EBacc is a throwback. It has been compared to O level, but its lineage is older. Its closer cousins are O level’s pre-1951 predecessors, the School Certificate and Matriculation. Unlike O levels, the School Certificate required passes in a range of subjects – drawn from the broad areas of English studies, languages, and mathematics/science. For Matriculation, which was a condition of university entrance, a higher level of pass was necessary across a range of School Certificate subjects, including Latin. My own School Certificate plus Matric, awarded in 1949, was based on good marks in English Language, English Literature, Mathematics, History, Geography, Latin, French and German. The absence of science apart, this was EBacc before its time.
The latter’s ancestry goes back to 1838, when London University set its first Matriculation exam. The 1858 revised regulations show an amazing similarity to EBacc’s. As we know, this requires good passes at GCSE (or whatever exam replaces it) in English, mathematics, history or geography, two sciences and an ancient or modern foreign language. The 1858 Matriculation requirements were almost identical, except that both history and geography were compulsory.
The original rationale for the London Matriculation exam was simple. London University (later UCL) was founded in 1826 as a radical alternative to Oxford and Cambridge, providing an intensive, general, four-year, lecture-based course covering nearly every branch of academic knowledge. The authorities had to ensure that acceptable candidates for the University and its affiliates came well-equipped in the rudiments of Latin, Greek, mathematics, natural philosophy and other subjects that they would be studying as undergraduates.
So EBacc’s ancestor had a well-founded rationale. Can the same be said of EBacc itself? I have not come across any. Michael Gove is keen on “a properly rounded academic education” as the basis for becoming author of one’s own life story. But that is a poor argument. The end may well be excellent, but the means are wanting. One needs all sorts of equipment for the autonomous life – personal qualities and practical skills, as well as forms of understanding that go far broader than a traditional academic diet. Why then single out just the latter?
In their recommendations for a framework for a new national curriculum, Gove’s Expert Panel came up with EBacc-favourable recommendations, which I have criticised before. Using the flakiest of epistemological arguments, it demoted Citizenship and Design and Technology as curriculum subjects, and shored up EBacc staples like history, geography and MFL. (Many of its best recommendations were rejected by ministers).
These are the only two arguments for the EBacc curriculum that I know – and pretty feeble they are, too. Have I missed anything?
In this piece, I haven’t tangled with wider objections to EBacc – that we don’t need an exam at 16, for instance, or that it is socially divisive. My focus has been only on its curriculum content.