Nick Gibb is MP for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, and was the Minister of State for School Standards until last week’s Government reshuffle.
Just before the 2010 general election, I visited a school in north London to see children being taught to read. One nine year-old girl was unable to read a single word unaided. Her reading book had words in it such as “Tyrannosaurus” and yet she struggled to read the word “even”. It was clear that she was expected to learn by sight and repetition rather than through decoding words by sounding out the letters. It wasn’t clear to me that she even knew the sounds of the alphabet and yet she was being expected to read this children’s book to the teacher.
It broke my heart to see a child just a couple of years from secondary school so far away from developing even the basic skills of reading – let alone a love of the written word that would sustain her throughout her adult life.
The memory of that young girl stayed fresh in my mind every day during my nearly ten years as an Education minister. It was experiences like this that led us, when we came into office in 2010, to place a greater emphasis on phonics teaching, strengthening its primacy in the National Curriculum.
In 2012 we introduced the Phonics Check for six year-olds to make sure they were on track to becoming fluent readers. This enabled schools to identify and support those children who were falling behind, because the evidence is clear that reading is within the grasp of almost every child.
When the test was introduced, just 58 per cent of six year-olds reached the expected standard. As a result of schools improving the teaching of reading through the adoption of systematic phonics, 82 per cent were at or above the expected standard by 2019 .
In the latest PIRLS international study of the reading ability of 9-year-olds, England had its highest ever score, rising from joint tenth in 2011 to joint eighth place out of 50 countries in 2016. The rise was attributed to improved reading by boys and lower-performing children, and the report acknowledged the close association between children’s Phonics Check results and their performance in PIRLS.
I use the example of phonics because being able to read is of fundamental importance for every child’s education and life chances. But phonics also exemplifies the battles we have waged since 2010 against the ideologically-driven bad practice that has bedevilled the education system since the 1950s.
For the first time, a Conservative Government systematically challenged the so-called “progressive” approach – an ideology which downgraded the importance of knowledge and academic rigour and which argued that children learn better through projects and through self-discovery (‘finding out’ as the Plowden Report termed it in 1960) than by teacher-led teaching. This philosophy decries exams and dismisses the importance of committing knowledge to memory. It is a philosophy which was failing – and in some schools, despite the huge improvements we’ve made, is still failing – generations of children.
So, in 2010, we started the process of revising the curriculum – restoring the centrality of knowledge. With the help of teachers, we re-wrote the Primary Curriculum, with maths based on the highly successful Singapore curriculum, and with English focused on developing fluent and accomplished readers and which emphasised the love and habit of reading.
For secondary schools, we improved the quality of GCSEs and A levels, putting them on a par with qualifications in countries with the highest performing education systems – aware as we were that future generations will be competing with the world’s best educated populations.
And I urge my successors to resist the siren voices of those who call for GCSEs to be abolished. Nothing would widen the attainment gap more than such a dismal and unambitious policy. For a large minority of people, GCSEs are the last academic qualification they will take. Remove them, and that group lose any valid certification of a broad education. GCSEs also serve to define a demanding curriculum and they help hold schools to account. Remove them and weaker schools will grow weaker still.
As we undertook these reforms, I was struck by how often the most articulate and passionate proponents of a knowledge-based curriculum were not always natural Conservatives. In fact, many saw themselves as on the left of politics.
But we were united in our dismay at the number of schools that were simply not providing the quality of education or standards of behaviour that parents expected and which our country needed. These schools were unpopular but, for a want of places elsewhere, were filled by children who, as a consequence, were destined not to live up to their promise – another cause of heartbreak.
With the Government’s focus on driving up standards and despite raising the bar for what qualifies as a good school, over the last 10 years the number of schools judged by Ofsted to be good or outstanding rose from 68 per cent in 2010 to 86 per cent in 2019.
But there is clearly more to do. I worry about the 14 per cent of schools that are still judged as inadequate or needing to improve. Too often, these failing schools are in areas of deprivation, serving communities that more than anywhere else deserve and need the highest quality schools not the worst schools.
My plea to the new team at the Education Department is simple: don’t listen to those who excuse failing standards and who argue that schools in deprived areas cannot succeed. President George W Bush was right to dismiss such arguments as the “soft bigotry of low expectations”. Our ambition must not be limited by such arguments.
Thanks to the huge success of the academies and free schools programme – which unshackled schools from the cloying control of local authority bureaucracies – there are now schools serving the most disadvantaged parts of the country that are delivering a standard of education that rival or exceed the best in the country – state or independent.
Schools like Michaela in Brent with 41 per cent of pupils qualifying for free school meals, Dixons Trinity Academy in Bradford (30 per cent), or Eden Boys School in Birmingham (40 per cent) – but all achieving GCSE progress scores that put them at the very top of the national performance table.
These are schools that take a strong approach to behaviour, that emphasise the importance of a knowledge-rich academic curriculum (at least to the age of 16), and which have very high expectations for their pupils regardless of their background. If these schools can achieve the standards they do in the most disadvantaged parts of the country, then it is clear that poverty never needs to be a reason for poor educational outcomes. What we need is a Michaela or a Dixons Trinity or an Eden Boys in every city and town serving those communities that have been let down for generations.
What these schools also have in common is a high proportion of their pupils being entered for the EBacc combination of core academic GCSEs – English, maths, at least two sciences, a humanity and a foreign language. These are the subjects that more affluent families will expect their children to study because they give young people the greatest opportunities and options for their future. If it’s right for these children, it’s right for all children regardless of their background. That’s why it is so important that the EBacc remains as a key metric by which we hold schools to account.
As we emerge from the Covid pandemic and 18 months of disrupted education, the £3 billion of catch-up funding is crucial. But building and opening new free schools will be just as important in helping ensure that children in the most deprived areas catch-up.
Ultimately, the life chances of children are enhanced by exceptional teaching – and this is especially true for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. It’s why in 2010 I was so keen that our first White Paper should be called The Importance of Teaching.
Over the last 10 years in Government, and the five years prior to that in Opposition, I have visited hundreds of schools throughout England. Wherever I went, despite varying standards, all the teachers I met were conscientious, energetic and committed to their pupils. The huge expansion of the Teach First programme since 2010 has brought new graduates into the profession; many have stayed in teaching and are becoming headteachers.
Teaching is an important and fulfilling vocation. It has the power to change and shape lives. We owe all our teachers a huge debt of gratitude. But they need better support, especially in the first years of their career, so we have set about ensuring their initial training is based firmly on evidence and have set higher expectations of teacher training institutions.
I am delighted that my friend, Nadhim Zahawi, has been appointed to deliver the next phase of our reforms. Much has been achieved since 2010, but there is still much more to do. If I were to give the newly reshuffled team at the DfE one piece of advice it would be this: remember that reform must be a continuous process, the speed can change but momentum must not stop.
If we let up our concentration on standards, on what evidence tells us works; if we stop pushing forward the knowledge-based curriculum or abandon changes to teacher training, the tide will turn. It’s hard work, but the progressive ideology has not gone away. It would be a tragedy for future generations if we gave in and settled for an easier life.