A Speech by Rt Hon Nick Gibb MP: “Through Testing Times: a review of the educational reform project and its future”

  •  Tuesday, 3 October, 2017
     18:30 - 19:30

Chaired by: Toby Young, Director, New Schools Network

Speech by: Rt Hon Nick Gibb MP, Minister of State for School Standards

Respondent: Rod Bristow, President of Pearson in the UK

A Speech by Rt Hon Nick Gibb MP: “Through Testing Times: a review of the educational reform project and its future”


Policy Exchange has been one of Westminster’s most influential think tanks for the past 15 years, and the origin of much important legislation since 2010. In no policy area is that more true than in Education, where the work of Sam Freedman, Jonathan Simons and Natasha Porter among others has been instrumental, in nurturing the free school revolution and raising expectations for what it is possible to achieve.

But Policy Exchange has not simply focused on structures. From work inspired by the great E.D. Hirsch on implementing a knowledge rich curriculum, to the groundwork for the Pupil Premium and work exposing the pernicious grade-inflation that so badly undermined public confidence in education during the last Labour Government, Policy Exchange has been key to the government’s education reforms.

And under the inspired and committed leadership of John Blake, this work is continuing. For example, the joint project with Mark Lehain of Parents and Teachers for Excellence exploring the benefits of a knowledge-rich curriculum is hugely exciting and your recent work with my old boss Nicky Morgan on character and resilience addresses a real and important issue that can too easily be overlooked. And I know that there’s more in the pipeline.

John, your radicalism and work will not be wasted because under this Government and, I might add, this Minister for Schools our restless determination to improve the life chances of the millions of children in England’s state schools is as strong today as it was in 2010. There is so much more to do.

Why Education Matters

A strong education system is crucial for two principal reasons.

First, a strong education system is the foundation of a strong economy and a strong society. The importance of education to economic strength is well known. In ‘The English and their History’, Robert Tombs notes that in advance of the industrial revolution in the second half of the eighteenth century, foreign visitors to this country remarked on the high levels of literacy amongst British people from all classes in society.

And the dominance in the international education rankings by Shanghai, Singapore and South Korea has coincided with their booming economic growth.

As important, is the role that education plays in creating a cohesive society. As E. D. Hirsch has argued:

‘We will be able to achieve a just and prosperous society only when our schools ensure that everyone commands enough shared knowledge to be able to communicate effectively with everyone else.’  

A well-rounded, knowledge-rich education gives pupils an introduction into what Matthew Arnold described in Culture and Anarchy, in 1869 as the ‘best which has been thought and said’.

Education helps us to see the humanity in Shakespeare’s Shylock, inspires us with the mysteriousness of the quantum and the majesty of Beethoven and Handel. The knowledge we gain serves as an introduction to the “conversation of humankind” and can emancipate us from everyday parochialism.

Why Standards HHHHHHHhhhhhhhhhhhhhhave declined

But despite the importance of education, over the past 60 years we have seen a steady but remorseless decline in standards in England and other parts of the West where education has been dominated by a progressive ideology: an ideology that rejects the importance of knowledge; that is hostile to didactic, teacher-led instruction; that’s against remembering facts and deeply opposed to testing and exams. While this approach took hold in the West, the international rankings have been dominated by countries from Asia, where the grip of this progressive educational doctrine has yet to gain a stranglehold.

The roots of educational progressivism lie with Jean Jacques Rousseau and his romantic treatise ‘Emile’. From its opening line, which declares that ‘everything is good as it leaves the hands of the Author of things; everything degenerates in the hands of man’, Rousseau rails against traditional methods of education, believing that education should focus more on a child’s interaction with the world.

The romanticism of this tale, with the child unencumbered by the supposed prejudices of his teacher, has appealed to the political left for over two centuries. And this view still persists among some today. For example, at the Wellington Festival earlier this year, detentions used to sanction poor behaviour were described as ‘violence’ done to pupils by teachers.

Over the last quarter of a millennium, ‘Emile’ has influenced and inspired progressives, social constructivists and leftists of all stripes as they seek to redesign society according to their will – to the detriment of children’s life chances. Interestingly, what is often forgotten by those influenced by the romanticism of Rousseau’s ideas, is that he abandoned his own son to a poor house and when, a decade later, he made enquiries as to his whereabouts, he found no trace.

The history of the progressive doctrine of education is littered with failure, but this has not stopped proponents searching for a reason to force their educationally regressive dogma onto schools – to the detriment of pupils. Foremost amongst these efforts is the attempt to use the Finnish example as evidence.


Finland, which topped the first PISA rankings in 2000, is often cited as an example of a Western country that has bucked the trend, providing evidence to support the progressive ideology. The example of Finland is misused in England to justify a skills-based curriculum, to attack testing and to reduce the role of the teacher.

But a more careful analysis of the Finnish example actually helps to explain the relative decline of Western education systems. Gabriel Sahlgren, analysing the international success of Finland at the turn of the Millennium, found that ‘a closer examination of Finland’s results over time reveals that its rise began well before most of the policies were able to take effect.’

In fact, he concludes that Finland’s comparatively ‘late development’ in terms of industrialisation and economic growth meant that Finnish culture and education remained more traditional, similar to high-performing systems in South-East Asian nations.

Sahlgren argues that this culture meant that ‘a hierarchical and traditional schooling climate remained largely in place until relatively recently’ and it is this that ‘is likely to have underpinned the country’s improvements in international tests’. He calls this the “wealth effect”, which ‘first increases and later decreases educational performance as a function of income.’

As Finland has moved away from traditional teaching methods and towards so-called progressive or child-initiated education, it has fallen down the league tables – albeit from a high base.

This “wealth effect” should concern those looking to improve education in England and the West. Once a certain level of wealth is reached in a country, the country begins to move away from the education methods that have worked and towards the alluring romanticism of progressivism.

From the 1967 Plowden Review, the dismissal of the Black Papers published between 1969 and 1977, the rejection of Callaghan’s encroachment into the ‘secret garden’, the subsequent capture of the national curriculum, through to the use of Ofsted to enforce a progressive teaching style, England’s rejection of education common sense in favour of romanticism is well established.

That’s why the Conservative reforms from 2010 onwards are so significant, challenging these prevailing progressive orthodoxies.

Conservative Education Reforms

Our reforms centre on two Conservative principles. First, drawing heavily on the work of Policy Exchange, the government embarked on a programme of decentralisation, removing power from ideological proponents of progressivism and placing it in the hands of teachers and headteachers. By granting greater autonomy – combined with an intelligent accountability system – school level decision-making has been localised, reducing the influence of the bureaucratic middle tier and giving control back to the frontline, allowing parents greater choice of school for their children.

Secondly, the government undid Labour’s reckless and damaging changes to the national curriculum and qualifications, reintroducing rigour into English schools.

By 2010, a change in direction was badly needed. At that time:

  • schools were shepherding pupils – disproportionately from disadvantaged backgrounds – into taking so-called ‘equivalent’ qualifications to inflate the school’s ranking in the league tables;
  • the growth of ‘equivalents’ coincided with a sharp decline in the take up of some highly valued academic subjects, including foreign languages;
  • grade inflation was rife, with a D grade in 1996 being equivalent to a C grade by 2010; and
  • the 2007 ‘skills based’ national curriculum was denying pupils the core knowledge and cultural capital they needed to be successful and to be able to contribute to society.

By 2010, there was a clamour for a return to the fundamentals of a classical liberal education for all pupils, not just those whose parents could afford to send them to independent schools or afford an address in the right catchment area. Parents were rightly disillusioned with the unfulfilled promises of politicians and educationalists to improve standards.

Primary Curriculum

So, we rewrote the Primary Curriculum. In the face of bitter opposition from some education academics, we insisted on long-division being taught in primary schools and long multiplication in Year 5 and fractions from the start. We insisted all pupils know their multiplication tables by the end of Year 4.

And what next in our reform programme?

We are currently working on a computer-based and timed multiplication tables Check for all Year 4 pupils that will be rolled out in 2019 and 2020. What a prize it will be when every child leaves primary school fluently and effortlessly able to recall their timetables up to 12 times 12.

We made Phonics statutory in the national curriculum and introduced a short test at the end of Year 1 to check that all 6-year-olds could decode words and were on track to becoming fluent readers. In 2012 just 58% of 6-year-olds reached the expected standard in the test. This year 81% did so.

And what next?

We want that 81% to rise further. We already know that with the retake in Year 2 we are reaching 92% so we know there is scope to ensure ever more children can be successful in early reading.

GCSE and A level

We rewrote the secondary school curriculum and reformed GCSEs, restoring rigour, removing modules, ending the retake culture and restoring the GCSE to end of course exams. We gave Ofqual, the exams regulator, a new duty to ensure GCSEs and A levels were on a par with those in other countries, including the very highest performing nations.

What next?

We are only part of the way through rolling out these new more rigorous GCSEs and A levels. It has taken seven years to get to this point. We will focus now on ensuring these new qualifications are successful and well taught.

Vocational Qualifications

We commissioned Professor Alison Wolf to scrutinise all the so-called ‘equivalent’ qualifications that schools were entering some of their pupils for instead of GCSEs, particularly those pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. She removed 96% of them and the vocational qualifications that remain now carry real value.

What next?

We are reforming and improving Functional Skills qualifications for those students over the age of 16 who are still on their way to achieving a standard pass in English and maths GCSEs. We want to ensure that every young person leaves our education system as literate and numerate. These are the bare essentials for survival in a modern world and a demanding economy.


We gave teachers more power to tackle unruly behaviour, restoring control of the classroom to the adult. We guaranteed teachers anonymity when faced with allegations from parents and pupils.

What next?

We commissioned Tom Bennett to produce a report on behaviour management best practice which has now been published. And we want to highlight successful practice in schools such as the outstanding free school, Michaela Community School in Brent.

We rewrote the Teachers’ Standards against which teacher training is measured and against which teachers are performance managed throughout their careers, bringing a new emphasis to the importance of subject knowledge, behaviour management and the centrality of courteous behaviour and, for primary teachers, a clear understanding of phonics.

What next?

We are considering ways to further enhance the professional status of teachers through reforms to the QTS process.


We introduced the new performance measure, the English Baccalaureate, the EBacc, a combination of the core academic GCSEs of English, maths, at least two sciences, history or geography and a foreign language; holding schools to account for the proportion of their pupils entered for and achieving this combination, including a language, the study of which had plummeted following Labour’s decision in 2004 to remove the compulsion to study a language at KS4.

What next?

We have just announced that we expect almost all pupils to be taking the EBacc with a timetable of 75% to be studying for the EBacc by 2022 and 90% by 2025.

Work by the Sutton Trust in 2015 demonstrated that just 12% of highly able disadvantaged pupils attended a secondary school offering triple science. And we know that disadvantaged pupils are less likely to be entered into the EBacc combination of GCSEs than similarly able pupils from more affluent backgrounds.


In the 1970s textbooks were regarded as old fashioned and unprogressive. In a wave of educational vandalism, tons of high quality textbooks were sent to landfill or the bonfire. We have led the way in making the case for the use of high quality textbooks in our schools.

In countries with high performing education systems such as ingapore, high quality textbooks play a key role. A study by Tim Oates found that in Singapore 70% of maths teachers use a textbook as a basis for instruction. In England, alas, in 2014 only 10% of maths teachers used a textbook for their core teaching. In science just 4%.

What next?

We have recently announced £41 million for maths hubs, promoting the use of south-east Asian approaches to maths teaching, including the use of maths textbooks.

Academies and Free Schools

Our structural reforms have given freedom to academies and free schools, where decision making has truly been localised, freeing the school from the progressive orthodoxies and low expectations that dominate the education departments of too many local authorities.

Whether you look at Reach Academy Feltham, Michaela Community School, City Academy Hackney, King Solomon Academy or Harris Academy Battersea, there are some obvious similarities.

All of these schools teach a stretching, knowledge-rich curriculum. Each has a strong approach to behaviour management, so teachers can teach uninterrupted.

And all of these schools serve disadvantaged communities, demonstrating that high academic and behavioural standards are not – and must not – be the preserve of wealthy pupils in independent schools, as many on the left would have you believe.

And yet these schools’ first GCSE results this summer exceeded nearly everyone’s wildest expectations.

And free schools are disproportionately making a difference to the lives of disadvantaged pupils. There are three times as many free schools in England’s most deprived areas as there are in the least deprived. Secondary free schools educate an above average number of pupils eligible for the pupil premium.

This is what the free school programme is delivering. It would not have happened without a Conservative Government. It was opposed by the left, opposed by Labour, opposed by the Educational Progressives.

What next?

We plan to create hundreds more free schools and to continue to convert more local authority schools to academies. Our mission is to ensure that all corners of the country benefit from the innovation offered by high performing academy chains and free schools. Despite the progress made in the last seven years to spread opportunity across the country, there are still too many areas of the country where pupil achievement is too low.

Winning the Argument

Our reforms over the last seven years are working:-

  • This year, 150,000 more 6-year-olds are on track to become fluent readers than in 2012;
  • The proportion of pupils studying the EBacc has risen from 1/5th in 2010 to 2/5th last year;
  • The attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their more affluent peers has shrunk by 7% since 2011 at KS4 and 9.3% at KS2; and
  • 8 million more pupils are in schools rated as good or outstanding than in 2010.

Seven years on, the public conversation about education is changing.

The work of Dame Rachel De Souza at the Inspiration Trust, to attract curriculum experts such as Christine Counsell and Michael Fordham demonstrates that knowledge-rich curricula are back at the heart of schooling. And Emma Leonard and Toby Young are creating popular knowledge-rich lesson plans for primary schools.

There is now a vibrant and growing international community of teacher-bloggers who are challenging the old progressive orthodoxy.

Perhaps most significantly, the ‘reading wars’ are beginning to be won. Whilst consensus is still some way off, there is important cross-party agreement on this important issue. For example, the excellent work of the Labour mayor Sir Robin Wales to transform Newham – one of the capital’s poorest boroughs – into one of the best places in the country to be taught to read. This year 89% of its 6-year-olds passed the Phonics Check compared to the national average of 81% and compared to 78% in more prosperous Brighton and Hove.

But the battle of ideas never ceases. The opponents of what we stand for never sleep.

As Conservatives, we have to continue to make the case for our policies. We are winning the argument in favour of a knowledge-rich curriculum. We are winning the ‘reading wars’. And parents are voting with their feet in support of free schools.

Making the Argument

But we mustn’t stop putting our arguments and engaging in debate. The battle of ideas in education – as on the economy – is never won. As each generation passes we need to explain the fundamental principles and ideas that underpin our policies: the belief that all children, whatever their background, deserve to be taught a core body of knowledge; that it’s never acceptable to deny a child the opportunity to learn because of where they have come from; that giving parents choice over good quality schools is always better than letting the state decide where and how a child should be educated.

That regular testing is an important part of the learning process, helping to ensure children remember what they’ve been taught; and that periodic external assessment is important in holding schools to account for the quality of the education they provide.

That academic rigour, good discipline and high expectations are not just for the elite but for all.

These are at the heart of what we believe as Conservatives.

It is the power of our ideas – not just a collection of seemingly isolated policies – that will ensure the Conservative Party’s future and win the support of young as well as older voters.

On the economy, our careful husbandry of the public finances isn’t driven by parsimony but by an understanding of how a successful economy works. We know that we can only fund our annual budget deficit and accumulated national debt by giving confidence to the creditors who fund them, that we have a plan to clear our debts and eliminate the deficit over time.

We know the damage and injustice that inflation causes to an economy and we know that delivering low inflation and low unemployment are key policy objectives that have eluded generations of governments in the past, but not this Government with its careful and balanced approach to managing the economy and the public finances.

We know that ownership and the aspiration to own is one of the most fundamental and powerful drivers of individual and social progress. To own a home and to have the security of a pension and other savings is an essential underpinning of personal freedom.

We believe in choice over direction and that everyone – whatever their background – must have the opportunity to succeed.

We know the power of the free market to innovate and provide ever more exciting products and services. We also know that markets without competition can fail consumers.

The essence of Conservatism is to reject those ideas that experience and history have shown to fail and to espouse ideas that the evidence says provide the greatest good to the greatest number of people. We are not theorists, we are practical people. We cherish what works and we protect our institutions – from the National Health Service to the Monarchy.

These are the principles that are at the heart of our successful education reforms. They are the principles that will ensure the Conservative Party’s future and our nation’s success.

This event took place at the Conservative party conference.

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