Rethinking Educational Ambition in the EBacc Era

By Tracey Leese

Tracey Leese explores the narrow focus on English Baccalaureate (EBacc) entries as the measure of educational ambition, highlighting the need for a broader perspective that considers diverse student needs, aspirations, and the overall purpose of education.

 

How do we know if we are ambitious enough for our students?

Dolly Parton advocates that we pour ourselves a daily cup of ambition, and whilst its unlikely that she had the current Ofsted framework in mind when composing, this is still ideal life advice from country musics beloved matriarch. Like Dolly I applaud ambition in all its forms, as a teacher and school leader I must reference this almost as frequently (though admittedly less eloquently) as Dolly. Ambition is something were measured against and something we endeavour to instil in our learners – and yet its incredibly hard to quantify.

Outside of education ambition is a loaded term which is synonymous with striving, achieving and succeeding. An empowering (if intangible) concept. Within schools, the notion of ambition has come to characterise the current inspectorate framework – as practitioners and leaders we are directed to build and deliver a curriculum which is broad, balanced and (you guessed it) ambitious. Clearly, the current political agenda and subsequent impact measures ambition at the heart of a schools intent and impact, which really does make sense… on paper at least.

As an English teacher by trade, I recognise the importance of ambition within the curriculum; especially within the inner-city school in which I teach. I also happen to believe that the role that literature texts act as gateways to other worlds, eras and experiences. Where else will children explore a Petrarchan sonnet or Shakespearean tragedy if not in school? Of course, this isnt only true for English – but for all the challenging content we deliver; especially when this content feeds into studentscultural capital.

As a secondary practitioner and leader within an inner-city school located in the bottom 10% of deprivation in the UK (according to national poverty indices), I also believe that ambition transcends curriculum. You will doubtlessly be familiar with the correlation between word and literal poverty – and the impact this can have on students accessing their wider curriculum (howsoever well-sequenced or broad) because if children cannot interpret and infer, they simply will not learn. An ambitious curriculum must surely differ according to the school context. The EBacc directive seems loaded with assumptions about the purpose of education, some of which will resonate more in some contexts than others.

So when An Inspector Called, and we knew that we would be asked about the height of the ambition for our students we knew that we had a strong evidence base on which to draw; curriculum plans, programs of study and statements of intent. Our smoking gun, however, was our destination data (Oxbridge and other Russell group universities and those who had left us to read medicine the month before the inspection). Arguably, having students who live within one of the most deprived areas in the country attend the best universities in the country could not illustrate ambition more!

However, the DfEs definition of ambition is somewhat narrower than ours, because their definition of ambition is (ironically) narrow and rests (almost) solely on English Baccalaureate entries. According to the Department for Education, this is an airtight litmus test for how ambitious a school is. So when this became a talking point within our inspection its fair to say that it felt somewhat unjust.

The DfE aim is for 90% of students to be studying towards the EBacc by 2025; meaning that the majority of students would be studying a traditional and academic pathway regardless of SEND needs, disadvantage or EAL status and career aspiration. I cant help but wonder… what for? Or rather – for whom?

An EBacc pathway is a hard sell, students do not receive formal recognition for this suite of subjects, nor is it requested specifically by employers or universities (not even Russell Group). As a metric, it seems arbitrary as there is no actual benefit for students – only for schools who have to report on the number of students who were entered for the EBACC as part of accountability measures.

But wait – EBacc is a DfE directive, not Ofsteds – surely there is a case to be made that a schools ambition can transcend EBacc? Whilst this isnt an Ofsted directive per se, EBacc entries feed directly into a schools Quality of Education judgement. In reality, this means that schools are forced to measure the ambition of their curriculum based on factors other than their students. Its completely counterintuitive, if not unjust.

I understand that reporting on EBacc entries prevents schools from narrowing the curriculum (and therefore gaming) – though, in reality, the Creative Arts and vocational subjects are casualties of this – subjects in which many students have a natural aptitude. For some young people, this may be the main area where they accrue most of their success – the resulting self-esteem and motivation are not to be underestimated. Not to mention the collateral damage this does to a schools overall Progress 8 figure.

Its also notable that we report on students who are entered for the EBacc – not necessarily who passes. So are we asking schools to enter students who may not be equipped to succeed at GCSE in a second language in order for them to fail? School leaders find themselves in the invidious position of reconciling DfE directives and providing students with the best life chances possible.

So though I would consider myself an advocate for both ambition and aspiration, there surely needs to be some more thought given to what is driving the directive about EBacc and the subsequent impact on the very thing at the heart of our education system – the young people in our care. To truly cultivate aspiration in our students, it may be necessary to expand our perspectives and set higher ambitions beyond the confines of the EBacc.

You can read more articles by Tracey Leese here.

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