Nick Gibb: Education. We must not let the pandemic lead us astray from our mission to raise school standards

26 Mar

Nick Gibb is the Minister of State for School Standards, and is MP for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton.

Over the past eleven years, this Government has, with a forensic and relentless focus, embarked on a mission to drive up school standards and overhaul a tired education system that was letting too many children down – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The failing system we inherited was not the fault of teachers, who are overwhelmingly committed to the interests of the children they teach. The failure was the result of politicians, of all parties over decades, who had too easily been swayed by a cadre of education academics promoting assertions as fact and driven by ideological certainties.

To be fair, from the 1980s onwards, politicians had begun to question why standards were failing to rise and had started to make changes. But resistance was fierce and the promise of a quick fix or the latest fad too often diverted attention from the hard slog of evidence-based reform.

As the redoubtable Jonathan Simons noted in his article on this site on Tuesday, this has been an uphill battle. Change would not have been possible without thousands of committed teachers and head teachers who have led the way in developing new approaches, set up new schools and adopted methods that have been proven in the world’s highest performing nations – from the east Asian way of teaching maths to the tried and tested systematic phonics method of teaching children to read and a clear focus on expectations and discipline.

These women and men are heroes. People like Mark Lehain, who set up the first of the Government’s programme of ‘free schools’ (new schools established by teachers or groups of parents rather than the local council and which are shattering the belief that high standards can’t be delivered in areas of disadvantage).

Visionaries such as Katharine Birbalsingh, who established the Michaela Community School and is proving that background should never be a barrier to high academic standards.

Leaders like Hamid Patel, the inspirational head of STAR Academies and the excellent trust CEOs and staff in other families of schools, such as Reach, Outwood Grange, Harris, Ark, Inspiration Trust and Tenax.

These people, and hundreds of others like them and all the teachers across the country committed to a knowledge-rich curriculum, have inspired and are leading a genuine movement for change. And they are improving the lives of millions of children.

The results of the reforms are plain to see. Between 2011 and 2019, the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and others had narrowed by 13 per cent in primary and nine per cent in secondary. Evidence-led, systematically implemented, reform works. And it is this approach that will work again as we start the task of catch-up and tackling the widened attainment gap that is the result of hundreds of hours of missed teaching during the pandemic.

Despite everything achieved by our reforms, some have tried to use the pandemic as an opportunity to make a push for a reheated progressive agenda which would take this country back decades. Both Jonathan Simons and Mark Lehain, writing in ConHome this week, sound a note of caution in their pieces: that we should not let the challenges of the past year lead us to stray from our central mission of raising school standards. I could not agree more.

Indeed, whilst the Government had made positive steps in closing the attainment gap, I believe we haven’t gone nearly far enough. Education has a key role to play in delivering the Prime Minister’s levelling up agenda.

In 2012, we introduced the Phonics Screening Check to ensure every six-year-old was on track in learning to read. In its first year just 58 per cent of pupils reached the expected standard in that test. By 2019 it had risen to 82 per cent. But this still means that one in five six-year-olds finish Year 1 unable to read simple words accurately, rising to almost a third of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. We need 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 take neither geography nor history GCSEs; more than half are not entered for a language. We need to tackle this, particularly languages, so important for a trading nation with a newly global focus.

There is so much more to do. The past 12 months have galvanised my belief in what makes a great school: an ambitious, knowledge-rich curriculum, taught by well trained teachers in a disciplined environment with high expectations and led by inspiring head teachers who create a caring ethos where conscientiousness dominates and success is rewarded and celebrated.

Amidst the pandemic, education ministers have remained focused on making sure we give teachers the training and support they need to give pupils the education vital to enable them to steer their own destinies. We are implementing the most significant reforms to teacher training in a generation, making sure all teacher training courses are rooted in evidence of what works, such as the importance of the explicit teaching of knowledge and how to manage classroom behaviour. And from September we are changing teacher induction to give all newly qualified teachers two years of mentored support based on the new Early Career Framework developed by some of the best training organisations in the country.

Alongside this, our new Institute of Teaching will give a new generation of teachers the expertise they need to drive up standards in our schools. Opening in September 2022, it will be the first organisation of its kind, delivering first-rate professional development for teacher trainees through to executive heads and system leaders, challenging failed education orthodoxies of the past, putting evidence based approaches at its core and delivering the pluralism demanded by Jonathan Clark in his ConHome article this week.

We are determined to return to full exams from next summer. Put simply, unseen external examinations are the fairest and most valid means we have to assess what pupils have learned in their time at school. And our reformed GCSEs are the gold standard of validating pupils’ attainment. Those who seek their abolition are profoundly mistaken. GCSEs help to deliver a well-structured and broad academic curriculum. For a significant minority they will be the only academic qualifications they hold – hugely important for any future career change. And GCSE results help to hold schools to account.

We must strongly resist the calls from those who talk about ripping up our curriculum to make it more ‘relevant’ or to make it solely about preparing pupils for work. This would be to deny children their birthright – and it’s the most disadvantaged in society who would suffer the most, who may have less access to this rich knowledge in the home.

I believe that the purpose of education is to open up a pupil’s mind to the finest examples of human endeavour – what Oakeshott called “an inheritance of human achievements” – unlike the tepid child-led progressivism of the Left.

We have achieved much over the past 11 years, but there is much more to do. We must look to those areas of the country that remain left behind and those areas of policy where the education revolution is unfinished. With children back in school, and with the sunlight of spring in the sky, this is a Government – and a Schools Minister – energised by the task ahead of us.

Nick Gibb: Fair grades for A Levels and GCSEs and congratulations to the students

13 Aug

Nick Gibb is the Minister of State for School Standards.

Today students across the country will be receiving their A level results. These results, while important in themselves, are key to unlocking the next stage in these young people’s lives – be that university, an apprenticeship or the world of work.

But these students are part of the Covid generation – they will be receiving their qualification having not sat an actual exam.

No one wanted to cancel exams this year. I certainly didn’t. We know that they are the fairest and most robust way of assessing students’ knowledge and capabilities.

The impact of Covid-19 meant that we had to do things differently. We have worked with Ofqual to put in place the fairest possible system to enable students to move on to further study or employment as planned.

The grades students are receiving today will be just as valuable as in any other year. They are based on the judgement of their teachers, and have been moderated by exam boards to make sure the same standard is applied for all students, taking into account factors such as the prior attainment of that cohort and of their specific school or college. Overall, grades will be slightly higher than in previous years, by around two percentage points at A level grade A and above.

I recognise that some have called for us to simply revert to teacher-assessed grade, as Scotland has done. But doing away with all moderation would be misguided and create deep inequities. Without moderation, there would be grade inflation of 12 percentage points at A* and A, casting doubt on the validity of these grades in the eyes of employers and universities.

There would also be severe disparities between schools. The teachers and schools that had done their best to follow the rules and guidance in awarding grades would see their students at a disadvantage, compared to those which had been more lenient. This is simply not fair.

The moderation system in England is not the same as the one that was used in Scotland – and where there were legitimate concerns about the differential impact on rich and poor. The algorithm is different, developed after a full public consultation on the principle underpinning it, and we have a robust appeal system that allows schools to appeal if they believe their historic data does not reflect the ability of their current students. Ofqual’s analysis shows that students from all backgrounds – including more disadvantaged and black, ethnic minority and Asian communities – are not disadvantaged by this year’s awarding process.

But while our approach is robust, we acknowledge that it must be fair not just at system level, but for every individual student. There is no perfect replacement for exams and there will be a small minority of students who feel that their calculated grade does not reflect their work or their ability. This may include some of our brightest young people at poor performing schools, who it is imperative we support and protect.

That is why have introduced a triple lock to give students an added safety net. If a student is unhappy with their calculated grade, they will be able to appeal on the basis of a valid mock result or sit an exam in the autumn. We will ensure all outcomes are given the same weighting by universities, employers and colleges.

We expect the vast majority of students to continue with their calculated grade, which in almost all cases will be a fair reflection of their performance. However, students who would like to use a valid mock result will be able to apply through the appeals process to do so, with individuals notifying their school or college who will provide evidence of their mock results to their exam board.

The exam boards are committed to doing all that they can to ensure all appeals that impact a student’s progression are completed by September 7 – and all others within 42 days. Universities have assured us that they will show all possible flexibility – and we have exempted students who meet their university offer following a successful appeal from student number controls, meaning universities can hold places open for them.

The system we have put in place is the fairest possible in the absence of exams, based on fairly calculated grades, moderated by exam boards to make sure the same standard is applied for all students, whichever school, college or part of the country they come from, combined with clear safety nets for students who feel that the grades do not reflect their achievements.

Congratulations to every young person collecting their grades today. We have acted to make sure everyone has confidence in your results and you can progress to the next stage of your life.