Nick Gibb: reforming education through international evidence

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

Schools Minister speaks at Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Education Policy Outlook Conference.


Thank you for that introduction [Richard Yelland].

It is a great pleasure to be here at the launch of the first ever Education Policy Outlook.

For well over a decade, the OECD has been at the forefront of producing high-quality international indicators which have been instrumental in informing education reforms in countries around the world - including this country.

PISA, PIAAC and TALIS have all given us vital data on our education performance relative to other jurisdictions. The Education Policy Outlook being launched today [22 January 2015] is a welcome addition to OECD analysis.

These surveys tell a story of remarkable improvement in some countries, and highlight complacency and stagnation in others. This can sometimes be uncomfortable. But it is essential, because understanding why some countries’ education systems succeed and others do not is the best stimulus for improvement.

Here in England, we had our own story of stagnation. PISA and other benchmarks consistently showed that our schools were failing to progress, while those elsewhere - in Poland, Italy and Portugal for example - were rapidly improving. This was of huge concern to this country.

Our long term economic prosperity depends upon an education system with the very highest standards. As research by Hanushek and Woessmann has found, a 25 point increase in PISA scores could raise the UK’s GDP growth rate by 0.5% every year.

Analysis by my own department has shown that the increase in the number of pupils achieving good GCSE grades since 2010 is estimated to add around £1.3 billion to the country’s economy in the long run .

Better schools are the single greatest step we can take towards an economy which is more productive, creates more jobs, and which equips young people with the knowledge they need to succeed in modern Britain.

Our plan

So, what was our response to PISA? Well, since coming to power in 2010, this government has implemented the most significant reform plan for a generation - and learning from the most successful education systems around the world has been central to that plan.

Three key principles which draw on the best international evidence have consistently guided our approach:

  • increased autonomy for schools, coupled with
  • strong accountability, all underpinned by a
  • rigorous academic curriculum

This plan is working. Today, a million more pupils are in good or outstanding schools, as judged by Ofsted - England’s schools inspectorate.

The English Baccalaureate - a new performance measure which encourages pupils to take core academic GCSEs, has seen a 64% increase in pupils being entered for those subjects

And 102,000 more 6-year-olds are on track to becoming good readers following our focus on phonics teaching and the introduction of a phonics screening check in primary schools.

But if we are to sustain these improvements, we must stay the course, and continue to learn from the best international practice.

English complacency

I first encountered PISA in 2002, shortly after the results were published for the very first time.

I recall a former Permanent Secretary of the Department for Education telling me at a Public Accounts Committee hearing that the UK had just come fourth in science, seventh in reading, and eighth in mathematics out of 32 participating OECD countries.

It was an apparently remarkable performance that confounded not just my expectations, but those of the late Professor Sig Prais of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.

As an expert on education systems around the world, Professor Prais was puzzled that reading and science performance in the UK was so far ahead of countries like Switzerland, a system he knew very well.

Of course, after a tightening of OECD procedures for establishing the quality of the data, which saw the UK’s exclusion from the 2003 PISA study, we began to understand why the UK had looked so good. Analysis of England’s samples for 2000 and 2003 revealed an under-representation of lower performing schools and pupils, which had skewed results.

Then in 2007, like Germany in 2001, we had our own ‘Pisa-Schock’.

It was a bombshell. It saw our mean scores shift decidedly lower than the rosy picture painted in 2001. We ranked 14th out of 57 countries in science, 17th in reading, and 24th in mathematics.

In PISA 2009, the UK mean score hardly changed. With even more countries joining and others improving faster than we were, the UK’s relative position looked even worse, placing us 25th out of 65 in reading, 28th in maths and 16th in science.

But whilst we stagnated internationally, KS2 test scores were rising, and GCSE grades were inflating.

In 1994, the first year in which the A* was awarded at GCSE, 10.5% of grades were either A* or A. By 2013, 22.6% of grades were A or A*.

This steady rise gave us a false confidence that standards had improved, when the reality was quite different - and PISA gave us the evidence.

All this was despite unprecedented levels of public spending. UK expenditure on education increased from 4.9% of GDP in 2000, to 6.4% in 2011, above the OECD average.

So we knew that we had a more fundamental problem with our approach to education than simply spending.


Increased autonomy has been at the heart of this government’s plan for education.

Our academies programme has freed schools from local authority control, and our free schools programme has given successful schools and dedicated groups of individuals the opportunity to establish new schools where they are most needed.

These reforms build on previous education policy in England, but also draw on international evidence. Andreas Schleicher has been very clear - including to our own Education Select Committee - that the evidence from PISA shows that local flexibility and discretion for schools is linked to higher results and standards.

We have taken lessons from 2 countries in particular.

Sweden’s friskola’s have been shown to improve grades, and increase progression to universities.

And parents of friskola children are more satisfied with their children’s education than those with children in municipal schools.

American charter schools enjoy greater freedoms to set the curriculum and hold themselves to account, and have influenced our academies programme.

Schools in England such as the King Solomon Academy, sponsored by Ark, have drawn on the charter school chain KIPP, the Knowledge is Power Programme - and produced excellent results.

King Solomon, like KIPP, serves some of the poorest students, and has reported that last year 93% of students gained 5 or more GCSEs at grades A* to C grades, including English and Maths, proving that with the right methods, the background of a child is, and should be, no barrier to achievement.

It has been one of my greatest privileges as School Reform Minister to visit many wonderful schools which have been created by talented and dedicated teachers, influenced by the international community, and enabled by government policy.

Just 2 weeks ago, I went to visit Michaela Community free school, which opened in September 2014 and is located in the ethnically and economically diverse area of Wembley, north London. Over half of the students speak English as a second language. Nearly a third of students receive free school meals.

I saw a rigorous academic curriculum, superb discipline, and pupils required to answer questions in class in full sentences. I have no doubt that this will become one of the best comprehensive schools in the country.

And the academies programme has turned round hundreds of schools which were previously failing to deliver the quality of education which pupils need and parents rightly expect.

Some of these are truly remarkable success stories. Ryecroft Primary Academy in Bradford, which opened in September 2012, Where 70.3% of their pupils are eligible for free school meals - that’s 3-and-a-half-times the national average. In 2012, just 26% of Ryecroft pupils achieved the expected level in reading, writing and mathematics at key stage 2. Last year, this had risen to 70%, and the school was judged as ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, the schools inspectorate.


Since 2010, over 4000 schools have become academies and 255 free schools have opened, all benefiting from additional freedoms but also held to account through an improved framework.

England has, for some time, had a relatively effective accountability framework. Key stage 2 assessments and GCSEs are well embedded in our education system. Despite some problems - particularly the inexorable grade inflation. It has proved valuable to have broad and consistent measures with which to measure pupil attainment and school performance.

But we recognised that we could go further. As Poland has demonstrated in their far-reaching and successful reforms, stronger accountability leads to better results for pupils.

So our new key stage 2 assessments, coming into force 2016, will reflect the more challenging national curriculum and will report a precise scaled score at the end of the key stage rather than so called levels.

We are also reforming GCSEs, making them more rigorous and ensuring they teach the core knowledge demanded by employers, and by further and higher education.

And the new Progress 8 performance measures will shift the focus from students on the C/D borderline, to supporting students of all abilities.

Ofsted, our schools inspectorate, abolished the rating they called ‘satisfactory’ replaced it with the rating ‘requires improvement’. These schools are now monitored and re-inspected within 2 years, not 3, and are improving more quickly than before the change.

Academic curriculum

As the most successful international jurisdictions show, autonomy and accountability are vital elements in a successful education system. But perhaps the part of our plan which has drawn most from best practice overseas has been our programme of reforms to the curriculum.

As we came into government in 2010, Tim Oates, the curriculum expert from Cambridge Assessment, produced a paper entitled ‘Could Do Better’. It provided an extensive survey of the challenges we faced. Tim found that our curriculum lacked clarification, teachers were overloaded, and assessment practices were overbearing. The demands of the national curriculum were so vague that it had become impossible to decipher what children should actually be learning.

For too long, our school curriculum lacked the basic essentials that a good education affords. The 2007 secondary curriculum, produced 3 years before we came into office, featured 29 bullet points on the curriculum aims which barely touched upon what pupils should be doing or learning. Students were being awarded the equivalent of 4 GCSEs for 1 subject, despite some of these courses being far less challenging than a single GCSE, and their options for post-16 study limited.

There was a marked hostility towards knowledge, and an obsession with so-called transferable skills.

The 2 schools of thought - progressivism as opposed to a rigorous focus on knowledge - are represented clearly by Michael Fullan and Daisy Christodoulou.

In Fullan’s ‘A Rich Seam,’ he suggests that education for the 21st century should be led by curiosity and ‘new system economies.’ But his thesis, in my view, is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Although it is not entirely clear, I think he is describing a new version of the disastrous ‘child-centred’ approach of yesterday.

I think Christodoulou captures the position we should all subscribe to: ‘To be an active citizen’ she says ‘of a democratic society you have to know about history, the world, sciences, the arts. You have to know about things that most people do not bring to the classroom and which they cannot pick up through experience.’

The work of academics such as ED Hirsch and cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham has shown that teaching core knowledge must be central to any effective curriculum. Previous attempts to teach skills without knowledge, or to develop proficiency without practice, were always doomed to failure. Listening to this evidence, we recognised that a new national curriculum was essential in order to restore rigour and to drive up standards in our schools.

And in developing this new, academic, knowledge-based curriculum, we looked overseas to find the best evidence of what works.

The Massachusetts Miracle, as it has come to be known, has demonstrated that a rich knowledge content improves educational achievement and it improves social mobility.

The Common Core State Standards in Massachusetts have helped to place their teenagers above those of other States’ in the US, and equal to those in South Korea, Hong Kong, and other high performing jurisdictions.

Since the early 2000s, the Florida State Literacy Plan has sought to improve reading through phonics and phonemic awareness. They also increased accountability by publicly grading state schools.

Between 1998 and 2013, Florida’s fourth-grade reading and math scores went from below the national average to above it.

Since Shanghai entered PISA for the first time with the 2009 study, they have consistently outperformed every other system in reading, maths and science. Their maths performance is particularly impressive, with 15-year-olds outperforming our own by an average of 3 years.

In September last year, we flew 71 British teachers to Shanghai to see for themselves the quality of Chinese primary-level maths lessons. They saw first-hand the 35-minute, whole-class lessons that place high expectations on every child to follow and learn the content, while providing quick catch up sessions for those who struggle.

And in November last year, 29 Shanghai teachers made the trip to England, to demonstrate how they teach maths to young children.

The large majority of Shanghai pupils progress through the curriculum content at the same pace. Differentiation is achieved by emphasising deeper knowledge and through individual support and intervention. The trend for differentiation in England , by contrast, encourages classrooms being divided into groups, with each group taught a separate curriculum.

Another country in the East - Singapore - has been the inspiration behind our call for UK publishers to produce a higher standard of textbook. TALIS data shows that English teachers are 10 times more likely to feel they are lacking good resources than teachers in Singapore where good textbooks - which provide a systematic approach to building knowledge - are a standard fixture both in the class and at home.

Our recently established maths hubs are implementing the mastery approach of East Asian countries and are also now trialling Singapore-style textbooks. Inspire Maths, published by Oxford University Press (OUP) and Maths No Problem, are now being used in some primary schools to provide structure and support to the new national curriculum.

We aren’t the only ones influenced by East Asia. Tennessee has looked to Shanghai to inform its Teacher Peer Excellence Group project.

Progress in the UK

I am pleased to say that, while we have been keen scholars of international education methods, we can happily share some of our great successes too.

As I have already mentioned, phonics teaching is having a positive impact on literacy.

74% of state school pupils passed the phonics check last year, compared with just 58% in 2012.

Tom Bennett and his excellent ResearchED conferences are packed with teachers demanding to know ‘what is the evidence’ behind teaching methods.

More students are studying core academic subjects: A level maths is now the number one choice at A level, and we have seen an increase in exam entries for further maths and all the science subjects.

And crucially, we have more girls taking science and maths subjects compared with 2010: 1,000 more taking physics A level, 2,000 more studying maths A level, and 13,000 more girls are taking physics GCSE than in 2010.

Computing has been completely overhauled, so that pupils will now be taught the fundamentals of coding before they leave primary school.

This will provide children with the knowledge and skills required for rewarding careers which are currently deprived of qualified candidates.


These changes are ensuring that every child leaves school prepared for life in modern Britain.

For me, however, there is 1 litmus test that we have yet to pass.

Professor Zhang, of Shanghai Normal University, and an expert in comparative education, believes that the key to improving is to look at one’s own system through an international prism.

According to Professor Zhang, one of the most important reforms of the past 30 years in China has been the establishment of an ‘open door policy and learning from the world.’

This has enabled scholars and professors, as well as ordinary school teachers, to study in other countries, bringing new educational ideas, knowledge, and approaches to teacher education and training.

Andreas Schleicher has said that if you were to ask any East Asian educationalist the top 10 Western academics, they would be able to do so straight off.

I fear that too few Western educationalists could do the same about their East Asian peers.

It is not until we can do this, and adopt the best teaching methods and systems from around the world, that we can expect the UK to climb those international tables, and implement long-lasting change for the next generation.

Thank you.