Nick Gibb is Secretary of State for School Standards and MP for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton.
For the past eleven years, this government with a forensic and relentless focus has embarked on a mission to improve school standards and overhaul a tired education system that has abandoned too many children – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The flawed system that we have inherited was not the fault of the teachers, who predominantly advocate the interests of the children they teach. The failure was the result of decades of politicians from all parties who had been too easily influenced by a cadre of educational scholars who promoted claims as facts and were driven by ideological certainties.
To be fair, by the 1980s politicians had begun questioning why standards weren’t rising and making changes. But resistance was fierce, and the promise of a quick fix or the latest fad too often distracted attention from the harsh slogan of evidence-based reform.
As the unequivocal Jonathan Simons stated in his article on this website on Tuesday, this has been an uphill battle. Change would not be possible without thousands of dedicated teachers and principals who have proven themselves in developing new approaches, setting up new schools, and adopting methods that have proven themselves in the world’s top performing countries – the East Asian way of teaching math been on the proven systematic phonetic method of teaching children to read with a clear focus on expectations and discipline.
These women and men are heroes. People like Mark Lehain, who started the government’s first program for “free schools” (new schools set up by teachers or parent groups rather than local councils that destroy beliefs that certain areas are not meeting high standards can be a disadvantage).
Visionaries like Katharine Birbalsingh, who founded the Michaela Community School and proves that background should never be an obstacle to high academic standards.
Leaders like Hamid Patel, the inspiring head of STAR Academies and the great trust CEOs and staff from other school families like Reach, Outwood Grange, Harris, Ark, Inspiration Trust and Tenax.
These people and hundreds of others like you and all teachers across the country who advocate a knowledge-rich curriculum have inspired and are leading a real movement for change. And they improve the lives of millions of children.
The results of the reforms are obvious. Between 2011 and 2019, the gap between disadvantaged students and other students had narrowed by 13 percent in primary education and by 9 percent in secondary education. Evidence-based, systematically implemented reform work. And it is this approach that will work again when we begin the task of filling and closing the enlarged void that is the result of hundreds of hours of missing instruction during the pandemic.
Despite what our reforms have achieved, some have tried to use the pandemic as an opportunity to push for a rewarmed progressive agenda that would bring this country back decades. Both Jonathan Simons and Mark Lehain, who are writing in ConHome this week, are cautious in their pieces: We shouldn’t let the challenges of the past year dissuade us from our central mission of raising the school standard. I couldn’t agree more.
While the government has taken positive steps to close the gap, I don’t think we have gone far enough. Education plays a key role in implementing the Prime Minister’s leveling agenda.
In 2012 we introduced the Phonics Screening Check to ensure that every six year old is on the right track in learning to read. In its first year, only 58 percent of students achieved the expected standard on this test. By 2019 it had risen to 82 percent. However, this still means that one in five six-year-olds is unable to accurately read simple words for the first year, which equates to nearly a third of disadvantaged children. We have to tackle this.
We have almost doubled the proportion of students taking the EBacc combination of academic subjects at GCSE. But almost a fifth of children do not participate in either geographic or historical GCSEs. more than half is not entered for one language. We need to address this, especially languages, which are so important to a trading nation with a new global focus.
There is so much more to do. The past 12 months have strengthened my belief in what makes a great school: an ambitious, knowledge-rich curriculum taught by well-trained teachers in a disciplined, high-expectation environment and led by inspiring school principals who create a caring ethos in which conscientiousness dominates and success is rewarded and celebrated.
In the midst of the pandemic, Education Ministers have continued to focus on ensuring that we are giving teachers the training and support they need to provide students with the education that is vital to directing their own destinies. We are making major teacher education reforms in a generation and ensuring that all teacher education courses are based on evidence of what works, such as the importance of explicit knowledge teaching and how to deal with classroom behavior. And starting in September, we’re changing teacher induction to offer all newly qualified teachers two years of supervised support based on the new early career framework developed by some of the best education organizations in the country.
In addition, our new teaching institute will provide a new generation of teachers with the specialist knowledge they need to improve the standards in our schools. Opening in September 2022, it is the first of its kind to deliver world-class professional development for teacher trainees to senior executives and system leaders, challenging failed educational orthodoxy of the past, focusing on evidence-based approaches and the pluralism that Jonathan Clark brings to them Week in his ConHome article.
We are determined to return to the full exams starting next summer. Simply put, invisible external exams are the fairest and most valid means of assessing what students have learned in their school days. And our reformed GCSEs are the gold standard for validating student achievement. Those who seek its abolition are deeply mistaken. GCSEs help provide a well structured and broad academic curriculum. For a significant minority, they are the only academic qualifications they have – extremely important for future career changes. And GCSE results help hold schools accountable.
We must strongly oppose the demands of those who speak of tearing up our curriculum to make it more “relevant” or to prepare students for work alone. This would mean denying children the right to birthright – and it is the most disadvantaged in society who would suffer the most and may have less access to this rich knowledge at home.
I believe that the purpose of education is to open a student’s mind to the best examples of human endeavor – what Oakeshott called the “legacy of human achievement” – as opposed to the lukewarm, child-led progressivism of the left.
We have achieved a lot in the past 11 years, but there is much more to be done. We need to look at the areas of the country that are being left behind and the areas of politics where the educational revolution is not yet over. With kids at school and spring sunlight in the sky, this is a government – and a school minister – excited about the task ahead.