A curriculum for all? GCSEs, EBacc and Progress 8

We are pleased to announce a new survey, commissioned by the NUT and carried out by a research team from King’s College London. A curriculum for all? The effects of recent Key Stage 4 curriculum, assessment and accountability reforms on English secondary education was researched by Eszter Neumann, Emma Towers, Sharon Gewirtz and Meg Maguire, and based on a survey of 1800 teachers.

This article is based on sections of the report dealing with EBacc and Progress 8, supplemented by statistics recently published by the Department for Education.

English secondary schools have long been dominated by exam requirements, with enormous amounts of time devoted to practising past papers, second-guessing potential exam questions or memorising content “in case it comes up”. As Mick Waters put it, “Past Papers is probably the most studied subject in Year 11.”

High-stakes accountability made matters far worse. For nearly 20 years, the need to raise the proportion getting 5 C grades created a ‘triage effect’: schools began to concentrate on turning Ds into Cs, at the risk of neglecting the highest and the lowest achievers.

Attainment 8 and Progress 8 have ended that: now every pupil’s GCSE results matter. However, it involves new distortions.

1) It is built round Michael Gove’s narrow-minded ‘EBacc’.

2) It should not be used to judge teachers’ performance and pay.

The so-called English Baccalaureate

The content of the EBacc has been criticised from the start, because it neglects creative arts and technical or vocation studies. The new survey points to a new ‘hierarchy’ of subjects, with fewer exam entries in creative, technical and vocational subjects, reduced resources and less time, and also increased job insecurity. (p3)

Many teachers are concerned that students are ‘being forced to take subjects which they are not motivated to study and do not enjoy.’ Schools are responding in different ways, with some resisting the pressure, but the overwhelming majority of survey respondents complain that it is narrowing the Key Stage 4 curriculum (p20).


Here are some comments:

‘Creative subjects are being sidelined and devalued.’

D&T does not matter any more.’

‘It’s stifling the education system. … Do they not see how academic design is, how it creates balanced individuals who are organised, innovative individuals?’

‘Harder to get higher ability musicians to consider GCSE as an option.’

‘Dedicated classrooms for drama, media and music have been turned into science rooms ([with] sinks, gas taps, etc. added and sound engineer rooms removed).’

We really do have to sometimes convince the parents that it’s not a throwaway subject, that it’s not regarded any less by universities or by college.’

‘A lot of staff have been made redundant due to more English and maths and science lessons per week.’

DfE statistics confirm this picture. They show, for example, that less than half of students now study an arts GCSE, and the number continues to decline.

However they also show that the government’s aim of 90% of students being entered for the complete EBacc set of subjects has failed. In fact, after an initial rise, the proportion is clearly stuck just below 40%, and nearly half of them are failed. There is a particular problem with modern languages, and it appears possible, since EBacc doesn’t actually exist in law, that it might be abandoned by the new Conservative leadership.


The EBacc is clearly proving a challenge for middle and lower achieving students, but it isn’t even working for all students who were high achievers at age 11. Only 80% of grammar school students were entered for the EBacc subjects. 67% of students with high attainment at KS2, 35% with average, and only 8% with low prior attainment were entered for the full set of EBacc subjects. Although 82% of high prior attainers entered for EBacc actually got it, only 11% of the low prior attainers who were entered, and 42% of the average attainers entered, actually passed it. This is a recipe for wholesale disillusionment.

Internationally there is nothing unusual about young people having to study a language, science, history and geography to age 16. What is iniquitous is the use of performance data and targets to put pressure on schools when there is no professional consensus. It is even more foolish to marginalise creative arts and technical or vocational subjects.

What has made matters worse is that the GCSEs have been made harder. Instead of a broad and balanced curriculum for all, we have a narrow curriculum which large numbers will fail.

One irony is that only 13% of elite students at fee-paying private schools show on the data as being entered for EBacc. This may be because they are taking versions of the international GCSE (iGCSE) which are not restricted by the new regulations for state schools. It is iniquitous that state schools are saddled with GCSE reforms which hinder coursework and practical forms of assessment including spoken English.

Progress 8

Some teachers welcomed Progress 8 for removing the preoccupation with the C/D borderline, but the survey reveals widespread concerns that it is not a fair measure. In some schools, the performance of art or music teachers is being judged by comparison with pupils’ earlier scores at KS2 maths or English (p51).

This, and the new GCSE grading system, have led to increased pressures:

‘My school has shortened lunch to finish earlier to facilitate additional classes.’

‘Support sessions are now compulsory rather than voluntary.’

“It is a slow death by a million excel spread sheets.’

‘I have to write a data report every 6 weeks, which can take up to 20 hours on top of [my] teaching workload.’

Although Progress 8 leaves 3 subjects ‘open’ for non-EBacc subjects, if desired, a student’s entire timetable might be filled with EBacc subjects. This is hardly a broad and balanced curriculum.

According to DfE statistics, almost all schools score between -1.0 and +0.7 on Progress 8. However, a closer look at the statistics shows that it favours grammar schools and other schools with a high attaining intake. This is hardly surprising – as grammar school students are selected in the expectation that there will be few obstacles in their way – but it also reflects the weighting of Progress 8 towards academic subjects. In fact, Education Datalab already forecast in May 2015 that Progress 8 would favour schools with the highest attaining intakes.

The same analysts have revealed that Progress 8 favours schools with large numbers of students speaking languages other than English. Based on 2015 data, they found that the national average Progress 8 score for students with EAL was 0.46. One obvious reason is that the pupils are still improving their English during primary school, then take off during secondary school. Conversely, major problems are arising with Progress 8 in schools in poorer areas with large numbers of white British pupils – essentially a problem of deindustrialised areas with few job prospects.

Progress 8 could become another toxic measure because its baseline – the KS2 tests – are discredited and the new GCSEs are harder, especially if Ofsted use it to target schools for emergency inspections.

This entry was posted in Curriculum and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s