Back to the Ozymandias pillars and Shelley’s subsequent despair.

If schools are avoiding doing the best for particular pupils because of the risk associated with performance measures, then the performance measures are hindering rather than helping. In reality, manipulating children’s options to keep them “open” for the sake of it can sometimes be worse advice than telling a student simply to study what interests them.

The idea of core academic subjects is an example of lazy thinking. It seems unconnected to the conversations being had in other educationally high-performing countries about what it is to be educated today. In England, we need high-quality options that are broad, rich and deep for all children, not the five restricting pillars that we are being offered.

Ellen Spencer and Bill Lucas, creators of the Expansive Education Network, are based at the Centre for Real-World Learning at the University of Winchester

‘A “fixed” view of intelligence certainly constrains the potential of educators to develop young minds’

This article originally appearing in TES, 26th November 2015.
 Genetics and Plomin
The recent TES interview with Robert Plomin raises an old educational chestnut about nature and nurture. The article speculates that genetics research might become an inevitable force in education: maybe one day teachers will have DNA data at their fingertips to tell them who might require extra maths support.

It is highly debatable whether we would want to take such a deterministic view of children’s intelligence, particularly given the multitude of genes in question, each of which bear such minute influence. A “fixed” view of intelligence certainly constrains the potential of educators to develop young minds.

But the idea that intelligence is learnable is not just wishful thinking. Genetics in intelligence research is, in many cases, a flawed science. Like any research it carries a risk of being misinterpreted, or used in unethical ways. But at its core is a narrow understanding of intelligence that is simply not in line with the growing consensus that intelligence is largely learnable. It is unhelpful for teachers and learners to think about genetic constraints, when even these are open to external influence.

Misuse of genetic research

While Plomin doesn’t like the idea that genetic data be used deterministically to “keep everyone in their place”, it isn’t hard to see how this would be unavoidable in an educational values system that glorifies the academic over the practical.

He argues that if test data were misused, we should blame the culture and the policy and not the science. His reference to Brave New World and genetic “castes” resonates because this sort of misuse is not unimaginable.

Is it too far-fetched to imagine a world where children and young people are assigned a figure representing their inherited intelligence? One that is required in college applications, let’s say. Those using the information might well be quick to forget how malleable even the inherited aspect of intelligence actually is.

Any requirement to make available our own unique genome might be seen as an invasion of privacy. One can imagine being refused life assurance because we may have a predisposition toward a certain life-limiting condition. Yet equally unsavoury is the idea of shoehorning children into a particular pathway because it allows them to “develop the way their genetic propensities are pushing them”.

What would be the result of a scenario where genetic propensity is given higher status than a child’s (perhaps unidentified as yet) interest or passion in life? This might push some down an academic route, and others down a vocational route, further reinforcing a false dichotomy between mind and matter, brain and hand, and their association with “smart” and less intelligent.

In Brave New World Revisited, Aldous Huxley concluded that the world was becoming like his dystopian vision much faster than he originally thought. We cannot so easily separate the science from the way it is used. A debate about the appropriateness of the study of intelligence carries on to this day.

Leaving values aside for the moment, I suspect such tests are an impossible dream (or nightmare) because the science itself is contestable.

Critiques of genetic research

One critique of heritability of intelligence research is the reliability and validity of the research, which typically relies on studies of identical twins reared apart. Looking at a number of such studies, Jay Joseph concluded that the evidence does not support the claims. Undermining studies, researchers falsely classified twins as “reared apart”, which is notoriously difficult to achieve. For example, some “separated” twins were actually placed with members of the extended family. Others were placed into families correlated for socio-economic status, perhaps after being raised together for a number of years.

The Council for Responsible Genetics states that, based on the “massively flawed and environmentally confounded” studies, their exaggerated claims, and lack of replicability, “the evidence suggests that genes for the major psychiatric disorders, as well as for IQ and personality, do not exist”. While intelligence, and proxies for intelligence (such as IQ test performance or educational attainment) are heritable in some part, there is no identifiable gene or set of genes that make labelling of individuals possible.

The Social Science Genetic Association Consortium (SSGAC) has also put to bed the idea that we are anywhere near finding genes for educational attainment. A ‘sobering’ editorial reports that “it now seems likely that many of the published findings of the last decade are wrong or misleading and have not contributed to real advances in knowledge“.

SSGAC’s initial “genome wide association study” looked at 126,599 individuals and found three genetic variants linked to educational attainment. It makes extremely modest claims for their effects, which, as Ewen Callaway reports in the journal Nature, “are maddeningly small”.

Genes are strongly mediated by environmental factors and even IQ is not fixed

Intelligence is controlled in only some part by many multiples of genes. It can only be quantified by proxy. IQ tests, for example, can be used to track some aspects of intelligence relatively reliably. IQ, however, is absolutely not fixed and so it is meaningless to judge a person for the fixedness of their intelligence.

Environmental factors have so great an impact that genetics cannot quantify even the so-called genetic portion of a person’s intelligence. Genes only affect propensity, not opportunity. Genetic factors may impact on intelligence indirectly through, say, their influence on preferences. For instance, a person might like reading but have access only to dull or limited reading material. Not only this, but the environment can modify or even cancel out the influence of genetic predispositions. What if policy dictates that the person’s access to reading material (or spectacles!) be restricted?

This is to say nothing of the aspects of intelligence under the influence of the learner. We should note that Alfred Binet, father of the IQ concept, believed strongly in the plasticity of intelligence:

“Some recent philosophers have given their moral approval to the deplorable verdict that an individual’s intelligence is a fixed quantity…We must protest and act against this brutal pessimism…it has no foundation whatsoever.”

Dr Ellen Spencer and Professor Bill Lucas work at the Expansive Education Network at the University of Winchester

Podcast: discussing CRL’s expansive approach to vocational pedagogy with the TES

Join the TES’ very own Sarah Simons as she talks vocational pedagogy with Professor Bill Lucas, Jayne Stigger and Dr Jean Kelly in yet another wonderful episode of the TES further education podcast.