Nick Gibb's speech to Reform-AQA conference

Schools Minister Nick Gibb's speech to the Reform-AQA conference - "Raising the bar: Making England’s teachers the best in the world".

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

Thank you very much, Andrew, and thank you to AQA and Reform for hosting this conference, for your kind invitation to speak today and for your kind words just now. This is the last day of this year’s GCSE examinations, and I’d like to take this opportunity to wish pupils the very best of luck for their final exams, and a well-earned rest after all their hard work.

It is always a pleasure to attend a Reform conference. Last year, I said confidently that I knew Reform would be a friend to the Coalition Government but, like the best of friends, wouldn’t be afraid to tell us when you thought we had got things wrong or could do better.

Well, I think it’s fair to say that, by that measure, you have been a very good friend indeed…

As you say, Andrew, I have been Minister for Schools for just over a year now, and Shadow Minister for Schools for five years before that. During that time I have visited hundreds of schools, observed hundreds of lessons, and listened to hundreds of teachers.

So much of what I’ve seen has been deeply impressive. As we said in our White Paper in November, there is much in the English school system of which we can be proud.

This country has some of the very best schools in the world. Every day, thousands of pupils receive stimulating, engaging and rigorous lessons. We already have thousands of wonderful teachers, and more are joining the profession every year.

But among these examples of excellence, we know that some schools are struggling.

The Secretary of State has established floor standards for both secondary and primary schools. We’ve raised the floor for secondary schools to 35 per cent of pupils achieving five GCSEs at grades A*-C including English and Maths, and at least as many pupils making good progress between KS2 and KS4 as the national average. Next year that floor will rise to 40 per cent. Our aim is to raise the standard to 50 per cent of pupils at each school achieving that floor by the end of the Parliament.

At primary level we have introduced a floor standard for the first time. 60 per cent of pupils achieving Level 4 in English and Maths at Key Stage 2 and at least as many pupils making the expected levels of progress between KS1 and KS2 as the national average, will be the new floor for every primary school in the country.

That means there are 216 secondary schools below the secondary floor standard at the moment, and around 1,400 primary schools below the primary floor - of whom more than 200 have been under the floor for five years or more. Raising standards in these schools is a priority for the Department.

The UK is dropping down the PISA international rankings, falling from fourth to sixteenth in Science; seventh to 25th in literacy; and eighth to 28th in Maths. Our 15-year-olds are two years behind Chinese pupils in Maths, and a year behind their peers in Korea or Finland in reading.

We’re not preparing our school leavers sufficiently well to meet the expectations of employers. The CBI’s annual education and skills survey just last month found that almost half of top employers are forced to invest in remedial training in literacy and numeracy when they hire someone straight out of school or college.

And the attainment gap between rich and poor and between the state and private sectors remains, in our judgement, unacceptably wide.

In 2010, 80.3 per cent of children achieved level 4 in English at the end of primary school - but only 55.6 per cent of white boys on free school meals achieved this level. In other words, only around half of white boys from the poorest backgrounds started secondary school able to read and write well enough to access the secondary curriculum.

This isn’t a one-off occurrence, but a worrying pattern. Last year, 55 per cent of all pupils achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A*-C including English and maths. But the number of children on free school meals who achieved the same level was just 31 per cent.

Whilst GCSE results go up every year, the gap of 28 percentage points between children from the poorest backgrounds and the rest of the population remains stubbornly wide.

Figures released by the OECD this month have shown that poor children in this country are less likely to exceed expectations for educational performance than their deprived peers in most other developed nations. Britain’s record is well below the global average, coming 28th out of 35 leading nations in terms of social mobility on that measure - below countries like Estonia, Latvia, Mexico and Slovenia.

These are the statistics which are driving us to make radical reforms.

Reducing the gap in attainment between pupils from rich and poor backgrounds is a key moral objective of the Coalition Government. Children only get one chance at their education, but we believe these results show that too many of the poorest children are still being let down in English schools.

Evidence from PISA, the OECD, McKinsey and others shows that the strongest education systems around the world - the education systems which are racing ahead of us in the rankings - are those which recruit and develop the best teachers.

In the highest performing education systems around the world, teachers are consistently drawn from the brightest and best graduates . In Finland, for example, teachers are selected from the top 10 per cent of graduates. In South Korea, teachers come from the top 5 per cent.

In these high-performing countries, there are strong systems of professional development, and teachers’ performance is carefully monitored. Teachers learn from successful teachers and schools learn from successful schools.

And because the profession is so highly valued in those countries, it is seen as high status. In Finland, more than a quarter of young people describe teaching as their number one career choice . Yet in this country, only 2 per cent of first class honours graduates from Russell Group universities choose to teach after graduating .

The quality of our teachers matters because international research shows that it is the single most important factor in determining a pupil’s progress. A report from McKinsey in 2007 found that “the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers” .

Studies in the United States have shown that an individual pupil taught for three consecutive years by a teacher in the top ten per cent of performance can make as much as two years more progress than a pupil taught for the same period by a teacher in the bottom ten per cent of performance.

At secondary level, in particular, research in this country indicates that teachers’ knowledge of their subjects will determine their pupils’ success, especially in the sciences and maths.

For Physics, the subject expertise of the teacher is one of the most powerful predictors of pupil achievement at GCSE and A level. Similarly, in Maths, pupils taught by teachers with a high level of subject knowledge have been proven to achieve better results.

Yet over a quarter of Maths teachers in years 7 to 13 in English schools do not hold a post-A level qualification in a subject relevant to Maths.

40 per cent of teachers of Physics and Chemistry do not hold undergraduate degrees in subjects relevant to Physics and Chemistry. Half of all teachers of French or German do not hold undergraduate degrees in subjects relevant to French or German .

We want to learn from the highest-performing education systems around the world to improve our own performance. To learn from those countries which are now out-performing us. And while they continue to reform and improve, we want to improve more quickly. As President Obama has said: “the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow.”

All the evidence points in the same direction. As the most recent PISA briefing note on UK schools repeated: “the bottom line is that the quality of a school system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.”

The Government’s priority is to deliver high quality teaching to all children. This is why we called the White Paper which we published last year, “The Importance of Teaching”, and why we have focused on improving the quality of teaching.

So the question is how: how do we “raise the bar” on teacher quality? We believe it’s a question of rebalancing the system in favour of teachers. We need to improve the support and opportunities available to teachers. And remove the obstacles that are hindering them.

We want to make teaching more attractive to high-quality entrants and help teachers to develop their skills further still.

We have expanded Teach First into the North East, so that it now operates across the whole country. We’ve also taken Teach First into primary schools so that children of all ages can benefit from some truly excellent young teachers.

We’ve launched the Teachers’ Standards Review Group under Sally Coates, the principal of Burlington Danes Academy, to rewrite the QTS and other standards for classroom teachers, focusing them on the key skills and attributes effective teachers need.

But we also want schools to take the lead in creating more opportunities for teachers to learn from their peers in continuing professional development and leadership training.

We are establishing new centres of excellence in teaching practice - called Teaching Schools, modelled on Teaching Hospitals - where both new and experienced teachers can learn and develop their professional skills throughout their careers. Over 300 schools have applied to become Teaching Schools so far and we look forward to designating the first 100 Teaching Schools next month.

Alongside Teaching Schools, yesterday we launched a discussion document about our strategy for reforming initial teacher training to focus on key teaching skills, including managing behaviour and handling pupils’ Special Educational Needs. We want to give schools a stronger influence over the recruitment and selection of trainees and the content of their training; and we want to allow schools to lead their own high quality initial teacher training in partnership with a university.

In particular, we will ensure that teachers are trained to teach reading, to prevent the tragedy of thousands of children leaving primary school every year unable to read properly. Last year, 9 per cent of pupils started secondary school functionally illiterate, unable to read either for school or for pleasure. Over 15,000 children did not reach the lowest marking level in the Key Stage 2 reading test. Over 20,000 children could not even read well enough to take the test.

Without the ability to read what’s on the interactive whiteboard or in their textbook, these children end up falling further behind their classmates, more likely to become disillusioned, disengaged and disruptive.

Research overwhelmingly shows that the most effective method of teaching children to read is systematic synthetic phonics , but at present only half of newly qualified primary teachers rated their training as good or very good in preparing them to teach reading and phonics. We will ensure that teachers are properly trained so they can successfully teach early reading using synthetic phonics, and we’re working very closely with the university education faculties to achieve that.

We are also proposing to offer financial incentives of up to £20,000 to attract more of the best graduates in shortage subjects into teaching; and enable more talented career changers to become teachers.

We will no longer provide Department for Education funding for graduates to enter initial teacher training without at least a 2:2 degree, and we will require trainees to pass tougher literacy and numeracy tests before they start training - without the option of unlimited resits, as they have now.

Finally, we know that teachers want opportunities for further study and continuing professional development to focus on enriching and enhancing their subject knowledge.

We have therefore introduced a new, competitive £2 million Scholarship Scheme. This fund will enable a number of teachers every year to pursue post-graduate qualifications or other rigorous study in their subjects.

Applications are being invited now with the first round of funding to be awarded in December. Funding in the first year will focus on the core subjects of Maths, English and Science, as well as special educational needs, where we also have shortages.

Giving teachers and head teachers their professional autonomy is the driving force behind the acceleration of the Academies programme.

One of our first priorities in office was to pass the Academies Act and one year on, 704 academies are now open - over twice as many as a year ago. By the end of the year, over a third of all secondary schools will be academies . Teachers in these hundreds of new academies enjoy greater professional freedoms, so that they can concentrate on doing their jobs as they know best.

We’re encouraging new free schools to be established in areas of need - set up by groups of teachers, parents or educational foundations. In the latest 2012 round we received 281 applications. We expect between 10 and 20 new free schools to open this September. Of the 32 Free Schools that the Department is currently progressing, 2 are located in the most deprived 10 per cent of Lower Super Output Areas; a third are in the most deprived 20 per cent of such areas; and 59 per cent are in the most deprived 50 per cent of Lower Super Output Areas.

We also want to sweep away the bureaucratic burdens being heaped onto teachers which consume energy and time, and sap morale.

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, I would argue, somewhat less inspiring.

Teachers in all types of schools told us that one of the biggest drains on their time was wading through overlapping, over-prescriptive diktats from the centre.

We’ve started to cut this back by scrapping unnecessary bureaucracy and streamlining the duties, guidance and paperwork piled onto schools.

We are also slimming down the Ofsted inspection regime. Rather than examining schools against 27 different headings, it will now focus on the four important core areas: quality of teaching, pupil achievement, leadership and management, and pupil behaviour and safety.

Pupil behaviour affects both the current and the future teaching workforce. A survey of undergraduates found that the greatest deterrent to entering the teaching profession was the fear of not being safe in the classroom , while two-thirds of teachers say that poor pupil behaviour is driving teachers out of the profession .

We have issued new and clearer guidance to help teachers to handle poor pupil behaviour, cutting more than 600 pages of guidance down to just 50.

The Education Bill (currently going through the Lords) will further strengthen teachers’ powers so that they can control classrooms effectively.

Reducing and simplifying guidance will greatly reduce the burdens on teachers’ time, and will enable them to spend more time focusing on actually teaching. Over the next few months we will be publishing shortened guidance in a wide range of areas. In total, departmental guidance will be more than halved.

As well as guidance, we want to remove unnecessary central prescription and allow head teachers and governing bodies of maintained schools more freedom to manage their schools.

The current arrangements for dealing with teacher performance are too complicated and fragmented and more than half of teachers and headteachers surveyed by the Sutton Trust last year agreed or strongly agreed that there was not enough freedom for schools to tackle under-performing teachers.

We are currently consulting on new arrangements which will make it easier for schools to identify under-performance and to tackle it quickly, effectively and fairly.

We’ve launched a review to slim down the National Curriculum. We want to move it to a clear, concise specification of core academic content, for teachers to teach in whatever way seems best to them - again, sweeping away reams of paper and lever arch files that specify the content of lesson plans and how to teach. How teachers teach should be left to their professionalism.

We’re also concerned about the standards in our public examinations, and want to see A levels re-connected with the universities and with the learned societies. We want GCSEs to increase the emphasis on spelling, punctuation and grammar, and we’ve asked Ofqual to advise us on that.

In the Economist this week, the Bagehot column cites Westminster School where in 1994, 21 per cent of GCSEs taken achieved the top A* grade. By 2004, 59 per cent of the grades at that school were A* and in 2009, 81 per cent.

No one argues that pupil selection or the work ethic at Westminster School has changed since 1994, certainly not to this degree. We need to restore integrity and confidence in our GCSEs.

In conclusion, Andrew, in essence our education policy has 3 overarching goals:

  • to close the attainment gap between those from poorer and wealthier backgrounds
  • to ensure our education system competes with the best education jurisdictions in the world
  • and to trust professionals and raise the esteem of the teaching profession.

It’s an ambitious programme and although self-praise is no praise, I hope you’ll agree that in the first 12 months of this administration we have made an energetic and expeditious start to achieving these goals. Thank you very much.

Updates to this page

Published 28 June 2011