Nick Gibb – 2011 Speech to the 100 Group

Below is the text of the speech made by Nick Gibb, the Minister of State for Schools, at the Guildhall in London on 10 February 2011.

Thank you Richard. It’s a pleasure to join you all in the Guildhall.

I just wanted to begin, if I may, by thanking the 100 Group for inviting me to take part in today’s debate…

… and can I especially thank those of you, including Richard and his team at Brighton College, who’ve taken time out of very busy schedules to show me round your schools in the last year.

We’re very fortunate, of course, to have many excellent headteachers in this country – and I know that both myself, and the Secretary of State, have found their advice and support very useful over the past nine months as we’ve been working on the Education White Paper and the curriculum review.

Indeed, the Government’s vision for building a truly world-class education sector that attracts the very best teachers, allows school leaders greater autonomy and reduces the attainment gap between the richest and poorest students, owes a huge amount to the example of great schools like Mossbourne, Kingsford Community School and indeed Brighton College.

For the purposes of today’s debate however, I’m going to concentrate, if I may, rather more on the international influences that have shaped that vision than on the domestic ones…

… Because right from the very start of our reform programme, we’ve always been clear that if you’re serious about constructing an education system that’s capable of meeting the demands of the global economy in 2011, it has to draw on international best practice.

In doing that work though, what’s become increasingly clear is that our children’s education has been suffering in relation to their peers over the last decade.

The PISA rankings, for example, which I’m sure have already been debated today, show us falling from fourth to sixteenth in science, from seventh to 25th in literacy, and from eighth to 28th in maths.

Even accounting for the fact that the number of countries in those rankings has changed, this shows a really worrying trend – particularly when taken in the context of the more general evidence, which shows:

– in maths’ tests, Chinese 15-year-olds are now some two years ahead of students in this country

– the reading level of our pupils is now nearly a year behind that of children in countries like Korea and Finland

– and that just 1.8 per cent of 15-year-olds in this country ‘can creatively use information based on their own investigations and modelling of complex problem situations’. This is compared to some 25 per cent of pupils in Shanghai.

Indeed, we’d argue that the malaise actually goes rather deeper than this. It’s not simply a case that our average results are falling behind other countries; it’s also the case that the gap between the opportunities open to wealthier students and poorer students has grown wider over the last ten years.

Opportunity has, if anything, become less equal in comparison to the rest of the world.

Children in wealthier areas, for example, are now twice as likely to get three As at A Level as children in poorer areas. And the number of our very poorest children – those eligible for free school meals – who’ve made it to Oxbridge, has actually fallen in recent times. In the penultimate year for which we have figures it was 45. And in the last year, 40 out of 80,000 pupils.

In fact, very quickly we’ve got to the point where we now have one of the most unequal systems in the developed world – a truly worrying situation I’m afraid, and one that suggests we are, indeed, falling behind the competition. Or, as the OECD has said, that we’ve ‘remained stagnant at best’ while the rest of the world has surged past.

The question we’ve had to answer is why this has been allowed to happen. Has it simply been because of a lack of investment by government? Or is it, perhaps, about a lack of political will?

The international spending comparisons – which place us as the eighth highest per-pupil spender in the OECD – and the amount of energy that’s been invested into narrowing the attainment gaps between the richest and poorest students over the years, suggests it’s probably neither of these things actually.

Instead, it seems to be about a more fundamental lack of national ambition. Too often in the past we’ve been too quick to level down our education system, rather than attempting the trickier task of levelling up – despite the fact that time and time again, when you look at the results of our best schools, they’ve shown that if you set your horizons high, children will perform consistently well regardless of background or parental income.

And that, in turn, is forcing us away from what Joel Klein, New York’s former chancellor of education, described in America last year as the ‘culture of excuse’ – where variations in academic performance can be automatically blamed on a pupil’s individual background, rather than on their God-given ability.

And that’s why, as I said at the start, we’re now placing so much emphasis on promoting that ambitious agenda of reform, based on the importance of teachers, on giving schools greater autonomy, and on ensuring the National Curriculum is a match for the very best performers like Singapore, Finland and South Korea.

On the importance of teaching – in particular we have, as many of you will know, already introduced our Education White Paper into Parliament, which is geared towards bringing more talented people into our classrooms, towards reforming teacher training, devoting resources into getting top graduates in maths and science into the classroom, and towards expanding programmes like Teach First, Teaching Leaders and Future Leaders, which attract the best and the brightest into teaching.

It’s an ambitious approach to teaching that will help us build on the wealth of talent that already exists in our schools and help us restore the very best traditions of teaching as one of the most respected of all the professions.

On the second point, around greater autonomy for schools, we know there is a pressing need to increase the level of operational independence in our schools if we want to match what’s happening in the best education systems across the world. Particularly over issues like pay, staffing, timetabling and spending.

And we’re delighted that well over 400 good and outstanding schools have already applied to take up our offer of academy status – with more than 200 parent, teacher and charity groups also applying to set up Free Schools.

However, none of this reform can work independently of the systems that support it. And this is why the third of those areas – the review of the National Curriculum – is now so vitally important to our plans for an ambitious, and equal, system of education.

Of all the areas, it is perhaps the easiest to compare and contrast with the international competition. And for that same reason, it’s also perhaps the most difficult to ignore.

In the modern world, there is nowhere to hide for school leavers. Jobs can be transported across international borders in the blink of an eye, and having a curriculum that’s thin on content and overly prescriptive on teaching method is not doing our children any favours.

This is why, as many of you will know, we owe Cambridge University’s Tim Oates a very substantial debt of gratitude for his invaluable analysis of international curricula and the lessons we can learn from them.

Already we’ve announced that we’re introducing a new measure of accountability – the English Baccalaureate – which will show how many students in each school secured five good passes in the core academic subjects of English, maths, science, languages and one of the humanities.

But as Tim has explained before, the best-performing education nations also deliberately set out to compare themselves against international benchmarks – learning from each other and constantly asking what is required to help all children do better.

Hong Kong and Singapore, for example, have sought to maintain their pre-eminence by reviewing their national curricula, while Australia and US states are also looking to see how they can strengthen their curriculum offers.

But while other countries have developed coherent national curricula that allow for the steady accumulation of knowledge and conceptual understanding, ours has, sadly, lost much of its initial focus.

Originally envisaged as a guide to study in key subjects, which would give parents and teachers confidence that students were acquiring the knowledge necessary at every level of study to make appropriate progress, it has since developed to cover even more subjects, to prescribe more approaches to teaching, and to take up more school time than originally intended – more often in response to pressure groups than for sound pedagogical reasons.

Now, the net impact of that has been the promotion of generic dispositions, the distortion of the core function of the National Curriculum, and the dilution of the importance of subject knowledge.

For example, at the moment the art and design curriculum at Key Stage 3 patronises teachers horribly by telling them that they need to ‘develop ideas and intentions by working from first-hand observation, experience, inspiration, imagination and other sources’.

Meanwhile, for Key Stage 3 history, it says that ‘the study of history should be taught through a combination of overview, thematic and depth studies’.

Now, as far as I can see it, this isn’t much different from advising a surgeon to consider using a knife during surgery. Not only is it staggeringly obvious, it’s also an insult to professional intelligence.

What is really needed, as Tim Oates says, is to identify the essential knowledge that pupils need, including the crucial concepts and ideas that each year group should learn.

So, in undertaking this review, our primary objective is to make the curriculum more focused than it currently is, and to hand control back to teachers.

Research carried out by the Prince’s Teaching Institute, for example, shows that good subject knowledge, and the ability to communicate it, are the most important attributes of successful teachers.

But unless the curriculum affords them the space and flexibility that they want and need, teachers simply cannot do that – and teaching can become far too rigid, far too prescribed and far too formulaic.

This is why we want to return the National Curriculum to its fundamental purpose of setting out the essential knowledge that all children should acquire, organised around subject disciplines.

And it’s why we want it to be slimmed down, so that it properly reflects the body of essential knowledge in core subjects and does not absorb the overwhelming majority of teaching time in schools.

In short, individual schools should, we think, have much greater freedom to construct their own programmes of study in subjects outside the National Curriculum, and to develop approaches to teaching and study that complement the academic core.

However, as we look to do all this, it remains absolutely critical that we learn from best practice overseas and this review will, for the first time, require explicit benchmarking against the most successful school systems in the world – so that standards and expectations for pupil attainment measure up to those of the highest performing jurisdictions.

An ambitious, challenging and rigorous curriculum like this works for the very widest range of pupils, ensuring that all children – not just those who can afford it – can access the best possible education.

The new National Curriculum will, in essence, represent a standard against which the curricula offered by all schools can be tested. It will be a national benchmark, to provide parents with an understanding of what progress they should expect, to inform the content of core qualifications, and to ensure that schools have a core curriculum to draw on which is clear, robust, and internationally respected.

And what we want, is for this review unambiguously to show that we are on the side of teachers and headteachers. And I’m delighted that our advisory committee consists predominantly of outstanding heads and former heads – people like Sir Michael, John McIntosh and Dame Yasmin Bevan – as well as the voices of universities and business.

And I’m equally delighted that Tim Oates has also agreed to lead an expert panel that will help us draw up the content of the new curriculum.

To end, can I just thank the 100 Group again for inviting me along today and for giving me the chance to answer questions.

In one sense at least, this debate around our international standing has been needed for some time now, but perhaps the most important thing, regardless of the country’s starting point, is simply to make sure that the end goal is the same – and that we’re all working towards a truly world-class education system.

Thanks in no small part to the expertise and ambition of the 100 Group, as well as the many other excellent school leaders we have in this country, we think we’re now on the right trajectory towards achieving that ambition.

Thank you.