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.