Michael Gove to Twyford Church of England High School

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

The Education Secretary launches the National Curriculum Review at a flagship west London comprehensive school.

Thank you for coming to Ealing and to this great comprehensive. Twyford is a superb state school which draws children from every social background and gives them all a rigorous academic education. Its performance in every area - from modern languages to music - is outstanding. This school, under its inspirational head, Alice Hudson, is a great place of learning, a powerful engine of social mobility and a joy to visit. Which is why I hope there’ll be time for everyone who wants to, to talk to Alice, see more of her school and see what great state education can achieve.

We’re fortunate that there are so many great headteachers in our schools. In the last few months I’ve had the privilege of talking to many of them. Heroes like Jim McAteer of Hartismere School in Suffolk, Mike Griffiths of Northampton School for Boys, Barry Day of the Greenwood Academy in Nottingham, Mike Spinks of Urmston Grammar in Greater Manchester, Mike Crawshaw of Debenham High and Greg Martin of Durand in Lambeth. And heroines like Sally Coates at Burlington Danes in Hammersmith, Lubna Khan down the road at Berrymede here in Ealing, Sue John at Lampton in Hounslow, Joan McVittie at Woodside High in Tottenham and Kathy August at Manchester Academy.

After nine months in this job there’s no doubt in my mind that we have a wonderfully talented cohort of new teachers and a superb generation of school leaders. But despite the dedication of those professionals, and the hard work of our children, the sad fact is that when it comes to objective measures of our children’s academic performance, we’re falling behind other nations.

Just before Christmas the most comprehensive survey of global educational achievement ever conducted showed just how daunting the challenge is. The OECD published its PISA league tables - they record progress in student achievement. But we haven’t been progressing relative to our competitors; we’ve been retreating. In the last ten years we have plummeted in the rankings: from 4th to 16th for science, 7th to 25th for literacy and 8th to 28th for maths. In those tests of mathematics, Chinese 15-year-olds are now more than two years ahead of 15-year-olds in this country. And in maths, the OECD found that just 1.8 per cent of 15-year-olds in this country ‘can generalise and creatively use information based on their own investigations and modelling of complex problem situations’. In Shanghai it’s 25 per cent.

And it’s not just the case that we’re falling behind, 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 become less equal. Children in wealthier areas are 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 made it to Oxbridge actually fell in recent years. In the penultimate year for which we have figures it was 45. And in the last year, 40 out of 80,000.

These figures tell a terrible story of horizons narrowed, opportunity restricted, lives blighted. It’s not just offensive to any notion of social justice that so many should lose out in this way. It’s also a threat to our economic recovery. And a step backwards - to a past when we rationed access to knowledge and assumed there had to be a limit on how much poorer children could achieve. There is a real danger that if we don’t change we will remain stuck in that unhappy past.

First, we have to improve the quality of entrants into teaching by recruiting more talented people into the classroom. The best-performing nations - like Finland, South Korea and Singapore - all recruit their teachers from the top pool of graduates. Which is why we are reforming teacher training, devoting resources to getting top graduates in maths and science into the classroom and expanding programmes such as Teach First, Teaching Leaders and Future Leaders, which attract the best and the brightest into teaching. We also need to reform the rules on behaviour and discipline. The biggest barrier to talented people coming into or staying in teaching is poor behaviour by pupils - which is why we will strengthen teachers’ powers to maintain order in our new Education Bill.

Second, we have to increase the level of operational autonomy in our schools - over issues like pay, staffing, timetabling and spending - matching what’s happening in the best education systems across the world. Again I’m delighted that well over 400 good and outstanding schools have applied to take up our offer of academy status. And that over 200 parent, teacher and charity groups have applied to set up Free Schools. We’re also working with many local authorities around the country to ensure that dozens of the poorer performing schools in their areas are taken over by proven independent sponsors. In eight months we’ve more than doubled the number of academies.

And third, you need mechanisms that send a relentless signal that you believe in holding everyone to higher and higher standards. That’s why we introduced our English Baccalaureate in last week’s league tables to encourage more children - especially from poorer backgrounds - to take the types of qualifications that open doors to the best universities and the most exciting careers.

Yes, this pace of change is radical - but it needs to be. Those who want to keep the current system unreformed can only justify it by deluding themselves and others about the world around us. Millions of Asian students graduating from schools which outpace our own joining the international trade system? Ignore it. Moore’s Law in computer science, genetics, biological engineering and robotics transforming industry after industry before our eyes? Ignore it. Other nations ruthlessly plundering best practice from the highest-performing jurisdictions to get better and better? Ignore it and say since there are more As now at A Level than 25 years ago, everything is fine.

We cannot afford to remain stuck with a school system that isn’t adapting when the pace of change in business is accelerating. The movie of the moment - the Social Network - tells the story of a company, Facebook, which almost no-one had heard of a few years ago and which is now worth billions. The jobs of the future will be found in industries none of us can envisage now. But the biography of Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerburg powerfully underlines the lesson that a rigorous academic education is the best preparation for the future. When Zuckerburg applied to college he was asked what languages he could speak and write. As well as English he listed French, Hebrew, Latin and Ancient Greek. He also studied maths and science at school. He would have done very well in our English Baccalaureate. And the breakthroughs his rigorously academic education helped create are now providing new opportunities for billions. Which is why we need schools that equip students with the intellectual capital to make the most of these opportunities. Critically that means giving every child a profound level of mathematical and scientific knowledge, as well as deep immersion in the reasoning skills generated by subjects such as history and modern foreign languages.

We must change fast and we will change or we are going to be culturally and materially impoverished. Across the globe, the future lies in elevating our sights, raising aspiration, daring to imagine the new heights our children might scale. Which is why we need to step up the pace of reform, not slow down. And, critically, why we should set the benchmark for our children higher still.

That’s why today I’m launching a new review of the entire National Curriculum. It’s badly in need of reform. It’s too long: in total, the full document approaches nearly 500 pages. It’s patronising towards teachers and stifles innovation by being far too prescriptive about how to teach. Teachers are instructed on how to use specific techniques in RE and commanded to use certain types of source material in history. Its pages are littered with irrelevant material - mainly high-sounding aims such as the requirement to ‘challenge injustice’ which are wonderful in politicians’ speeches - but contribute nothing to helping students deepen their stock of knowledge.

And at the same time as having become so bloated with prescriptive detail about how to teach and empty rhetoric about what teaching should achieve, the curriculum is decidedly thin on actual knowledge. So we have a compulsory history curriculum in secondary schools that doesn’t mention any historical figures - except William Wilberforce and Olaudah Equiano, the great abolitionists (and then only in the explanatory notes). We have a compulsory geography curriculum in secondary schools that mentions no countries apart from the UK, no continents, no rivers, no oceans, no mountains and no cities, although it does mention the European Union. And we have a compulsory music curriculum at Key Stage 3 in secondary school which doesn’t mention a single composer, musician, conductor or piece of music.

The curriculum that was prepared for our primary schools by the last Government was similarly denuded of content. The English curriculum didn’t mention a single writer, novel, poem or play. The arts and music curriculum didn’t mention any artists or musicians, or indeed any composers or pieces of music. And the programme for historical, geographical and social understanding didn’t mention a single historical figure or specify a single historical period that had to be studied. The primary curriculum doesn’t require children to learn about adding or subtracting fractions - but does require that five-year-olds create and perform dances from a variety of cultures. The curriculum doesn’t include anything in science on the water cycle but does, helpfully, inform swimming teachers that pupils should be taught to ‘move in water’.

The absence of such rigour leaves our children falling further and further behind. In all those countries that perform best in international comparison studies like PISA, the curriculum contains more core knowledge and less extraneous material. As Tim Oates says:

In all high-performing systems, the fundamentals of subjects are strongly emphasised, have substantial time allocation, and are the focus of considerable attention in learning programmes.

Comparing Hong Kong and England alone, examples of topics explicitly covered in Hong Kong at primary school but not in England include:

  • calculations with fractions
  • the solution of equations
  • the properties of cones, pyramids and spheres
  • the number of days in each month and the number of days in a year
  • area and perimeter is limited to rectilinear shapes, and volume.

Examples of science topics explicitly covered in the Singapore primary curriculum but not the England one are:

  • understanding of cells as the basic unit of life; how cells divide to facilitate growth; identification of different parts of plant and animal cells
  • understanding the importance of the water cycle
  • understanding of the link between the Earth’s position relative to the Sun as a contributing factor to Earth’s ability to support life.

The TIMMS survey of maths and science teaching in education systems around the world compares those topics taught to children in different countries. It reveals some big gaps in the English curriculum. The following common topics aren’t in the English primary curriculum:

  • adding and subtracting simple fractions
  • comparing and matching different representations of the same data
  • finding a rule for a relationship given some pairs of numbers.

And these common topics aren’t in the primary curriculum for science:

  • plant and animal reproduction
  • energy requirements of plants and animals
  • ways that common communicable diseases are transmitted
  • properties and uses of metals
  • common energy sources and their practical uses
  • common features of Earth’s landscape
  • weather conditions from day to day or over the seasons
  • fossils of animals and plants.

A poor curriculum doesn’t just cause problems in the classroom, it also makes it much harder to set high-quality, rigorous exams. As Tim Oates said last year:

If the curriculum specifications contain irrelevant content, there will be erosion of face validity of assessments and qualifications, leading to a loss of confidence in national assessment and public qualifications. Developing fair and accurate assessment relies on clarity in the statement of that which is to be assessed - this was not provided by the highly generic statement of the revised secondary curriculum.

This is one reason why Key Stage 2 tests have become devalued in recent years. It has also led to problems with those GCSEs - English, maths and science - that have to fulfill curriculum requirements.

The relationship between curriculum and assessment can also lead to false reassurance for parents. For example, the secondary English curriculum lists a huge range of writers from Bunyan and Chaucer, to Larkin and Amis, yet there is very little requirement to study writers from any period or genre. This means that exam boards tend to focus on the same texts year after year. An unpublished departmental survey suggests that over 90 per cent of schools teach Of Mice and Men to their GCSE students. And as many students only read one novel for GCSE, the curriculum’s impression of wide-ranging study is misleading.

So the need for a complete overhaul of the curriculum is very clear - we have taken a serious wrong turn and we need to be brought back to the road travelled by the most successful education systems around the world. As we explained in the White Paper, the remit is clear:

The National Curriculum will act as a new benchmark for all schools. It will be slim, clear and authoritative enough for all parents to see what their child might be expected to know at every stage in their school career. They will be able to use it to hold all schools to account for how effectively their child has grasped the essentials of, for example, English language and literature, core mathematical processes and science.

Our timetable will allow this new curriculum in English, science and maths to be introduced in 2013. All these subjects - alongside PE - will remain compulsory at all key stages. Our aim is to introduce programmes of study in other subjects in 2014. And this timetable will allow for extensive consultation amongst interested parties. Of course I have views - some of them well-known - on the value and importance of different subjects and topics, but it is crucial that everyone have their voice heard in what is an extremely important national debate.

We are lucky to have as guides an advisory panel containing many of best current and former headteachers, including Sir Michael Wilshaw from Mossborne, John Macintosh, formerly of The Oratory, and Bernice McCabe from North London Collegiate. And an expert panel to collate evidence on the best international examples led by Tim Oates, Director of Research at Cambridge Assessment, with the support of some of the most innovative and inspiring education academies currently working in this country - such as Professor Dylan William.

These great men and women have a tough job to do. We live in a rapidly changing world and we need a truly modern curriculum that provides schools and teachers with a baseline, a benchmark that will be meaningful to parents and the wider public but that does not fetter the ability of heads and teachers to innovate and adapt. As is true of all of our reforms we don’t have time to wait - we must push ahead now on all fronts. We’ve already fallen too far behind - in this area as in so many others - made the wrong choices. I look forward to all of your support and help as we take this next step on the path to a better education for all our children.