Schools rewarded for academia and punished for diversity

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I have little good to say about the new English Baccalaureate, the system that is now being used to rate schools across England. It has tossed many subjects out of the window, instead grading simply on English, Maths, two sciences, a modern or ancient foreign language and either history or geography. Part of me may simply be bitter as, despite having recieved all A-Cs in my GCSEs, as I studied neither history nor geography, my own grades would not be included as a measure of my school’s performance. As I chose to study Drama, which has been of great benefit to me in my academic life, and Religious Studies, a humanity subject notably absent from the new grading system, my grades would not be included in the percentage of passing students, along with many others. A recent article in my regional paper illustrated that, under the previous system, 71% of students at my old school had earned 5 A*-C grades at GCSE – however, under the new system, this figure plummets to just 10%.

Having attended a rural state school, I knew many students who had no intention of going to university – they just wanted to leave school and find a practical job, be it in a factory, on a farm, at a building site – things that they prepared for by studying practical GCSEs, technology subjects. Whatever unfilled spaces left in their timetables would be filled with things that they would enjoy – Drama, PE, Music and so forth. Before the English Baccalaureate came in, the individual aims of the students didn’t have to be twisted to serve the school league tables – whatever they studied, so long as they worked hard, the school would reap the rewards. Although I studied subjects with the primary goal of continuing to A-level and then ultimately university, I was one of few. I was offered a reasonable education, tailored to my own needs, just like everyone else.

Now, however, all schools will pressure their students to take these GCSE subjects, some perhaps making them compulsory. I see this as a sad day, where people are forced to follow a path that may not be the one they would choose, or to be judged as unworthy to represent the school on the league tables. State schools where students will take practical subjects over academic subjects, like my own, will see a sharp drop in their ratings on the league tables, while those schools in which academic subjects are more important, for example private and grammar schools, will remain on top. In essence, for some schools, the goalposts are simply being moved further and further away, whereas those schools that already focus on the more academic subjects will benefit.

This development means that secondary education is no longer about the students, but the schools in which they are taught. Individual needs and desires will be ignored for the good of the school, something that I see to be a massive step backwards. Schools will have to make a decision – do they choose to allow students to follow their own paths, tailoring their subject choices to the future that they see ahead of them, at the cost of a high ranking in the league tables, or do they instead constrict students with subjects they don’t want, subjects that they may not succeed at, and remove the element of free will in GCSEs, just to appear to be a better school in the papers when the league tables are announced.

I did not study history or geography, meaning that, despite getting all A-C grades at GCSE, they would not be counted under the new system. As previously mentioned, I instead elected to study Drama, which exposed me to German literature in the form of Brecht plays, something that I am still feeling the benefit of to this day as I am often faced with one of his texts to study here at university. If I had not studied Drama before starting my degree, I feel that I would have suffered for it. Furthermore, Religious Studies, something that I see to be of great value, is notably absent from the list. Most of my public speaking and debating abilities come from these two subjects, subjects that I have found a concrete benefit in studying, which I wanted to study.

I see a few positive points from the new system, however. As foreign languages are one of the subjects included in the “top five” of the English Baccalaureate, their popularity may see an increase as schools put greater pressure on students to study them. Although this could be seen as a loss for the free will of students, gaining a language is a valuable tool in later life, whatever path you take, and can be very rewarding – although, as a foreign language student, I may be slightly biased in that respect. Furthermore, the league tables could be considered meaningless, and moving the goalposts could be seen as an attempt to bring some credibility back to the system. However, this system is just taking the good work of schools such as my own and stomping all over it.

Several years from now, the students who have been through the English Baccalaureate will come to university. Whether they chose their subjects to impress, because they had no choice, or because they truly wished to study them, we have yet to see. However, they will have had less of a role in their choices of studies than previously, which I believe is counterproductive, and a great shame.