Nick Gibb speaks at the Centre for Social Justice

The Schools Minister talks about the importance of creating a world class education system.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Nick Gibb MP

It is a pleasure to be here at the launch of another important report from the Centre for Social Justice. Since the think tank was founded in 2004, by Iain Duncan Smith, it has contributed hugely to the public debate about how to tackle some of Britain’s most intractable social problems. Its seminal report, Breakthrough Britain, highlighted the central role of education in the life chances of us all and the role that poor quality schools have played in “stifling the chances of children in our poorest areas”.

This report looks in more detail at educational exclusion, whether that be the literal exclusion of persistently poorly behaved children from school or the metaphorical educational exclusion of those attending schools that fail to deliver the type of education available to the most advantaged in society. The report makes an important contribution to the education debate and for that we are deeply indebted to the Centre for Social Justice and in particular to Adele Eastman.

I have long taken the view that education is the only route out of poverty and a poor education is, in this modern world, a clear pathway to low income and narrow opportunities.

And the starting point to anyone’s education is learning how to read. This country is one of the world’s highest spenders on education and yet one in five 11 year-olds leaves primary school still struggling with this basic skill. Nine per cent of 11-year-old boys leave primary school with a reading age of seven or younger. And that problem is compounded further when you look just at white boys eligible for free school meals amongst whom 60 per cent aren’t reading properly at the age of 14.

Today’s CSJ report points out that “significant literacy and numeracy problems are found in between 50 and 76 per cent of children who are permanently excluded from school”. It also points to literacy and numeracy problems in 60 per cent of children in special schools for those with behavioural problems and in 50-60 per cent of the prison population. As Adele Eastman correctly concludes:

“Many display challenging behaviour to hide the fact that they cannot read.”

There is a strong body of opinion and evidence that the reason for this country’s problems with reading is the teaching method that was introduced in the 1950s known as Look and Say, that asserted that exposure to and repetition of high frequency words was the easiest way to teach children to read. But evidence from longitudinal studies such as the Clackmannanshire study by Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson, showed that early systematic synthetic phonics was the most successful method of teaching children to read. Indeed the Clackmannanshire study of 300 pupils over seven years showed that at the end of that seven year period systematic synthetic phonics had given those children an average word reading age of 14 by the time they were 11. The multi-million dollar meta-analysis from the US, the National Reading Panel, came to similar conclusions.

That’s why the Government is giving primary schools matched funding of up to £3,000 to buy phonics materials and training. We’re also introducing a phonic check at the end of year one of primary school to ensure that every child has mastered the basic skill of decoding words. Too many children are slipping through the net, with their struggle with reading allowed to continue without the help they need.

The OECD’s PISA report also shows that Britain ranks 47th out of 65 countries when it comes to reading for pleasure. Four out of 10 teenagers fail to do so in this country compared to just 10 per cent in Kazakhstan, Albania, China and Thailand. So we’re also working on policies to promote greater reading for pleasure.

Today’s CSJ report, interestingly, points to boredom as a factor. “Boredom”, the report says, “has been regularly cited as a factor in challenging behaviour and a reason for disengagement with education”. There are obviously a range of reasons why children might be bored with some lessons. Not being able to read might be a factor or the skills-based approach to history or geography.

A report by the Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education points to a significant proportion of pupils not being challenged sufficiently. In that study 8,000 children were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “lessons are often too difficult for me”. 50 per cent disagreed and 20 per cent strongly disagreed with the statement.

So that’s why we are reviewing the national curriculum, slimming it down so that it concentrates on the core knowledge that pupils need to be taught. We are looking at the curricula of the best performing education systems in the world to ensure that our national curriculum is on a par with the best.

The OECD has also been looking at how some students around the world are able to overcome their socio-economic background when it comes to educational achievement. The report shows that deprived pupils from this country perform significantly less well than deprived pupils in most OECD countries - putting us 39th out of 65 countries.

It is measured in terms of the resilience of students to their social backgrounds. In the UK just a quarter of pupils from poor backgrounds are “resilient” according to the PISA measure compared to three-quarters in Shanghai-China and Hong Kong and nearly half in Singapore. The OECD average is 31 per cent. The OECD concludes that what helps disadvantaged students to overcome their social backgrounds and achieve well in school in spending more time in class, particularly in science.

“Among disadvantaged students, learning time in school is one of the strongest predictors of which students will outperform their peers. In practically all OECD countries … the average resilient student spends more time studying science at school - on average between one and two hours per week - than the average low-achiever.”

That’s why the English-Baccalaureate is such an important concept. Last year only 22 per cent of all students and just 8 per cent of those eligible for FSM, were entered for the E-Bacc subjects at GCSE - English, Maths, at least two of the three sciences or the double award, history or geography and a language. Indications are that GCSE choices for this September show that figure rising to 47 per cent and while we don’t have the breakdown of that figure to show the FSM proportion, it is likely to have increased across the board.

It is the quality of education available to those pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds that is the driving force behind all our education reforms. We want to see the attainment gap between those from wealthier and poorer backgrounds narrowing and ultimately closing.

For example, less than 10 per cent of schools with the highest proportion of pupils eligible for FSM make languages compulsory compared to 50 per cent of schools with the lowest level of pupils eligible for FSM. Pupils on FSM are three times more likely to be persistent absentees and around three times more likely to be excluded than non FSM pupils. So again, we believe the E-Bacc policy will increase opportunity and encouragement to study languages even in areas of the greatest deprivation.

And it’s why we are so determined to drive forward the academies programme - because academies, in some of the most challenging areas of the country - are improving their academic results at twice the pace of non-academy schools. It’s why we believe the Free School policy will make such an impact - with 24 such schools opening this month after just 16 months in office. 50 per cent of those free schools are in the most deprived 30 per cent of local areas.

It is why we have raised the threshold when it comes to persistent absence from schools, so now being away for 15 per cent of the school year rather than 20 per cent is the new definition and ultimately we need to take that down to 10 per cent.

And we also need to do more to make schools safe, happy and calm places where pupils are free to study and able to learn. Persistent low level disruption distracts children, it helps spread poor behaviour and it drives out talented teachers from the profession. The OECD estimates that 30 per cent of effective teaching time is lost because of poor behaviour in schools.

We have to restore the respect for teachers and shift the balance of authority in the classroom away from the child and back to the adult. This is what pupils want as much as teachers and parents. That’s why the Education Bill going through Parliament at the moment will strengthen teachers’ powers to enforce school rules.

It will remove the absurd 24 hours’ notice rule for detentions and it will seek to improve the quality of alternative provision for those pupils who are excluded from school by allowing Pupil Referral Units to have the same autonomy and freedoms as academies. We’re also encouraging new providers to establish alternative provision free schools and we’re piloting a new approach to exclusion in which the school will be responsible for selecting any alternative education and be held accountable for the academic results of those excluded pupils.

Early intervention is also key which is why we’re recruiting an extra 4,200 health visitors to support parents after the birth of their children, extending free childcare for three and four year olds to 15 hours per week from the current 12.5 hours, and introducing 15 hours a week free childcare for the poorest two year olds.

The CSJ and this Government share many objectives - the principal one being to tackle social disadvantage and to close the attainment gap between those from poorer and wealthier backgrounds. Today’s report is a welcome contribution to understanding how we deliver on those vital objectives and I look forward to working with the Centre for Social Justice on what more we can do to ensure that our joint objective becomes a reality.

Published 15 September 2011