"Gaming" the system consists of aiming to get as many children as possible five GCSEs, and, frankly, some schools will do it by any means necessary in order to climb the league tables. The geography or history GCSE is harder than the travel and tourism Btec, yet geography and history are only worth one GCSE, whereas the travel and tourism Btec is worth two GCSEs. A head teacher who "games" the system will have his humanities teachers teach travel and tourism and will abandon the more traditional geography and history in order to stand a better chance of more of his pupils getting more GSCEs. He may not offer languages at GCSE level at all since they're too difficult. In fact, he may force all of his pupils to take GCSE PE because he knows most of the boys will pass it. Some subjects are easier than others. We all know it although we don't want to admit it. If any GCSE will get the head his crucial five, he'll do whatever he has to, sacrifice any number of open doors for his pupils, to ensure his school makes the grade.
This "gaming" is done under the guise of giving a child "choice". Tell a 14-year-old that he can do a "fun" subject that will give him either two or four GCSEs, or do a "difficult" one that will only give him one, and you can be sure which option he'll choose. Some children, most likely the middle-class ones, will feel pressure from their parents, who will insist on physics and French. But parents who don't understand the school system, those who are working around the clock, will presume that the school is only offering their child what is good for him. The idea that the school might feel pressure to climb league tables and may sacrifice what is best for their child would never occur to these parents.
The "gaming" situation is so bad that when asked, some academies actually refused to disclose what subjects they were teaching their children. In 2004, 15,000 vocational qualifications were taken. By 2010, this number had increased 39 times to 575,000. Why? Because in 2004, Labour made vocational qualifications "equivalent" to GCSEs. In fact, Btecs were often worth more than GCSEs. And those children and parents who didn't know any better signed up for them in droves. We have spent the last decade equipping our most vulnerable young people with qualifications that, like subprime mortgages, would prove absolutely worthless in the end.
This is the beauty of the EBac. Like a good parent who restricts a young child's moral choices to teach him right from wrong, the EBac guides the teenager towards subjects that will enlighten his life in the future. It strongly encourages schools to restrict children's choices so that they will get a good grounding in basic academic subjects. Remember that children choose their GCSEs — choices that will affect the rest of their lives — at age 14. They are not meant to do this alone. They need guidance.
The EBac makes explicit the subjects that are valued by universities. This is crucial for those families who don't know what universities and employers are looking for. Because the EBac comprises only five subjects, it leaves the child with five (or more) other options. These subjects are not arbitrary. English, maths and science were already compulsory. In fact, a language at GCSE was compulsory in our schools until 2004, when it was made optional essentially because the government was struggling to find enough language teachers. Indeed, history is compulsory to age 16 in every European country apart from Iceland and the UK.
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