You don't have to be a policy wonk to know that policy can go wonky. Nor do you have to be a philosopher to know that good intentions can have bad consequences. The House of Commons Select Committee on Education feels that Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, has hit the wonky button with the introduction of the English Baccalaureate to secondary schools in England, and have called upon him to 'think again' about the speed and direction of change. (There is a rather delicious oddness of watching the English reach for a Napoleonic system of education to rear their young. Some victories just take more time than others.)
To achieve the inelegantly-named EBacc, pupils must score at least a C grade in English, maths, science, a foreign language and either history or geography, and this has led to fears of downgrading other subjects or setting difficult hurdles for disadvantaged kids. It is easy to caricature Gove as an owlish, Oxford educated and old-fashioned politician in his seeming insistence that an A* in Drama or RE is 'worse' than a C in an EBacc subject. But he is, in part, trying to solve a thorny problem - the advancement of children from less advantaged backgrounds into research-intensive universities. Fewer than one in twenty-five children queuing for free school meals achieved the EBacc equivalent. And that matters, because those are the 'facilitating' subjects (i.e. the ones you need to take) to get into a Russell Group university. And that matters because class shouldn't.
The debate is throwing into sharp relief different visions of a problem Gove should be trying to solve - namely, how to equip the English workforce for a modern economy, and therefore what a 'core' education should look like. As Sir James Dyson trenchantly notes: "for some reason Britons look down their noses at people who make things. They push intelligent people into the professions and into the media. Making things, however, should be an intelligent activity."
The Council for Industry and Higher Education (CIHE) has already campaigned alongside the British Computer Society for a more academically rigorous computing GCSE that can stand alongside, say, geography in terms of the quality of reflective thought and theoretical understanding, but which has the added benefit of helping equip pupils for a networked age.
And now a similar problem is appearing with Design and Technology in schools. The CIHE has spent the past eighteen months working with universities and manufacturing and engineering businesses on the kind of talent needed for a modern economy, and there is an unnerving sense that the EBacc will undermine the gains of the past twenty years in helping to create the right talent pool. In a recent survey of more than 2,400 teachers, conducted by the NASUWT teaching union, 17% had seen a reduction in D&T teaching and the full impact of the reforms has yet to be felt. This is not good for the country.
There is a way to square this circle. First, D&T in schools should achieve that academic rigor of history or French, two, the EBacc curriculum should be forward-looking and ensure England is ready to take on Germany, let alone China, in developing a modern IT and design-centred economy, three, in a transitional period schools should be strongly guided towards computing, design and technology as preferred subjects alongside the EBacc, after all the French have their technical baccalaureate. Vive Napoleon.