Even the chair of the Commons education select committee thinks it’s inadvisable – and he’s supposed to be running an official inquiry into it, writes Christopher Walters
You have to admire Michael Gove’s staying power. By now, the EBacc should have been just another coalition U-turn: it’s even more unpopular than the forestry sell-off. But despite a consistent flow of critical comments, the government insists on ploughing on with what everyone can see is a disastrous idea.
Let’s get one thing straight: the EBacc debate is separate from the argument about whether music should remain on the national curriculum. The music education sector is understandably heated about both issues, but it’s important that they don’t get mixed up. The national curriculum debate is worth having; the Ebacc debate is not.
Unfortunately, music education has not shown itself in the best light during the curriculum debate. It has made it a taboo to express the view that taking music off the curriculum might not be a bad idea. While on balance it probably makes sense for music to remain a curriculum subject, some of the arguments for having music outside the compulsory curriculum are well considered and worth hearing. But these have been drowned out by the louder voices of the curriculum camp, many of whom seem to think that everyone should feel as they do. This has almost had the effect of vilifying practitioners who dare to see things differently.
But whatever the rights and wrongs of the way the curriculum debate has been conducted, at least it is a debate. The same cannot be said of the EBacc row: at its centre is a policy with contradictions at every level and no logical rationale.
The EBacc was proposed as an assessment measure for schools, an equivalent to the current league tables. It will be awarded to pupils who achieve a C and above in six GCSEs – not including any arts, ICT or vocational subjects – and a school’s performance will be judged on the number of EBacc passes. But during a recent hearing of the Commons education select committee, it was denied that the EBacc will become the dominant accountability measure. Instead, it was claimed that it will be just one of a range of measures by which parents can judge schools. In which case, why instigate it at all? League tables already exist, and information on schools’ performance in individual subjects is already available.
If it is to be merely the repackaging of existing information, the EBacc will offer no discernable benefits. But this does not mean that it will do no damage, as music educators, headteachers and many others have been quick to point out. The Department for Education has reminded critics that other GCSEs – which could include music – are likely to be taken alongside the EBacc subjects, but surely it is the case that schools will direct more resources towards the EBacc subjects as they strive to improve their ranking – at the cost of the non-EBacc subjects.
Graham Stuart, chair of the Commons education select committee, appears to agree. Despite being responsible for an inquiry into the EBacc which has yet to report, Stuart has freely expressed the opinion that music and other arts subjects will suffer as a result of the EBacc. Perhaps even more worryingly, he has commented that lower-achieving students may find their provision ‘dismantled’ – not exactly a ringing endorsement for the EBacc’s likely knock-on effects.
All of which begs the question of just when the coalition will back-track on the EBacc. Yes, it will mean yet more embarrassment for Michael Gove, just as the Building Schools for the Future U-turn was beginning to be forgotten, but this cannot be helped.
We must all hope that the EBacc will soon be consigned to the past, so that music educators can concentrate on throwing their weight into a fair and transparent debate on music’s place – or otherwise – on the national curriculum. Unlike the EBacc, this is an issue we must debate rigorously if we are to produce an outcome that will best serve our young people. Which, of course, is what really matters.