The EBacc Debate: Is it the Right One?

Yesterday, (4th July 2016), there was a debate in parliament about the EBacc and the potential inclusion of the expressive arts as a compulsory component of the EBacc.

Currently, the English Baccalaureate is made up of:

  • English
  • mathematics
  • history or geography
  • the sciences
  • a language

It’s a performance measure rather than a qualification in itself. (The government was forced to drop plans to have an EBacc certificate).

For more on EBacc –

EBacc Debate

Catherine McKinnell, MP for Newcastle North, introduced the petition – signed by over 100,000 people – to parliament as an introduction to the debate.

Here’s the petition statement in full:

EBacc Debate [1]

You can read the entire transcript of the debate here.

“Creativity must be at the heart of our schools” – said the petition, which is evidently not the case.

Ms McKinnell said,

“There is support from more than 200 organisations from the UK’s cultural sector, including the Design Council, the Creative Industries Federation, the BRIT school, Aardman Animations, the north-east’s Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, trade unions, orchestras, museums, art galleries, theatres, performing arts colleges, festivals, creative industry businesses and many more – all united in the belief that the Government’s education policies and specifically the EBacc risk profoundly damaging Britain’s rich and vibrant history of creativity and cultural achievement.”


Towards the end of the debate, the schools minister Nick Gibb said,

“I have never said, and no one in the Government has said, that arts subjects are any less valuable than the subjects in the EBacc.”

This is a classic and deliberate avoidance of the issue. It’s not what you say, Mr Gibb. It’s what you do. It’s the process that’s at fault.

We’ve said this before and we now have to reiterate it. If a subject is not included in an Ebacc which, in turn, is a key judgement criterion as far as league tables are concerned, then it doesn’t have the same “value” as those subjects that are included in the Ebacc.

It’s not difficult to understand this. In a world where schools are judged as “good” or “outstanding” in the main due to their performance table standing, then of course they are going to concentrate their efforts in these areas. Ergo the creative or “expressive” arts are seen as second class and seen, in statistical terms, as an irrelevance.

Mr Gibb continued to say that as the arts were part of the Progress 8 subjects then their exclusion from the EBacc essentially didn’t matter. The fact that these subjects are noted as “other” on the Progress 8 factsheet merely exacerbates their alleged inferiority to the EBacc subjects.

download (1)

And what of the child who happens to excel in more than one of the expressive arts, and enjoys these subjects? How often are these young people allowed to take music and art, for instance, or drama and music – a sensible combination for someone contemplating a career in theatre? A school with an eye on their performance tables won’t allow a young person to choose more than one arts subject.

There are two further questions to consider here that were barely, if at all, referred to in the debate.


  1. Do we want an EBacc at all?

Who actually wants an EBacc? Managers don’t (other than to adhere to performance structures). Teachers who are working with individual young people with individual needs don’t. Nobody is arguing against the need for meaningful Maths and English throughout school. Most would agree that Information Technology and Computing skills are an essential part of schooling for the 21st Century. But we don’t need an English Baccalaureate.

There’s already an alternative that many of our countries most esteemed schools use – in the International Baccaleaurate that could easily be pursued were it not for the isolationism enveloping our country. However, we’re not advocating this as the option as we want to see a comprehensive 14-18 alternative.

We want all children to have the opportunity to have a “broad and balanced” curriculum with a “breadth” of subjects studied for as long as they can. In addition, we want young people to have the opportunities for vocational studies that are equally as valid as history or geography or other subjects currently on the EBacc.

Do we actually want GCSE’s? The compulsory age of education has risen from 16 to 18. Therefore GCSEs are far less relevant than they once were. The CBI said this four years ago and continue to suggest such exams are anachronistic. (See report commentaries below).


  1. Is the government’s reluctance to include the expressive arts in the Ebacc more to do with their proclamations of autonomy for schools rather than their lack of commitment to the subjects?

The government persists with this notion that they are giving autonomy to schools, whilst simultaneously insisting on a rigid curriculum with an inflexible quota of subjects that should be taught – as well as a performance table system that only reports on one aspect of schooling. If they amend the EBacc to include Arts subjects, then they can’t use the “autonomy” card. A similar reasoning was evidently used when we, amongst others, campaigned for statutory PSHE. They’ve dug themselves a hole with this whole contradiction of autonomy for schools versus an oppressive and subjective micro-management of education. Even if the Secretary of State agreed with the need for quality PSHE she can’t make it compulsory because that goes against the mantra of autonomy. Same applies with the EBacc.

Contrast all of this to what is happening in other countries. Finland is often cited, for very good reasons. No high stakes exams, a clear progression for vocational/academic studies or a combination of both, a broad curriculum offering value and worth to creative subjects as well as traditional ones as seen in the EBacc.


Germany is less frequently referred to but they too manage a broad and balanced curriculum with autonomy to all 16 states within the country.

One school’s experimental learning is being watched carefully as young people are flourishing.

“The Berlin teenager’s self-confidence is largely the product of a unique educational institution that has turned the conventions of traditional teaching radically upside down. At Oberländer’s school, there are no grades until students turn 15, no timetables and no lecture-style instructions. The pupils decide which subjects they want to study for each lesson and when they want to take an exam. . . . . Set subjects are limited to maths, German, English and social studies, supplemented by more abstract courses such as “responsibility” and “challenge”.

For those who don’t see the “rigour” in this child-centred liberalism . . . . . .

“Germany’s federalised education structure, in which each of the 16 states plans its own education system, has traditionally allowed “free learning” models to flourish. Yet unlike Sudbury, Montessori or Steiner schools, Rasfeld’s institution tries to embed student self-determination within a relatively strict system of rules. Students who dawdle during lessons have to come into school on Saturday morning to catch up, a punishment known as “silentium”. “The more freedom you have, the more structure you need,” says Rasfeld.”

The school’s head teacher sums up the issue facing English education right now.

“In education, you can only create change from the bottom – if the orders come from the top, schools will resist. Ministries are like giant oil tankers: it takes a long time to turn them around. What we need is lots of little speedboats to show you can do things differently.”

If we have to have an EBacc, then we have to include the expressive arts subjects, but in the light of research, reference to other systems and the fact that our children stay in education until the age of eighteen – and that they all have different needs, interests and skills, shouldn’t we now be asking the bigger question of whether we still need a prescribed set of subjects to be studied at 16?

We should be looking at a broader and more inclusive education for all between the ages of 14 and 18 or 19.

Just as Tomlinson suggested more than a decade ago, and others since, we need a complete review of 14-19 education – a change not a rearrangement.


See also:

The CBI Report 2012 – calling for the abolition of GCSEs and the introduction of a 14-18 education.

Big Education Report, Compass and NUT –

Tristram Hunt on 16+ exams 

Mike Baker Memorial Lecture 2012: The Future of 16+ –

Mike Baker Memorial Lecture 2015: Looking Back to Move Forwards

More from Tony Little – former Headmaster of Eton.

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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