A Backward Baccalaureate

The league tables for schools in England were published today and they included, for the first time, the new English Baccalaureate.

Those of us who know a little about the Welsh version might think that this is another area where England is catching up with innovations in Wales, but the English Baccalaureate isn't anything like ours. Nor, for that matter, is it anything like the International Baccalaureate.

The English version involves no additional course of study, no assessment, no exams. It is merely a label put against those who get a certain number of good GCSE results in certain specified subjects. Previously, one of the most useful benchmarks was to count those students who got five good (i.e. A* to C) GCSE results, irrespective of the subjects. The English Baccalaureate is just a fancy name for the same benchmark, except that it is limited to only a few fundamental subjects (it would be best not to call them core subjects, because core subjects have a different specific meaning) namely: English, maths, a science, a language and either history or geography.

I think the reasons for doing this are perfectly sound. There is a much wider range of GCSE subjects available now than used to be the case. I wouldn't go as far as to say that any individual subject is more important than another, but it is surely desirable that each student studies a balanced range of subjects at GCSE, and these subjects are necessary to provide balance. English, maths and science have always been core subjects in the national curriculum, but another language is something that has not been compulsory for some time, so including one in this new measure of achievement is a very positive step. All schools want to be in a good position in any set of tables, so this will act as a powerful incentive for them to reinstate language courses ... although it won't make it compulsory.

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So I have no objections at all to the principle of introducing a new measure of this sort, but it is unhelpful and misleading to call it a Baccalaureate. Although the Welsh and International Baccalaureates are different, they both share a common purpose. They are designed to enhance and widen what a school student learns, encouraging personal development and giving them a more rounded education and a more useful set of skills for further education or the workplace.

In the case of the Welsh Baccalaureate, it is a much more valuable qualification than the individual GCSEs (in the case of the Intermediate Diploma; A levels in the case of the Advanced Diploma) that form part of it would be on their own. Everything is explained in this boooklet:

     

So we have a couple of big problems. The first is technical, but fundamental. The purpose of the Welsh Bac is to add to and widen a student's experience so as to make their education more rounded and relevant to them as individuals, and to better suit them for the world of work. The English version adds absolutely nothing, it is simply a fancy label to say that the student has a minimum number of good GCSEs in certain basic subjects. In fact it will have a narrowing effect, because it means that schools will now tend to concentrate on these basic subjects at the expense of the other GCSE courses available. In that sense an English Bac is the complete opposite of a Welsh Bac.

This leads to a second problem, which is practical and potentially damaging. When someone from Wales applies for a job and includes the Welsh Baccalaureate on their CV, an employer—particularly one outside Wales—might well have asked, "What on earth is a Welsh Baccalaureate?" ... but at least they would have asked and been given an answer. Now, that same employer is unlikely to ask at all. They will probably assume that it's the same thing as an English Baccalaureate rather than an important qualification in it's own right.

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I think the Welsh Baccalaureate is one of the good things we are doing to improve the effectiveness of the education system in Wales. Like the Foundation Phase for early years education, we have learned from what is good in the education systems of other countries and adapted it so that it suits our particular circumstances. It would have been nice if the English did the same for themselves, but their English Baccalaureate is more the equivalent of a fake Rolex watch or Prada handbag.

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18 comments:

Owen said...

The English Bacc. does seem a rather arbitrary list of subjects, classic "back to the 3R's" conservatism. I studied geography at GCSE and A-Level, and although it was cross-curricular and drew upon many skills, it was never the most challenging of subjects, even if it was more "respected" than so-called "soft options". Similar for history too I'd expect.

I'd like to see the Welsh Bacc. evolve fully into our version of the IB, and the slow phasing out of GCSE's and A-Levels as stand alone qualifications.

Also, as an aside, can you imagine what the headlines would be in Wales if only 1 in 6 our our pupils got the Welsh Baccalaureate? I'm not really sensing any palpable disappointment in the English media, which hints to me that this initiative is a bit of a damp squib.

MH said...

The 16% is significant in this sense, Owen. One of the dilemmas in any ranking system that concentrates on a defined key indicator is that schools will "teach to the test". The English Bac has only just been put in place, therefore schools have had hardly any time to teach to the new test. This explains both why the figure is low and, more revealingly, the extent to which schools in England have in fact been teaching to the test.

Is teaching to the test good or bad? The answer is that it can be good, but only to the extent that the criteria are good. So this set of subjects is good if you believe that the 3Rs (or 3Rs plus) are more important than other subjects. As I said, I don't. They're important, but not so important as to squeeze out other subjects ... and that is undoubtedly what will happen. I'm sure the 16% will become 30% within a few years ... and everyone will then pat themselves on the back. Especially the ConDem government, as this will coincide nicely with the next election. They will say that they've gone back to basics, and that sort of thing always goes down well with middle England.

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I believe that other subjects are perfectly valid if they are chosen for the sake of the individual student concerned. Not all children are gifted in the same way, and a child who might struggle in more traditional academic subjects might find some of the new subjects are areas in which they can excel. That's good, for achievement in the more technical or vocational subjects is just as valid as in the more traditionally academic subjects.

But the other side of the equation is that some schools have concentrated on these other subjects in order for the school to get better results. That's manipulation. Maybe understandable, but still a bad thing.

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I certainly agree with wanting to see the WB expand. But I don't necessarily want to see this happen at the expense of GCSEs and A Levels. One of the problems with the low take up of the IB is that it is a completely different system, and there's always a natural degree of reluctance to abandon what we're used to. As I see it, Wales has done something very clever by making GCSEs and A Levels (as well as other qualifications) an inclusive part of our Baccalaureate Diplomas. It means that students have still got the same qualifications as their peers (so we can compare apples with apples) but gives them something extra as well. In the case of a diploma it's worth a good A level on the UCCA scale.

Photon said...

I fail to see that there are any meaningful improvements in the teaching of kids in Welsh schools. The Foundation Phase is good on paper, but seems to leave more able pupils languish in some 'good set' corner, bored to death. When you ask about the able pupils policy, you get a pieceof paper with a policy written on it, but no action from the school.

And where on Earth are languages in all this? Like England, we simply do not want to know about teaching kids modern languages. That is going to be a much more serious handicap than anyone seems to want to acknowledge in Wales.

Siônnyn said...

Didn't the English Bacc used to be called the School Certificate? Before my time, but from what my mother told me about it - it was exactly the same!

Anonymous said...

The objective of this move is clear, to engineer a change in direction of English schools towards subjects which the present government believes will be most useful to pupils in the future. The actual tool that is being used is parental pressure. In England parents compare school's performance. They rarely move their child out of that school but they do pressure the Head and teachers if results are poor.

Much of the information available to English parents is available to Welsh parents yet I have met only one other parent who has accessed it.

The theory is that "league tables" are misleading and they ultimately lead to socio-economic stratification. That is only true when there is an unfettered market. In effect parents have limited choice when selecting schools in England with the number of independent schools being the major difference between England and Wales.

The surplus places available in Wales actually makes choice more realistic here than in England and the rise of Welsh Medium education has resulted in more socio-economic stratification than is seen in state schools in England.

MH said...

Photon, I think more able pupils are far more likely not to end up in the situation you portray with the new Foundation Phase. The much higher number of teachers/assistants to pupils means that they will get better attention than they would if taught in a formal group of 25 or 30. And of course the same applies to less able children, so it's an all round improvement.

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Siônnyn, I can't remember the schools certificate but I would agree that the new yardstick is an attempt to reinstate something old rather than establish something new. It is only in recent years that the number of alternative subjects taken at GCSE level has risen, and risen very sharply. The Guardian gave this figure:

Under the previous government, some vocational GCSEs were given parity with academic courses. The popularity of these subjects soared. In 2004, about 15,000 non-academic qualifications were taken in schools, but by 2010 this had risen to around 575,000.

So up until the last few years, the "five good GCSEs" yardstick was in the vast majority of cases going to include the traditional academic subjects. But unfortunately, some schools have chosen to put much less emphasis on languages and science rather than supplement them. Again from the Guardian:

Since 2004, when 14-year-olds were allowed to stop studying them, the proportion of pupils taking a language at GCSE has dropped from 61% to 44%. The DfE said that the number of teenagers taking any GCSEs in science had dropped by roughly 60,000 between 2007 and 2010. In 2009, just 4% of children on free school meals took chemistry or physics and fewer than one in five did history. In the same year, 24% of pupils on free school meals took a foreign language, compared to 43% of pupils not on free school meals.

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This brings us to the subject of socio-economic factors raised by Anon 17:03. I'm not sure what he says about "the theory" makes any sense, nor that he would be able to back his assertions up with evidence. Let's see.

But from the Guardian's figures, it does seem that the schools with more disadvantaged children are more likely to have dropped traditional academic subjects to replace them with non-academic ones. The new yardstick is obviously designed to reverse that, but I don't think it is going to do it solely because of parental pressure. The schools themselves will be anxious to improve their position anyway, irrespective of parental pressure.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
MH said...

I've deleted the above comment because the writer (the previous Anon 17:03) is throwing around numbers without backing them up in any way. He's welcome to repost the comment if he includes links to the figures.

Anonymous said...

I've deleted the above comment because the writer (the previous Anon 17:03) is throwing around numbers without backing them up in any way. He's welcome to repost the comment if he includes links to the figures.

14 January 2011 20:35

"Throwing around numbers" is a rather pejorative phrase MH. Perhaps you could respond to the post as I wrote it. Or is your blog exclusively for people who share your view-point?

I don't think I said anything too contentious or difficult to prove (or disprove). The 2009 and 2010 benchmarked education statistics are on statswales as I said. I have previous years because I wanted to trace socio-economic change but statswales will send them to you within a few days if you contact them on the email address they publish.

http://www.statswales.wales.gov.uk/ReportFolders/reportFolders.aspx

That's as close as you can get with a link so follow;
Schools and teachers,
Examinations and assessments,
Key stage 4,
Key stage 4 benchmarking tables 2009,2010,
Benchmarks by FSM and Medium.

Then you can see how I derived the 2010 figures that I "threw around".

As I have said I have previous years figures but they are obtainable on request from statswales.

Anonymous said...

MH,

Did you delete the subsequent comment which told you where the figures came from?

Anonymous said...

Right. I'll try one more time.

Statswales;http://www.statswales.wales.gov.uk/ReportFolders/ReportFolders.aspx

Schools and Teachers,
Examinations and assessments,
Key stage 4,
Key stage 4 Benchmarking tables 2009,2010,
Benchmarks by FSM and Medium.

I have previous years for research but they are available from statswales.

MH said...

So far I haven't deleted any posts on this thread without giving a reason, and if I delete a post I have no means of reinstating it, Anon. The post you seem to be talking about is there now, so I guess Blogger was just having one of its glitches.

The basic rule I apply is that people are free to make whatever comments they wish; readers are free to take them seriously or not, and comment on them if they want to. However, if someone tries to make their point of view seem credible by quoting figures, they will need to provide a link to the source of the figures. You didn't do that.

Thank you for now providing the URL. StatsWales is sometimes difficult to navigate, although you could get very much closer than you think. The links to the figures are here: 2009 and 2010. This might save you some typing next time, but the long-winded way gets there in the end. However I'm afraid these links on their own don't mean anything unless you repeat the comment that I deleted. You need to explain why the Benchmarks by FSM and Medium for 2009 and 2010 are relevant.

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Let me help you as much as I can. You started by claiming that "the theory" was that league tables ultimately lead to "socio-economic stratification". What theory? Whose theory? On the basis of what you have said so far, I can't tell.

Then, if you want to claim that there is more choice in Wales than in England, it would help your case if you provided some evidence to back that up. But ask yourself first whether it is relevant, since I would agree that the high number of surplus places in many parts of Wales does give parents in those areas a good degree of choice between schools with surplus places, irrespective of whether it is more or less true than in England.

You claim that the rise of WM education has resulted in more socio-economic stratification than is seen in state schools in England, and I presume that is why you wanted to link to the FSM figures. But I think you might be missing the obvious. Yes, there are fewer children in WM schools that are entitled to free school meals. But that does not mean that this is the result of the rise in WM provision.

I think it's safe to say that parents will generally try to send their children to what they consider to be the best school within a reasonable distance of where they live. As the vast majority of surplus places are in English-medium schools, it is reasonable to conclude that parents generally consider WM education to be better ... or at least that more parents think that than there are WM places available, for in the more Anglicized areas of Wales it is often a struggle to get your children into a local WM school at all.

In any area where the demand is greater than the supply, there will be competition for the places available. In such circumstances the better informed, more articulate parents will always be at an advantage when it comes to getting what they think is best for their children. The Daily Mail would call these "middle class, pushy parents" and their existence is just as real in Wales as it is in England. This probably explains why the numbers of children on FSMs are lower in WM schools than in EM schools.

The solution to that problem is to ensure that the supply of places in WM schools increases to match the demand. Then every parent who wants WM education will be able to get a local place for their child, and as a result the FSM figures for WM schools will become closer to those for EM schools in the same area.

In other words, it is not the rise of WM education that results in more "socio-economic stratification" but the scarcity of it, relative to the ever-increasing demand.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
MH said...

You've done exactly the same thing again, Anon.

If you want to quote figures, you need to provide links to your sources.

MH said...

Come on, Anon. It rather looks as if you only wanted to make unfounded assertions about Welsh-medium education based on unsupported figures.

You're welcome to re-post what you just wrote, provided you can give a source for the figures. The first half of your comment was fine because you had provided links ... though the figures in fact show precisely the opposite of what you claimed.

It was only in the second half that you returned to throwing around numbers without providing links for them.

MH said...

Anon has gone very quiet now that his bluff has been called, so I'm going to re-post the first part of his last comment to show what he was attempting to do:

MH.

"In other words, it is not the rise of WM education that results in more "socio-economic stratification" but the scarcity of it, relative to the ever-increasing demand."

The comment about middle class aspiration with regard to schooling I accept as a given. One of the clear reasons for the rise in popularity of WM schools outside the Welsh speaking areas has been the perception that WM schools achieved better academic outcomes. This was fuelled by a poster campaign run for years by the WLB and carried by most LEA's.

The posters compared GCSE outcomes for WM and EM schools and WM showed as far superior. You can see a critique of what the WLB did in straightstatistics;

http://www.straightstatistics.org/article/hymning-praises-welsh

As you can see from the benchmarked figures for 2010 a straight comparison of GCSE passes at the CSI gives WM 55% EM 46%.

In fact if you compare like with like the picture is quite different. This is taking only deprivation into account ...


He then went on to quote figures which he was not prepared to provide any source for, and I deleted the comment for that reason.

It is undoubtedly true that Welsh-medium schools achieve better academic results than English-medium schools in Wales. Anon had eventually provided a link to the 2010 figures, and people can open the spreadsheet either by following the path he gave, or by clicking here.

He does himself a disservice by misquoting the figures. The 55% figure for WM schools is right, but the figure for EM schools is actually 47% ... a difference of 8%. But he then says that if we "compare like with like the picture is quite different". It's very simple to do the maths to see if he's right.

The spreadsheet shows that there are no WM schools with more than 30% on free school meals (FSM entitlement is the usual measure of deprivation in school statistics) and that children in schools with greater percentages on FSMs tend to do worse academically. So let's exclude the children in those schools in order to properly compare like with like. 27% of the 3,193 children in EM schools with more than 30% on FSMs is 862 (the number may not be exact because 27% is a rounded figure). Doing the same calculation we know that 12,223 out of 24,999 of the remaining children in EM schools achieve the CSI. As a percentage that is 49%.

So even when deprivation is taken into account, the situation is no different at all. Children at WM schools still comfortably out-perform those in EM schools by 55% to 49%.

I would also say that parents will have all sorts of different reasons for choosing to sent their children to WM schools, and better academic achievement would be only one factor. But that would not be the main reason I would recommend WM education to parents. For me, the most important thing is that choosing a WM school is the best way to ensure that your children grow up able to speak Welsh.

MH said...

I found this BBC report from 2008, which is very relevant to the main topic.

Apparently AQA, the largest examination board in England, had already made substantial progress with the development of an English Bac, modelled on ours in Wales.

"AQA says 36 pilot centres have already been approved to offer the English Bac, and that a further 67 have said they will run the courses from September.

In addition, another 34 centres have said they are thinking of launching the qualification in 2009.


So what happened to this? Moreover, if the preparations were this far advanced, it makes me wonder why the ConDem government would effectively tread on its toes (not to use the expression involving chips) by choosing to call their "5 good traditional GCSEs" benchmark a baccalaureate. The name cannot have been chosen by accident. It seems hard to avoid the conclusion that preventing a proper English Bac modelled on the Welsh version from going ahead means that they do not like what we have done one little bit.

MH said...

For another example of Anon misusing statistics to tell blatant lies about Welsh and Welsh-medium education, read this post on Betsan Powys' blog.

His comment is #9 and my reply #45.

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