The Ebacc and the failure of Englands education system to enter the 21st century

To ‘reform’ our education system, Michael Gove has introduced his mnemonically stumbling Ebacc, which sounds more like an on-line cigarette vendor.

Perhaps my education also suffered, but I have always thought that the word ‘reform’ held the implication of a change for the better, rather than just a change for changes sake. The Ebac is a return to the exam system last used in 1910, hardly a great leap forward. It also contains elements of the O’Level, a further retrogressive move. Worst of all, in my estimation, it swings the emphasis once again on to exams instead of course work.

Before stating the obvious flaws of the Ebacc we should look at what the education system pretends to be for.

Children are intended to leave school ready for the world of work. There was a time when education also prepared children for life, but this element has withered now into little more than gestures. In the world of employment we must apply for a position, interview, and if successful we then spend many years proving our worth. If we do well promotions will follow.

Part of being a good employee is that we will learn our trade, diversify when needed, develop our skills and constantly improve. Our CV is a statement which demonstrates this continuing improvement, our on-going growth and increase in value.

In the past a large part of being a professional was a thorough knowledge of our field. We might know the names of all our plants, the right chemical mix for our solutions or the diameter of the bore for an overhead cam in any of a hundred models of Ford. The ability to retain knowledge was important.

Today things are different. If I need to know how to wire a plug, I can Google it. It I want to plaster, paint, bake, sew or name that beetle I can Ask Jeeves. I don’t need an encyclopaedic knowledge, just a smart phone, pad or laptop.

But this throws up new problems. I can look up how to play chess, but this doesn’t really equip me to play the game. Can I be sure that the site I find gives me the real rules and sound advice? How do I apply the rules effectively, and how do I know when to apply which rule?


With these thoughts in mind let us return to the flaws in the Ebac.

As part of the Ebacc Mr Gove has decided that we should no longer allow children to have ‘tools’ in exams, such as calculators and reference works.

In the modern world being able to use such tools is essential, as we have seen. An exam which forced children to use reference tools under pressure would actually be really useful. They could have a laptop next to them on the desk, they still have to ensure the Wiki they use is reliable. An exam which bans these tools becomes the only such time a person will ever encounter such a situation – ergo it does not reflect reality.

Employers do not set us tasks and then lock us in rooms to complete them. They do not ask us to compile an annual report using only pen and paper with no access to company details. We will never have to calculate the annual budget but be refused a calculator. We must use all our referencing and research skills to create what is required.

The Ebacc discards course-work and focusses on exams.

While working life may involve ‘exams’, in that deadlines happen and sometimes a rush job comes in, the majority of the time we are performing the same tasks on a regular basis. As we’ve seen, we build a reputation over years, and earn promotions based on our overall performance. This would be best reflected in a system which graded pupils on course-work. A course-work based assessment is the closest reflection of working life.

Exams are a measure of our memory.

Not all of us have great memories, and not many jobs require us to. What we need to do in work is solve problems through the application of knowledge. Now that knowledge, or at least information, is so readily available, what we need are problem solving skills, not a good memory.

Problem solving skills would also help us outside of work. They are transferable from job to job, situation to situation. Knowing that farmers rotate their crops might one day be useful if you become a farmer, although probably not. Learning patterns in peoples or systems behaviour, solving logic problems and puzzles will be useful in any situation where a solution is required.

Rather than memorising all our kings and queens, who can be found on a thousand web-pages anyway (and who honestly cares), we might equip children with the skills to find the web-pages. Kings and queens are nothing to do with most of us – they are generally over-monied, selfish, tyrannical and ignorant people whose lives were utterly outside of the regular persons experience. It would be more useful for the majority to learn household skills, rather than memorising the names of which undeserving rich have fed off the poor over the centuries.

Genuinely useful skills would include:

Rhetoric – especially today when politicians use clever words to make us believe they have any idea, or even care, about how to solve societies problems. We need to be able to see through bullshit.

Logic – not necessarily the obscure Philosophical logic of letters, numbers and bewilderment, but an ability to see a problem, take it apart and find a solution.

English – because of course we need to speak and write.

Maths – enough to ensure we can buy things, measure for a carpet and other useful skills.

Languages – every child should leave school bi-lingual in this age of connectivity.

Computing – they are everywhere in every job.

Art – without music, film, theatre and creative arts life is empty. We can’t just work and then die.

Life skills – we need to know how to wire a plug, have safe sex, manage our relationships, fill in job applications and so much more.

Then children can choose to go further in maths, to study history if it grabs them, or biology, physics, religion and so on.

The important point is that the subjects are more limited, but their application is vastly wider. With fewer subjects pupils can be better at them. A focus on course-work offers people with poor memories, those better suited to using their hands and artists a chance to find their skill range and show it.


The Ebacc is a step which refuses to acknowledge that the world has changed. We don’t need to produce people with great memories, we need to equip people to cope with what the world is becoming, not what is was.

I believe that one of the reasons so many leave school without qualifications, or with such poor English and maths, is because they can’t see the relevance. School has no relationship to the world, it doesn’t look like what children see in the world, so seems unnecessary – just hard work.

The people I work with have more or less stated as much. They never saw what school had to do with their lives. To some extent school will always be work, anything worthwhile is, but children will work harder if they see the point. To instil passion in children for their education that education has to fit their lives, to enable their aims and facilitate their futures, not just enable Governments to set and evaluate targets.

While we can’t throw the baby out with the bath water, we learn from our history of mistakes after all, we cannot ignore that different skills are required now. It is madness to have a world in which computers and smart-phones are everywhere and yet refuse to allow them in exams. We shouldn’t fight these new tools but incorporate them, and make education about developing the new abilities required for children to use them effectively.


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