Elizabeth Truss speaks about curriculum reform

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Elizabeth Truss, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Education and Childcare, speaks to the CBI about improving education and the importance of curriculum reform.

Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here today.

Of course I face stiff competition today, with the Deputy Prime Minister speaking in Glasgow.

I spent my early years in Paisley, a few miles away. It boomed in the 19th century - with mills and factories and, of course, Paisley pattern. The 1980s, when I lived there, were harder. It faced industrial decline. My dad was a lecturer at Paisley College of Technology - now a university - and started to teach computing, which at that time, was quite a new technology.

In other words Paisley made the same transition as the UK - from industrial power, to relative decline, to adaptation.

The next industrial revolution?

What’s fascinating is that we might see similar upheaval again.

Deindustrialisation was led by globalisation and technology: today, we face rapid shifts in global economic power and a new digital economy.

If any of you saw Newsnight just the other week, the technologist Rohan Silva was talking about an ‘hour-glass’ shaped economy.

In this emerging model there is wealth for the highly-skilled, who can harness new technologies.

At the other end of the scale, there are lots of low-paid, low-qualifications jobs - local, manual labour which cannot be easily automated or outsourced.

But in the middle, white-collar, middle-class jobs are now threatened by high-powered computers and highly-educated graduates across the world.

This is an era of unprecedented competition.

Compete or fall behind

And it leaves us with a question. How do we respond?

In an era where human capital is more important than physical capital, it means we need to improve education.

The evidence is quite clear here: countries with higher attainment have higher growth rates. And the association between test scores and growth rates increased by a third between 1960 and 2000.

This should worry us. PISA - the OECD international student assessment - ranks us only 25th in reading, 27th in maths and 16th in science.

If we develop a world-class education system - but only if we develop a world-class education system - we have a chance to become one of the high-skilled, highly-educated societies that takes advantage of the new order.

Nowhere is this clearer than in maths, science and engineering.

Maths, for example, is the only school subject which has been proven to add to earnings, by up to 10% at A level, even when every other factor is taken into account.

Pupils who are ahead of their peers in maths at age 10 tend to be earning 7% more at the age of 30. Those working in science or technological careers are paid, on average, 19% more than other professions. The earnings return for a level 3 apprenticeship in engineering or manufacturing is double that of arts, media or business administration apprenticeships.

This is great for those individuals - but the real importance of these numbers is what they tell us about the UK economy.

Higher wages are a sign of employer need - of the relatively high value and productivity of STEM-educated staff.

They suggest that excellent STEM education is of essential economic importance - a level of demand that we can’t afford to ignore.

The German example - PISA shock

Other countries understood this much earlier than we have.

Take Germany: for many years, it prided itself on the quality of its education system.

Until, that is, the 2000 PISA assessments. This showed that far from leading the world, German pupils were well below average in literacy, and the system particularly let down disadvantaged students.

It prompted introspection. There were newspaper headlines, national debates - there was even a quiz show on TV where people could try to answer the questions in the assessments.

So they changed. There was more focus on early years. There was a commitment to improving teacher quality. Transparent standards and consistent student assessments were introduced.

Critically, they increased flexibility for young people to combine academic and employer environments. So even those who choose an apprenticeship after the age of 15, carry on with maths and carry on with core subjects at school until the age of 18.

One of the big myths about Germany is the supposed purity of its vocational education. They have, in fact, been moving in the opposite direction - and it shows that deciding between vocational or academic education is a false choice.

The result of these decade-long reforms was impressive. In 2000, Germany was behind England. By 2009, they’d overtaken us.

The ‘PISA schock’, as it become known, shows what can be done when there is focused education reform.

Now compare England to Germany. We’ve already seen our PISA ranking is unnervingly low.

TIMMS - an international benchmarking of maths and science teaching - shows we have stagnated in maths, and for 10-year-olds, our science scores have dropped.

In Japan, 85% take advanced maths, equivalent to at least AS level, in upper secondary.

In Taiwan, the figure is 70%.

In England, it’s 13%.

A rounded curriculum

This is why we are changing the system - starting with curriculum reform.

We’re learning from Germany here. Whatever pupils want to do after school, and whether vocational or technical training is right for them, a solid academic core helps them get there.

This isn’t to say that educating the whole child isn’t important. Our guidance recognises the core body of knowledge that children should learn - and our EBacc prioritises the subjects employers value.

But we do not dictate how to teach.

And this gives teachers space to develop wider skills.

Michael Wilshaw, now head of Ofsted, epitomised a ‘whole child’ approach when he was head of Mossbourne Academy. The school looked at improving attainment in a wider context of improved behaviour and social interaction.

He has taken that philosophy and approach into inspection. And it guides our curriculum too. Good schools are taking advantage, providing activities like debating, public speaking, negotiation - a school in my constituency is offering business mentoring, for example.

I know that employers value abilities and personal characteristics like resilience, problem-solving, good character. By getting away from a tick-box system, teachers have greater flexibility to combine academic excellence with developing these wider skills.


So what are we actually doing in each subject?

I want to start with maths - the most important for our future.

At primary, we’re encouraging children to become fluent in their times tables at a younger age, removing calculators from primary tests - and introducing a new curriculum giving children a stronger foundation in the vital elements of maths, like arithmetic and fractions.

Our schools spend less time teaching maths than most countries - TIMSS 2011 ranked us 39 of 42 for maths teaching time at age 14. In the subject where we are behind, we are doing less. So improving secondary maths is a top priority.

We’re making GCSEs more challenging and rigorous, with pupils covering more content and more non-routine problems which expect students to apply themselves in different ways - in areas like ratios, proportions, interest-rates.

And we’re transforming post-16 maths. Pupils who haven’t yet achieved a C at GCSE will keep studying. Those who got a good GCSE, but don’t want to pursue an A level, will do a range of new mid-level qualifications, specifically aimed at those students who do not want to do a whole A Level. And those going on to A level will be stretched by more challenging qualifications.

By 2020, the vast majority of young people will be studying maths right up to 18 - every one of them achieving the highest standard they possibly can.


We’re being equally ambitious in the sciences.

GCSE and A level content will be deeper. And as more and more scientific disciplines require maths, we’re increasing the maths component of the sciences. In biology, for example, pupils will be better prepared for biomechanics or genetics - opening up more options to our young people.

And thanks to our curriculum reforms, we’ve started to see real progress in the numbers of students taking sciences.

This year, the number of girls doing chemistry or physics at GCSE hit record levels - catching up with the boys. Looking at the numbers over the previous decade, we have seen a massive improvement.

The number of physics A levels has gone up 29%; chemistry by 28%; biology by 20%. (between 2007 and 2012).

So we have seen a big move towards STEM subjects.

DT and computing

We’re also making sure students can apply this knowledge, too.

Our new design and technology courses focus on the practical application of science. It will expose students to the most exciting and transformative technologies - 3D printing, robotics, biomimicry, computer-aided design.

And computer skills are being brought in earlier, too. Coding - one of the essential skills of the 21st century - will now start at age 5. We are aiming to develop one of the most rigorous computing curricula in the world, where pupils will learn to handle detailed, abstract computing processes and over-11s will learn 2 programming languages.

I remember being at school and using early computers. Yes, I was in computer club - and I loved it. I think we’ve lost some of that sense of joy and excitement in computing, and have just become focused on just training kids to use Windows. We want to bring some of that excitement back.


I know one of your top concerns is English, and basic literacy.

So children will now sit a new spelling, punctuation and grammar test when they leave primary school. And we’ve introduced a compulsory phonics check in year 1, that is already helping spot children who have fallen behind in reading - in last year’s check around 235,000 children were identified as needing extra help.

And at GCSE and A level, we are being much more firm about sloppy mistakes and poor grammar - keeping standards high into secondary school.

People say that technology has transformed the world. But it’s actually made writing more important - so much of the new technology requires written communication. I think it’s right schools focus on getting the basics right.


We have also made extensive changes to language teaching. Languages had been in long decline - but our new EBacc has started to reverse the trend.

In 2012 the number of GCSE entries in languages was its highest in 5 years. The number of French entries was up 16%, German entries up 9%, and Spanish entries up 26%.

And from next year, primary schools will also be required to teach a foreign language at age 7.

This prompted some real interest - we’ve seen a great campaign from the Japan Foundation, for example, encouraging primary schools to adopt Japanese. They plan to help schools provide the subject, developing materials and encouraging take-up of the language.

It is exactly the sort of thing we want to encourage - curriculum reform inspiring innovation in schools.

A challenge to employers

And I want to challenge you to follow this example.

We are rebalancing the curriculum towards high-value subjects - in maths, the sciences, DT, computing, English and the languages. We have unblocked the pipeline of future engineers, mathematicians, linguists - and in time, you will feel the benefit.

But think about what you could do too - in 3 specific areas.

First, we’re extending core maths to age 18. Your endorsement of the new qualifications would be incredibly helpful. It’s launching in October. You could follow universities’ lead - and make it clear that STEM subjects are highly valuable even if you don’t want to go into STEM industries. The historians or English literature graduates of today are tomorrow’s primary school teachers, journalists, politicians. We need to break out of a cycle where successive generations lack strong maths skills.

Second, we’ve seen record numbers of girls entering the sciences at GCSE. But it’s still fewer than boys. So what could you do - how could the voice of business persuade young women engineering isn’t just a job for the boys? How do you persuade girls there are careers in science, and translate that GCSE uptake into A level?

Third, how can you support languages? What about following the example of the Japan Foundation - what about employers talking directly to schools? Getting involved in developing young people?

You are an influential voice with parents, pupils and schools. Broadcasting loud and clear to them what employers want and value - and promoting these important subjects - would be hugely valued.

We face a rapidly changing, newly competitive world. Improving education - especially maths and science - is essential if we are to compete.

We are approaching the task with a sense of ambition and energy. And I urge employers to join us.

Thank you.