The conversation about the EBacc should be about more than just subjects and standards at Key Stage 4. It needs to be about the whole curriculum and the very purpose of education.

This means discussing how students learn and develop, how we describe achievement, how we label students’ ‘potential’ and ‘ability’ and what we mean by success. It means thinking about how we describe a curriculum and how we decide on the value and status of particular knowledge and skill.

It means considering the social context of students’ learning in terms of class, culture, privilege and ‘disadvantage’ and also the way learners are selected and sorted. We need to discuss how we organise education, how we decide which opportunities to offer which students, as well as the policy aims around levelling up, social mobility and social justice.

The aim of the EBacc is to provide wider opportunities for further study post-16. It aims to include subjects which open doors to ‘high status’ degrees and ‘high tariff’ universities: English language and literature, maths, science (double or triple), a language, and geography or history. The target was for 75% of pupils to study the full EBacc by 2022, and 90% by 2025 although this seems unlikely to be achieved.

One of the positives is that we are having a conversation about an entitlement curriculum. Another is the fact the EBacc is not intended to define the whole 14-16 curriculum and leaves schools free to innovate and offer more subjects, including vocational qualifications. As the 2010 Schools White paper stated: “The EBacc should not limit schools’ ambitions for their pupils.”

But there are also concerns. The EBacc effectively creates a hierarchy of subjects which devalues those not included. There are no arts or creative subjects, no practical or vocational options, no sociology, no citizenship, politics or economics. Where are the foundations which could help students understand what is going on in the world around them and our current global predicament?

History and Geography, for instance, are both essential ways of understanding the world, but ‘History or Geography’ potentially rules out the study of either one or the other from 14. Why would we want any 14-year-old to drop either of these subjects?

The EBacc is a list of subjects rather than a programme of study, and this particular selection is not justified by intrinsic educational merit, usefulness or cultural importance to students. It is not designed to engage, motivate or excite students by connecting the content to their lives and aspirations. Also, unless it’s for everyone, it will be seen as an ‘academic’ stream, narrowing rather than opening up opportunities.

A curriculum is not just a checklist of content to cover. It should build foundations and create a series of opportunities to engage with different fields of study throughout life.

So I think we need to ask:

  • What approach would help build the foundation for a lifetime of successful learning?
  • How do we make the curriculum motivating, stretching, engaging, broad and diverse?
  • What knowledge and skills, or essential literacies, do we want all young people to access if they are to be introduced to human society and culture?

Perhaps we could think in terms of 4 C’s: coherence, choice, continuity and change.  Coherence implies a holistic study programme that hangs together and makes sense to students with an emphasis on the purpose and usefulness of each element. Continuity requires some common threads connecting Key Stage 4 with post-16 study, supporting progression and providing the rungs of the ladder. Change and transition at 16 can itself be motivating with students able to exercise more choice, demonstrate more maturity and enjoy more autonomy in a new setting where more specialist options are available.

I see no reason why coherence, breadth, choice and specialisation can’t be made available to all. They should certainly not be limited to those students who have already achieved the most success. The idea that a broader curriculum is more ‘difficult’ or less accessible risks short-changing those students deemed to be ‘less able’ and undermining attempts to narrow gaps or level-up.

One example of a holistic approach to curriculum planning being piloted in England is the pre-T Level transition programme which offers a framework for post-16 programmes at level 2. It includes diagnostic monitoring, guidance and pastoral support, personal development and enrichment, positive attitudes and behaviours, English, maths and digital skills, work experience and a category of ‘other knowledge and skills, including skills for successful study and work.’

This framework approach could provide the core for a broader 14-19 curriculum for all students. It would need to be part of a lifelong approach which connects the different phases and reflects a broader, less age-specific approach from KS4 towards Further and Higher Education and work. It could increase opportunities for success and progression, stretch and specialization, skills development, research, practical application and action.

We could identify some essential foundational ‘literacies’ to provide a basis for students to build on: literacy itself, numeracy, scientific and technological, cultural and historical, creative and aesthetic, political and economic, personal, social and emotional.

So, my take-home message is that we need a broader and more engaging National Bacc which prepares for and connects with post-16 study programmes for all students, and that we need to be having this conversation.

As part of AQi’s work, we are inviting people from a wide range of viewpoints to engage with us on a wide range of topics. We welcome alternative views to help stimulate discussion and ideas. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent the views of AQi or AQA.