Elizabeth Truss speaks about school reform

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

Elizabeth Truss speaks to the School Leaders Summit about reforms to the curriculum, exams and school accountability.

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

I want to start by talking about Kevin Spacey.

After a hard day at the department, one of my guilty pleasures is watching the American political thriller, House of Cards.

The 90s BBC series was updated by Netflix - a service where viewers can watch TV and films over the internet.

Their version, with Mr Spacey starring as Senate Chief Whip, Frank Underwood, won critical acclaim and helped Netflix gain some 2 million customers.

Less well known is how they commissioned the series.

Most shows have to persuade editors to take a gamble, based on a pilot episode or series.

But Netflix scan audience behaviour on all their content. They knew exactly what they like, how they watch, when they pause, what they want.

So they could commission an entire series with confidence, and release it all at once - because they looked at the numbers, and knew it would work.

Of course a TV series in which a super-ambitious politician schemes, slanders and bumps off colleagues on their way to the top has little relation to reality.

You might well think that; I couldn’t possibly comment.

But anyway, the way that this show - an innovative, award-winning, profitable show - was created says so much about how the world has changed.

A changing world…

Netflix would scarcely have been imaginable 10 years ago - we were all going to Blockbuster to pick up videos then.

Now, it’s one of a generation of online businesses, ripping up the rules on how people buy and consume and invent.

And we live in a smaller world, too. Borders mean less. Companies are foot-loose, able to move and sell to almost anyone, anywhere.

They have vast new markets expanding across the world - just this week, the Chancellor is in China. Young, hungry countries are changing the shape of the global economy with millions of new middle-class consumers, professionals, and graduates.

…which needs good education

And in this world, good education is more important than ever.

The association between test scores and growth rates increased by a third between 1960 to 1980 and 1980 to 2000.

Technology and globalisation have created a ‘hollowed-out’ labour market - with demand for lots of manual jobs, demand for lots of high-end jobs, but far fewer of the old manual-skilled jobs in between.

This rewards those who develop a highly-skilled, highly-educated population.

And leaves behind those who don’t - or won’t.

Risk of relative decline

In Britain, we have a lot to do.

Last week, the OECD published results of adult literacy and numeracy tests in 24 developed countries.

It confirmed the link between education and economics: across all countries, people with the best numeracy scores were almost 4 times as likely to enjoy high wages as those with the bottom.

To quote the report: ‘incomes are higher in countries with larger proportions of adults who reach the highest levels of literacy or numeracy proficiency.’

It found that in England, 25- to 54-year-olds did much better than 16 to 24s.

Our young people came 22nd out of 24 for literacy, and 21st for numeracy.

What’s interesting is that 90% of the variation in skills across the study was within, rather than between, countries - in other words, we have a huge gap between our top - and bottom-placed adults, and a long tail of poor performance.

The case for reform

We can’t afford this. To put it in the words of the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher - the study has ‘serious economic implications’ for England.

Studies like this confirm the case for the changes we’re making.

They’re the motivating force behind our reforms. They’re evidence we have more to do - and that if we don’t, we won’t take advantage of the new world order - we won’t pay our way in the world.

That’s why we are making big changes: with a new national curriculum in 2014; new exams from 2015; and accountability reforms from 2016.

Learning from the best

We’re learning from the best in the world here.

After Germany received bad results in PISA - an international assessment - it experienced what was known as ‘PISA schock’. Over several years, they introduced reforms - lengthening the school day, strengthening the core curriculum, giving greater autonomy to teachers, creating nationwide performance standards.

Germany has since overtaken us in the rankings.

So our reforms are designed to do the same thing - to look at our results, learn from the best, and improve.

Take our EBacc - which encourages students to keep studying an academic core into late secondary, just like the best countries.

We’ve started to see its effects. In 2013, the number of GCSE entries in languages was its highest in 5 years. Individual entries in the 3 sciences were the highest in more than 16 years. We saw the highest number of history entries since at least 1997. Record numbers of girls did chemistry and physics.

Curriculum - maths

And lessons from abroad inspire changes to individual subjects, too.

Take maths - where PISA ranks us 27th.

TIMSS - another international benchmarking assessment - showed that children in England were better at data and statistics than arithmetic and algebra. So we’re removing calculators from primary tests, and encouraging children to become fluent in their times tables at a younger age, so that they get to grips with these more fundamental concepts and processes.

TIMSS also ranked us 39 of 42 for maths teaching time at age 14 - so we’re encouraging an increase in time spent on maths.

At primary, the new curriculum gives a stronger foundation - with more time on vital concepts like arithmetic or fractions.

At secondary, new GCSEs in 2015 will be more rigorous, with pupils covering more content and more challenging problems - in areas like ratios, proportions, or algebra.

Post-16 maths

And we’re transforming post-16 maths.

The best countries keep their students studying maths later. According to the Nuffield Foundation, in England just over 20% of students carry on with maths into upper secondary.

In countries like Japan - which had the highest average numeracy score in the OECD study - or Hong Kong, it’s over 95%. In Germany, it’s above 90%; in Singapore, it’s 66%.

In England, most students who do carry on with maths in England to a higher level are A-grade students. For those that want to pursue advanced maths, new A levels in 2016 will be more challenging, and we now have the first maths free schools as well.

But almost all other pupils drop the subject after GCSE. Only 33% of students who got a B, and just 24% of those with a C, kept on doing maths - worryingly, many at a lower level than they’d previously done.

That’s largely because they haven’t had appropriate courses for their ability range.

So we’re introducing core maths. Pupils who haven’t yet achieved a C at GCSE will keep studying, and 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 developed for intermediate, post-16 study.

We will spend £20 million in 2014 to 2016 to help schools and colleges prepare to teach the new courses.

We’re looking for organisations to pilot then - and I’d encourage anyone here that wants to, to get in touch with the department.

We’ve had a good response from organisations like the CBI, and are encouraging universities to start looking for core maths in their entry requirements. And last week, the International Baccalaureate Organisation announced that their maths standard level will be available online, from 2015 to 2016.

And we’re also funding Maths in Education and Industry to work with Professor Tim Gowers at Cambridge University to devise a whole new problem-solving course, based on intriguing, real-world questions.

Just to give you a few examples of the sorts of question we’re looking at:

  • roughly how many people could fit into the Isle of Wight?
  • British vegetarians have, on average, higher IQs than the general population. Does this show that meat is bad for your brain?
  • how do Mexican waves start?

and one that’s appropriate for this place

  • how much can we trust opinion polls?

Obviously, there’s only one answer to that last question - you can’t - and these are just examples from Tim’s website. But you get a sense of the type of imaginative thing being explored.

All of this means that by 2020, the vast majority of young people will be studying maths right up to 18 - to the highest standard each can achieve.

Curriculum - science, computing, design and technology

In the sciences, we’re increasing the maths element, and deepening the content on key topics like evolution, or mechanics.

The computing curriculum now includes coding from a young age, and children will learn 2 programming languages - preparing for lives in a digital world by learning complex, abstract processes from a young age.

And in DT, they will be exposed to the most exciting new technologies, from 3D printing to biomimicry.

Curriculum - English, languages and EBacc

In English, younger children will have better checks to spot those falling behind, and a renewed emphasis on spelling and grammar and punctuation across secondary school.

In the languages, primary schools will be required to teach a foreign language from age 7 - and we’ve encouraged much higher take-up at secondary, through our English baccalaureate, introduced in 2011.

Freedom for teachers

You’ve had a chance to digest, and no doubt to contribute, to the new curriculum.

But I want to be clear that we want to trust your professional judgement.

We might be clarifying what knowledge children should learn: but we will not interfere in how.

That means there is no one-size-fits-all national roll-out of the curriculum.

Resources for teachers

Still, we are making information and support available to help.

If you go to the website of the National College for Teaching and Leadership, they have an online resource, developed with headteachers, to help schools plan curriculum change.

Teaching schools are receiving additional funding to help with the transition in their alliances. If you’re not in an alliance, I encourage you to contact your local teaching school.

We fund subject-specific resources - like the National Centre for Excellence in Teaching Mathematics, which has a range of support available for schools, or the National Science Learning Centre which will shortly have more materials for the new science curriculum.

We have announced £2 million funding for master computer teachers - while ‘expert subject groups’ drawn from teaching schools, subject associations and higher education have looked at how to support the new curriculum. The computing and geography groups have already published their work - and others will follow soon.

All of this is on GOV.UK - or you can always follow DfE on Twitter - and will help you introduce the changes.

Reforming exams

The same goes for exam reform. On the department’s website, and Ofqual’s, there is a very clear timetable showing what we’re changing, when, and what you need to know.

And again, the case for reform is clear: over the past decade, even as our international rankings stagnated, exam pass rates went up.

So new, more rigorous exams will be less predictable and more stretching. Teaching of new GCSEs for English and maths will start in 2015, with other subjects starting in 2016. New A levels in most of the key subjects will be available from 2015, with maths and language A levels available from 2016.

Last month, we stopped early entry into GCSEs counting towards league-table performance.

And from 2014 GCSEs and from last month A level exams will all be sat in the summer - ending the culture of endless modules and resits.

Reforming accountability

This is a based on an essential lesson from the best systems.

They show a combination of autonomy and accountability: letting teachers get on with their job, but holding them to account.

That requires respected qualifications.

And it’s why we’re changing wider performance measures, too.

At the moment, secondary schools are judged by the proportion of pupils awarded 5 GCSEs at grade C or more.

That created perverse incentives. We all know it encouraged disproportionate focus on moving pupils over the C/D borderline. It rewarded schools where pupils met the C grade targets, rather than excelled them. And with just 5 subjects, pupils often studied a narrow curriculum.

So from 2016, schools will publish pupils’ performance across 8 subjects, with maths and English double-weighted, and with reserved slots for EBacc subjects.

Achievement will not be measured by crossing an arbitrary threshold, but by pupils’ progress - whether they under- or over-perform, given a reasonable target.

That gives children a much broader curriculum, with a solid academic core. It’s a better test of schools’ ability to get each child to do their personal best. And it’s much fairer for those with a challenging intake.


We are midway through our reforms.

And we can see from countries like Germany that reform takes a decade. It’s an inherently long-term task.

But across these 3 big areas - the curriculum, exams, and accountability - our approach is consistent. We will accept nothing but the highest quality. We are learning from the best in the world. And we will combine more autonomy for schools with better accountability.

I encourage everyone here to spread that message.

Think about the OECD and its reports showing other countries racing ahead. That’s the challenge we face.

Think about Netflix and the sort of high-end, advanced, all-digital business they represent.

That’s what is possible with better education.

Thank you.