Education is one of the Conservatives’ big success stories of the last 13 years. Nick Gibb, Schools Minister, tells the story of how, in opposition, he and his colleagues concluded that progressive teaching methods led to failing schools, and worked out what to do about it.
Gibb, who has had an astonishing three separate stints as Schools Minister, amounting to over ten years in all (from May 2010 to September 2012, July 2014 to September 2021, and October 2022 to the present), was an early champion of phonics, which have enabled English schoolchildren (but not unfortunately those in Scotland and Wales) so markedly to improve their reading performance by comparison with other nations.
The Schools Minister detected the absurdity of the maths teaching methods introduced under Labour, and got these scrapped, but freely concedes that the disastrous collapse in the teaching of foreign languages which occurred when these were made voluntary has yet to be reversed.
At the end of the interview, Gibb warns that the Conservatives have got to work out what to do about inequality, demonstrated by FTSE chief executives earning 100 to 130 times the average salary, a disparity so excessive that it is undermining faith in capitalism and free markets, especially among the young.
ConHome: “Is it fair to say that education has been the big success story of the last 13 years?”
Gibb: “I think it’s been one of the success stories. I don’t think you should underestimate what David Cameron and George Osborne achieved in the 2010-2015 Government.
“That was crucial, bringing down the deficit after the banking crash, £156 billion deficit a year, 11 per cent of GDP. I f we hadn’t brought that down, which we did, with a lot of pain, we wouldn’t have been in a strong position to have borrowed the furlough money for Covid and so on.
“But I do think in terms of domestic non-economic policy, Michael Gove and to some extent me, I think our policies have achieved a great deal.
“We spent five years preparing for government, 2005-10, and Michael came in in ’07-10, and I think it was that preparation and then the delivery, Michael’s drive, that I think helped to achieve the things we have achieved.”
ConHome: “What would you cite as the high point other than phonics?”
Gibb: “I think that what Michael and I discovered in opposition – and during the opposition years I had visited quite a few hundred schools, now I’ve visited probably over a thousand – and what I discovered in my visits is that the degree to which a school was progressive – to be defined – was the degree to which its results would be underperforming.
“And I could almost tell within a few minutes of talking to a head teacher what the results would be, just based on the philosophy of the head teacher and the school.
“So once you’ve come to the view that there’s a particular approach to education – so for example a competence-based curriculum, or a whole-language approach to teaching reading, or a progressive way of teaching maths, or downgrading the importance of academic subjects in secondary school – once you’ve come to the conclusion that that philosophy of education is failing, particularly disadvantaged children, then obviously the answer is to challenge that approach.
“And that’s what we worked out in opposition we needed to do. So one was all the standards agenda, how to teach maths, how to teach reading, what the curriculum should contain, it should be knowledge-rich.
“The other was also making sure the schools had autonomy over their decision-making, so they weren’t beholden to the education Establishment that resided in the local authorities, the universities, the Department for Education and the quangos.
“So we had to free up schools and allow them to make decisions away from the control of local authorities, which was key.
“And one example which I gave in the TES interview was a school I visited very early on in my constituency, and I asked the head teacher whether the children learned their multiplication tables, and she said ‘Oh, no, we don’t do that here. Maybe I should go and ask West Sussex what they think.’
“So here was a head teacher of 20, 30 years’ experience as a teacher, asking officials at County Hall whether she should be teaching multiplication tables, I found that very odd – it should probably be a decision for her, not some adviser.”
ConHome: “What you’ve just demonstrated is the value of a period in opposition, in order to have time to think. Should there be another such period?”
Gibb: “I think using opposition is important. A lot of good things were done in opposition. David Cameron changed the image of the Conservative Party, stopped us being the nasty party.
“Without the Cameron period in opposition we wouldn’t have been able to win.
“But I would not espouse a period of opposition [laughter]. If this were a discussion at the Institute for Government, I think I would be saying we need to find the time and space to continue that thinking process.
“But I think you could also argue, it sounds slightly self-serving, that leaving ministers in place for a long time in the same office is quite important. You have time then to get your feet under the table, acquire the knowledge to engage with the sector.”
ConHome: “When did you first become interested in phonics?”
Gibb: “That was while I was on the Select Committee, actually, so ’03 to ’05. I was always interested in education, it was my second issue after the economy, because of my own experience of going to seven schools from ’65 to ’78, which was during the period of the Labour reforms, Tony Crosland to Shirley Williams.”
ConHome: “With Margaret Thatcher [Education Secretary ’70 to ’74] in the middle.”
Gibb: “I knew the notion of progressive education, but I couldn’t define it. I went to see Charles Clarke, I remember, when he was Education Secretary, and I said, ‘All you’ve got to do is deal with progressive education,’ and he said, ‘What is that?’
“And I really couldn’t say much beyond my experience of teaching. There’s a whole raft of ideology bound up in progressive philosophy. The E.D.Hirsch book was quite revealing, the Rosetta Stone really to understanding the ideology that did so much damage to our education system, The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them, which I read on holiday some time in opposition.”
ConHome: “You must feel that you and the kids you were educated with at the time were let down in some way.”
Gibb: “Yes, some of them. I had a good education, I went to a grammar schooI, but I remember the sixth form I went to was particularly weak. I remember seeing a 15-year-old child in the library reading an Enid Blyton book.”
ConHome: “There was a long period when scarcely a speech by David Cameron went by without mentioning synthetic phonics. He also was very much of a convert to this. And what were the results of this?”
Gibb: “Well what happened in the Select Committee was that I met the Reading Reform Foundation, I was introduced to Ruth Miskin, a lady called Debbie Hepplewhite, Jennifer Chew, and they introduced me to the Clackmannanshire Report, which was a longitudinal study of 300 pupils in Scotland who were put onto synthetic phonics, they followed them for seven years, at the end of that time these children were three years ahead of their actual age in their reading ability.
“I got Barry Sheerman, Chairman of the Select Committee, to do a short inquiry into reading in about 2003-04, they interviewed the Clackmannanshire people, and Ruth and Debbie, and came to the conclusion that the National Curriculum did need to be reviewed.
“So this was seen as a great coup for me, that in opposition you can actually get things changed in government.
“The Government set up an inquiry under Jim Rose which recommended that synthetic phonics be at the heart of teaching children to read.”
ConHome: “So today, are reading standards much higher than if this had never happened?”
Gibb: “Undoubtedly. PIRLS [the progress in international reading literacy study], out a couple of weeks ago, shows England rising to fourth place out of 43 countries that tested children at the same age. In 2016 we were joint eighth, up from joint tenth, a rise attributed in that report to our focus on phonics.”
ConHome: “Where are Scotland and Wales?”
Gibb: “They don’t do it. They withdrew, though Scotland has said they will rejoin.”
ConHome: “When you arrived with Michael Gove in government in 2010, was there such a thing as departmental resistance to the programme or not?”
Gibb: “Not really, no. The system I think is geared to delivering ministers’ agenda. You just have to be assiduous.”
ConHome: “The legend was that in retrospect, Margaret Thatcher rather felt she’d had the wool pulled over her eyes by the department. And in his memoirs Kenneth Clarke says that at Education he did meet institutional resistance.”
Gibb: “There are examples. The phonics results, for me a key metric, are not published as a school accountability measure on a school by school basis, that was a deal I did with the unions in order to get the thing to land in 2010.
“It’s still an accountability measure. What I discovered during my second period in government was that they weren’t using the phonics when they were assessing schools. Nor were they using the EBacc [English Baccalaureate] figure, because again it’s controversial, heads don’t like it.
“So I insisted they put it on their template. It didn’t happen. Eventually it did happen, after a lot of screaming and shouting.
“Then I left office in September 2021, came back in October 2022, and one of the first meetings I had, no phonics results in the metrics, no EBacc entry.
“I just went ballistic. The second I’m out the door, they just drop all these measures…
“The key issue with EBacc is the foreign languages, which were really badly damaged by the decision in 2004 to stop making them compulsory, and so we went from about 80 per cent taking a foreign language GCSE to about 40 per cent within a couple of years.
“We’ve managed to push it up to 46 per cent, but that’s been hard, and we need to get it higher. We’re a global trading nation and you have to be able to speak the language of your suppliers and customers.
“We are bottom of the European league table in terms of foreign languages.”
ConHome: “Overall, to what extent do you think educational reform is a cross-party success, you’re continuing reforms begun under Tony Blair?”
Gibb: “There is a thread. The City Technology Colleges which we introduced, forerunner of the Academies Programme, of which when Labour left office there were 200, and then we turbo-charged that by extending it to primaries, and also allowing good schools to become academies – initially those 200 were underperforming.”
ConHome: “What’s the next big step in education reform? How do you get the worst-performing schools up to the standard of the best?”
Gibb: “We have this concept of hubs. Maths is the first one we did. We tried to change the whole approach to the way maths was taught. Under Labour’s National Numeracy Strategy they were taught a very peculiar way of multiplying and dividing.”
Gibb illustrated what he meant by jotting some sample calculations, which looked very peculiar indeed, on a paper napkin.
“It’s just ghastly,” he went on. “These became the written method, and they’re not the written method. You might use it in your head, as mental maths, but it’s not an efficient written method. When we changed the National Curriculum we put back into the National Curriculum all the efficient written methods.”
ConHome: “Why aren’t more ministers kept in place for longer?”
Gibb: “I don’t know. Politics is driven by people who are very ambitious. If you come into politics you should come in because you believe in ideas.
“In modern politics, I’m afraid there’s too many people who are just interested in career progression.”
ConHome: “Why do you think you’ve been left alone, and not shuffled out?”
Gibb: “I was shoved out twice. I was shoved out after two and a half years, and the grounds for that were – it’s in Cameron’s book, actually, page 300 [laughter], and he says that the rule was if you were not going into Cabinet then you have a short stint, then you’re out, and they didn’t see me as going to the Cabinet.
“So what he says in his book is it was a good rule but wrong example, so 21 months later he brought me back.
“I remember getting the call and going in to Number 10, and saying ‘thank you, what role?’ – I assumed the Whips’ Office or something – no, he said ‘schools again’, which was unheard of, really, to come back in the same role.
“And I was there for seven years, and then I got another call, September 2021, from Boris, saying again I think for the same reason, you’ve been there a long time, we need to make room for ambitious Conservative MPs wanting to become ministers, so it happened again.”
ConHome: “In your speech in April 2019 to the Social Market Foundation you said the Conservatives should be
“a party for the powerless with a revolutionary zeal to pick up the mantle of change. Determined to take on vested interests and monopolies of power.”
“Is that still your view?”
Gibb: “One of the great problems we have to deal with now is that of equality. So there’s a very interesting interview I saw with Mrs Thatcher, pre-’79, with William Buckley, and in that interview she talks about the highest earners earning four times as much as the average income, and she thought this was probably fine, because you needed to have disparities in wealth.
“If you now look at the figures of a FTSE chief executive, he will be earning 100 to 130 times the average salary.
“So something has happened, and I believe very strongly in free markets and capitalism, which is the best way of creating wealth, it’s the best way of having clean water and hospitals and schools.
“But it’s losing the confidence of younger people in the population generally, because of these disparities in equality.”
ConHome: “What’s to be done about this?”
Gibb: “These are the issues we have to address, I’m not sure that as a party we have yet accepted the importance of this issue. Because if we do not address it, we will not be able to maintain support for the free market and capitalism…
“How is it that one of these big housing companies can pay such huge bonuses to their chief executive? How are they making such profits to enable that to happen?”