Nicky Morgan: why knowledge matters

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

The Secretary of State for Education speaks about the importance of a knowledge-based curriculum and her vision for education.

Good evening ladies and gentlemen,

It’s an absolute pleasure to be here tonight [27 January 2015] and to have the opportunity to deliver your winter address. It’s not just Politeia that’s interested in education. One thing I’ve come to realise since taking up this post is that everyone has a view, and it’s a pleasure to be here at the Carlton Club this evening to share mine.

We’re now almost 5 years into the ambitious programme of reform which has formed our plan for education. It’s a good time to look back at the work that we’ve done, why we’ve done it and what more I think still needs to be done to make Britain’s school system truly world class.

The problems that our education system faced 5 years ago are well documented: a country stagnating in international education league tables as new economies powered ahead; a system of qualifications that lacked the confidence of employers and universities; but, most damning of all, a presumption that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds couldn’t succeed in academic study.

It was a situation that we simply couldn’t afford to let continue, as a country, as employers, as parents.

And it’s a situation that more people should be very angry about. Because at the heart of the failures in our education system was one simple fact - this country was failing in its duty to nurture every young person’s unique talents - of letting too many future Stephen Hawkings, Mary Beards or Tim Berners-Lees leave education without realising their potential.

Our plan for education

The rationale that underpins our plan for education is simple, it isn’t about an outdated world view or old fashioned nostalgia, it’s about a refusal to accept that educational attainment must be correlated to the wealth of your parents, that your future life chances are determined not by talent or effort, but by the circumstances of your birth. None of us who believe in meritocracy, whatever side of the political spectrum, can be content with that.

And our reforms are having results:

  • the attainment gap between pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers is closing
  • over 100,000 young people a year are on track to be more confident readers as a result of our phonics check
  • 1 million more pupils now study in ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ schools

I could go on - and of course, we do still have a huge way to go. Figures released today found that pupils from independent schools were still 7 times more likely to go to a Russell Group University and 10 times more likely to go to Oxford and Cambridge than pupils eligible for free school meals. That gap, ladies and gentlemen, remains intolerable, and is why we cannot take our foot off the pedal.

But I am confident that the next stage of our reforms will see that gap close even further as we see our students starting to study our reformed, rigorous qualifications.

A knowledge-based curriculum

At the heart of our reforms has been a determination to place knowledge back at the core of what pupils learn in school.

For too long our education system prized the development of skills above core knowledge. To be fair, you can see the attraction of that orthodoxy: surely it’s more important that young people in school learn about critical reflection and inquiry rather than memorising a list British monarchs or studying the King James Bible.

But there’s a problem with that view - how can you understand the causes of the reformation without knowing who was on the throne?

How can you understand the impact of climate change without knowing the basic chemistry that underpins it?

How can you debate topics like capital punishment without knowing the belief systems that underpin many of the arguments for and against?

Simply put, it’s impossible for young people to gain the skills and attributes that we all prize, without the knowledge base to put those skills into action.

The scandal, of course, is that children from the more affluent backgrounds were getting this knowledge anyway - it was those young people who didn’t have the resources or opportunities to get it by other means that lost out.

That cannot be right.

Anyone who truly believes in social justice or the life transforming potential of education must agree that access to a rich corpus of knowledge should be the equal right of every child and this is what our new national curriculum offers.

From British history to coding, this curriculum which started being taught for the first time this school year will ensure that every young person who studies it gets the same core grounding they need to succeed in further study.

Qualifications of value

It’s the same rationale that’s underpinned our reforms to qualifications at 16 and 18. Reading some more commentators in the press you’d think that we’d changed GCSEs and A levels purely because we want more young people to fail.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

These changes are about ensuring young people leave school with qualifications that demand the respect of employers and universities. Yes, we’ve done this because we want to produce a highly skilled workforce of the future - one that ensures that the next generation can compete with their peers on the global stage.

But more importantly we’ve done it because we believe in being honest with young people. Young people today aren’t working any less hard for their GCSEs than 2 decades ago, certainly not when I reflect on my own school experience! And teachers aren’t teaching any less well, quite the opposite.

Yet young people were being sold short. They were working hard and investing time and effort into qualifications which looked great on paper, but in reality it did nothing to open doors for their future.

Vocational qualifications that didn’t lead to a career, academic qualifications so hollow universities were forced to run remedial courses and an inflated grade system which worked for politicians able to trumpet ever higher pass rates, but let young people down.

Our reforms to qualifications are changing that. Pegging our GCSEs and A levels to the best in the world, restoring rigour and giving students the grounding they need to excel in further study. At the same time, we’re giving vocational qualifications the reform they deserve so that they present a proper alternative for young people.

Unlike some, I don’t think that parity of esteem for vocational qualifications means making false equivalences or offering students weaker qualifications. Parity of esteem means ensuring young people take vocational qualifications which will open up an equal number of doors in the future.

That’s why the Wolf reforms were so important - stripping out hundreds of poor-quality vocational qualifications from league tables and leaving behind only those which employers have actually designed and endorsed.

It’s why we’ve insisted that even those young people who choose not to study A levels should continue to study English and maths if they don’t get a grade C or above - because there are no subjects more vocational than these and without them young people will be held back for the rest of their lives.

And alongside this, we’ve taken steps to move away from an education system which prizes constant testing and examination, where the pig was weighed but never fed - a modular GCSE and A level system which led to students taking exams in spring, summer and winter, bogus incentives for schools to enter young people for exams before they were properly ready and endless cycles of resits.

Young people educated in the early 2000s ended up spending more time revising than they did learning, more time sitting tests than sitting in the classroom.

So we’ve swept away modularisation, decoupled the A level and AS Level and removed resits from school league tables - and instead created the space where schools have more time for teaching and less time wasted on arbitrary testing.

Practical skills

At the same time, I’m a firm believer that alongside ensuring the rigour of our assessments, we must never let the assessment tail wag the dog of what is being taught in school.

Many of you are aware of the current debate about to what extent practical assessment should form part of qualification grades at GCSE, particularly, although not limited to the sciences.

While I fully understand the concerns Ofqual have in ensuring that assessment remains rigorous and resistant to gaming, I am concerned that a decision to remove practical assessment from science qualifications is in danger of holding back the next generation of scientists.

Like many in our scientific community, I fear that such a move could inadvertently downgrade the importance of these practical skills - leaving a generation of chemists, physicists and biologists who leave schools with excellent theoretical knowledge, but are unable to perform key practical experiments which form the basis of a future research career.

I understand that a constructive dialogue is now taking place and my hope is that Ofqual and the scientific community are able to work together to find a workable solution. One that preserves high-quality assessment, but at the same time ensures that what students learn in the classroom is what universities and employers agree will give budding scientists the best preparation to succeed in the future.

Measuring success

Further reforms are also transforming the way we hold schools to account. From 2016, rather than measuring the number of young people that schools are forced to push over an arbitrary pass mark, we’ll introduce Progress 8 which will measure the progress that our pupils make rather than simply their raw attainment.

No longer will it be the case that the only pupils that matter will be those on the C/D borderline. Instead those schools that will be rewarded are those that push each pupil to reach their potential.

Opening doors

As I said earlier, what underpins all of these reforms is an unblinking commitment to fairness and social justice. Years of dumbing down in our education system, didn’t result in prizes for all - it stalled social mobility, and lowered expectations for young people and in particular those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

And yet we now know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this needn’t be the case - there is no automatic link between disadvantage and poor attainment. A school like King Solomon Academy shows this better than almost anywhere.

This is a school where last year around 93% of students got 5 or more A* to C grades and 75% of young people attained the EBacc, despite it having one of the most disadvantaged intakes in the country.

That’s why I reject the notion that the only way to close the gap between pupils from different backgrounds is to lower the bar. The best schools know that you can only close the gap by raising the bar for everyone, by expecting the best for everyone, and creating the conditions where every young person can achieve that best.

Well rounded young people

We have been robustly unapologetic in insisting that more young people should study the core academic subjects that give them the transferable skills and knowledge they’ll need to succeed in the future.

But those who say that measures like our EBacc are designed to deter students from studying the arts are wrong - and this year’s results have proven our case, with significant rises in entries to subjects like art and music at GCSE level.

What is true is that for too long qualifications in these important subjects haven’t been fit for purpose. GCSEs and A levels which taught young people how to paint or perform but never gave them the academic underpinning they needed to succeed beyond school, nor exposed them to the history of their disciplines or gave them the opportunity to learn from the masters.

Yesterday I announced new content for arts and music qualifications that will change that, placing arts GCSEs and A levels on the same rigorous footing as those in newly reformed GCSEs in sciences and humanities.

Of course so much cultural education takes place beyond the classroom and that wider education cannot be the preserve of those who can afford it. To tackle this, we also announced yesterday, £109 million of funding for cultural education projects, designed to engage more young people than ever before in activities like learning a musical instrument or taking part in dance and drama clubs.

As a parent I know there’s nothing more inspiring or moving than watching your child discover their own unique talents, discovering their passions and finding out what makes them tick.

And travelling round the country I can’t help but be amazed at the musical and artistic flair of the young people I meet. Before Christmas I was wowed by the creativity and passion of the pupils in art classes at Elton High School in Bury and amazed by the diversity and talent of the portfolios they displayed.

Just yesterday I visited Ark Conway, a free school set up just 3 years ago, but which now has the best primary school results at key stage 1 in the country.

And alongside their commitment to helping young people master the basics of reading, writing and maths they put cultural education at the heart of their curriculum. So impressive was their performance that they even managed to persuade me and the Culture Secretary to play the ukulele. And while I didn’t see people rushing to put their fingers in their ears, I think Sajid would agree that we had a lot to learn from the 7-year-olds and that I shouldn’t give up the day job!

So as part of our duty to young people, we have a duty to make sure that every child, every young person has that opportunity explore and hone their talents. To make sure we nurture not just the Hawkings and Berners-Lees I mentioned before - but also the next generation of the Danny Boyles and the JK Rowlings too.

Character education

It’s that desire to ensure that young people leave education as well rounded individuals that sparked my passion for character education.

Because just as important to the next generation’s future as getting a sound academic grounding, is ensuring they have the resilience and grit to deal with the challenges that life will throw at them.

To support schools we’re investing in character education, supporting projects like the cadets, debating in schools and team building activities, and providing support to help the best of these projects expand.

As ever there are those siren voices who say - what’s the point, surely you can’t examine how well schools teach character, how on earth can you measure that schools are doing it well?

In many ways this goes back to what I said earlier we’ve become obsessed with assessment as the only way of measuring progress in our education system.

This is the wrong school of thought, for too long we have infantilised our teaching profession by claiming that the only work that counts is that which can be assessed.

It’s why at the end of last year I stripped qualifications on personal effectiveness out of our league tables. Because teaching personal effectiveness, should be something that all schools are doing not simply a path to another exam.

British values

And above all else, preparing well rounded young people means ensuring that they leave school ready to be active citizens who want to participate in society, with an understanding of the responsibility that brings.

It shouldn’t take any intervention from my department to say that young people should be learning the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, tolerance and respect - because these British values are fundamentally a good thing.

Fundamental British values are the attributes that have in this century and the last, made our country one of the greatest forces for good. They’re the values that bind us together, that mean despite the many differences in our nation, we’re united as one people.

The events in Birmingham last year showed what happened, when those that don’t subscribe to our fundamental British values try to hijack our education system, radicalise our children and break those societal bonds. What happened in Paris this month, showed what can happen when people like that succeed. And today of course, as we commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day and the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz- Birkenau, we are all too aware of where a world view based on division and hatred can ultimately lead.

Most radicalisation takes place beyond the school gates, in homes and communities and increasingly online. But surely the least we can do as a society is to ensure that within school, young people are being protected from extremist ideologies and having their minds opened by education, rather than closed.

That is why I will always vigorously defend the requirement on schools to promote British values - and why I am convinced that it is right that Ofsted are now taking steps to make sure that this is happening in the schools they inspect.

Ofsted themselves are the first to acknowledge that inspection isn’t perfect, it’s an art not a science and there are very real steps needed to improve the quality of some inspections. But as a parent, I feel better in the knowledge that someone is going into our schools and asking whether what is being taught, conforms to those very simple, universal, liberal British values.

But promoting fundamental British values is about far more than combatting extremism. The very reason that fundamental British values are successful in tackling extremist ideology is because they help to open young people’s minds, making them into citizens who respect difference, who welcome disagreement and who challenge intolerance.

I’m afraid I have no sympathy for those who say that British values need not apply to them, that this should purely be a special test for schools in predominantly Muslim communities or our inner cities.

Every school regardless, faith or none - should be promoting British values, because it’s the right thing to do.

A commitment to British values means that we also hold to account those schools where girls are made to sit at the back of the class, where homophobia goes unchecked, where young people aren’t being made aware of the many facets of British culture.

Pupils in a Lincolnshire school might not have any friends from an ethnic minority in their village – but surely we don’t expect those students never to leave Lincolnshire’s borders? Surely a key part of our responsibility to those young people in enabling them to succeed in modern Britain is ensuring they understand and respect the differences that make our country unique.

So I’m unapologetic in saying that no school should be exempt from promoting fundamental British values, just as no school should be exempt from promoting rigorous academic standards.

Our schools have the greatest responsibility of any of our civic institutions. They help to shape the next generation - the generation that will decide Britain’s place in the 21st century, the generation that will write the next chapter in our island’s history.

I want that generation to be able to go toe to toe with their peers from across the globe and to secure our country’s future.

But I also want them to continue our country’s proud tradition of moral leadership, to continue to hold our country up as a beacon of tolerance, fairness and freedom of speech.

That is what is at stake in our education system today and I am proud to continue to push our programme of reform forward.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much.