February 2017


  • Time for action
    The crises in funding, recruitment and retention need urgent attention, says Malcolm Trobe. But they can only be resolved if government and the profession tackle them together. More
  • Learning beyond the battlefield
    Thousands of pupils and their teachers have retraced soldiers’ footsteps to the Western Front to mark the centenary of WWI. National Education Coordinator Simon Bendry highlights how schools can sign up for the free programme. More
  • Research insights
    In the third of a regular research insights page, Pippa Lord and Jennie Harland, researchers from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), present key findings that shed light on the emerging role of the executive headteacher. More
  • Primary focus
    Former primary head Dame Reena Keeble says a new review into effective primary teaching practice provides thought-provoking, practical advice to help schools improve their teaching. More
  • Raising the bar
    Research into the impact of the EBacc suggests that it is helping to improve attainment but Pupil Premium students may still be missing out on all of its potential benefits, according to researchers Rebecca Allen and Philip Nye. More
  • Going for gold
    Baroness Sue Campbell explains what lies behind Team GB’s phenomenal achievements at the Rio Olympics and how well-functioning schools have parallels in the turnaround in British sporting success. She talks to Dorothy Lepkowska. More
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Research into the impact of the EBacc suggests that it is helping to improve attainment but Pupil Premium students may still be missing out on all of its potential benefits, according to researchers Rebecca Allen and Philip Nye.

Raising the bar

The English Baccalaureate (EBacc) was introduced by the coalition government to get more young people following an academic programme of study up to age 16. It has five ‘pillars’:

  • English language
  • maths
  • two sciences
  • history or geography
  • a language

Its introduction was not without controversy with concerns expressed about the decision not to include religious education, art and music but it has been reported on from the 2010 performance tables onwards.

In November 2015, as part of a consultation, the government proposed a target of 90% EBacc take-up for mainstream secondaries. The government has yet to publish its final view, but we would question whether the 90% target is practical or desirable given the shortage of language teachers among other factors.

Curriculum change

We looked at the EBacc in detail in a piece of work carried out for the Sutton Trust last year (http://tinyurl.com/j9c5maq), focusing on a group of schools that appeared to have changed their curricula markedly from 2010 to 2013.

We selected this group of 300 ‘curriculum change’ schools by counting the number of EBacc subjects pupils entered up to a maximum of three (in line with the new Progress 8 attainment measure).

For the average student, this number increased by 0.2 entries over the three-year period but we selected the schools that saw EBacc entries increase by at least 0.75 per pupil as our curriculum change schools.

These schools had a greater number of students with low prior attainment than average and a greater proportion of children who qualified for Pupil Premium funding. They were also less likely than average to have a good or outstanding Ofsted rating but were spread across the country with only inner London over-represented.

The pace of curriculum change at these schools was quite dramatic. Overall, EBacc entry rates increased from 8% to 48% between 2010 and 2013. Entry rates for two sciences rose from 43% to 71%, the number taking a language GCSE went from 26% to 57%, while EBacc humanity entry rates rose from 35% to 70%.

We also matched the curriculum change schools to a group of 300 schools with similar demographic characteristics with EBacc entry rates at curriculum change schools leapfrogging those at the comparator schools. Two-science entry rates, for example, went from being 18 percentage points lower in the curriculum change schools in 2010 to 11 percentage points higher in 2013.

What was the impact?

The headline GCSE pass rate (five A*–C GCSEs or equivalent including English and maths) rose from 51% to 60% among pupils at these schools, while EBacc achievement rates went up from 6% to 23%.

Looking at English and maths alone, the average grade at curriculum change schools rose by 0.2 and 0.4 of a grade respectively. The average grade obtained in all EBacc subjects did deteriorate – but when we looked at this, we concluded that it was because more pupils with lower prior attainment were now taking these subjects rather than due to a deterioration in grades achieved by individual students.

Even compared to the matched schools there was an increase in results – the 5+ A*–C pass rate at curriculum change schools improved by 1.2 percentage points relative to this group, while the EBacc achievement rates improved by 11 percentage points more than that at the matched schools.

We also looked at what happened to pupils who had been at curriculum change schools after Key Stage 4 and saw benefits there too. Those at curriculum change schools were 1.7 percentage points more likely than those in the matched schools to be taking an A level or other level 3 qualification after the age of 16 and 1.8 percentage points less likely to have dropped out of education entirely.

Of course, there is not necessarily a causal relationship between the curriculum change and the improvement in results seen at these schools. There may be something driving both things – responding to a poor Ofsted outcome or a change in leadership, for example. But it is possible that curriculum change was the driver. It could be, for instance, that taking one of the humanities gives a pupil with poor writing skills extra opportunity to work on those skills.

Does everyone benefit?

One concern raised by critics of the EBacc is that it forces less academically oriented students to take subjects that they do not have an aptitude for or interest in. But our research found no evidence that this was the case and, in fact, provided evidence that these students could benefit.

There were significant improvements in English and maths grades for those with the lowest prior attainment at the curriculum change schools, in some cases translating into a child achieving five or more good GCSEs including English and maths. There was also some evidence that Pupil Premium pupils within this group were the biggest beneficiaries.

Post-16, it is Pupil Premium students who benefited disproportionately, leading to a small reduction in the Pupil Premium gaps in transition to post-16 education.


Since 2013, there has been increasing emphasis placed on the EBacc and EBacc subjects now have to take up three of the slots in the calculation of a child’s Progress 8 score. So what conclusions can be drawn from our work?

First, while it was not a random sample of schools, the curriculum change schools demonstrate that it is possible to move towards a more EBacc-aligned curriculum without compromising attainment. Results in some EBacc subjects may go down. But our work suggests that this is due to a wider mix of pupils now taking these subjects, rather than individual students doing worse – and results in English and maths could even benefit.

Second, if they have not done so recently, it might be worth leadership teams thinking about the EBacc entry profile they want to achieve, given the attainment of students entering the school.

High attainers may already be taking the EBacc, so it is children with low and middle prior attainment where there could be the greatest scope for an increase. Given the shortage of modern foreign language teachers, however, schools would want to weigh up the pros and cons of keeping languages optional or making them compulsory but potentially having to compromise on teaching quality.

Finally, for the three non-compulsory EBacc pillars – two sciences, history or geography, and a language – there are large gaps in entry rates nationally between Pupil Premium pupils and others, regardless of prior attainment. An overall gap of 8% in language entries between Pupil Premium pupils and others translates into around 11,000 disadvantaged students missing out on learning a language with the 11% gap in humanities translating into 15,000 Pupil Premium pupils missing out on studying either geography or history.

For heads looking for new strategies to raise attainment and improve the life chances of their young people, it might be worth examining the subject choices being made by students in more detail. It could be that there are reasons – whether they are to do with family background, social context or even reasons to do with the school itself that leaders are unaware of – that are leading disadvantaged pupils down a less academic track.

Rebecca Allen is Director and Philip Nye is a Researcher at Education Datalab www.educationdatalab.org.uk @EduDatalab