The importance of teaching

Nick Gibb speaks to ResearchED about why the promotion of evidence-based approaches and freeing teachers to teach go hand in hand.

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

Nick Gibb


Thank you for that kind introduction.

These ResearchED conferences are hugely important, bringing together people from every part of education to promote the importance of evidence in everything we do - from policy-making right through to classroom practice.

As a deliberate act of policy, the government has made more information available, more school data, more evidence about education than ever before - and we can use that evidence to improve what we do on a day-to-day basis.

It is teachers who are taking the lead in this - who are putting evidence at the centre of their profession, their schools, their classrooms, their teaching.

And it is teachers who are using evidence to transform the education that children receive; in the network of 600 Teaching Schools, all established with Research and Development as 1 of their 6 core functions; in the projects and studies taking place all over the country, in academy chains and school clusters; in events like today.

And it is evidence that will liberate the teaching profession from the shackles that I believe they have laboured under for too long.

1965 was a historic year for British schools, not just because it was my first year in primary school. That year, Tony Crosland issued ‘Circular 10/65’, which encouraged the spread of comprehensive schools and heralded a burst of experimentation in the classroom.

This, combined with my father’s job as a civil engineer, meant I witnessed an unusually broad spectrum of schooling as we moved house every few years: a state primary school; an independent prep school; a grammar school; a Canadian state school; a good comprehensive school and finally a very weak comprehensive, which is why I ended up in politics.

Seven different schools between 1965 and 1978, a period during which the English education system went through revolutionary change. It wasn’t necessarily comprehensivisation that was the problem but the bad ideas - to use Robert Peal’s phrase - that all too often came with it or preceded it: child-initiated learning; and look and say teaching of reading. Ideas in which ideology was trumping evidence.

Governments ever since that time have sought to address the declining standards that resulted. Jim Callaghan’s 1976 Ruskin speech; Gerbil, the Great Education Reform Bill of 1988 and Tony Blair’s literacy hour and the national strategies; all of which appeared to turbo-charge the very bad ideas that had led to the very problems they were trying to solve.

This was the age of ‘initiativitis’, when in just 1 year 322 directives were sent from Whitehall to schools and local authorities. No problem was too small to be solved by a new government directive, a national strategy or a quango. Teachers were relegated to being the mindless executors of initiatives imposed from on high.

This was the age when Ofsted inspectors were known to grade teachers according to conformity to a certain style of teaching, with a distinct preference for pupils working independent of teacher instruction. Those teachers who explained, conversed, demonstrated and informed from the front - in short, those teachers who taught - risked being graded inadequate.

Yet the grounds on which teachers were encouraged to embrace these practices were shockingly flimsy. In 1999, the Tooley Report showed that almost two-thirds of articles in education journals did not meet a minimum standard of academic good practice. Fads such as multiple intelligences, learning styles and personalisation had been - and in some cases still are being - promoted not because they work, but because they sound appealing.

All of these constraints on the autonomy of the profession and on good teaching, this government has challenged whilst in office.

When it comes to teaching practices, a far higher level of empirical evidence is now beginning to be demanded by the government and - more importantly - by teachers.

That is why we commissioned Dr Ben Goldacre, who will be speaking in the next session, to look into how our education system can use evidence more effectively. His report was groundbreaking, giving evidence-based teaching a much higher profile than ever before - and its effects can be seen all around us here today.

And for the same reason, in 2011 the government established the Education Endowment Foundation. Now in its fourth year, the foundation is providing teachers with high-quality evidence showing them which classroom practices will help their most deprived pupils.

Since 2011, the EEF has awarded £46.7 million to 87 projects working in over 2,400 schools.

Projects like the Word and World Reading Programme. Run by The Curriculum Centre, inspired by ED Hirsch’s core knowledge movement in the USA, this pilot study provides 8 schools, over 1 school year, with material to build basic knowledge in history and geography, subject-specific vocabulary lists so children can understand the topics they’re reading about, and teacher training in ‘direct instruction’.

Those 8 schools will be matched against 8 other schools, which don’t receive the intervention - and reading comprehension tests at the start and end of the projects will track whether the intervention has had an effect and, if so, how great.

The EEF’s teaching and learning toolkit holds summaries of over 10,000 research studies from the UK and around the world, in 34 topics - already being used by almost half of the senior leaders recently surveyed.

Education research like this is also helping us to see which approaches are most effective in driving up standards. John Hattie’s book Visible Learning, published in 2009, synthesised the sometimes bewildering flurry of education research. It ranked over 100 different interventions according to their proven effectiveness.

‘Whole language’ approaches to literacy, ‘student control over learning’ and ‘problem based learning’ all scored so low in Hattie’s analysis that he rated them as little more effective than not teaching pupils anything at all. Hattie concluded that the ‘facilitator’ model of teacher instruction, where pupils are freed from teacher instruction and empowered to find things out for themselves, is in direct contradiction to effective teaching.

Yet these practices - and many more - are what teachers have historically been encouraged, almost forced, to use. For years the facilitator model was promoted as ‘what Ofsted want to see’. I will readily admit, this is a problem that - with the steadfast help of the Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw - we are only just beginning to solve.

As recent research carried out by Robert Peal for the think tank Civitas has revealed, until December 2013 three quarters of Ofsted reports still showed a marked bias against teacher instruction, in favour of more child-led alternatives.

Excerpts from Ofsted reports such as:

‘[teacher led instruction] … engenders over-reliance by students on being told things rather than finding them out for themselves’. In making such a judgement, the inspector gave a near word for word quotation from the 1967 Plowden Report. Plowden famously stated, ‘Finding out’ has proved to be better for children than ‘being told’.

The Plowden Report had a rather too enthusiastic view of what had been ‘proved’. Today, we know there is nothing wrong with pupils being told information by a teacher, if delivered in a structured and enlivening way. Thanks to Sir Michael’s leadership, inspectors will no longer penalise good teachers based on these pedagogical preferences.

Schools are being relieved of other burdens. Our education plan has raised the bar of school achievement, but has left it up to schools to decide how that bar should be cleared. For this reason, government guidance to schools has been cut by three-quarters, thousands of pages swept into the recycling bin.

I am under no illusion - high demands are being made of teachers in this transition to a more ambitious school system. The new phonics check; the reforms to key stage assessments; the new national curriculum; and the new GCSE and A level requirements all represent significant change.

And we know that teachers in England already work hard. This year, the OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey told us that the average teacher in England works 46 hours a week, compared with an OECD average of 38 hours. But what makes up these extra 8 hours? Interestingly, it is not classroom teaching or extracurricular activities. Time spent in the classroom is the same in England as it is in the OECD as a whole.

Teachers in England are spending more time on school management and administration.

So our reforms have focused on relieving teachers of administrative burdens. We have simplified the process for setting detentions and excluding pupils. We want to free teachers to spend more time on things that make a difference to their pupils, and less time on things that do not.

General Patton’s dictum on leadership was:

Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.

And that represents the philosophy behind our education plan: setting a high bar in the curriculum; examinations and KS2 assessments, sharpening accountability, but liberating the profession to decide how to reach that bar - how to teach and respond to those greater demands and higher expectations.

As a government we abhor the notion of social-determinism. Our mantra of closing the gap between those from poorer and wealthier backgrounds reflects the political philosophy of all the Coalition Education Ministers since 2010.

Which is why we introduced the pupil premium - we know that delivering high academic standards in the face of deprivation is challenging and resource intensive - so we’ve provided the resources to help schools to close that gap with the pupil premium - an additional £1,300 per primary pupil and £935 per secondary pupil.

Good schools are closing the gap. King Solomon’s Academy, with 51% free school meals, reported that 93% achieved 5 or more GCSEs at grades A* to C including English and maths this year.

Schools rated outstanding by Ofsted have double the proportion of pupils on free school meals achieving 5 good GCSEs compared with those rated inadequate.

In terms of raising academic standards, our curriculum and examination reforms have been criticised for their insistence on a higher level of subject knowledge. What is the point of mere knowledge, it is so often asked, when in the 21st century what pupils really need is creativity, imagination and critical thinking skills?

The point is that none of these skills can be acquired without an initial grounding in subject knowledge. A false dichotomy is too often made between knowledge and skills. Knowledge and skills are not enemies; they are partners. But they belong in a partnership where knowledge must be learnt first.

This is a principle that has been well explained by the American cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, and on our shores by Daisy Christodoulou, the former teacher, now Research and Development Manager at ARK Schools.

For too long, modern teaching methods have been based on the misconception that you can build a house from the roof downwards. I saw this early on in the reading debate, when recognition of whole words and reading for meaning was prioritised before the learning of individual sounds and phonemes.

In maths, problem solving was - too often - embarked upon prematurely, before fluency in the use of algorithms and the memorisation of number bonds and multiplication tables. In history, source analysis before sufficient understanding of the historical context can make such an activity meaningless.

In each case, misguided teaching methods attempt to bypass the hard graft and discipline of basic knowledge acquisition. To construct a glittering dome, you first have to put in the hard, unglamorous work on the building’s foundations.

It is a well-known principle that great inventions are made through analogical thinking. Breakthroughs occur when existing knowledge is brought to bear in new contexts. The ‘eureka moment’ of a great inventor originates not in a moment of pure inspiration, but through the novel application of what is already known.

Alexander Graham Bell’s first diagrams for the telephone made explicit reference to the biological structure of the human ear.

In the same way, artistic creativity grows out of a familiarity with a literary canon, the best that has been thought and said. Why else are the titles of so many great novels taken from existing works of literature, Brave New World, Far from the Madding Crowd, Things fall Apart, The Grapes of Wrath?

When asked for his inspiration for creating The Wire, its writer David Simon said that his landmark tale of crime and urban breakdown in modern Baltimore was indebted to Sophocles and Euripides.

Through our plan for education, we have raised the level of academic content in the English national curriculum. Some have criticised us for doing so. For me, the most infuriating criticism has come from well-educated celebrities and affluent media commentators. So often I read the same protest: ‘I received an academic education, and much of it has been useless’.

To such a protest I would say that: knowledge is like money: only those who have it can be complacent enough to deny its importance.

And since when should education be seen solely in practical terms? ‘What is the use in knowing that?’ ask the critics of our curriculum reforms. Within certain parts of the education system, there is a philistinism which demands any knowledge taught must be ‘useful’, or worse still ‘relevant’, to life in the 21st century.

All good teachers know this is nonsense. Those who love their subject are driven by a conviction of its innate value, which stands quite aside from mere utility or relevance. Of course, schools should prepare children for the workplace, but they can do so much more than that.

School should provide children with a cultural and intellectual hinterland, which allows them to take an interest in the world around them. Be it the workings of the global economy, the history of their local town, the significance of the large Hadron collider, or the geography of their natural area, a good education allows you to do this.

From our first year in government, we showed a commitment to academic subjects through the introduction of the EBacc measure. Such a simple change to school accountability has had remarkable results.

According to the 2014 AS-level entry figures released by JCQ, in 1 year there has been a 17% rise in pupils studying geography, a 15% rise in pupils studying Spanish, a 14% rise in pupils studying history, and a 9 percent rise in pupils studying further maths. English, physics and German also saw increases.

We also know - from rigorous international evidence - that greater autonomy at school level is one of the key features of a high-performing education system. That is why we are liberating the profession to run their own schools and to establish their own schools.

Results in sponsored academies are improving more quickly than other state-funded schools.

The importance of teaching

This government is emphatically on the side of teachers. We are freeing teachers from the constraints of government bureaucracy - and we want to go even further. We have challenged the orthodoxies that have undermined the teaching profession; and we are working to put evidence right at the heart of our education system to free teachers from having to kow-tow to such orthodoxies.

And we have empowered ambitious teachers to run their own schools, to establish new schools and to embrace new and tried and tested methods that the evidence says works.

Teachers are now the ones transforming our schools, transforming their profession, and transforming the education we offer to thousands of children and young people, all over the country.

Thank you.

Published 8 September 2014