17 March 2016
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The Government is proposing to require 90% of 16-year-olds to enter GCSEs in the full English Baccalaureate. These are the objections raised by the Edge Foundation.

The Attainment 8 and Progress 8 performance measures require virtually all students to be entered for English, maths, three further EBacc GCSEs and up to three additional GCSEs or approved technical qualifications. This provides a broad curriculum for all students while providing an important element of choice in subjects, geared to the talents and aspirations of individual students.

The government already publishes information on the percentage of pupils taking the full EBacc. This can be taken into account by parents when they select a secondary school for their children. There is no need to go further.

In seeking to impose the full EBacc on 90% of students, the government is claiming that foreign languages, history and/or geography are inherently, and in all circumstances, more valuable than non-EBacc subjects. There is no sound evidence to support this.

The government's policy rests on the dubious argument that Russell Group Universities prefer candidates with A Level passes in so-called facilitating subjects, which (by implication) must also have been studied at GCSE. Even in the limited frame of Russell Group Universities, this distorts the truth, because Russell Group Universities accept passes in many other subjects, and indeed passes in qualifications other than A Levels. More broadly, there is no evidence that choosing alternatives to foreign languages, history and/or geography harms the prospects of students who choose paths other than direct entry to a Russell Group University.

We conclude that it is wrong to base the Key Stage 4 curriculum on a distorted perception of the needs of Russell Group Universities. Instead, the government should welcome the breadth of opportunities available for students whose talents and inclinations steer them towards applied, technical and creative subjects alongside English, maths and three other EBacc subjects.

In recent years, there has already been a significant shift away from creative and technical subjects in KS4. Entries for GCSE Design and Technology have fallen by 29% in five years. Entries for qualifications now classed as Technical Certificates have also fallen significantly, though precise figures are not currently published by DfE or the Joint Council for Qualifications.

These trends would be severely exacerbated by imposing the full EBacc on 90% of KS4 students, because they would have to drop non-EBacc subjects to make room for foreign languages, history and/or geography. In 2015, only half the cohort (49.3%) took a foreign language GCSE and around two thirds (65.5%) took either history or geography.

To meet the 90% target,225,000 students would have to drop one of their options in favour of a foreign language, and136,000would have to drop one of their options to take either history or geography.
The impact would be felt most acutely among "low attainment" students (as measured at the end of KS2). However, the impact would also be felt by middle attainment students. The following table uses data from the 2015 performance tables to illustrate the point.

2015: 553,469 pupils   

  Low attainment Middle attainment High attainment

Cohort average

% of cohort 17.2% 48.4% 34.5%  
Average no of exam entries (all types) 6.9 9.2 10.4 9.2
Average no of entries (GCSE only) 5.8 8.4 9.8 8.1
% achieving A* to C inc E&M 6.7% 51.9% 91.1% 66.2%
% entering all five EBacc pillars 4.8% 31.9% 66.1% 38.7%
% achieving A* to C in all five EBacc pillars 0.6% 13.1% 52.3% 24.2%


As shown in the table, "low attainment" students took an average of 6.9 exams in 2015, of which 5.8 were GCSEs. The consultation paper defines the EBacc as seven GCSEs, which means that the average "low attainment" student falls a long way short of the future EBacc requirement. "Middle attainment" students took 9.2 exams in 2015, of which 8.4 were in GCSEs; however, only 31.9% of middle attainment students entered the EBacc. If the 90% target had been imposed in 2015, 58.1% of middle attainment students would have had to drop one or more of their chosen subjects and take additional EBacc subjects instead. Even amongst "high attainment" students, about one third did not take the full EBacc suite of GCSEs in 2015.
There are huge gaps in the percentage of students achieving A* to C passes in the EBacc.

Among low attainment students, fewer than one in twelve of those entering the full EBacc achieved A*-C grades across the board, a figure that represents just 0.6% of the low attainment cohort. Ten times that number achieved A*-C passes in five subjects including English and maths. These figures provide clear evidence that schools should not be required to impose the EBacc on low attainment students.
Turning to middle attainment students, under a third of the cohort took exams in the full EBacc, and of those, two in five achieved A* to C passes in the full suite - that's just 13% of the middle attainment cohort. Conversely, half of the cohort achieved at least 5 A* to C grades including English and maths, opening the way to a vast range of post-16 opportunities. Imposing the EBacc on this cohort actually risks harming their future prospects.

As noted already, around a third of high attainment students do not sit the full suite of EBacc subjects. An obvious hypothesis is that they dropped one or more EBacc GCSEs in favour of subjects and qualifications more suited to their talents and ambitions. They are very likely to have done so after consulting their parents and teachers. It is not obvious that the Secretary of State knows these students better than their own parents or teachers do.

Furthermore, if the 90% target is imposed, there will be no alternative but to require 100% of high and middle attainment students to take a minimum of seven EBacc GCSEs, because the full EBacc is out of reach of almost all low attainment students.


Imposing an arbitrary set of qualifications on students is not supported by a solid evidence base. The 90% EBacc target is neither necessary nor desirable. It will harm, not help, large numbers of students, reduce the uptake of technical and creative subjects and limit choices open to students and their parents. It could exacerbate the country's growing skills gap, because fewer students will achieve passes in technical and creative subjects linked to the needs of the economy.

Contact: Jayne Phenton This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



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