What Does the English Baccalaureate mean for me?

Briefing Pack

By Melanie Jones, published 4th May 2011

A short guide to History and the English Baccalaureate

History constitutes a key player in the new English Baccalaureate, being one of the two choices that students may opt for in the Humanities section. The English Baccalaureate is a measure of pupil progress consisting of 5 core subjects that will be reported in league tables. Students who successfully achieve  grades A*-C grades in all of these  subjects are judged to have achieved  the English Baccalaureate and may  receive a certificate. The key subjects are English, maths, science, a modern or ancient foreign language and either history or geography.

In many ways, it is very early to be measuring the impact of the English Baccalaureate. However, some early conclusions can be drawn and issues raised concerning what it will mean in practice. 


1.)The Purpose and benefits of the English Baccalaureate and its value as a measure of pupil and school performance.

The first thing to note about the English Baccalaureate is that it gives history a place as a core subject enabling far greater numbers of students to gain access to the study of history post-14.  This renewed status for history will give teachers the opportunity to spread passion for history and enthuse a whole new generation of students. History gives students the fundamental knowledge of the forces that have shaped the society in which they live, and equips them to make informed decisions about the future. The English Baccalaureate also brings implications in terms of the status of history at Key Stage 3, in that in order to raise standards and uptake at Key Stage 4 pupils will need to have a substantial and high quality Key Stage 3 experience of history.

By nature, the English Baccalaureate is an academic qualification.  Whilst academic rigour is important and the assumption should not be made that students with additional educational needs will not be able to access academic subjects such as history; the problem arises that not every child fits this academic mould. As history teachers, I am sure we all support the right of every child to access history up until the age of 16, but if the English Baccalaureate is to stay, then the process of assessment in history will need to adapt if we are to avoid this qualification becoming a divisive mechanism. If the English Baccalaureate is to be an effective measure of pupil progress then attention will need to be paid to meaningful level 1 qualifications in subjects such as history; we have to remember that the average grade at GCSE in this country is a grade D. The history pilot GCSE currently run by OCR offers a potential model of assessment that grows naturally out of classroom teaching and learning and whilst maintaining academic rigour, appeals to several different types of learner. However, even within the pilot, there are still issues regarding accessibility of level 1 qualifications for all students. This is an issue that will need to be addressed in order to make the English Baccalaureate a highly effective qualification for all. 

Secondly, there is anecdotal evidence emerging of  a two-tier system is developing in schools: those that have always adopted a traditional curriculum on one side, following the Baccalaureate; and those that have opted for more vocational pathways on the other, choosing to ignore it. Of course, this is where the possibility of a divisive system becomes a real threat. There is also evidence to suggest that some schools are planning to adapt to the requirements of the English Baccalaureate in some weird and wonderful ways - the HA discussion forum gives a taste of some of these![1] Similarly, there is evidence to suggest a socio-economic link to this trend, with schools in more affluent circumstances offering a greater amount of history to pupils.[2] This could result in a lack of mobility for those pupils in schools where the English Baccalaureate is not aspired to, thus perpetuating current inequalities. The English Baccalaureate needs to cut through this trend rather than perpetuate it.  It is interesting to note that in 2008 only 17.9% of pupils who received free school meals entered for a history GCSE, and this number is falling.[3] Therefore much rests on to what extent the latter tier of schools will be allowed to ignore the English Baccalaureate and to what extent school inspection and performance will rely upon it.  If the current situation remains and schools are able to ignore the Baccalaureate, then there will probably be little change in terms of GCSE take-up (currently around 30 %.) If the Baccalaureate becomes an essential tool for the inspection of schools and a measure of school performance, then clearly,  the government has a great deal of work to do, not only in terms of reforming the GCSE qualifications, but also at Key Stage 3. The Historical Association surveys of 2009 and 2010[4] revealed worrying trends concerning time allocation and specialist teaching of history at Key Stage 3. Our surveys pointed to a lack of time allocation for history at Key Stage 3 with 48% of academies reporting that they spent an hour per week or less on history and with 35% of academies and 20% of comprehensives and grammars reporting a decrease in teaching time. The survey also picked up a correlation between GCSE uptake and time allocation at GCSE with findings that schools that gave over 1 hour per week, or were increasing teaching time, were far more likely to see raised GCSE numbers as a result and that those with a decreased teaching time or options for year 9, were more likely to see a decrease in uptake. The English Baccalaureate means that there will be a definite need for increased time allocation at Key Stage 3. This is therefore your time to argue your case with senior leadership teams for history to be on the map in your school.


2.)The Choice of Subjects Included in the English Baccalaureate.

Taken as a whole, the subjects of the English Baccalaureate can provide an excellent provision for students wishing to go on to further study and well paid employment. The Russell Group makes this very clear in its list of facilitating subjects. [5] It is also interesting to note that the recently published Wolf Report[6] appears to recommend a steer to a broad academic programme of study for students up to the age of 16, moving away from vocational pathways at this age. The English Baccalaureate will go a long way towards providing this. History is a rigorous, academic, challenging and relevant subject that is ideally placed to prepare students for adult life and work. The qualification will prevent specialism too early and narrow vocational pathways that restrict options for students later on.

One thing that still needs to be made clear is the rationale for the inclusion of subjects such as history in the English Baccalaureate. Firstly it was named as Humanities and Arts and history was named for inclusion alongside other subjects such as art. However, this has changed and now only Humanities are included; a clear idea of the rationale behind the choice of subjects in this section is needed to inform teachers, pupils and parents.

The rationale behind the inclusion of ancient history and yet the omission of classical civilisation also appears unclear. Classical civilisation is also an historical subject and worthy of inclusion. It is  having something of a come-back in schools and a subject that was the preserve of grammar and independent schools for many years can now be found taught in many different types of schools.  4,463 pupils took AQA or OCR classical civilisation in 2010.


3.)The Implications of the English Baccalaureate for Pupils, Schools and Employers.

The English Baccalaureate will mean that fewer students are able to give up history before the age of 16. It may also mean that history will no longer face being actively barred as an option choice to some pupils as is currently the case in some English schools.[7] It will also mean that the current 269 schools who failed last year to enter any students for GCSE[8], effectively not offering that option, will need to change if they are to give in to league table pressures. There will also be a rise in the number of students opting for history at GCSE from the current c.30%. This is interesting because whilst 70% of students expressed enjoyment of history at Key Stage 3, the up-take at GCSE does not meet this.[9] Potential explanations for this concern a perception that history is too difficult and inaccessible, which, with the right assessment models need not be the case. Another possibility is that school option pathways that pay high regard to possible league table positions are actively barring students from opting for history. The English Baccalaureate will have potentially a great impact upon history and mean that take-up for the subject could meet the 70% enjoyment levels reported at Key Stage 3. How schools will cope with this is an altogether different matter. What clearly needs to be avoided is the possibility of schools introducing pathways to the English Baccalaureate that prove detrimental to students in terms of enjoyment and study.

Implications for schools ought to be minimal as schools should be making curriculum decisions on the basis of need rather than league table position, however, if the English Baccalaureate becomes enforced and certified, then it changes into more of a gold standard that employers and higher education will be looking for, and would therefore have a much greater impact on a pupils' future. This possibility creates a whole different set of issues. It could mean that the English Baccalaureate could act as a qualification to stay on for 6th form study, which in turn would also have a knock on effect in terms of university applications and potentially be limiting and divisive. If the C grade is the possible qualifying factor, then this too could actually mean that students are steered away from the subject if they are unlikely to reach this grade. If the English Baccalaureate becomes a gold standard for entry into 6th form, will this stop pupils from studying history? What happens to the pupil who achieved a decent grade in GCSE history but failed to achieve the E-Bacc through failure to achieve a C in any of the other subjects?

There is also the possibility that 6th forms and universities will use the English Baccalaureate as qualifying criterion even if it remains unenforced. Therefore a kind of lottery may begin to exist whereby some schools choose to offer it, and others don't. If a child happens to attend a school that does not offer it, then where does this leave that child, especially if they were interested in studying one of the baccalaureate subjects such as history at higher level in later years?

The final point to make is that whilst the English Baccalaureate throws up a great many issues and concerns and problems in terms of delivery, the fact remains that through the English Baccalaureate, history departments have never been in a stronger position to argue and support the case for history in their schools. Rightly or wrongly schools are results driven. When history results begin to matter in terms of a measure of school and pupil performance, that is when leadership will begin to take greater notice of the needs of history in their school.

Current Updates:

Nick Gibb recently answered questions on the English Baccalaureate, stressing that it was a tool to be used as a performance indicator and would not act as a measure of accountability. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-13207055

Look out for further updates to this document as the story unfolds...




[1] http://www.history.org.uk/forum/forum_3_118.html

[2] Historical Association Survey of Secondary Schools 2010 http://www.history.org.uk/news/news_869.html

[3] Source: Hansard

[4] The Historical Association survey of secondary schools 2009 and 2010.



[5] The Russell Group, Informed Choices

[6] The Wolf Report on vocational education

[7] Historical Association Survey of Secondary Schools 2010

[8] Source: Hansard

[9] Historical Association Survey of Secondary Schools 2009 http://www.history.org.uk/news/news_415.html


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