Nick Gibb to the Reform Conference

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

Schools Minister Nick Gibb speaks at the Reform think tank’s conference about the Academies Bill and the coalition government's plan to grant greater freedom to schools and offer more choice to parents.

Thank you Andrew for your introduction and for giving me the opportunity to speak today. I greatly admire the work you and your colleagues do and, in the difficult economic times that this government has inherited, Reform is, I believe, very well placed to have a real and lasting influence.

Over the last decade Reform has developed a deep understanding of the problems facing Britain’s public services and has brought together people of real experience from across the world to develop a practical agenda for their change.

While you have recognised that investment can be part of the solution, you have argued that reform of the way money is spent can be just as or, sometimes even more, significant. This insight - always important - will be crucial in the years ahead.

And you have taken a serious and independent approach. Reform’s publications are based on firm research, and you’ve worked with reform-minded politicians from across the political spectrum.

In education you have, I believe rightly, argued for the extension of choice as a driver of improved standards but have also recognised the role government has to play to ensure greater concentration on academic rigour and the passing on of core knowledge.

So as I start work as the minister responsible for driving through significant changes to help raise standards in schools, I know that Reform will be a friend but, like the best friends, will never be afraid to tell us when you think we have got things wrong or could do better.

The government’s aims

Like everything in the agreement that unites this coalition government, our education policies are guided by the three principles of freedom, responsibility and fairness. We’re going to give schools greater freedom and parents more opportunity to choose good schools.

We’re going to place greater trust in professionals to give teachers more freedom to decide how to teach.

And we’re going to reduce bureaucracy so that schools can get on with their core business. In just one year, under the last government, the department produced over 6,000 pages of guidance for schools - more than twice the length of the complete works of Shakespeare but much less illuminating, and certainly less readable. We want to put an end to the reams of paperwork and bureaucratic burdens piled on to teachers and schools: not just the jargon-heavy instructions telling people how to do their jobs but the posters and DVDs that gather dust in supply cupboards.

Outstanding schools will be freed from inspection to refocus Ofsted’s resources on those schools that are coasting or struggling and which are failing to deliver the best quality education to their students.

We agree with Reform that extending choice will drive up quality.

Academies, introduced by the last government, have been very successful in raising standards and so we want to see many more. The Academies Bill, now going through the House of Lords, will allow more schools to benefit from the freedoms of academy status - including, for the first time, primary schools and special schools.

Academies are free from local authority control, can deploy resources as they deem best, and have the ability to set their own pay and conditions for staff. They have greater freedom over the curriculum and the length of terms and school days. Yet they operate within a broad framework of accountability which is designed to ensure that standards remain high, and consistent.

In just one week, 1,100 schools expressed an interest in becoming an Academy, and those schools which have been rated outstanding by Ofsted will have their applications fast tracked so that some can be open this September.

We are also making it much easier for parents, teachers and education providers to set up new schools, so that there is real choice in every area.

The second coalition principle I mentioned is responsibility, and everyone must take their share in the education system.

Government has a responsibility to ensure high standards; schools have a responsibility to promote an ethos of excellence and aspiration with opportunities for extra-curricula activities and sport. But it is the responsibility of pupils and their parents to ensure that their behaviour at school is of a standard that delivers a safe and happy environment in which children can concentrate and learn.

We will support that by giving teachers and head teachers the powers they need to deal effectively with poor behaviour. And we are working to ensure that teachers are protected from the professional and social humiliation of false accusations.

But the coalition principle I want to concentrate on this morning is fairness. Britain’s school system today is, frankly, unfair. Too often, opportunity is denied in a lottery of education provision where geography or parental income determines outcomes rather than academic ability.

Scale of the problem

The figures are familiar but nonetheless shocking for all their repetition:

  • The chances of a child who is eligible for free school meals getting 5 good GCSEs including English and maths are less than one third of those for children from better-off families.
  • 42% of pupils eligible for free school meals did not achieve a single GCSE above a Grade D in 2008.
  • In the last year for which we have data more pupils from Eton went to Oxford or Cambridge than from the entire cohort of the 80,000 students eligible for free school meals.

This is simply unacceptable.

I do not believe that less able children or those from disadvantaged backgrounds are not capable of having an academic education, or indeed that their parents necessarily hold lower ambitions for their children. I absolutely agree with Alan Milburn in his speech to the National Education Trust in March when he said:

It is sometimes argued that parents in the most disadvantaged areas are less aspirational for their children than those in better off areas. The figures on school appeals repudiate such assumptions, with a large number of parents in disadvantaged parts of the country using the appeals system to try to get their children out of poorly performing schools and into better ones.

It is a natural instinct for parents to want the best for their children, and better opportunities than they had themselves. Britain’s educational problems are not primarily the result of a lack of private aspiration, rather the state’s failure to provide enough good schools.

It is socially unfair, and economically damaging.

As Reform has highlighted, England’s performance in international educational league tables is now ‘amongst the worst of large developed economies’.

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study of 10 year olds marks England’s fall from 3rd out of 35 countries in 2001, to 15th out of 40 countries in 2006. And a PISA study shows that only 2 countries out of 57 have a wider gap in attainment between the lowest and highest achievers compared to England.

I don’t cite these figures in order to attack the last government or to criticise the fantastic work that is done in our schools by teachers and pupils alike. Rather, this issue highlights a fundamental ideological debate about education which runs much deeper than the decisions of ministers in the last few years.

Indeed, I pay tribute to the work done by Andrew Adonis and Jim Knight, and to previous Conservative Secretaries of State such as Ken Baker and John Patten, who tried to tackle some of the underlying causes of the problems we face.

On one side of the ideological debate are those who believe that children should learn when they are ready, through child-initiated activities and self-discovery - what Plowden called ‘Finding Out’. It is an ideology that puts the emphasis on the processes of learning rather than on the content of knowledge that needs to be learnt.

The American education academic, E.D. Hirsch, traces this ideology back to the 1920s, to the Teachers College Columbia in New York and the influence of the educationalists, John Dewey and William Heard Kilpatrick.

Added to that ideology is the notion that there is so much knowledge in the world that it is impossible to teach it all - and very difficult to discern what should be selected to be taught in schools. So, instead, children should be taught how to learn.

The importance of knowledge

I believe very strongly that education is about the transfer of knowledge from one generation to the next.

Knowledge is the basic building block for a successful life. Without understanding the fundamental concepts of maths or science it is impossible properly to comprehend huge areas of modern life. With little or no knowledge of our nation’s history, understanding the present is that much harder.

Getting to grips with the basics - of elements, of metals, of halogens, of acids; of what happens when hydrogen and oxygen come together; of photosynthesis; of cells - is difficult, but once learned you have the ability at least to comprehend some of the great advances in genetics, physics and other scientific fields that are revolutionising our lives.

Once these concepts are grasped it opens up and develops the mind and takes you one tiny step further to understanding the complex world in which we live. Each new concept facilitates deeper understanding, and the ability to think more creatively and more independently about the way the world works, and about society.

The facts, dates and narrative of our history in fact join us all together. The rich language of Shakespeare should be the common property of us all. The great figures of literature that still populate the conversations of all those who regard themselves as well-educated should be known to all.

Yet to more and more people Miss Havisham is a stranger and even the most basic history and geography a mystery.

These concepts must be taught. And they must be taught to everyone. Sadly, that is not always the case.

Professor Derek Matthews’s practice of quizzing his first year history undergraduates over a three year period shows depressing evidence of the state of teaching knowledge in history.

Almost twice as many students thought Nelson rather than Wellington was in charge at the Battle of Waterloo and nearly 90 per cent couldn’t name a single British Prime Minister of the 19th Century. And these were students at a university whose entry requirement is an A and two Bs at A level.

Again, I do not intend to criticise Professor Matthews’s students or, indeed, their teachers. These were bright young people who had achieved good exam results. What is to be criticised is an education system which has relegated the importance of knowledge in favour of ill-defined learning skills.

So I want to spend the remaining few minutes setting out the approach that the Coalition Government plans to take to put knowledge and subjects at the centre of the curriculum.

Professor David Conway in his fascinating paper, ‘Liberal Education and the national curriculum’ quotes Matthew Arnold’s view of the purpose of education as introducing children to ‘the best that has been thought and said.’

That must be the case for all children, not the privileged few, in an education system with fairness at its core.

Children who come from knowledge and education rich backgrounds start school with an in-built advantage over those who do not. If the school then fails to make up the knowledge deficit, those divisions widen still further.

Leon Feinstein’s research has shown that low-ability children from wealthy backgrounds often overtake and outperform more able children from poorer backgrounds by age 5, with the differences between children’s cognitive development related to parental social status emerging as early as 22 months.

E.D. Hirsch, writes brilliantly about the importance of knowledge gained early on. He says, ‘Just as it takes money to make money, it takes knowledge to make knowledge.’

He goes onto say:

Those children who possess the intellectual capital when they first arrive at school have the mental scaffolding and Velcro to gain still more knowledge. But those children who arrive at school lacking the relevant experience and vocabulary - they see not neither do they understand.

Which is why he believes, as I do, that: ‘It is the duty of schools to provide each child with the knowledge and skills requisite for academic progress - regardless of home background.’

So we will introduce a Pupil Premium, which will direct resources to children from disadvantaged backgrounds, who need it most. Headteachers will then have the freedom to decide how best to use that money - whether to reduce class sizes, provide extra tuition, or recruit the best teachers.

But we need to sharpen our focus on the core business of teaching at every level, starting with the basics. In particular, reading.

25% of adults have literacy problems. But even after the literacy strategy in primary schools introduced in the late 1990s, we still have nearly one in five 11-year-olds leaving primary school still struggling with reading. Again, the ideologically-driven, child-centred approach to education has led to the belief that the mere exposure to books and text, and the repetition of high frequency words, will lead to a child learning to read - as if by osmosis.

That Look and Say, or whole language approach to reading ignores the importance of teaching children the 44 sounds of the alphabetic code, and how to blend those sounds into words.

Although phonics does play a part in the way reading is taught, as Ofsted has reported in their last annual report: ‘… weaknesses in the teaching of literacy … remain… Inspectors continue to report a lack of focus on basic literacy for low attainers…’.

So we are determined to focus on ensuring that reading is taught effectively in primary schools and we will say more about this in the coming months.
And it is because of that necessary focus on the basics, and our belief in giving teachers more flexibility, that we have decided not to proceed with the new primary curriculum as recommended by Sir Jim Rose.

Instead, we want to restore the national curriculum to its intended purpose - a core national entitlement organised around subject disciplines.

So we will slim down the national curriculum to ensure that pupils have the knowledge they need at each stage of their education, and restore parity between our curriculum and qualifications, and the best world has to offer: whether that is Massachusetts, Singapore, Finland, Hong Kong, or Alberta.

We will reform league tables so that parents have the reassurance they need that their child is progressing.

And we must also restore confidence in our exam system. Pupils should be entered for qualifications that are in their best interests, not with a view to boosting a school’s performance in the league tables.

We have opened up qualifications unfairly closed off to pupils in state maintained schools - such as the iGCSE - to offer pupils greater choice, and to ensure that they are afforded the same opportunities as those who have the money to go to independent schools.


Andrew, I have set out today an overview of how we intend to tackle some of the problems in our education system and how we intend to start to close the achievement gap between those from the richest and poorest in society. As you would expect from this Coalition Government it’s based on a conservative belief in a liberal education.

E.D. Hirsch writes that ‘… an early inequity in the distribution of intellectual capital may be the single most important source of avoidable injustice in a free society.’

It is remedying that injustice that is the driving force behind this Government’s education reforms.