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Buckets and Jellybeans. Is it time to put the EBacc back on the shelf?

May 29, 2017

 

A couple of months ago my daughter was asked to choose her GCSE options. These are important choices to make when you're only 12 (our school runs a 3 year KS4) and as a parent you have to worry that your child might be opting themselves out of  future opportunities rather than making informed choices about on which subjects they might want to start focusing.

 

Like any 12 year old, she changes her allegiances and preferences on a daily basis, so asking her to pick her preferred GCSE subjects is a bit like asking her to predict how cheese will be made in the year 3267. If I'd have asked her what career she wanted this time 3 years ago, she would have said she wanted to be in One Direction.  2 years ago she would have wanted to be a Survival Expert (think Bear Grylls in pigtails) , last year it would have been a video game coder and this year it's a goat herd.

 

Of course I realise the need to pick GCSE options, there's no way our current educational pathway structure can permit anything else, but our Edusystem does feel a bit like a series of ways of losing out. At the start of secondary school you get given a bag of jelly beans with loads of different flavours to try. After a couple of years you can pick out the three flavours you don't really like (aniseed, popcorn and mint, du), then at KS5 you can only pick 3 of your favourites (coconut, watermelon and cherry, obviously) and finally, at about 17, at UCAS time, you have to pick just one flavour jelly bean that you're going to be stuck with for the rest of your life (Oh no! Watermelon. No! Coconut. No! Cherry. Wait! Why is life so unfair?).

 

But choose she must, so we, along with similar families all over the UK (and by similar I mean having a child going through options - I realise not all families have an inflatable shark in their kitchen) go along to Options Evening at school and we get to visit all the subject areas and hear about how the Options process works. Good schools do this exceedingly carefully, gently steering the child in a certain direction which will quietly provide them with a collection of matching EBacc buckets, whilst at the same time trying to hide their inherent desire to provide a way of delivering a truly personalized curriculum, with one bucket in the colour the child really wants, together with a spade, some sand, some pebbles and a cocktail stick flag to go on the top. Good educators know that the finest sandcastles need variety, imagination, creativity and seashells. No one wins a sandcastle competition with identically shaped buckets.

 

But this is what schools are being asked to do. To literally limit children's options in order to create a way of measuring school performance. The EBacc page on Gov.UK says:

 

"The English Baccalaureate (EBacc) is a school performance measure. It allows people to see how many pupils get a grade C or above in the core academic subjects at key stage 4 in any government-funded school."

 

A school performance measure. Not a way of improving outcomes for young people or a strategy to deliver the very best in education. No, a way of making the business of monitoring schools easier. Isn't that missing the point somewhat? And whilst I understand the logic behind a balanced curriculum, part of me wants to let the child whose artistic talents are so evident, choose to fill their days with nothing but arts; to let the child who has only ever wanted to be a doctor start following their medical path straight away. The safety net of the balanced bucket approach is OK for the child who doesn't yet know what they want to do, but even for them, surely they have the right to pick from the broadest range of jelly beans, not just the 5 most popular. After all, someone must like the aniseed flavour, or they wouldn't make them.

 

So I explained the bucket thing to my daughter and she made sensible choices; Sociology, German and Geography - broad and balanced, but also absolutely perfect for an alpine goat herd, should her current career plan turn out to be a keeper. If it were down to me I'd have Elvish, Klingon and Parseltongue on the MFL list, and Small Animal Farming, Hot Air Ballooning and Potions listed as Sciences, but then I was lucky enough to have an English teacher as a father, who put creativity, imagination and opportunity into the heart of my childhood.

 

The EBacc is dull. It stifles the growth of a creative & personalized curriculum and it does a huge disservice to our future geniuses (I want to say 'genii'). So, whichever government is elected after June 8th, I hope it will allow educational leaders to lead education. We have some of the world's most creative and passionate teachers and educators in our midst, just think how wonderful our children's lives would be if we let them do what they know they can.

 

Jelly bean anyone?

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