When reflecting on twelve Tory years in power, I imagine many ConHome readers ask themselves the same question: why has our country not seemed to have become any more conservative? Our institutions remain in hock to the six degrees of Shami Chakrabarti; our police force are more interested in pronouns than catching criminals. The ideal of a nation of property-owning, 2.4 children-having, contented Tory democrats seems further away than ever. What have we to show for our time in office?
The collective failure to push the political agenda in our direction has many authors. There are two that leap out as most obvious: our failure to properly challenge the ‘Blob’ – the network of quango-dom and bureaucracy past which Tory policy so often fails to reach – and the political chaos of the last six years.
For all their faults, at least the Cameroons and their fellow travellers used their time in opposition and government to prepare and enact a reform agenda. But all that was all blown off course by Brexit. In achieving it – and I was a supporter, naturally – the political bandwidth has been occupied, and forces of disorder have been unleashed, via Covid, parties, and Trussonomics, that have culminated in a year of three Prime Ministers, and where policy achievements have long since been overshadowed by personalities,
With all this in mind, it seems to right to celebrate one of the few under-reported instances where a Conservative minister has been able to take the fight to progressivism and win. That man is Nick Gibb – the ‘once and future Schools Minister’, as our former Executive Editor once put it.
One Gibb-supporter told me yesterday that the MP for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton must be one of the most well-sung unsung heroes in recent memory. Nonetheless, his achievements are so substantial that, after a year in which we have so often lamented the apparent inability of Tory governments to get anything right, giving them another airing can do no harm.
Gibb has been the Minister of State for Schools since October 26nd this year, but it is a role with which he has long become familiar. After shadowing the post from 2005 to 2010, he served in the role from 2010 to 2012 and then 2015 to 2021, with a year in the similar role of Minister of State for Childcare, Education, and School Reform in between. In that time, he has visited over 1000 schools, and helped transform the lives of a generation of children.
In a recent interview with TES (and an article for us last year) Gibb laid out what had driven his passion for improving schools. Time and again he would find himself meeting children in his constituency who could not read. Children as old as nine – two years off secondary school – who struggled with the word “even”.
He saw a culture amongst educators that, consciously or not, not only pushed failed methods, but that embedded Bush Jr’s “bigotry of low expectations”. Of course they can’t read – they’re from a council estate. Of course they can’t read – nobody reads at home. What a shame, but what can we do about it?
Gibb was so appalled by this suggestion that he sought out and identified what he believed to be the problem: “a dogmatic romanticism that prevented the spread of evidence-based teaching practices”. This was the progressive mantra, embedded in Britain’s education system since at least the 1960s, of a child-led focus on skills, that prized an ideologically-driven hatred of formal instruction above the methods – habitually traditional – that had long been proven best for actually teaching a child.
So Gibb – inspired primarily by E. D. Hirsch, the author of The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them – sought to right this wrong. Central to this were his efforts to require schools to use phonics to teach children to read. This centred on the Phonics Screening Check for six-year olds. They would be required to read out a list of 40 words to their teacher. In 2012 (the test’s first year) only 58 per cent reached the pass mark of 32 out of 40.
But Gibb’s reforms paid off enormously: 82 per cent were at or above the expected standard by 2019. That is quite simply more than 100,000 more children a year able to reach the necessary level of reading ability than there would have been under Labour. That is hundreds of thousands of children a step closer to getting a degree, cultivating a love of literature, or being able to pursue a career they would not otherwise have found possible. Whatever wing of the Tory party you find yourself on, that is surely Conservatism at its finest.
It is an achievement to match the leap of quality involved in 68 per cent of schools being rated good or outstanding by Ofsted in 2010 rising to 86 per cent in 2019, and where schools like Eden Boys School in Birmingham or Michaela in Brent get results amongst the best in the country. That was a direct result of Gove and Gibb’s extension of the academies program, revision of the curriculum, and rigorous focus on evidence, knowledge, and quality for every child.
What lessons can be drawn from Gibb’s success, as we consider the twilight (perhaps) of one period in government and the looming prospect of opposition? The first is obvious: the need for a clear strategy and agenda. Gibb threw himself into his rule in opposition and government by building up a detailed knowledge of the subject that was respected by both his supporters and his opponents. He knew his brief; perhaps not something that can be said as regularly today of a department that has seen five Secretaries of State in just over a year.
Secondly, time and persistence. Compared to most mayfly ministers, Gibb has had around a decade to plug away at a particular issue from a particular position. Naturally a hard-working and determined personality, his unwavering focus allowed him to wear down civil service opposition and push reform through. This was not a policy designed to fill 24 hours of headlines, but to change the status quo quietly and permanently.
Finally, Gibb identified his target, and what had to be done. So often, Tory MPs and ministers appear clueless as to why they cannot get the government bureaucracy to work. They find themselves, like Canute at the waves, overwhelmed by a progressive mindset they could not resist or control. By contrast, Gibb knew his opponents in the teaching establishment, and worked to overturn them. The blob hated empowering individual teachers, as it knew they might choose to do things differently. Gibb was not afraid to do things differently, as he knew he had the right ideas to transform children’s lives.
And so the time we look gloomily into the bottom of our empty pint glasses and mutter about twelve wasted years, just remember Nick Gibb. The vast majority of those children he helped will never know his name or read an article like this hailing his successes. But thanks to his tireless and essential efforts, they could.