Reaction to EBCs: Why I’m not jumping for joy

New Model Exams

Even if we leave aside the absurdity of politicians designing our examination system with virtually no input from the teaching profession and then letting the details come out as little more than propaganda in the Daily Mail, the re-configured announcement/leak regarding O Levels (now EBCs) is frustrating on many levels.  However, it is worth exploring what it might achieve and what the problems would be before getting too worked up:

The general concept of introducing a new system:  This is reasonable; the current system of GCSEs has taken a hiding, not least following the failures of the system this year to deliver fair, credible GCSE results in English.  Within a general climate where the rhetoric of dumbing down holds sway, accepting a total system re-set, with newly defined outcomes known well in advance seems sensible.  We can’t keep on tinkering with what we’ve got.

Making papers more challenging:  Again this is reasonable.  For the most able students A* at GCSE is a limit on their attainment and some of the question styles in some exams are limiting at the top-end.   Raising the ceiling on the overall system, if there has to be a ceiling, is a good idea.  Too many variants, iGCSEs etc, have come into play to provide challenge and this shouldn’t be necessary.

Retaining a grade scale that has space for all students, thereby making it an inclusive system:  In theory, this is reasonable.  Everyone could take the same exams and the grades would cover all abilities.  With the highest grade representing very significant achievement, it could be genuinely aspirational; with only one ‘fail grade’, most students would pass.  Sounds fair.

Removing modularisation, coursework and controlled assessment.  This is another positive feature.  The key benefit at my school of starting iGCSEs in some subjects has been that we can devote maximum time to teaching and learning and the minimum time to revision, exam preparation and the deeply uninspiring song and dance of controlled assessment.  Students are generally over-examined and the continuing demands of exam preparation actually inhibit real learning.

So, all good?!  Why am I not jumping for joy?

1. Norm-referencing:  The language from the Coalition is laced with a celebration of norm-referencing.  This is either because they cannot conceive of the technical process by which standards in education can be measured in an absolute, criterion-referenced way or because it is abhorrent to them that standards are there for every child to aim at, rather than serving the sieving function that they’d prefer.   If we are to have a full-on norm-referenced system, that should be explicit.  This should then mean an end to floor targets and the loss of any possibility of measuring improvement in standards over time.  However it means we also lose all sense of any absolute standards because all that matters is rank order in the population. The assumption that average attainment is constant in the population basically adds up to saying schools are a waste of time.

2. It is hard to believe that the Grade 1-7 system would provide a measure of ‘success’ for the majority of students.  Although in theory, any grading system could be viewed as a series of success measures, within a couple of years it would soon become known that say grades 1-4 are the true measure, with the other grades being ‘below standard’.  As soon as the performance tables with %5 grades 4 and above come out, we’d be back where we are now.

3. The single exam concept assumes that students of all abilities can be assessed in similar ways. Apart from the flawed notion that anything worth learning can be assessed in an exam it opens the door to the prospect of students trying to kill hours of time because they’ve answered all the questions they can do.  Extended three hour papers suggest lots of extended answers which marking systems will be able to cope with and deliver consistent assessments – they won’t.   The ‘back to the 50s’ style of exam will be more subjective than ever.  If the single exam board is based on the one I am thinking of, we’re in trouble!

In any case, without a tiered exam paper structure or, as I have argued elsewhere, an incremental series of ‘when-ready’ pass-grade tests, the one-off final test for all is massively problematic. The hint at a CSE-style exam to follow the O Levels if necessary is far removed from building a coherent assessment framework that all people are part of from the beginning.

4. My biggest objection to the changes is that they are accompanied by claims that a new system will raise standards.  This is delusional.  Designing new exams is all about how you weigh a pig and not about how you fatten it….. the energy it will suck out of teachers will be significant but it won’t improve teaching and learning, pedagogy etc.  All the continuing hoop-jumping and goal-post shifting will shackle the pedagogical transformation that we need to really raise standards.

5. Another objection is that there appears to have been no thought about the overarching structure of assessment; there is no attempt to create a framework that values a broad range of components and pulls them together.  A collection of O levels doesn’t add up to a measure of a rounded education, especially for less able students.  The issues around valuing non-academic learning, around giving value to the volume and breadth of a students’ programme and the need for an interlocking 14-19 curriculum are just ignored for a quick fix.  This could be the opportunity to launch an exciting universal post-18 Secondary School Baccalaureate encompassing a range of core subjects, optional subjects, pathways at Levels 1,2 and 3 and one-off extended projects that give students space to explore their passions.  There appears to be no imagination in the DFE….stuck in a groove with blinkers on.


First of all there is the official consultation on this:

Then there is the parallel HeadsRoundtable Consultation

There is also an opportunity to look at other models.  I have drafted an idea of my own here: EBacc for All, Excellence for All and there is also the ModBac concept.  We are talking to each other to see what we have in common.  There will be a full exploration of alternatives through the SSAT Redesigning Schooling symposia.

An Alternative EBacc Framework

Ultimately, although superficially plausible, the EBC proposal is just like one of the classic Not the Nine O’clock News jokes:  The newsreader informs viewers that following the announcement that the nuclear re-processing plant Windscale will become Sellafield, ‘radiation’ is now set to become known as ‘magic moon beams’.

Same thing, new name.


  1. Great summary of the current situation. coming from New Zealand, where the old norm-referenced terminal examinations have long-since been replaced by a standards-based, rigorous, system of assessment where once students meet standards in a variety of subjects they are awarded a Level one, two or three pass with credit, merit or excellence, I despair of this retrograde step.

    In New Zealand students are assessed against a standard when they are ready. Most of the tasks are developed by the schools and arise from the context of the unique learning programme (ie, schools devise their own assessment programmes which are then moderated nationally against the standards).

    But this can only happen in an environment where teachers’ professionalism is trusted and where there is a strongly embedded curriculum to support the learning (as opposed to a default syllabus derived from the narrow terms of a terminal exam). Mind you, the NZ curriculum spends more pages on pedagogy and the developing of competences than it does on prescribing what knowledge everyone should rote learn. It would never take off here!

    Should I mention New Zealand’s high rankings in the PISA tables and how much less they spend per student on education?

    It makes me wonder what the REAL agenda of the bureaucrats and politicians who make these decisions actually is!

    Thanks again for a well thought-through commentary.


  2. What is being discussed is Education in England not UK. Scotland have their own system recently changed to Curriculum for Excellence.


  3. […] Sheep and pigs In admist the swirl of edu-political vitriol, of #GCSEfiasco and the English Baccalaureate Certificates, times there are a changing. Module resits, coursework and controlled assessments are all leaving the gathering, just as the quarterback jock has just arrived. The terminal exam. And still, if you look hard enough, listen closely enough you will find or hear useful tip bits. Passing comments that help other colleagues think about how they work. Assessment is all about how you weigh a pig and not about how you fatten it. – Adapted from the @headteacherguru post. […]


  4. Whilst you may be correct, was there much in the way of additional obstacles to education created by the ebc beyond that which was created by the NC and Ofsted frameworks in the first place.
    Please note I said frameworks rather than the concept of accountability which Ofsted is supposed to embody.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s