So, what is the English Baccalaureate?
In most European countries school students are expected to pursue a broad and rounded range of academic subjects until the age of 16. Even in those countries such as the Netherlands where students divide between academic and vocational routes all young people are expected, whatever their ultimate destiny, to study a wide range of traditional subjects. So we will introduce a new award – the English Baccalaureate – for any student who secures good GCSE or iGCSE passes in English, mathematics, the sciences, a modern or ancient foreign language and a humanity such as history or geography. This combination of GCSEs at grades A*-C will entitle the student to a certificate recording their achievement. At the moment only around 15 per cent of students secure this basic suite of academic qualifications and fewer than four per cent of students eligible for free school meals do so57. So to encourage the take-up of this combination of subjects we will give special recognition in performance tables to those schools which are helping their pupils to attain this breadth of study.
Which is all very laudable. But part of the problem with GCSEs—and, indeed, all exams in this country—is that the standards have become deliberately debased for short-term political gain.
Thus, not only have schools pushed their pupils towards easier subjects but the means of passing any subject has become far easier: exams focus on "soft" questions of opinion rather than enunciation of facts; papers concentrate on empathy rather than deduction.
The results is that schools teach to the test, not in order to educate their pupils—after all, their funding depends on the number of passes, not whether the children leaving those schools are actually have the knowledge to thrive at university or to get a job or even to understand the subject that they have spent 11 years learning.
Even on the simplest measure of literacy, Britain has dropped from 6th in the world in 2000, to 26th in 2003 (although the headline rate of literacy remained the same). We also have only 19.1% of adults on a high literacy level, whilst 50.4% are considered to have low literacy.
The challenge for the government, then, is not to ensure that more schools get more "passes", because such scores are fundamentally meaningless: the aim is to ensure that children are educated to the highest possible standard. And one way of doing this is to ensure that the exams test practical ability and are not debased in order to massage a creaky government's education statistics.
And this is why the English Baccalaureate is so misnamed, its title evincing the International Baccalaureate. Because the whole point of the International Baccalaureate is that it is international—an international, non-govermental organisation.
As such, it is not subject to the political whims of politicians and that is why it is recognised—internationally—as a good educational standard of attainment.
The English Baccalaureate—despite the misleading name—is nothing of the sort. It is, essentially, a diploma based on a few compulsory GCSEs: it does not actually raise the level of attainment for any particular subject, it merely ensures that pupils take subjects that the government of the time happens to favour.
If you want to introduce a rigorous, broad and internationally-recognised diploma, then why not adopt the International Baccalaureate?
If, on the other hand, you have particular prejudices about which subjects should be taught in schools but want to keep the actual standards in those subjects so low that you won't be hideously shamed by the piss-poor state of education in your country's schools, then why not make up your own shit and hook its name to that of a rather more credible institution?
As should be obvious, the English Baccalaureate is the latter and is—not to put too fine a point on it—a pointless fucking waste of everybody's time.
In the meantime, another generation of children are completely failed by politicians, teachers, unions and parents. But who gives a shit, eh—as long as those "passes" keep rolling in, who cares?
Whilst the kids might be absolutely incapable of grasping basic mathematics, the educational and political establishments are more than capable of understanding that the children are most valuable as exam statistics breathlessly regurgitated in positive headlines by a docile media...