Two Cheers for the English Bacc

19 Jan 2011


                      Two Cheers for the English Baccalaureate

Roy Blatchford argues the government have made a step in the right direction with the new focus on qualification breadth, but says ministers still need to make a few more tweaks.

 We are, rightly, at last measuring young people’s achievements against international benchmarks. For too long, Raiseonline, Fisher Family Trust, SIPs and indeed successive Ofsted frameworks have, by definition, informed schools why some children and young people can’t succeed. Any targets which inherently write off a certain percentage of students as being unable to achieve a Level 4 at age 11, or a Grade C at age 16, lack both integrity and credibility.


Put simply against an international backcloth: all students aged 16 in the UK’s mainstream schools should be expected to attain at least a grade C in English and mathematics. How schools achieve this is up to them, but self-evidently many primary and secondary schools need to do differently if this ambition is to be realised within the next five years. 


In a clumsy kind of way, this is what the launch of the English Baccalaureate is all about. To introduce this five-subject measurement of schools retrospectively looks decidedly unjust. It’s as though a group of Year 11 students on sports day ran a 400 metres race – only for the gold, silver and bronze winners to be told the race was actually going to be judged on who was winning at the 200 metres point in the race.


But I guess the government had to start somewhere. Remember the coalition is decidedly hard pressed. The greatest fear of ministers is that they will be gone tomorrow. Indeed, sitting in the Department for Education’s waiting room recently – stripped in these austere times of even a coffee machine that functions – I was struck by the lack of longevity of Secretaries of State for Education: just over two years on average, with Sir Keith Joseph (1981- 86) just about the longest in office in my educational lifetime.


Mr Gove and Ms Teather – joined at the policy hip - are in a coalition hurry. They are both passionate about making a difference to the least advantaged students in society. They say so on every platform, from Question Time to Any Questions to the Today Programme. The pupil premium may be one manifestation, but the deep desire to give all students, wherever they are schooled, access to the ‘great core subjects’ is deep-rooted, traceable of course back to Keith Joseph and Kenneth Baker.


So Teather-Gove can be forgiven, in an English sort of way, for seizing upon English, mathematics and science (certainly yes), history or geography (probably yes) and a modern foreign language (probably not) to make up the magic quintet. Now as someone who has always believed that you cannot truly understand your own culture unless you climb inside the skin of another, I am all in favour of everyone speaking a second language. In fact, I’d magic-wand all nursery and reception classes in the country to be operating bi-lingually!


And, of course, in vast urban swathes across this country, hundreds of thousands of our children in schools have at their command two, three, sometimes four languages. Just listen to a group of ten year-olds in a Birmingham playground shifting between Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi and English presaging 2060 when ‘Hinglish’ will be the world language.


But, the independent sector apart (which naturally has kept its English Bacc curriculum beautifully intact), state schools have dodged their way between successive governments’ missives over the past forty years and attained a position where, frankly, the teaching of French, German and Spanish are in terminal decline. And we’re not sure whether it’s the primary or the secondary schools’ responsibility – remember Lord Dearing?


So I say, let’s park the modern foreign language requirement for all – we’ve lost that one. Let us accept that English is the lingua franca of the globe. By all means promote the learning of Mandarin and Hindi and German where appropriate. But let us not kid ourselves that we can secure C+ GCSE for all sixteen year-olds in modern foreign languages.


Rather, let us turn to the origins of the International Baccalaureate (IB), born in Geneva in 1968, to provide a ‘qualification suitable for the growing mobile population of young people whose parents are part of the world of diplomacy, international and multi-national organisations’. Everyone is mobile now.


The IB, particularly at 16+ (but also in primary and middle years’ programmes) is expanding fast. In my recent inspection experience, from Mumbai to New York to the Middle East, the IB is increasingly the course of first choice for many, many students. We should hitch the English Bacc to this waggon with its breadth of studies and rejection of narrowness. What are IB students expected to study? A home and a second language; mathematics; individuals and societies; experimental sciences; mathematics; the arts; and not forgetting the vital CAS: creativity, action, service.


The government has stimulated the right debate with its launch of the English Bacc, particularly if it leads to two outcomes, shaped by the universities, the schools and the examination boards. First, what is not negotiable is that all mainstream students attain a grade C+ in English, mathematics and a science at age 16, surely a common entitlement after 12 years of compulsory schooling. Second: the move must be quick towards an international-style breadth of curriculum which, yes, can embrace music, art and vocational subjects too, but may just have to compromise on aspirational bilingualism.



Roy Blatchford (HMI) is Director of the National Education Trust ( and inspects schools internationally.

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