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No more 90% EBacc target - for now

When Michael Gove was Minister of Education the coalition government decided that it wanted all, or nearly all, pupils to take the EBacc "suite" of subjects, namely maths, English, science, history or geography, and a modern language. The thinking behind this was broadly that high-performing jurisdictions in the OECD PISA league tables have a broad academic curriculum for all up to the age of 16 and that such a curriculum gives children a  better start in life with improved job prospects..

The reason for the particular choice of subjects (history/geography as opposed to religious education or psychology, for example), was probably down to tradition and personal ministerial bias as much as anything else. No doubt it might also be argued that history and geography provide better examples of that "selection of the culture" which should be passed on from generation to generation in line with the Hirschian view of cultural literacy as the main route to social mobility. Recall that both Gove and Nick Gibb are huge fans of the work of E.D. Hirsch Junior.

In any case, the government subsequently acknowledged, not very openly it has to be said, that the idea of every single child doing the EBacc subjects was over-ambitious. The figure of 90% by 2020 was then often cited in social media. More recently there has been an as-yet-unpublished EBacc consultation and much discussion of teacher recruitment problems, notably in MFL. The government recently launched a campaign to recruit more MFL teachers by various means. See here for example - the bar was not set particularly high for MFL recruits.

In today's Conservative manifesto (18th May 2017) it has been now made clear that the new EBacc target is now set at 75% take-up by 2022, a notably less ambitious figure. It is stated that this will rise to 90% at a point thereafter - 2025 is the stated year. (Assume it might never happen.)

It looks as though the government has realised that MFL will be a particular problem with regard to recruitment. Perhaps they are also getting slightly cold feet about the whole principle of the "academic" curriculum for all - history or geography might be thought do-able by all, but MFL...? Perhaps the EBacc consultation has shown that there are serious doubts in principle about nearly all children doing a language up to the age of 16. (Labour found this was unworkable in practice and changed tack in 2004.) Perhaps they just didn't think it through when Michael Gove was minister - let's face it, all sorts of things were rushed through.

As for myself, I have always had doubts about MFL for all up to 16 for a number of reasons, among them teacher recruitment/quality, the fact that we speak the world lingua franca and the experience we gained in the late 1990s/early 2000s. So, in a way, I welcome the government's climb-down, if not there hasty policy-making in the first place. I know some readers will disagree, but I have never been convinced that force-feeding every British 15 year-old to do a modern language is the best way of producing motivated learners, keen to stay at school and study to a higher level. We know what happened in the past.


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