Gove’s revolution: pupils return to traditional subjects in huge numbers


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The Independent Online

One fact emerges clearly from yesterday’s government exam league tables - Michael Gove has already achieved a revolution in what is taught in schools.

The figures speak for themselves - a massive swing towards pupils taking the traditional academic subjects the Education Secretary clearly indicated he wanted to be at the centre of the school curriculum.

The past year has seen an extra 72,000 students eligible for his new English Baccalaureate, or EBacc as it has been dubbed; a rise of more than 50 per cent, bringing the total figure to 202,000.

More to the point, growing numbers of students are passing it - 237 schools saw more than 50 per cent of their pupils getting it this year compared to 174 last year.

This year is the first time its impact can really be measured - as the students who sat their GCSEs last summer were the first to have spent their entire two years of GCSE studies with the EBacc in place.

Of course, there are critics who claim that Mr Gove’s baccalaureate is too narrow - to achieve it, a student needs at least a C grade pass in English, maths, the sciences, a humanities subject (history or geography) and a language, ancient or modern. They argue it has downgraded the arts - since creative subjects do not qualify for the EBacc.

Interestingly enough, Chelmsford County High School for Girls in Essex, one of only two schools in the country to get 100 per cent of its pupils to qualify for the EBacc in this year’s tables, also insists they should study an arts subject (art, music and drama) and religious studies, another subject controversially omitted from the EBacc.

This, its headteacher Nicole Chapman argues, prepares them for the much broader International Baccalaureate - which the school is now offering its sixth-formers alongside A-levels.

There is also a simmering row over the status of vocational qualifications in Mr Gove’s new-style league tables. Their results are now recorded separately prompting some teachers’ leaders to argue they have been downgraded. Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: “It sends the wrong message to pupils, parents and pupils about what is important.

“Academic and vocational qualifications are of equal value, should be held in equally high esteem and treated as equal in a unified reporting system.”

Neil Carberry, director of employment and skills at the CBI, added: “It is critical that young people see vocational courses as a route to success but this will only become a reality when they are as highly regarded as more traditional academic pathways.

“Tweaking the structure of league tables is not the answer.”

On the introduction of the EBacc, though, the good certainly outweighs the bad. When Mr Gove came to power he inherited a chronic state of affairs in the teaching of modern foreign languages - largely as a result of Labour’s decision to axe compulsory language lessons for 14 to 16-year-olds a decade ago. It has been described by former Schools Minister Andrew Adonis as Labour’s biggest education mistake in office and presaged a decade long slump in the number of students taking the subject at GCSE and A-level - a slide which has only now been halted under Mr Gove. Science take-up has also improved in the past three years.

As to the point made by critics that the EBacc is too narrow, Mr Gove would argue that he is lifting the straitjacket of the exam league tables measuring all schools on the percentage of pupils achieving five A* to C grades at GCSE and inserting a measure which looks at their performance across eight subject areas.

On vocational education, too, he can look to the Government decision announced yesterday to approve six more University Technical Colleges - which offer top-class vocational education to 14 to 18-year-olds, bringing the total approved up to 50.

The Department for Education was stressing yesterday how the shift back to a traditional curriculum had coincided with a reduction in the number of schools failing to achieve minimum GCSE targets, a sign that better exam results have come at a time when students are opting for tougher subject options.

Yesterday’s figures showed that a total of 154 secondary schools failed to reach the Government’s minimum target of 40 per cent of pupils obtaining five A* to C grades at GCSE including maths and English, and could thus face the prospect of enforced academy status with a new sponsor moving in to take over the running of the school.

The Government raised the floor target from 35 per cent for last summer’s exams and, if the new minimum had been in place last year, 195 schools would have failed to meet it.

In addition, almost 250,000 fewer pupils are now taught in failing secondary schools than was the case three years ago.

The figures also show that the numbers achieving five top grade GCSEs including maths and English were rising faster in the sponsored academies (2.3 per cent) than local authority schools (1.8 per cent) - although some of the credit here should go to the previous Labour government whose academy programme largely consisted of promoting sponsored academies in the inner cities. The bulk of Mr Gove’s new academies have come from his decision to expand the programme to allow good or outstanding schools throughout the country to convert to academy status.

Yesterday Mr Gove said the reduction in failing schools had been achieved at a time when the EBacc “has ensured many young people are taking the core subjects which will most help them find a job or go on to university".

He added: “These figures are a credit to the professionalism and hard work of teachers.”

Modest with it, too, then - and a contrast to the line he has often taken in the past with those who have often appeared beleaguered by the pace of his reforms.

The two schools scoring 100% in EBacc

Two state schools achieved a 100 per cent success story in this year’s league tables - by getting all their pupils to qualify for the Government’s new English Baccalaureate.

The two - Chelmsford County High School for Girls in Essex and Queen Elizabeth’s Boys’ School in Barnet, north London - are both grammar schools.

In the case of the Chelmsford school, headteacher Nicole Chapman, said it had tailored girls’ GCSE options to prepare them for the option of taking the International Baccalaureate rather than A-levels in the sixth-form.

She said she felt it was important to stress the need for breadth in the curriculum - to keep girls’ options open.

As a result its compulsory GCSE curriculum was broader than the Government’s requirement - demanding that every pupil study an arts subject and religious studies as well as the five core subjects of Education Secretary Michael Gove’s EBacc - English, maths, the sciences, a language and history or geography.

At Queen Elizabeth’s, headteacher Neil Enwright said it had not changed its curriculum offer, adding:  “Our boys study for what they aspire to do at A-level and university.  The school’s pupils have received 37 Oxbridge offers between them this year,

It has, though, strengthened its language provision with compulsory Latin for all pupils for the first three years of secondary school and enrichment classes in both Mandarin and Spanish.  “We’re thinking about bringing in ancient Greek,” said Mr Enwright.