Nick Gibb: the importance of the teaching profession

There has never been a better time to be a teacher, and to challenge the current orthodoxies within British schools.

It is a privilege to be attending an event attended by over 700 teachers, all spending their first weekend of a new term educating themselves about classroom research, to be participants in a conference of teachers with so much potential to transform this country’s educational landscape.

In 1999 Douglas Carnine, a Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, wrote a short but pungent paper entitled ‘Why Education Experts Resist Effective Practices’. Carnine was, and still is, a strong advocate of Direct Instruction. He was frustrated at the education profession’s unwillingness to acknowledge the empirical evidence in favour of a teacher-led classroom. Carnine wrote that a defining feature of a ‘mature profession’ - for example medicine or the law - was a willingness to engage with research findings.

Since I became Shadow Minister for Schools in 2005, I have seen the teaching profession make strides towards Carnine’s ideal of a ‘mature profession’. No event indicates this better than ResearchED. Now in its third year, and crossing 3 continents, ResearchED is a remarkable example of a grassroots movement, driven not by worthies on high, but by teachers on the ground, united by a desire to know how they can improve outcomes for their pupils.

Tom Bennett created ResearchED, but central government can make some small claim for having provided the spark. In 2013, the government invited Ben Goldacre to write a report explaining how the education sector could make better use of evidence. We were shocked by Goldacre’s exposure of un-evidenced practices in his 2009 book ‘Bad Science’, exemplified by now legendary pseudo-science of Brain Gym. I hope we have all been rubbing our ‘brain buttons’ in anticipation of today’s event…

The Goldacre Report was published by the Department for Education in March, 2013. It promoted much discussion, and following a Twitter conversation involving Ben Goldacre, the gauntlet was thrown down in the direction of Tom Bennett: ‘can you organise a grassroots movement amongst teachers campaigning for better use of educational research?’ Tom was asked. 3 years later, the answer appears to be ‘yes’.

Like all great institutions, ResearchED formalises a wider movement, or culture-change, that has been taking place within education. Some classroom practice, which until 5 years ago was endemic in the profession, has been held up to scrutiny and found wanting. I have already mentioned Brain Gym, but alongside it we can place learning styles, multiple intelligences, discovery learning, and the 21st-century skills movement as hollow shells of their former selves.

This is not to say that such ideas are no longer at large within schools - far from it - but the intellectual underpinnings of such methods have been challenged: a vital first step in reversing the damage they have done.

What is so noticeable about this movement is that it has not emerged from our universities. Many university academics, it appeared, were too much invested in the status quo to provide any challenge. Rather, the challenge came from classroom teachers, burning the midnight oil as they tweeted, blogged and shared ideas about how to improve their profession. According to the veteran teacher blogger Old Andrew, there are 1,237 active education blogs in the UK and many of them, I can testify, have directly influenced government policy. Education provides a case-study in the democratising power of new media, providing an entry point for new voices to challenge old orthodoxies.

And publishers have taken note. The bookshelves of any enquiring teacher have expanded significantly over the last few years. The titles of such books indicate the scale of the challenge to the prevailing education orthodoxies that is taking place:

  • ‘Teacher Proof’
  • ‘Seven Myths about Education’
  • ‘Progressively Worse’
  • ‘What if everything you knew about education was wrong?’

Each book listed has been written by a classroom teacher, sending - in the words of 1 review - a heat seeking missile to the heart of the education establishment.

This wellspring of free thinking teachers convinces me that there has never been a better time to become a teacher than now. The statistics are encouraging: in 2010, 61% of trainee teachers had an undergraduate degree at level 2:1 or above. This year, that figure is 73%. Crucially, in 2012 the proportion of trainee teachers with a 2:1 or above surpassed the national average of that year’s graduating cohort for the first time, and the annual initial teacher training census shows us that the proportion of new teachers holding a first class degree is at an all-time high. The best graduates are going into teaching. Year on year, the prestige of the profession is growing.

I recognise that it is challenging to recruit new teachers in the context of a recovering economy and strengthening graduate labour market. However, the challenges we see in certain priority subjects, such as physics, maths and modern foreign languages, are not a new phenomenon.

This year we have already exceeded our target for primary school teachers and we are making sustained progress in the secondary sector - including key subjects such as English, maths, physics and chemistry, where we are ahead of last year’s performance. Contrary to the widely made claim that only 50% of teachers are teaching 5 years after qualifying, that figure is in fact 72% - a respectable figure for any profession.

Our policy to make the EBacc compulsory from 2020 onwards has significant staffing implications for schools, and that is why we are developing significant measures to meet them. At the end of last year, we pledged £67 million towards a scheme to recruit more maths and physics teachers for English schools.

I hope that today’s trainee teachers are increasingly aware of evidence-based practice. But, it remains important to ask why so many poor ideas were sustained for so long within schools. To answer such a question, we must not forget the role played by central government. To give just one example, in 2006 the Department for Children, Schools and Families formed the ‘Teaching and Learning in 2020 Review Group’. Their subsequent report, entitled ‘2020 Vision’, threw its weight behind ‘personalised learning’, explained as:

‘Learners are active and curious: they create their own hypotheses, ask their own questions, coach one another, set goals for themselves, monitor their progress and experiment with ideas for taking risks…’

2020 vision suggested that the school of 2020 should pursue: ‘learning how to learn’; ‘themed project work’; and ‘using ICT to enhance collaboration and creative learning’. Lots of talk about learners learning, but almost nothing about teachers teaching.

In the same year that she wrote ‘2020 Vision’, the chair of the 2020 Review Group became Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools. The inspectorate became geared towards imposing its preferred teaching style upon the profession. Research undertaken by the think tank Civitas last year revealed that as late as 2013, over half of Ofsted’s secondary school inspection reports still showed a preference for pupils learning ‘independent’ of teacher instruction, and nearly 1 in 5 criticised lessons where teachers talked too much.

This ‘Ofsted teaching style’ directly contradicted the common sense of thousands of teachers, not to mention much empirical evidence about effective teaching. Recently, I was reminded of Ofsted’s reign of error by David Didau’s new book. Buried in a footnote, Didau provides a remarkable anecdote about this period. He writes:

‘Once in an exam analysis meeting, a school leader who taught in a particular department said that the reasons the exam results of that department were so poor was because of their outstanding teaching. They concentrated on independent learning and refused to ‘spoon feed’. This obviously meant kids did less well in the test.’

You do not have to be George Orwell to recognise the double-think contained in that story, or the assault on the very meaning of the word ‘outstanding’ that Ofsted created. For so many schools, the means of pupils working independently became more important than the ends of pupils actually learning.

We have worked with Ofsted to ensure that inspectors no longer penalise teachers who teach from the front, and Ofsted is continuing to reduce the burden that inspections place on schools. Ofsted guidance was reduced last year from 411 to 136 pages, and this year guidance has been further reduced despite the increased reach of the common inspection framework. From this month, there will be shorter inspections every 3 years for schools already rated as ‘good’. Through their ‘mythbusting’ document published last October, Ofsted are combatting some of the myths surrounding inspection that still circulate the profession, such as the need to provide a written plan for every lesson. Ofsted have also sent a clear message that schools do not need to prepare for inspection, and need only focus on helping pupils reach their full potential - this is a message we fully support.

2020 Vision was just one example of the hundreds of reports churned out by a bloated panoply of quangos and ancillary bodies prior to 2010: Becta; the GTC; the NCSL; the SSAT; the QCDA - a whole industry of unfounded advice, leading teachers up the garden path and towards the false dawn of informal teaching methods.

Common amongst each of those bodies is that they all, since 2010, have either been disbanded, merged or had their government funding curtailed. This is because we believe that teachers teach best when government steps back.

Here’s one example. In 2005, the National Audit Office reported that the government had, from 1997, spent £885 million on measures to reduce truancy, during which period cases of unauthorised absence remained stable. The measures in question were classic cases of Whitehall knows best: attendance advisor support, national truancy sweeps, reward schemes and alternative curricula adjusted to be more ‘relevant’ to the interests of pupils.

This government has not pursued such measures. Instead, the government made schools and parents more accountable for the attendance of their children, but left it up to them to solve the problem. As a result, the number of persistent absentees has almost halved from 433,130 in 2010, to 233,815 in 2014.

This belief in autonomy explains why we have made academies and free schools a central component of our reform agenda. This government does not believe that all academies and free schools are necessarily better than maintained schools.

But, through granting unprecedented freedom to individual schools, we are creating an educational eco-system in which new ideas can flourish. Be it the emphasis on Russell Group universities pioneered by the London Academy of Excellence; or the remarkable teaching at King Solomon Academy - which as a school with over 60% of pupils on free school meals has just achieved 93% A* to C for the second year running, with an astonishing 75% of pupils achieving the EBacc - school autonomy allows excellence to emerge. Such schools have startled the profession, setting new, higher expectations about what can be achieved within the state sector.

School autonomy was not a government invention. In Lord Adonis’ book ‘Education, Education, Education’, he recalls how encounters with ambitious and successful heads, who wanted to replicate the success of their schools more widely, convinced him to pursue the academies programme. Adonis mentions meeting heads such Kevin Satchwell at Thomas Telford Academy; and Sir Daniel Moynihan at Harris CTC, who 15 years later is in charge of a federation of 36 academies. They were, and still are, inspiring leaders who knew if given the opportunity they could transform our education system.

The great Victorian constitutionalist Walter Bagehot wrote that ‘policies must ‘grow’; they cannot be suddenly made’. This is true in the case of education, where our best policies have always grown out of the profession. Our emphasis on phonics, for example, would not have been possible without the work of individuals such as Ruth Miskin, and teacher organisations such as the Reading Reform Foundation.

I look upon the next 5 years with great excitement, anticipating the new practices that will emerge due to greater school autonomy, which will in turn influence government policy, leading to a virtuous circle of innovation and improvement.

The work of teachers has allowed the Education Endowment Foundation to make great strides since we founded the organisation in 2011. To date, it has awarded £57 million to 100 projects working with over 620,000 pupils in over 4,900 schools throughout England. It has published 45 individual project evaluation reports - all available to teachers for free online. The thirst for quality education research, which is so evident at this conference today, has begun to change how decisions are made within schools. According to a poll commissioned by the Sutton Trust earlier this year, 48% of secondary school leaders and a third of primary school leaders now use the EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit when making decisions about classroom teaching.

But, there is still a long way to go. We created the EEF due to a belief that high-quality, robust research could empower classroom teachers, and I firmly believe it can. But, such teachers need to strive to make their voices heard.

If anyone here still has to include learning styles in their lesson plans, please direct your senior leaders to Harold Pashler’s comprehensive literature review which lays bare the want of evidence to support learning styles. If you are criticised by colleagues for implementing frequent factual recall tests - so often characterised as ‘mere regurgitation’ - please direct your colleagues towards the work of Robert Bjork, which shows that frequent testing strengthens long-term memory. If your performance management is still based on termly do-or-die lesson observations, direct your senior leaders towards the work of Rob Coe which shows such observations are not just stressful, but provenly imprecise. And if your school still practises Brain Gym, then God help you.

Improving the quality of research is an easy first step: converting such research into practice is a far greater challenge.

But, we should never see research as a panacea for all of education’s ills. At an event such as this, it is worth surveying the parameters of what research can actually achieve. The analogy between the teaching and medical professions, which both Douglas Carnine and Ben Goldacre employ, should not be stretched too far.

Research can inform us about effective ‘means’, but it can never decide for us what our ‘ends’ should be. Within the medical profession, it is normally clear what the ‘ends’ are: keep the patient healthy, and where possible, alive. But, in education, there is not and nor should there be a settled consensus on the purpose of school. This is a passionate and sometimes fierce debate, which research may inform, but will never answer.

For this reason, I am mistrustful of those who disdain lively debate, and defer all opinion making faculties to that omniscient being ‘the evidence’. ‘The evidence’ provided by the EEF suggests that school uniform has no impact on pupils’ performance. Should we abandon school uniform? I would argue no, because pupil performance is not the sole aim of a school. Fostering a collegiate ethos, preparing pupils for the world or work, and ensuring no pupils need feel inadequate through their clothing, are all important ends in their own right.

Through the reformed national curriculum and English literature GCSE, we have stipulated that every pupil should study at least 3 Shakespeare plays during their secondary school education. But what ‘research’ attests to the benefits of studying Shakespeare? What ‘research’, for that matter, proves that pupils should know about diverse ecosystems, computer coding, or the Industrial Revolution? Such questions cut to the core of what it means to be an educated person: a question no number of effect sizes, meta-studies or randomised controlled trials can answer.

Many who disagree with our vision of an educated person have taken issue with this government’s emphasis on the EBacc, which will be compulsory for all pupils entering secondary school this month. We believe all children are entitled to learn a language and 3 sciences; that all children require a basic level of mathematics and English to thrive; and that all children should be initiated into the world through a study of either its history or its geography. Some in education do not share this belief.

I was reminded of such fundamental differences whilst watching the BBC documentary ‘Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School’. In this documentary, 5 teachers from China taught 50 teenagers from an English school for 4 weeks. This was no disadvantaged school in a deprived area of the country: it was an Ofsted ‘outstanding’ school in the well-heeled rural town of Liphook, Hampshire.

The Chinese teachers were nevertheless shocked by the behaviour and attitude of English children. More worrying still, in my view, was the reaction of the school senior leadership to Chinese teaching methods. The evidence which shows the effectiveness of Chinese teaching methods is unequivocal: according to the PISA tests, 15-year-old pupils in Shanghai are 3 years ahead of their English counterparts in mathematics. Whilst our pupils are in their first year of GCSE, Chinese pupils are doing A level work. In mathematics, the children of the poorest 30% of Shanghai’s population are outstripping the children of our wealthiest 10% in England.

One would think this would incline a headteacher to learn from Chinese methods. Quite the opposite. The headteacher stated in the first episode: ‘No educational approach or policy is going to turn back the British cultural clock to the 1950s. Nor should it seek to.’ By the second episode, the headteacher criticised Chinese teaching as ‘tedious’ and hoped the Chinese teachers in his school would ‘fail, and fail by a margin’, as to him they represented the ‘dark ages’ of teaching.

By the end of the third episode, a whole year examination had shown the pupils taught by Chinese teachers outperform the control group in all 4 of the subjects studied - yet the headteacher was still reluctant to acknowledge the advantages of Chinese teaching methods.

Amongst some in the profession, a romantic aversion to formal teaching will forever trump the evidence which shows its effectiveness. For them, it will always be more important to have engaged pupils who are not learning, than seemingly ‘passive’ pupils who are. Like the 2 women Samuel Johnson famously witnessed screaming at each from their windows across an alleyway, I fear they will never agree, as we are arguing from different premises.

One’s most fundamental beliefs in education will ultimately always be informed by values. So let me tell you what this government’s values are.

  • we believe that children across the country are entitled to a basic academic education up to the age of 16, because - in the words of 1 of the teachers featured on Chinese School - ‘knowledge changes one’s destiny’
  • we believe that all children should leave school with the skills that allow them to thrive in the workplace
  • we believe the most effective teaching methods should be pursued to achieve this, irrespective of whether some find them ‘tedious’
  • we believe that schools should be civilised and civilising institutions which foster good character, because children do not always know best, and sometimes require the benevolent authority of an adult
  • lastly, we believe in a socially just Britain, where the benefits of such an education are available to all, irrespective of background or birth

That is the vision that I, and this government, are dedicated to achieving. Research will guide us in the means by which these ends can be achieved, but ultimately it is teachers - and teachers alone - who will realise it.