School leaders have warned against sudden changes to secondary education without sufficient resources after Lords called for reforms including an end to the English baccalaureate (EBacc).
The House of Lords committee on education for 11-16 year olds warned today that the system is “too focused” on academic learning and written exams.
The cross-party report argued ministers’ emphasis on a knowledge-rich approach had “overloaded” the curriculum with content.
It also said the government should abandon the EBacc measure – which measures schools on the proportion of pupils entering a suite of five subject areas – entirely.
The report added that government should reduce the amount of external assessment and lower the stakes at age 16, and introduce more non-exam assessments at key stage 4.
Jo Johnson, a former education minister and the committee’s chair, said change was “urgently needed to address an overloaded curriculum, a disproportionate exam burden and declining opportunities to study creative and technical subjects”.
The ASCL school leaders’ union supports scrapping the EBacc, saying it would “help rebalance the curriculum”. Critics have warned the measure has prompted schools to shun creative and technical subjects.
Leader urges caution over ‘dramatic change’
But Caroline Barlow, vice chair of the Headteachers Roundtable group, warned the sector was “prone to swinging from one end of the pendulum to another”.
“I think we’ve got to be a little bit careful before we put schools through more dramatic change to work out exactly what it is we do want to achieve”.
The Healthfield Community College head told BBC Radio Four “we need to take a long-term look” and ensure the sector is properly resourced.
“A number of professionals have been saying for sometime that what we need…is a 10 year solution for education to decide exactly what it is that we all agree we want to do to make sure that is resourced and funding adequately.”
The sector also faces wider issues. Last week, it was revealed that just half of the secondary school teacher recruitment target had been met. This target has been missed 10 out of the last 11 years.
‘Government has failed to attract teachers’
Steve Rollett, deputy chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts, said there were symptoms in the sector to treat “but there are issues with the underlying analysis”.
Posting on X, he said while the committee was right to question EBacc, “it’s not just because of curriculum narrowing and loss of arts/tech subjects.
“It’s also because government has failed over a long period to attract teachers of EBacc subjects into the profession. Schools can’t hold accountability for something that isn’t matched by the resource to deliver it.”
The committee called for a reduction of “rote learning” to give schools more capacity to “offer a more varied, richer range of learning experiences and develop a broader set of skills”.
They said the extent of material to be covered “hampers pupils’ understanding of core concepts and stifles engagement”.
However, David Thomas, a former Department for Education special adviser who now runs maths charity MESME, said a knowledge-rich approach “does not mean a ‘pub quiz’ curriculum of disconnected facts”.
It means giving children a rich foundation of understanding from which to build. It’s right to be revisiting our curriculum and asking how it can be made better, but we should be taking steps forwards not back.”
Tackle school cuts and workload first
Geoff Barton, ASCL’s general secretary, said a broad and balanced curriculum was reliant on schools having “the funding and the staff they need”.
“That is currently a very long way from being the case and without a commitment from the government to greater investment in education and the education workforce existing provision is at risk let alone any ambition for a broader curriculum offer.”
Daniel Kebede, general secretary of the National Education Union, said the curriculum “must change” as it “does not support students to demonstrate all that they’re capable of and the crude league table measures push out the arts and technical subjects.”
But he added: “However, without addressing real terms school funding cuts and tackling the intense workload of staff, which drives our serious teacher recruitment and retention challenge, the changes needed have little chance of materialising.”
Labour has already said it would hold a “full, expert-led review of curriculum and assessment” should they win the next election.
A DfE spokesperson said its knowledge-rich curriculum equips “pupils with the knowledge and skills they need for the future” and that its proposed Advanced British Standard will expand the range of what 16 to 19-year-olds learn.
The committee’s recommendations:
- Review the national curriculum’s ‘status’
- Reduce the overall content load of the secondary school curriculum
- Give pupils the option to take functional literacy and numeracy qualifications at key stage 4 and include this in school performance measures
- Embed oracy and communication skills development opportunities into the curriculum
- Introduce a new GCSE in applied computing
- Explore introducing a basic digital literacy qualification at key stage 4
- Embed climate change and sustainability education in a wider range of subjects
- Explore innovative ways to encourage schools to promote language learning
- Aim to have all pupils studying at least one technical or vocational subject
- Careers education must give equal status to a full-range of post-16 pathways
- Reduce the amount of external assessment and lower the stakes at age 16
- Introduce more non-exam assessments at key stage 4
- Government should move towards more on-screen assessment in GCSE exams
- Abandon the English Baccalaureate (EBacc), including the ambition for 90 per cent of pupils to be taking this subject combination and remove all references to the EBacc from Ofsted’s school inspection handbook
- Refine the progress 8 measure to ensure schools focus on maths, English and science, while enabling them to promote a broader range of subjects