Nick Gibb to the Grammar School Heads Association

The Schools Minister addresses the Grammar School Heads Association in London.

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

Thank you Barry. I’m delighted to be here today and grateful to the Association for inviting me back to its annual conference this year.

On the way over, I was pondering what Dr Pettit, the inspirational, and to me as a young 12-year-old, very scary headteacher at Maidstone Grammar in the early 1970s, would have said if he’d known any the pupils in my class had been interested enough in education to become a schools’ minister.

I suspect he would have greeted the news with a certain wide-eyed amazement…

Fortunately however, we did all get a little older and wiser. And I’ve certainly never forgotten the enormous debt of gratitude I owe to the school, for which I have only the very fondest memories.

So, I wanted to start by thanking the Grammar School Heads Association for inviting me along to speak at the conference for a second year running - and for all its support over the last year. I’m looking forward to my next meeting with Roy, Barry and Simon in a few weeks’ time and I’m sure, as always, that your advice will be good advice. I’ll let you know if it isn’t ….

Second, let me thank the 164 grammar school heads and their staff for the wonderful work they are doing, and have done. Their results over the past year have been incredibly strong. But more importantly, the quality and standard of education is world class.

Last year alone, around 1,050 grammar school pupils were studying at Oxford or Cambridge after taking A levels in 2008;

98% of pupils in grammar schools achieved 5 or more GCSEs at Grades A* to C, including English and Maths, compared to 55% of pupils nationally.

And an incredible 95.6% of grammar school pupils who were eligible for free school meals, achieved 5 or more GCSEs at Grades A* to C, compared to just 30.9% nationally.

That gap between the overall figure of 98.4% and the free school meal figure of 95.6%, which is just 2.8%, contrasts very sharply with the national figure.

Last year, 55% achieved 5 or more GCSEs at grades A* to C including English and maths. But the free school meal figure was just 31% - and that gap of 24 percentage points has remained stubbornly constant over recent years.

It is a disparity in outcome that we want closed - or at the very least brought closer to the 2.4% gap that grammar schools have achieved - for the very simple reason that reducing the attainment gap between pupils from rich and poor backgrounds is an absolutely key moral objective of the coalition government in general, and of Michael Gove in particular.

The million dollar question of course, is how you achieve that moral objective? And if you look to the example of grammar schools, you see the answer comes from a combination of high standards and ambition. Essentially, it boils down to the old grammar school ethos of placing ‘no limit on achievement’.

For example, we know that grammar schools don’t measure performance by the percentage of their pupils gaining 5 C grades. They’ve developed their own indicators that focus on the percentage of students gaining 5 As and even 8 As. As a result of which, it’s not uncommon for headteachers to see every single one of their pupils achieving the 5 A* benchmark.

Quite clearly, there’s a very serious lesson to be taken from this and applied more widely. And that’s why the ‘no limit on achievement’ ethos, is one that’s now absolutely critical to the government’s own blueprint for education reform.

Like grammar schools we want to be unashamedly ambitious on behalf of pupils locally; we want to spread opportunity more equally nationally; and we want to match (or better) the very best schools internationally.

Now, in one sense of course, there is nothing radical about any of this. For many years, the UK marked itself out as one of the world’s top education performers by fostering exactly those kinds of high standards. Lofty expectations were placed on every child. Standards of behaviour were properly enforced. There was no embarrassment attached to high performance.

Even today, we have many exceptional schools and teachers in this country who work extremely hard towards achieving these goals - some of the very best in the world in fact - but we also know that many comprehensive schools are struggling to work in what is (at times) an almost unworkable system of bureaucracy and central control.

As a result, we’ve fallen back in the PISA international education rankings: from 4th to 16th in science; 7th to 25th in literacy; and from 8th to 28th in maths - meaning our 15-year-olds are 2 years behind their Chinese peers in maths; and a full year behind teenagers in Korea and Finland in reading.

When the US Education Secretary Arne Duncan saw a similar story unfolding in America’s own PISA rankings, he made the point that the States was ‘being out-educated’. And here in the UK - exactly the same holds true. We’re being out-educated and out-thought by more ambitious education systems.

In and of itself of course, this is a hugely worrying trend. But it is made almost a 100 times worse by the fact that our education system has also become one of the most stratified, and unfair in the developed world.

Only last week, the OECD told us that pupils from poor backgrounds in the UK were less likely to escape disadvantage than students from countries like Mexico and Tunisia - coming 28th out of 35 leading nations.

This was, I thought, a truly worrying report from the OECD. No-one wants to see the UK transformed from a land of opportunity to one of social stagnation. But the fact is, too many children, especially from the poorest backgrounds, are now getting a very raw deal indeed.

We’re not introducing enough of them to the best that’s been thought and written; we’re not equipping them to compete against their peers around the world; we can’t even say we’re preparing them to enter the UK workforce. Only last month, the CBI’s annual education and skills’ survey showed almost half of top employers are having to invest in remedial training for school and college leavers.

Even in the best of times, this kind of backtracking would be unsustainable.

But the fact is, pupils today are being taught and studying at a time of unprecedented competition. We’ve just been through the worst financial crisis since 1929. Our economy is weighed down by a huge debt burden. Technology is moving faster than most of us can keep pace with, and there has been an unprecedented shift in political and economic power towards Asia.

This leaves us with the obvious question: how do you match the success of places like Asia and make sure you’re not treading water for another 10 years?

Leading experts like Sir Michael Barber and organizations like the OECD and McKinsey, have shown us time and again that the top performing nations have several key attributes in common:

First, they value and respect their teachers and employ the very best people in their classrooms;

Second, they step back and let schools get on with it, free from bureaucratic control;

Third, they encourage collaboration between schools;

And fourth, they hold schools to account in an intelligent way.

These themes formed the basis of our White Paper last November: The Importance of Teaching - and today, I’d like to say a little about each of them - and pick out specifically where I hope grammar schools can lead improvement across the maintained sector.

First - we want to get the best graduates into teaching by funding the doubling of Teach First over the course of this Parliament, and by expanding the Future Leaders and Teaching Leaders programmes, which provide superb professional development for the future leaders of some of our toughest schools.

In addition, we’ll shortly be publishing our strategy for initial teacher training. This will set out our commitment to restoring the status of the profession by toughening up the recruitment process, and ensuring that all new entrants have a real depth of knowledge in their subject.

Not only this, but we will also explore how excellent schools, including grammar schools, can be more involved in both initial training and the provision of professional development.

Perhaps most exciting though, is the development of Teaching Schools. Where we have had more than 1,000 expressions of interest and 300 applications have already been received. And I know grammar schools themselves have been amongst the keenest to express their interest. In much the same way, I know many grammar schools are now already sponsoring academies or supporting local schools to improve standards. Transporting their own ambition and high standards out into their local communities, and helping to raise aspirations. While I know many more grammar schools have taken the step of actually converting to become academies. As of the 10th June this year, there were some 89 designated maintained grammar schools, plus 75 grammar schools, that had converted to academy status.

Many of these will be supporting other schools in the local areas. And I know still more are involved in helping other schools on a less formal basis. So, for example, operating an exchange of staff, working with students and supporting school leadership.

In fact, Barry has told me that 98% of grammar school headteachers are working on major partnership activities to support the work of other secondary schools and primary schools.

A brilliant achievement, and we’re very keen to encourage exactly this kind of collaboration both through the new converter academies, which have, between them, agreed to support over 700 other schools and through the doubling of the National and Local Leaders of Education programmes to support fellow heads.

But of course, we do understand that great teachers and collaboration between schools cannot raise standards on their own, if they are then bedeviled by the kind of bureaucracy that constricts achievement.

In opposition, we counted the number of pages of guidance sent to schools in one 12 month period as coming to an incredible 6,000 pages. Twice the complete works of Shakespeare - but not as interesting.

So, we’ve been systematically cutting down on the red tape headteachers and their staff have to deal with - to the point where departmental guidance will have been more than halved over the coming months.

For example, we’re slimming down the national curriculum; scrapping the self evaluation form; reducing the behaviour and bullying guidance from some 600 pages to 50; we’re focusing Ofsted inspections on teaching; closing down quangos; and - of course - we’re in the process of cutting down, and consulting on the massively complex admissions and appeal codes.

That consultation comes to an end on the 19th August, with the department then publishing its official response to the consultation in September.

Without pre-empting its findings, I can assure you there are currently no new policy proposals specifically focusing on the areas of academic selection or grammar schools themselves.

But, subject to the consultation, the Association’s schools would be able to take advantage of crucial freedoms such as:

  • in-year coordination - which removes the requirement on local authorities to co-ordinate in-year admissions

  • published admissions numbers - where we want to make it easier for popular schools to expand

  • consultation - which would mean admission authorities only have to consult on admission arrangements every seven years (rather than three) when they are not making any changes

  • and the pupil premium - which will allow academies and free schools to prioritise children from the poorest backgrounds

Of course, when you have far more schools enjoying these kinds of freedoms, and improvement is driven not by government but by schools, proper accountability inevitably becomes more important than ever.

That’s why we’re currently overhauling the Ofsted framework to focus on the four core responsibilities of schools - teaching; leadership; attainment; and behaviour and safety.

And it’s why we’re also very pleased to see the introduction of the English Baccalaureate, which we specifically designed in order to narrow the segregation in education between those from the poorest backgrounds and the rest - and to give parents a simple benchmark against which to hold schools accountable.

The Russell Group has been unequivocal about the core GCSE and A level subjects that equip students best for the most competitive courses - the list trips off the tongue: English; maths, the three sciences; geography; history, classical and modern languages.

Nationally, grammar schools perform remarkably well in this area, with some 67.4% of its students achieving the E-Bacc. A figure that even the independent sector can’t match: where only around 24% of its pupils achieved at least a C in the combination - rising to 51.3% when the Edexcel iGCSE results, which were not credited initially, are included.

Nonetheless, just 15.6% of students achieved at least a C in the E-Bacc combination in the maintained sector generally.

And this does beg the question as to how it can possibly be fair to those students who are automatically handicapped by the system’s inherent lack of aspiration on their behalf?

It should, I believe, be a major concern to everyone that nine out of ten state pupils eligible for free school meals are not even entered for the E-Bacc subjects - and just four% achieve it.

Equally, it cannot be fair that no pupil was entered for any single award science GCSE in 719 mainstream state schools; for French in 169; for geography in 137; and for history in 70.

Quite simply, the most academic subjects must not become the preserve of the few. They should be open to every single student, regardless of background.

And this, as the Secretary of State described in his National College speech last week, is ‘the moral cause’ that lies behind all our reforms - and our aspiration to raise the minimum benchmark for schools to 50% of pupils achieving five A* - C grades in GCSEs, with maths and English, by 2015.

Grammar schools, through their own example; through the sponsorship of academies; through partnerships with underperforming schools; through the network of teaching schools; the education endowment fund; and through the national and local leaders of education programmes; have a unique opportunity to make this happen.

So, let me finish with a final thank you to all those grammar school headteachers who have already taken advantage of these changes. We owe the sector a very real debt of gratitude and enormously value your contribution to those reforms.

I also hope that Simon, Roy and Barry and all heads here will continue to play a very active advisory role with the department over the coming months.

I know headteachers will not always agree with all our changes, but I think we agree on more than we disagree - and the voice of grammar schools remains one that is highly valued and respected not just by myself, but also - I know - by the Secretary of State and by Lord Hill.

In the final analysis, education reform is not about politics, it’s about progress. Or, as Ronald Reagan put it: ‘It’s not about left or right - it’s about up or down’. I hope you’ll agree that these reforms are squarely aimed at getting us on the right trajectory.

Thank you.

Published 16 April 2012