Nick Gibb – 2012 Speech on School Improvement


Below is the text of the speech made by Nick Gibb, the then Schools Minister, at the North of England Education Conference on 6 January 2012.

Thank you Mick for that kind introduction, I’m pleased to be here to talk about “Passion, Potential, Performance: Thinking differently”.

I’m pleased to be back in Leeds where I spent the majority of my secondary school education – at Roundhay High School. My mother also spent a good proportion of her teaching career at Talbot Row Primary School, Roundhay and I’m looking forward to visiting Abbey Grange Church of England Academy later on today.

A few months ago I came up to Batley to celebrate the conversion of the independent Batley Grammar School into one of the first 24 free schools.

The NEEC has a long and distinguished history as a forum for education discussion for well over a century.

The case for comprehensive schools, the first plans for the National Curriculum and the drive towards grant-maintained status are just some of the educational milestones announced at an NEEC.

At last year’s conference, I promised that we would protect school budgets in cash terms at least and devolve as much autonomy as possible to schools and teachers. And, over the last year, that’s what we’ve done.

All our actions have been guided by three overarching goals:

– to close the attainment gap between those from poorer and wealthier backgrounds

– to ensure our education system can compete with the best in the world

– and to trust the professionalism of teachers and raise the quality of teaching.

So that schools can take the lead in continuing professional development and leadership training, around 100 outstanding schools have been selected as Teaching Schools. These centres of excellence in teaching practice will give new and experienced teachers an opportunity to learn and develop their professional skills throughout their careers.

We’re giving schools a stronger influence over the content of initial teacher training and the recruitment of trainees, and we’re continuing to ensure that ITT provision focuses on the quality of school placements. We’re prioritising the training of more primary specialist teachers and encouraging ITT providers to offer specialist courses.

In light of research showing that nearly half of serious allegations against school teachers are unsubstantiated, malicious or unfounded, we’ve given teachers a legal right to anonymity from allegations made by pupils, until the point they are charged with a criminal offence. We have also revised guidance to local authorities and schools to speed up the investigation process when a teacher or a member of staff is accused of an offence by a pupil.

And the Education Act, passed in November, further strengthened teachers’ powers to enforce school rules, removing the 24 hours’ notice rule for detentions and allowing Pupil Referral Units the same autonomy and freedoms as schools.

One of the most visible signs that we’ve increased autonomy and put greater trust in the professionalism of teachers is our removal of excessive bureaucracy.

In just one year, under the last Government, the Department produced over 6000 pages of guidance. In one year of this Government, we cut over 6000 pages of guidance.

We’re continuing to shorten guidance in a wide range of areas: for example, slimming down guidance on tackling poor pupil behaviour from over 600 pages to just 50. In total, departmental guidance is being more than halved.

We’ve also revised school admissions and appeals codes to 61 pages rather than 138. Retaining just half of the previous 650 mandatory requirements on admissions authorities, the new codes are fairer and simpler for schools and parents alike.

We have ended the requirement for schools to set statutory performance targets, removed the expectation that every school will complete a self evaluation form, streamlined the inspection framework and clarified that neither the Department nor Ofsted expects to see written lesson plans for every lesson.

And our National Curriculum review is slimming down the curriculum to concentrate on essential knowledge and skills. New programmes of study are being drafted for full public consultation and I hope that many here will participate in that consultation in due course.

In all these areas and more, we are working to free schools and teachers from the burden of excessive and unnecessary bureaucracy.

Over and over again, international research has shown that increased autonomy at school level is reflected in higher standards. As the OECD says: “in countries where schools have greater autonomy over what is taught and how students are assessed, students tend to perform better.”

Of course, one of the most powerful examples of increased freedom for schools is the expansion of the academies programme.

As we start 2012, there are 1529 academies. Over 1300 of these have opened since May 2010. More than a third of all secondary schools are now open or in the process of opening as academies, teaching over one and a quarter million children.

September 2011 also saw the opening of 24 new Free Schools, 4 studio schools, and a University Technical College. 100 new schools are set to open in 2012 or 2013, and early indications show that they will be overwhelmingly located in areas of deprivation or where there is a desperate shortage of school places.

We are delighted that so many schools are taking advantage of the freedoms of academy status; providing opportunities for more children to enjoy an excellent education.

Last summer, an independent assessment of the academies programme by the London School of Economics confirmed that “academy conversion generates… a significant improvement in pupil performance”. Statistics show that academies in some of the most challenging areas of the country are improving their results at twice the speed of non-academy schools.

And according to the LSE assessment, improvements in pupil performance were observed in academies and in their neighbouring schools. The academies programme doesn’t just bring improvements to an individual school, but to schools throughout the system.

We’re currently working hard behind the scenes to tackle policy blockages at local level which are preventing some schools from converting to academy status.

We’re creating an “Academies Work” area on the DfE website, gathering all the online resources on academies and conversion to make it easier for schools to find the information they need.

And as the programme continues to expand, we want to focus even more closely on driving up standards in low-performing schools.

We’ve already set out clear plans to turn round under-performing primary schools. We’re setting tougher floor standards, rising each year, to ensure that all schools continue to improve. The 200 weakest primaries will be converted into Academies, and robust action plans are being prepared in 500 more. If schools aren’t making the right progress, and local authorities don’t have a grip on the issue, we will be able to intervene to secure the best possible result for the children in those schools.

So by expanding the Academies programme, increasing autonomy at school level and improving teacher training, we want to drive up standards in schools right across the country.

We also want to make it clear that we are not prepared to give up on any child.

Children in alternative provision are among the most vulnerable in our education system. Yet despite hard work by dedicated professionals, statistics published for the first time last year show that only 1.4% of children in alternative provision in 2009/10 achieved five or more GCSEs at A*-C including English and Maths, compared to 53.4% in all schools in England.

To drive up standards in alternative provision, we need to increase autonomy, accountability and diversity. From September 2012, outstanding Pupil Referral Units will be able to convert to Academies; and we will invite new providers to establish alternative provision Free Schools, bringing voluntary or private sector expertise to help these vulnerable children.

And we are piloting an approach to exclusions in which the school itself will commission alternative provision for the excluded child and be held to account for the achievement of that pupil. And Charlie Taylor, the Government’s Expert Adviser on Behaviour, is looking urgently into how we can improve alternative provision – and how we can ensure that another generation is not allowed to fail.

I’d like to take this opportunity to mention two particular priorities for the coming year.

First, reading. One of my greatest pleasures when visiting a good school is listening to children talk with real passion about their favourite books – the characters they love and the stories they tell.

And we’re lucky that some of the most magical and exciting children’s books ever written have been written in the English language – the works of Roald Dahl, Michael Morpurgo and Jacqueline Wilson; Harry Potter and Narnia; the Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh.

By the end of primary school, all children should be able to read and enjoy books like Harry Potter. But too many children can’t enjoy these brilliant books because they haven’t learnt to read properly.

One in six 11-year-olds is still struggling with reading when they leave primary school. One in ten 11-year-old boys has a reading age of seven or below. Secondary schools are forced to provide extra help and catch-up sessions when they should be introducing children to the breadth and depth of the secondary curriculum.

And children who cannot read are more likely to become disengaged and disruptive. A recent report by the Centre for Social Justice showed that between half and three-quarters of children permanently excluded from school display significant literacy problems . As the author said, “many display challenging behaviour to hide the fact that they cannot read.”

Over the last nine years, England has fallen in international reading league tables from seventh to 25th. English 15-year-olds are more than a year behind their peers in Shanghai, Korea and Finland in reading, and at least six months behind Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan.

This Government is determined to help all children to read widely and well, and develop a lifelong love of reading.

If children haven’t mastered the basic mechanics of reading they can’t develop their comprehension and understanding, or begin exploring and enjoying all sorts of books and poems.

But with the life-changing skill of turning words on the page into images, information and ideas, we hope that all children can become fluent and enthusiastic readers.

High quality research shows that systematic phonics is the most successful way to teach early reading. Synthetic phonics is equally effective for children of all abilities, from all backgrounds, and for boys and girls alike.

Last summer, we piloted the phonics check for 6-year-olds in around 300 schools around the country. The level they were expected to reach was set by two groups of teachers from the pilot, who independently agreed it was appropriate and challenging.

Only 32% reached the required level, which means that we all need to face up to an uncomfortable fact. Despite the hard work of teachers all over the country, too few children are able to read to a high enough standard.

The levels we currently expect children to reach at Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 must not be the limits of our ambition – they should be considered the minimum. Rather than scraping a Level 2 at the end of Key Stage 1, more children can achieve a high Level 2 or even a Level 3.

26 per cent of children already reached level 3 in reading in 2011 – including some schools in the most challenging areas. We want these high expectations to become the norm.

From June, the Year 1 check will help all teachers to ensure that children grasp the basic mechanics of reading. The check will also identify any children who need extra help – and almost half of schools in the pilot said the check identified pupils with reading difficulties of which they were not previously aware.

To support teachers in developing their phonics teaching and ensuring all pupils learn the basics of reading, we are offering match-funding of up to £3000 to help schools buy high quality systematic synthetic phonics resources and training.

From September, a thorough understanding of the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics will be prioritised in teacher training and required for all teachers of early reading.

And phonics and reading are becoming a key part of the new Ofsted inspection framework. For the first time, Ofsted inspectors will focus on the teaching of reading in primary schools and listen to pupils reading aloud, with a particular focus on weaker readers.

But, of course, mastering the mechanics of reading is a necessary but not sufficient condition for being a confident reader. We need to do more to encourage children to read for pleasure and to develop a life-long love of reading.

I remember a few years ago coming back from Finland. In the departure lounge at Helsinki airport it was noticeable how many children and young people were passing the time glued to novels – something not so prevalent at Heathrow and Gatwick.

And a 2009 PISA study shows that almost 40 per cent of pupils in England never read for pleasure – yet the difference in reading ability between these pupils and those who read for just half an hour a day is equivalent to a year’s schooling at age 15. A recent survey by the National Literacy Trust showed that a third of British children do not even own a book.

We are currently developing a national competition to encourage 9-12 year-olds to read voraciously at school and for pleasure at home. Instilling the habit of regular reading at an early age I believe is key to developing a life-long love of reading for pleasure, and we’ll have more to say about that later this year.

2012 is also, of course, the year of the London Olympic and Paralympic Games. I know that this conference has been considering the role of sport in education over the last few days – and the Government is also working hard to make the most of this opportunity.

The advantages of competitive sport are well-known – particularly the benefits for pupils’ health and fitness, social skills and personal development.

Sport teaches young people commitment, dedication, how to work well in a team and how to perform as an individual. Young sportsmen and women quickly learn the importance of fair play – to be magnanimous in victory and gracious in defeat.

Yet only two in five young people currently play regular competitive sport within their own school. Only one in five plays regularly against other schools.

As a result of close collaboration between the Departments for Education, Health and Culture, Media and Sport, and Sport England, the Youth Sport Trust and ParalympicsGB, this year will introduce a new national sporting competition – the School Games.

Building on the excitement and enthusiasm around London 2012, we hope that the School Games will inspire a whole generation of young people to get involved in competitive sport.

There will be opportunities for more competition within and between schools, and at county and district level.

The School Games will culminate in national finals between the country’s best young athletes, and the first of these will take place in May at the Olympic Park. So far, almost 11,000 schools have signed up to take part in this competition.

So by increasing autonomy and reducing bureaucracy at school level, allowing more schools to take advantage of academy freedoms and focusing particularly on reading and school sport, we hope to drive up standards for all children, from all backgrounds.

A PISA study found that England has one of the largest gaps in the world between high and low performing pupils, and a strong relationship between social background and performance. 13.9 per cent of the variance in pupil performance in England can be explained by social background, compared to just 8.3 per cent in Finland and 8.2 per cent in Canada. Yet in countries like Finland, Canada, Japan and Korea, average standards are higher than ours, and achievement gaps are smaller.

A recent report from the OECD also showed that deprived pupils in this country perform significantly less well than deprived pupils in most OECD countries – putting us 39th out of 65 countries. According to PISA, just a quarter of pupils from poor backgrounds are “resilient” in the UK, compared to three-quarters in Shanghai-China and Hong Kong.

To put it another way, research published by the Department for Education last year showed that, if English children performed as well as their peers in Shanghai, 77 per cent would get five GCSEs at A*-C including English and Maths, rather than the 55 per cent that we achieve now. That’s a difference of a fifth of the whole cohort – 100,000 children failing to achieve the qualifications that most employers see as the bare minimum.

And the gap in achievement between children from the wealthiest and poorest backgrounds is still too wide in English schools. As I just said, in 2010, 55 per cent of children achieved five GCSEs at A*-C including English and Maths – but only 31 per cent of pupils on free school meals managed to do the same. And that gap between children from privileged and disadvantaged backgrounds remains stubbornly wide.

International evidence shows us that it is possible for many more young people to achieve more highly than they do now. It is possible to narrow the achievement gap between the richest and the poorest. And this is not an either/or: it is possible to achieve both at once.

By learning from international and domestic evidence, helping the best schools to share excellent practice and supporting schools which are struggling, we want to give every child, from any background, the opportunity to make the most of their talents. Thank you.