Elizabeth Truss: the global education race

Education and Childcare Minister Elizabeth Truss speaks about social mobility, the economy and education reform.

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

The Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP

It’s a pleasure to be here in Oxford. One of the world’s finest educational institutions - in the respected Academic Ranking of World Universities, Oxford has been in the top 10, every year for the past decade.

And yet incredibly, a 2012 Sutton Trust study suggested the majority of state school teachers would not recommend it to their most able students.

While a union leader said that Oxbridge colleges “ooze wealth and privilege”.

Can you imagine any other country where half the teachers would put children off applying to the best universities?

It’s a symptom of the confused relationship with success we have in this country.

Until we agree that doing well is an unequivocally good thing - and that it is attainable by all - we will continue to waste talent.

So - let’s make 2014 the year we abandon the limiting beliefs holding us back, and help our country to rise.

Limiting beliefs: ability determined by natural talent

The first limiting belief is that ability is determined by natural talent, and no amount of hard work can change that.

I repeatedly hear in the education debate some children are just ‘non-academic’.

What does ‘non-academic’ even mean?

It’s certainly true that some disciplines like maths or reading come easier to some than others.

But the vast majority of people can master them - just as all students can benefit from vocational skills, too.

Yet there’s this idea that some pupils are ‘not academic’.

Can you imagine if we took the same attitude to driving? If we labelled people as ‘non-drivers’ because they found it difficult, the first few times they got behind the wheel?

It would be nonsense: most people manage to pass their test eventually. It took me 3 goes.

I understand it took my boss 7. But he decided he needed to be able to drive and he practised hard and got on with it.

We need the same attitude towards academic attainment - particularly in maths, where the more you prastice, the better you get and the more you will earn in your future career.

Just as we would never say only a handful of people have the innate ability to learn to drive, we should find it unacceptable to say maths is just for a talented few.

Because at the moment, the number of English students that fail to achieve even the lowest levels is appalling.

Compare us to other places like Shanghai, or Singapore. They ensure that virtually every pupil reaches that high standard, with very, very few left behind.

In Hong Kong, for example, just under 9% of all pupils failed to achieve the lowest level in the PISA maths assessment. In Singapore, it’s just above 8%. In Shanghai, it’s under 4%.

In England, it’s 22% - almost a quarter.

There’s an old Chinese proverb: ‘diligence redeems lack of ability’. That sums up their commitment to the success of every child.

While in this country, we sometimes seem to think lack of ability is destiny.

That’s wrong. We must not accept that some children should be allowed to slip behind.

I believe that this country can help all children to reach their full potential - and get the sort of world-class education that many brilliant schools and teachers are already providing.

Limiting beliefs: limited number of good jobs

The second limiting belief we should jettison is the one that there is a fixed number of good jobs. That even if we could improve education for all, there would not be any extra jobs to go around - and that many of our people are already overqualified for the work they do.

Put simply, this idea suggests that there is not enough room in Britain for more success - that getting on in Britain is like getting into a nightclub with a strict one-in, one-out door policy. Only when somebody else leaves or gets kicked out can you gain entry to the roped-off area and a good job.

Skills as supply-side reform

But this idea that social mobility is now relative rails against economic reality. Having more highly skilled people has a big impact on the jobs market - and ultimately, the wider economy.

Last year, as part of its Adult Skills Survey, the OECD collected and analysed data on adult skills and employment in 24 different countries.

What it has convincingly shown is that right around the world, in all sorts of different societies, economies and geographies, where there is a flexible labour market, the jobs available increasingly reflect the skills available.

With free labour markets, countries with highly skilled working populations are more likely to attract and create highly skilled jobs; countries without, go without.

Britain has one of the most flexible labour markets in the world - along with countries like Canada or the USA. And the data suggests we have an economy that reflects our current skill levels - that most people are neither under- nor overqualified for the jobs they do. Likewise in Canada and the US.

That means if we had better skills - and keep our current flexible approach - we would have more jobs at a higher skill level, too.

In other words: in a country like ours, in a globalised economy, good jobs follow good skills.

What’s more, we already know that highly skilled people are in greater demand in this country than elsewhere. Education and training lead to a greater earnings premium in the UK than in other countries - which shows that it’s nonsense to think we’ve hit an upper limit on good jobs. Quite the opposite.

All the evidence suggests that ultimately, what determines a country’s ability to grow and prosper is a combination of flexible labour markets and good education.

Analysis of OECD data shows that the correlation between educational performance and economic growth across the globe increased by a third between 1960 to 1980 and 1980 to 2000.

In the 21st century and beyond, skills pay the bills.

And even more so in the future. The new economies are growing. There are more consumers today in more countries across the globe than at any other point in history. And at the same time, technology is transforming industry after industry - creating new ways of making, earning and learning.

Together, these 2 trends are changing the shape of the world’s economies, creating a new, hour-glass shaped labour market - with lots of highly skilled, highly demanding jobs (the sort that need highly educated people), lots of low-skilled service roles, and very little in between. Since 1979, the number of professional, managerial and technical jobs has risen by 30%.

A new way of looking at social mobility

These economic trends are an opportunity.

Britain has always been an open, globalised economy. Our success, as a nation, is based on trading our way around the world, and our bleakest economic moments - like the 1930s or 1970s - have been when we’ve turned our backs on that roving, entrepreneurial spirit.

If we keep that open attitude, we can take advantage of a changing world.

And that means we can start to think differently about success in this country.

So that it’s not about a ruthless fight for a fixed number of roles, about access to a set number of professional jobs - about squabbling over highly prized internships.

This is zero-sum politics of divvying out limited spoils - it’s the one-in, one-out ‘nightclub’ mentality that still poisons our discussion of success.

Instead, we need to change our attitudes and abandon our self-limiting ideas about what people are capable of.

We need to believe in absolute mobility - the ability of every single person in this country, regardless of what anybody else is doing, to shape their own success through hard work and diligence.

And in turn, to shape the future of the country as a whole.

We need to believe that if England started producing vast numbers of nuclear engineers or top-flight mathematicians - more of the world’s leading companies would want to headquarter here.

We need to believe that, if we improve the individual skills of those already in work, every company’s performance will improve as well - adding up to a huge boost in productivity.

We need to believe that if your employer can’t see your talent, the next step might be to set up on your own. Or move somewhere else. Or do something different.

We need to believe that for far too long, we’ve been wasting talent on an industrial scale - accepting that too many people will fall short of their potential.

That’s starting to change. A record 4.9 million businesses are now trading across the country - an increase of 9% since 2010 - almost all small- and medium-sized businesses. According to Michael Hayman, co-founder of StartUp Britain, more than 500,000 new businesses were registered in Britain throughout 2013 - compared to just 330,000 in 2008 to 2009.

But we need to go even further. We can be the enterprise capital of Europe.

And we can combine the commercial flair which has always been one of Britain’s strengths with advanced science, maths and technology.

Napoleon called us a nation of shopkeepers. Why can’t we be a nation of coders, analysts, inventors, entrepreneurs, creators as well - selling our skills to the world?

Ambition: good education for all

This optimistic vision is ambitious. And our ambition must be to out-educate the rest of the world.

And everything we’re doing aims to make sure that high-quality schooling - an excellent academic education - is seen as a universal necessity, not an option for the few.

That’s what the academies and free school programme is doing - spreading the freedoms that independent schools have, to all schools.

2014 will see a new, rigorous national curriculum - giving every child, from every background, the essential knowledge and skills they need to succeed.

Maths and English in primary will build up essential grammar and punctuation, arithmetic, fractions - a solid foundation for more advanced study later.

History will provide a more meaningful, chronological immersion in the past.

Geography will include more specific knowledge of people and places.

Design and technology will expose children to the most exciting new technologies - while computing will give them the technical ability to innovate and create in a digital world.

Or look at our changes to performance tables.

We’re replacing the current measure, of how many pupils get at least 5 Cs at GCSE, with smarter measurement - not just the performance of pupils on the C/D borderline, but the performance of every pupil.

Every child’s progress matters - and every child should be supported to improve, whether that’s from an A to an A* or an E to a D.

Or our reforms to improve the quality of teaching - expanding programmes like Teach First, so that top graduates from the best universities are working with more children than ever before. We have just expanded this to nurseries so that well-qualified graduates are helping improve the vocabulary and communications of our youngest children - and we are offering generous bursaries to attract the brightest graduates into the teaching profession, and the toughest schools.

Every reform is based on this idea: giving every child, no matter where they live or what their parents do, the sort of high-quality, rigorous, rounded education previously reserved only for the few.

Learning from other countries

As we have seen - nations with highly educated populations are going to dominate economically. Highly skilled people will improve their country’s future prosperity and success.

Likewise, nations that fail to get the best out of their citizens will experience relative decline.

Look at Wales, for example - which abolished national tests in 2005 and league tables - caving in to producer interests. They are now ranked the equivalent of 40th for maths in PISA, 38th for reading, and 35th for science - below the rest of the UK, and beneath the OECD average.

When PISA came out, lots of the lessons from top-performing countries were dismissed as ‘cultural’. Explained away as - ‘oh, that’s other countries - nothing like us, nothing we can learn’.

What a facile criticism. Culture isn’t some immutable fact of life - it’s shaped by what we all say and do and believe. And that can - and does - change.

Other countries have a culture that says it’s not acceptable to leave some children behind.

They care more about hard work than innate ability.

They don’t believe that success will come naturally to some, but that it can come inevitably to everyone - if they work for it.

That’s an idea we can’t lose in translation.

And we need to get our skates on - because countries like Germany, Poland and China have already started reform.


Look at Germany. They have been improving ever since their 2000 PISA results - when they scored far worse than they had expected - plunging the whole country into a ‘PISA schock’.

What’s really interesting is that Germany has always placed a lot of store on vocational routes. But until about a decade ago, the academic content of vocational education was limited.

After the PISA schock, one of the key reforms Germany implemented was to make sure every child - in academic or vocational routes - would study a core of academic subjects until late secondary, in school, college, or an apprenticeship.

In the vocational stream, every pupil has to do maths, science, German, modern foreign languages, geography and history to age 16; and maths, German and a modern language to 18.

And new teachers are trained to diagnose and address specific problems faced by struggling students, so that no child falls behind.

So you can see that principle - that whatever future career a child wants to follow, they all need the same high-quality core academic education.

Since the early 2000s, the proportion of German students classed as underperforming in maths has shrunk at every PISA assessment - while in the UK, the proportion has steadily grown.

By PISA 2012, German pupils were about 6 months ahead of English pupils at maths.

And together with reforms to the welfare system and liberalisation of the labour market - education has been a key part of Germany’s economic resurgence.


Like Germany, Poland has also used the last few decades to carry out huge reforms to their education system - and since the late 1990s, they’ve managed to improve their PISA performance from the middle ground to the cluster at the top, far above the OECD average.

They’ve increased school autonomy, giving teachers more freedom over the curriculum and how to teach; increased accountability, through standardised national exams at the end of primary and in secondary; and reformed teachers’ pay, so that salaries are based on how well a teacher performs rather than how long they’ve taught.

But just as important as any of these, they’ve insisted that all pupils - not just some, but all - study a strong academic core, right through to 18.

Until that age, the compulsory curriculum for every pupil includes not just mother tongue and maths, but also science, geography, history and modern foreign languages.

They started their reforms in 1999 - and they’re already seeing huge improvements.

Between 2000 and 2012, Poland’s maths score in PISA increased from 470 to 518 - an improvement equivalent to a year’s extra schooling.

As a result, Poland’s 15-year-olds are now about 6 months ahead of their English peers in reading and maths, despite spending considerably less per capita.


We want to learn from these European ‘improvers’: we want all pupils to have access to core academic subjects at a high standard.

England is currently an ‘outlier’ in maths, with the lowest proportion of 16- to 18-year-olds studying it in the OECD.

In the future we don’t want students to choose whether to do maths at 16 - but ‘which maths’ they are going to take. By 2020, we want the vast majority of students to take the subject up to 18.

A levels will remain for those who want to take advanced maths.

Those who have not succeeded in obtaining a C in English and maths at GCSE will continue to study the subjects to that level.

And there will be new core maths qualifications starting in 2015 - for students who have achieved a grade C at GCSE, but who don’t want to take A level maths.

This will increase fluency in core mathematical techniques as well as getting students to understand statistics and be able to use maths in a practical way.

We propose a new performance table measure of the proportion of students taking maths beyond GCSE - and we are investing in a new core mathematics programme to support schools and colleges introducing new qualifications.

And we believe that vocational education is not a substitute for academic education - but is complementary to it.

That’s why my colleague Matthew Hancock, the Skills Minister, is introducing the TechBacc - a new performance measure for vocational education, that includes maths and literacy. Because strong academic and high-quality technical and vocational education go hand in hand.


We’re learning from China, too.

In January last year, the Department for Education commissioned the National College for Teaching and Leadership to lead a group of maths and science teachers from primary and secondary schools across England to visit schools and universities in China.

They saw teachers in action. They visited schools. They talked to pupils, parents, education officials, academics.

They saw that teachers in Shanghai think of themselves as a team, working together, to teach, practise and improve as a group - constantly refining their technique.

They saw that schools had greater focus on research engagement with universities.

They saw teachers talking to parents about their critical role in improving standards.

And most important of all, they saw that everyone believed the thing that mattered to success was not innate ability, but hard work.

Since then, they’ve started to put some of these ideas into practise in English classrooms.

Schools like Kibworth Primary have experimented with a Chinese model of mixed lecture-style and small-group classes. That frees up an extra 6 hours a week for teacher development time, working together using those Chinese research and study methods.

With that extra time for professional development, teaching inspection grades are now a full grade higher than before.

And next week, NCTL will be publishing a report summarising some of the lessons those teachers.

It’s hugely positive - and they’ve shown how to translate lessons from abroad sensibly into an English setting. To quote from the conclusion of the report:

The group is highly positive about the programme of implementation, describing the research in China as ‘life or career changing’.

And pupils have started to feel the benefit too. As one said, when their teacher taught them long division rather than the ‘bus-stop’ or ‘chunking’ method which they found easier - “why didn’t you teach us this before?”

That is exactly what we want to see.

Starting to see progress

By harnessing the twin forces of globalisation and technology, many more of our population could work in well-paid, high-skilled jobs and we can develop more great businesses in our country and export round the world.

To do this we need to challenge those who stand in the way of progress.

One of the great tragedies of education in this country is that too often, so-called progressive voices have limited children’s chances.

Those well-meaning, wrong-headed attitudes hold children back, disadvantage children who don’t have parental wealth, connections or advice - and entrench privilege for those who do.

Look at our qualifications reforms - cutting back on retakes and modules, moving to linear assessment; putting universities in charge of A levels to drive up standards.

The head of admissions at Oxford - among others - has said this will “wreck” the exam system, which will have “tragic consequences” for widening access.

But Oxford’s own admissions policies suggest that the status quo he defends is already broken. In recent years, Oxford has steadily increased the number of subject-specific entrance tests for its course, so that in 2012, according to the Daily Telegraph, 90% of candidates had to sit an aptitude test.

As for widening access - at the moment, children from state schools are much less likely to take academic subjects, especially at A level - for example, they are half as likely to study sciences and languages as their peers in independent schools.

The EBacc is already starting to change that. In 2013, individual entries in the 3 sciences at GCSE were the highest in more than 16 years. We saw the highest number of history entries for 16 years; geography entries, the highest for 9 years; languages, the highest for 5 years. Last year saw the highest ever number of girls entered for physics.

There is a similar trend at A level, with students voting with their feet to take maths and science.

This is progress. And in time, it means that pupils from all backgrounds - not just those with savvy parents - will be candidates for top universities like Oxford.

I’m delighted that some universities are already leading the way.

Two - Exeter and King’s College, London - are opening maths free schools, to start teaching this year - giving talented 16- to 19-year-olds from any and every background the opportunity to experience world-class teaching.

And I’m particularly pleased to see that these plans have received the seal of approval from the Office for Fair Access (Offa) - whose director, Professor Les Ebdon, said:

I’d be happy to see more university-led maths free schools because of the role they can play in helping able students from disadvantaged backgrounds access higher education… Offa is supportive of anything that is targeted at under-represented groups and helps them to fulfil their potential.

What’s more, Professor Ebdon has confirmed that, when universities contribute to the sponsorship or development of maths free schools, this will be considered as one of their activities to widen access to under-represented groups - and therefore as part of their access agreement.

That’s hugely welcome, and we fully support this approach. Because the best way to widen access is to improve numbers of students taking core academic subjects in state schools, and higher attainment in these subjects.

We are also seeing some fantastic schools raising the aspirations and attainment of their students. Now there are some great schools that are helping to change that mindset.

Like Folkestone Academy. I visited them a few months ago. They will do whatever it takes to help every child achieve their full potential - both in the classroom, and by supporting the wider family life that sits behind every child’s performance at school, by helping a parent to find work, say.

Or the Inspiration Trust in Norfolk - led by Dame Rachel de Souza. Noticing that Norfolk has a low rate of students progressing to A level maths and science - the trust set up Sir Isaac Newton Sixth Form Academy to teach Norfolk’s budding 16- to 18-year-olds maths and science, working in conjunction with leading universities.

These people and schools are relentless at raising expectations and ambitions, day by day. These schools exemplify the guiding principle of our reforms.

That nothing but the best - for all our children - will do.

Conclusion: ambitious for all our children

We have the potential in this country to achieve so much.

Our ambition must not just be to catch up with Germany and Poland but to overtake them. Not just to learn from the Asian tigers but to surpass them - do it better, smarter, more creatively. Take our fantastic cultural heritage and combine it with the most advanced computing and science.

Our ambition must be to out-educate the rest of the world. We are very aware that this is not an overnight job. The Secretary of State has been clear it is a decade-long project - which then must be built on.

But I am convinced we are on the right track and we can get there.

We are here in a world-leading educational institution. There is no reason why the whole country can’t be world-leading.

If we get education right, we have the economic conditions for a boom in social mobility - a vast increase in the number of high-end jobs, and a greater future for all of us.

Published 3 January 2014
Last updated 6 January 2014 + show all updates
  1. Changed to reflect final draft of speech.
  2. First published.