Education Select Committee Inquiry: The English Baccalaureate

Education Select Committee Inquiry: The English Baccalaureate

Written submission from the New Visions for Education Group

The New Visions Group draws together individuals who are involved in education and are concerned for its future. Chair: Sir Tim Brighouse.

Its members include some of the country’s leading educationists, among them headteachers, academic researchers, educational administrators and leading figures in parents’ and governors’ organisations.

Members meet in London at occasional intervals throughout the year to debate and discuss education policy. Representatives meet with ministers and civil servants and produce papers on a range of educational issues.

This paper has been prepared by Professor John White on behalf of the Group.

1. The stated rationale for E-Bac

Para 4.20 of the White Paper states that

In order to encourage and facilitate a more rounded educational experience for all students we will create a new way of recognising those students, and schools, who succeed in achieving real breadth.
The English Baccalaureate will encourage schools to offer a broad set of academic subjects to age 16.

If we assume for the present that breadth in academic subjects is desirable, reasons are needed why E-Bac should be based on the five subject areas of

English, mathematics, the sciences, a modern or ancient foreign language and a humanity such as history or geography.

No reasons are given for this particular selection.

2. What is an ‘academic’ subject?

It is not clear what counts here as an ‘academic’ subject. From the above list, it would seem to involve more than the acquisition of propositional knowledge (ie ‘knowing that’ something is the case). For much modern language learning is about acquiring practical skills in reading and speaking; while much work in English literature is about acquiring aesthetic sensitivity, not simply factual knowledge about texts.

Even if one defines ‘academic subject’ narrowly, to include only fact-rich subjects, no reasons are given why subjects like social studies, economics, psychology, theology, history of art, or political studies are not on the E-Bac list.

If one broadens the focus, as E-Bac does, to include subjects in which practical knowing-how and aesthetic sensitivity are prominent, no reasons are given for leaving out of account subjects like design and technology, ICT, art and design, music.

3. Why the focus on academic subjects in any case?

The introduction of E-Bac is said (above) to ‘encourage and facilitate a more rounded educational experience for all students’. Why does the White Paper focus only on academic subjects (whether narrowly or broadly defined) as ways of providing this experience? It gives no reasons for this.

If we confine ourselves to National Curriculum subjects, why are PSHE and Citizenship not included in E-Bac? Is it thought that they are not conducive to a more rounded educational experience?

But there are other vehicles than discrete school subjects (of any kind) that can be used to pursue desirable educational aims, eg projects, including practical projects. Why is it apparently taken for granted that a rounded education has to be within a subject framework? The White Paper gives no reasons for this.

4. What is meant here by a ‘more rounded educational experience’ (4.20) (or ‘a properly rounded academic education’ (4.22)) and why is this held to be important?

The White Paper does not answer these questions. But the answers to them are not self-evident. There are fundamental issues embedded in them about what the aims of education should be. These deserve fuller discussion. See also 6. below.

5. The place of reason-giving in a democracy

Paragraphs 1 to 4 show that the E-Bac proposals in the White Paper are evidentially weak. At point after point, arguments in support are lacking.

This is disturbing from a democratic point of view, given the centrality of reasoned discussion to a democratic society.

6. The proper remit of government on matters to do with the school curriculum

Although there is no sharp dividing line between the two, it is useful to distinguish the aims of the curriculum from the ways in which those aims are to be pursued.

There is no good reason to leave curriculum aims in the hands of the teaching profession. This is because what schools’ aims should be is inextricable from issues about the kind of society they are intended to promote; in a democracy, a teacher has no weightier voice on this than a doctor, shop assistant, or any other citizen. This is why the determination of aims should be the task of a democratic government, given obvious safeguards, eg. against improper bias.

Teachers are best placed, on the other hand, to judge, in the light of the particular circumstances of their school, how aims are to be delivered, that is, on the curricular vehicles (subjects or other vehicles) and pedagogy which best promote them.

Since 1988, governments have tended to sidestep their proper job, of working out what the aims of school education should be in a democracy (beginning with the most general of these and then moving further into specifics). E-Bac is a case in point: the proposals start too far in, with a list of desired subjects, and without justifying this in terms of overall aims.

7. Reference to other countries

Para 4.21 of the White Paper states that ‘in most European countries school students are expected to pursue a broad and rounded range of academic subjects until the age of 16’.

If this is meant as a rationale for the E-Bac proposals, it is weak. For [1] it does not claim that these countries highlight just the five subject areas of E-Bac; [2] why should we do what most European countries do, in any case? No reasons are given.

8. Conclusion

The E-Bac proposals are ill-supported by reasons throughout.

Appendix: The possible significance of Matthew Arnold

A recent publication of the think-tank Civitas has been influential in ministerial circles and may help to explain the choice of the E-Bac subjects. Its author, philosopher David Conway, sees the intellectual foundation of an acceptable National Curriculum in the curriculum that Matthew Arnold proposed in 1868 for the lower secondary school in England. This is virtually identical to the E-Bac curriculum, comprising ‘the mother tongue, the elements of Latin and of the chief modern languages, the elements of history, of arithmetic and geometry, of geography, and of the knowledge of nature’.

What grounds does Arnold give for his choice of subjects? He sees his curriculum as providing the two kinds of knowledge found in a desirable education, whose ‘prime direct aim is to enable a man to know himself and the world’. Arnold calls these two items taken together ‘the circle of knowledge’. He does not go on fully to explain why acquiring a totality of knowledge of this sort should be the aim of education, but a partial justification is found in his claim that

Every man is born with aptitudes which give him access to vital and formative knowledge by one of these roads, either by the road of studying man and his works, or by the road of studying nature and her works.

In the upper secondary school, Arnold envisages students going along the specialised road suited to their innate aptitude, but ‘the circle of knowledge comprehends both, and we should all have some notion, at any rate, of the whole circle of knowledge’. Hence the broader provision in the earlier part of secondary education.

Arnold’s justification rests on two unfounded claims. The first is that what the aims of education should be is to be derived from people’s innate characteristics, namely their ‘aptitudes’. This runs foul of the difficulty facing all such appeals to human nature: how can one derive what should be the case from a premise about what is the case? It simply does not follow that if one is born with a particular ability or inclination, that this ability or inclination is a good thing to develop. We may all be born with the ability to take pleasure in others’ misfortunes, and some of us may early develop a propensity in that direction; but Schadenfreude is something to be discouraged.

The second claim is that human beings divide into two groups, according to whether their innate aptitudes ‘carry’ them to the study of nature, or to the humanities (p.300). Arnold gives no evidence for this highly implausible assertion.

The upshot is that a sound intellectual backing for E-Bac cannot be found in Matthew Arnold. It would be surprising, in any case, if a mid-Victorian curriculum intended for the small proportion of the child population deemed suitable for attending what were then called ‘middle-class schools’ were a good model for us in our very different kind of society today.