The English Baccalaureate - Education Committee Contents

3  The impact of the EBac on progression and social mobility

Narrowing the attainment gap between richer and poorer students

23.  The Committee fully supports the Government's stated intention to improve the attainment of the poorest young people. The Minister for Schools (Nick Gibb MP) has stated that the Government sees the EBac as a "key component" in the "overall objective of closing the attainment gap between wealthier and poorer children".[42] Alongside concerns that "the number of pupils who receive a broad education in core academic subjects is far too small", the Minister is worried that this "is particularly the case for pupils in disadvantaged areas."[43] There is strong statistical evidence to support this. The National Pupil Database shows that, in 2010, only 4.1% of pupils known to be eligible for free school meals [FSM] achieved the EBac; this is in contrast to 17% (four times as many) of pupils who were not eligible for free school meals.[44] The Department for Education's submission also notes that "as the proportion of FSM pupils in a school increases the number of students either entering or achieving the EBac drops dramatically".[45] Research by the Fischer Family Trust has uncovered other evidence supporting these broad trends: for example,

Even when students with the same prior-attainment are compared (e.g. those in the top 20% of attainers at the end of Key Stage 3) FSM [free school meals] pupils are around 10-15% less likely to study a History or Geography GCSE when compared to non-FSM students with the same prior attainment.[46]

24.  The union NASUWT—which represents over 250,000 education professionals—says:

International evidence make[s] clear that no education system... has managed to end the tendency for pupils from relatively advantaged backgrounds attaining higher measured outcomes in the academic subjects that are central to the EBac... Therefore, it is clear that pupils from less deprived backgrounds will have the greatest prospects overall of achieving the qualifications required to secure award of the EBac.[47]

While we note that no country appears to have eliminated entirely the tendency for poorer students to perform less well in EBac subjects, we reject the NASUWT's counsel of despair and, although we may not be able to end the tendency entirely, we can seek to reduce the size of the gap. The issue, we believe, is not whether it can be done but whether the EBac will help.

25.  The Department for Education's evidence to our inquiry drew attention to several countries which have "broadly similar arrangements" to the EBac.[48] Singapore, for example, has "compulsory O levels in English language, mother tongue, mathematics, combined humanities, science and one other subject."[49] Similarly, in Japan, tests at age fifteen may (depending on the prefecture) cover Japanese, social studies, mathematics, science and English.[50] Both of these countries have a percentage of "resilient students" from disadvantaged backgrounds (ie those students who are amongst the best performers of all students of similar backgrounds internationally) which is significantly above the OECD average.[51]

26.  However, the Department's evidence also cites arrangements in countries such as Germany and Sweden which, on the same measurement of disadvantaged students' resilience, are below the OECD average (indeed, Germany ranks lower than the United Kingdom). The "broadly similar arrangements" to which the Department refers encompass a variety of different models, some of which, as we understand them, are more similar to the EBac than others. For example, in Sweden, a passing grade at age 16 is required to "receive the school leaving certificate", but only in three subjects (English, Swedish and mathematics); in Alberta, Canada, whilst the range of subjects tested is similar to the EBac, the tests are "not public examinations".[52] As previously stated, we agree absolutely with the Government that our education system should learn from best practice internationally; however, the Department's evidence offers no analysis of the impact that EBac-type arrangements in the countries it cites have made on disadvantaged students, and we are therefore unconvinced that there is any positive link.

27.  Evidence from the Institute for Public Policy Research suggests that the EBac performance measure will encourage schools to focus on wealthier students because, as the evidence of the Fischer Family Trust and the National Pupil Database makes clear, they tend to do better in EBac subjects:

The English Bac is intended to be the Government's 'gold standard' against which schools will be judged. This means that schools will have an incentive to focus extra resources on children who are likely to do well in those subjects... In effect, placing the English Bac at the heart of the new accountability framework will provide incentives for schools to divert resources away from FSM pupils.[53]

28.  While the number of students eligible for free school meals and entered for the EBac subjects has declined markedly since 2004, the overall number of FSM students achieving the EBac has remained fairly stationary—decreasing by 1.1 percentage points (from a 4.9% baseline in 2004) over eight years:

Table 4: Number and proportion of students eligible for free school meals entered for, and achieving good GCSEs in, EBac subjects, 2004-10[54]
Number of students eligible for FSM
Students eligible for FSM and entered for EBac suite of subjects

(number, and proportion of FSM students)
Students eligible for FSM achieving grades A*-C in EBac subjects

(number, and proportion of FSM students)
Proportion of FSM students entered for the EBac achieving required grades

The Fischer Family Trust's evidence cited in paragraph 23 suggests that, even when students with the same prior-attainment are compared, "FSM [free school meals] pupils are around 10-15% less likely to study a History or Geography GCSE".[55] However, the table here suggests that - even if schools did begin entering substantially more students on free school meals for EBac subjects - it may have relatively little effect, in itself, in increasing the number achieving good grades in them. Worse, pushing disadvantaged children into subjects they fail may prove damaging and counterproductive. Speaking in the House of Lords, Schools Minister Lord Hill of Oareford appeared to agree with this broad principle:

I agree with the point that children should not be shoe-horned into choices that are not appropriate for them. I think that everyone would accept that children are different, that there is no right way for any particular children and that vocational options as well as academic options should be fully available.[56]

If students do become shoe-horned in this way, and are driven into subjects where they have less interest or aptitude, the EBac could in effect become one of the "perverse incentives" in performance measurement which we understand the Government wishes to guard against.[57]

Concerns for particular groups of students

29.  Some evidence has suggested that the EBac is flawed because it does not differentiate between good and outstanding performance by individuals. This was demonstrated by the evidence of St Marylebone School:

Take for example the following two pupils' results from St Marylebone in 2010:

Pupil A: English B, English Lit B, Maths, C, Core Science C, Additional Science C, Spanish C, Geography C, Design Technology C, ICT C, RE short course C.

(ten GCSEs at A*-C with a pass in the English Baccalaureate; average grade C)

Pupil B: English A, English Lit A, Maths A, Statistics A*, Biology A, Chemistry A, Physics A*, Spanish A, Economics A, Art A, ICT B, RE A.

(twelve GCSEs at A*-C—a fail in the English Baccalaureate; average grade A)

One is recorded in our 36% of English Baccalaureate successes and one is recorded in our 64% of English Baccalaureate failures for 2010. But which one has the more successful and academic passes? The bald percentage of the English Baccalaureate as published in league tables would suggest pupil A represents success but pupil B does not. This, in our view, is misleading. It also seems unreasonable that pupil A is awarded a certificate from the government to recognise her academic achievement when pupil B is not recognised. Is it really pupil B that is leaving us so low in the international league tables that Mr Gove worries about so much?[58]

30.  While this evidence refers just to two pupils, it does illustrate some of the complexities which can arise as a result of the EBac. Pupil B has a clear academic profile across a range of subjects, yet will receive no additional recognition from the Government for an achievement which in many regards is superior to Pupil A's.

31.  Similar potential consequences were further elaborated on by the Ilford Ursuline High School:

The EBac is a simplistic threshold measure likely to mean that schools will devote more resources to borderline C grade students in order to achieve the highest percentage score in league tables... Moreover, an EBac 'pass' will not tell anyone (including parents) whether a particular grade represents success or failure for a given student. For example, a school receiving a high percentage of pupils achieving the EBac for example at Grade B might actually be seriously underperforming if a significant proportion of these pupils might have been expected to achieve an A or A*.[59]

If this concern is replicated nationally, it could lead to a situation where students on the C/D borderline received yet more attention, leading to increasingly less focus on the poorest-performing children (who, as we have seen, are also disproportionately from more disadvantaged backgrounds), as well as the highest-performing.


32.  Varying opinions were expressed with regard to the impact the EBac might have on the most vulnerable young people - those at risk of being not in education, employment or training (NEETs). Andrew Chubb, Principal of the Archbishop Sentamu Academy in Hull, told us that "bringing in a metric that narrows and is more likely to lead to disengagement pre-16 is only going to increase the number of NEETs post-16."[60] He went on to suggest the dramatic effect this could have:

There is a very worrying statistic going around at the moment. If you take those who are NEET at 16, within 10 years one in four is in prison and one in seven is dead. It's a very serious statistic and a very serious issue, and one that I think the EBac is going to make far worse.[61]

Hugh O'Neill, who leads St Benedict's Catholic School in Bury St Edmunds, said that whilst the EBac will not "do anything to improve" the current situation with regard to NEETs, he did not think it would increase the total figure of NEETS either;[62] Chris Morecroft, from the Association of Colleges, said the "general consensus is that [the EBac] may have some impact on driving up the numbers of NEET young people".[63] This, he believes, is because of the narrow range of subjects included within the EBac:

[T]hose who may have their eyes set on a career as an apprentice or as a painter and decorator or in construction would not see the relevance [of the EBac]. To start that range of qualifications therefore... as a compulsory element of their programme would be seen as an irrelevance and they would drift away and increase truancy. That is not the case for all young people but we would expect to see a marginal increase in NEETs.[64]

33.  However, some evidence was positive. Caroline Jordan—a headteacher representing the Girls' Schools Association—argued that "to have an academic focus for many young people is a good thing to do",[65] provided the details are well worked out, and Matt Brady—an assistant head from Coventry—said he thought the EBac could help some young people at risk of becoming NEET to "raise their aspirations."[66]

Progression to higher education

34.  The list of subjects included in the EBac, which is discussed in the next chapter, is almost identical to the list of 'facilitating subjects' included by the Russell Group of universities in its recently-published booklet Informed choices. That document defines a facilitating subject as one "required more often than others" for university entry,[67] and lists subjects which "can" be viewed as such as mathematics and further maths, English, physics, biology, chemistry, geography, history, and classical and modern languages. Giving evidence to our inquiry the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, emphasised the connection between those subjects and the EBac:

If you talk to people like the Russell Group, they have implicitly been saying that they would regard those sort of subjects that are in the English Baccalaureate as the best preparation for going to a Russell Group university.[68]

35.  We know from the Office for National Statistics that "degree holders earned an average of £12,000 a year more than non-graduates over the past decade".[69] It could therefore be argued that, if they wish to progress to better-paid jobs associated with completion of a degree, students might be advised to focus on those subjects which good universities say facilitate entry. However, the Committee did not receive any evidence suggesting that many universities have plans to use the EBac itself as an admission criterion. While Universities UK has acknowledged "the benefits of the [EBac] award in terms of the breadth of study it offers", it told us there was "currently a limited appetite" among universities to use the EBac "in university admissions processes, entry requirements or selection criteria."[70] The 1994 Group of universities was more categorical, stating that there was "no intention" and "no desire" to use the EBac in that way.[71]

36.  Partly because of the similarity between the Russell Group's list of facilitating subjects and those included in the EBac, some parents and schools are clearly confused about the EBac's precise 'status' and future role in university and college admissions. One parent explained to us that this could lead to decisions about subject choices at GCSE being changed for fear of their future impact:

Of course, the choice not to pursue [a particular] qualification can be made and subjects chosen accordingly, but as parents we worry that countenancing this will lead to problems further down the line. Will colleges and Universities demand this as additional entrance criteria? How much store will be set by this new qualification? The truth is we have no idea, nor do the educational professionals who are advising us and our children.[72]

37.  We support the Government's desire to have greater equality of opportunity for all students, and to improve the attainment of those eligible for free school meals. The evidence is unclear as to whether entering more disadvantaged students for EBac subjects would necessarily make a significant contribution to this aim. Concentrating on the subjects most valued for progression to higher education could mean schools improve the attainment and prospects of their lowest-performing students, who are disproportionately the poorest as well. However, other evidence suggests that the EBac might lead to a greater focus on those students on the borderline of achieving it, and therefore have a negative impact on the most vulnerable or disadvantaged young people, who could receive less attention as a result. At the same time, we believe that the EBac's level of prescription does not adequately reflect the differences of interest or ability between individual young people, and risks the very shoe-horning of pupils into inappropriate courses about which one education minister has expressed concerns. Given these concerns, it is essential that the Government confirms how it will monitor the attainment of children on free school meals in the EBac.

38.  We agree with the Government that, if our education system is to improve, it must take account of best practice internationally. However, the evidence we received does not suggest a link, in other countries, between the prescribed study of certain academic subjects and improved attainment and prospects for poorer students. The Government should provide further such international evidence, and analysis of it, to inform debate on the merits of the EBac.

39.  Universities, further education providers and sixth form colleges have already begun to communicate their position on the EBac, but confusion on its status remains. Information on how it might be used in applications procedures, if at all, should be made readily available to students, parents, and schools.

42   Q 120 Back

43   HC Deb 7 February 2011 col 14 Back

44   HC Deb 31 March 2011 col 490W Back

45   Ev 37 Back

46   Ev w358 Back

47   Ev w81 Back

48   Ev 39 Back

49   Ibid. Back

50   Ev 40 Back

51   See PISA In Focus 5 report, How do some students overcome their socio-economic background? (June 2011), available at  Back

52   Ev 40 Back

53   Clifton, J., and Muir, R., Room for improvement: ippr's response to the schools white paper (Institute for Public Policy Research, 2010), p. 3 Back

54   Adapted from table shown at Ev w357 (Fischer Family Trust) , and additional information received from the Fischer Family Trust. Percentages have been rounded. Back

55   Ev w358 Back

56   HL Deb 5 May 2011 col 568 Back

57   See Q 95 Back

58   Ev w296. Pupil B fails because she did not pass a GCSE in a recognised humanities subject. Back

59   Ev w174 Back

60   Q 38 Back

61   Idem. Back

62   Q 41 Back

63   Q 56 Back

64   Ibid. Back

65   Q 38 Back

66   Q 40 Back

67   Informed choices: a Russell Group guide to making decisions about post-16 education (Russell Group, 2011), p. 20 Back

68   Q 123 Back

69   See; median annual earnings 2000-10 based on Labour Force Survey data


70   Ev 41 Back

71   Ev w310 Back

72   Ev w96 (Mrs G. A. Byron) Back

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Prepared 28 July 2011