researchED speaks to…the RT Hon Nick Gibb MP, Minister of state for school standards

Nick Gibb was appointed Minister of State at the Department for Education on 15 July 2014. In 1997 he was elected Conservative MP for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton. He went to school in Maidstone, Leeds and Wakefield before going on to study law at Durham University, and was formerly a chartered accountant specialising in corporate taxation with KPMG. He served as Shadow Minister for Schools from 2005 until 2010, and as Minister of State for Schools from May 2010 until September 2012.

Here, he talks to researchED founder Tom Bennett about his own education, his journey through policy, and why he believes that better evidence usage is essential to raising education standards and improving life chances for children.

TB: What was school like for you?

NG: I had a very interesting school career. I went to a state school in Acton in 1965 just as the Labour government’s reforms of schools – like the abolition of grammar schools – took place, and after two years I moved to Canada (which in hindsight, had higher expectations all around) where I was accelerated. Then we came back two years later to Northamptonshire. The teacher said to my parents, ‘He should be sent to an independent school,’ and in those days, they were grant aided and my parents could just about manage to pay my fees, so I went.

My father was a civil engineer and so we moved to Maidstone. It was really tough. Really tough for me. Very rigorous academically and I had to catch up a year. So, I was copying out of kids’ exercise books.

And then we moved house again – to Yorkshire. It had been a grammar school and it had just gone comprehensive. The education I got was a grammar school education, but in a comprehensive setting. Then after O levels, 1976, we moved again to a village outside Wakefield, where I went to a very weak comprehensive school sixth form, but did well because of my education to date.

TB: Did exposure to that variety of schooling teach you anything?

NG: During that period you can see I was at school when all those changes were happening. What I also learned was – especially when I went to a sixth form – what a bad school was like from the inside. The ethos, the lethargy amongst the students, like a malaise, that I’d never really seen before.

TB: What from your own experiences of primary/secondary school stuck with you as a lesson which has continued into your educational philosophy today?

NG: The key thing I learned was that mixed-ability teaching doesn’t work. And secondly that the progressive – even as a kid, I could see it – ideology was damaging children’s education. And I remember a lesson about geography. It gave you this blank, made-up map of an island; it had a few mountain ranges on it, and a river, and you had to say where on it the capital should be. I hadn’t got a clue where the capital should be. I thought, ‘Maybe they want me to say, “It’s near the river.”’ Why not near the coast? Or the mountains? And it struck me that that was an absurd lesson. And then another lesson, in an independent school, where they gave you a bunch of wires, some batteries and some bulbs, put it in a box – complete mess of a thing. ‘Make it work.’ And I was furious.

TB: Why?

NG: I said, ‘Make what work?’ So I just switched off. I thought, ‘This is an absurd waste of time. Don’t bore me.’ And it put me off, actually the whole notion of science. Guessing. Teach me! Tell me, and I’ll do it. So it occurred to me then, and subsequently looking back at these episodes, there were some absurd notions in education that didn’t fit in with the way that I knew I wanted to learn things. And I don’t think I was particularly unusual.

TB: Tell us more about your own journey towards evidence in education as an MP and a minister.

NG: Well, I knew there was a progressive ideology. I remember in opposition going to see Charles Clarke as education secretary, and saying, ‘You need to deal with this progressive ideology because it’s damaging.’ And he said, ‘Well what do you mean precisely?’ So then I joined the education select committee in 2003. I became a minister in 1997 and visited some schools on my patch. They said that a third of their kids were starting school with a reading age below their chronological age. I didn’t know why this was. My mother was a teacher and I knew the reading age of most of her kids were above their chronological age. And then I went to some primary schools and I said, ‘How often do you get children to read?’ and they said once a week. My mother read with every child in her class of 40 every day.

Then I joined the select committee and was introduced to phonics, the Reading Reform Foundation and the academics like Jennifer Chew, Ruth Miskin. I read the Clackmannanshire study and realised it was quite compelling, so whenever I went on visits as a committee I asked about reading and realised that there was a big issue here, about synthetic phonics – that ‘Look and Say’ was ‘progressive’ and phonics was the thing that I knew worked.

And so I got the committee to do a review into reading, and it led to the national curriculum, it led to the Rose review, which then meant there were changes in the curriculum as a consequence. It was seen as a big victory about what you can achieve in opposition. The lesson for me as a policy maker is that you have to get into that nitty gritty detail sometimes about what happens on the ground in the policy. It’s not always a high-level thing. You really need to understand that.

The key thing I learned was that mixed-ability teaching doesn’t work. And secondly that the progressive ideology was damaging children’s education.

So then I went on holiday and my researcher persuaded me to read the E.D. Hirsch book The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them. I read this over the summer in South Carolina, on the beach. I was completely taken away by this book. It encapsulated everything I had been worrying about but couldn’t articulate. I had underlined bits of it, and I emailed E.D. Hirsch. When I came back I knew this was not just the knowledge-based curriculum, but also about where the ideology that I’d been worrying about since school had come from: the John Dewey, Teachers College Columbia, Rousseau-based ideology that had led to some of these absurd notions – learning by self-discovery, the science with the wires. So I made everyone read it: in opposition, people I met – sales must have gone through the roof! And I came to where I am now. I made Michael Gove read it.

TB: It must be hard to get a detailed understanding of the brief when roles change so often.

NG: Yes, the Conservative party at the time was – and to an extent still is – interested in the structural approach to education. It was unfashionable to be interested in this agenda: what should an A level comprise, what should a curriculum look like, what about pedagogy and things? Those were regarded as ‘not matters for politicians’.

TB: The secret garden.

NG: They’re the secret garden. They will be driven by the structural things. Structural changes, competition within the teaching sector will drive those changes because they’ll be so keen to get pupils into their schools that they’ll have to do the things that the parents want to drive up standards. I didn’t accept that because I was in favour of the structural things but you had to do more to break up the cement of the ways things had been done since the 1960s. It would take policy initiatives to liberate teachers to enable them to do what they want, to respond to the demands of parents. Because at the moment this approach to teaching was so compressed, that no one teacher or school could possibly rail against it. And that always creates a tension because if you’re saying ‘We’re going to have a DfE imposed curriculum’ then that kind of goes against autonomy and structural reforms. But in the end Michael basically charged me with leading the curriculum review and phonics.

TB: Ah, so you were behind the revolution?

NG: (Laughs) No, no, no! Absolutely not. The brains were clearly Michael Gove who went to Sweden to see the free school programme and that’s what drove it. But wanting to address the ideology has been my driving force.

TB: What are the advantages for a policy-maker of leaning on an evidence-informed reform, and what are the challenges?

NG: Well the advantage is that you can be confident that what’s implemented will lead to higher standards. That gives you the argument when you’re trying to present a policy. But it also gives you the confidence to look long term. So, yes, it can go through controversy, but it doesn’t matter because we know this will lead to higher standards of reading, we know this will lead to better maths in primary schools because you have all the evidence of Shanghai and elsewhere. So, we can withstand the slings and arrows that happen in the meantime because in X years we will be vindicated. Which is exactly what’s happened with the reading. And we did take a lot of criticism when we introduced it, but it does give you that ballast to plough on. 58% passing going up to 81%, you can see.

For a policy-maker it is that confidence. People sometimes accuse me of simply making a policy based on my own life; but if you can explain your own experience with reference to the evidence, it then does give you that confidence to pursue policies and to get into the detail of policy that previously was regarded as idiosyncratic, or indeed an area where you shouldn’t be going.

The other thing I did in 2003 when I joined the select committee was going on school visits, and I had a routine of going every Monday, somewhere. And being in opposition you could. And I realised you could get to anywhere in the UK by 11 if you left early. So I would arrange to visit schools all over England. And I learned a huge amount just by visiting schools and hearing the discussions. Then you realise things. There were a lot of non-academic subjects being taught in schools, and in some schools it was quite depressing. There were conscientious teachers running those schools, teachers who genuinely believed that doing these vocational qualifications was the best thing for these children, when it clearly wasn’t.

TB: I heard you had a test for visiting school libraries.

NG: Yes, when I went to schools I had a Fielding test: did they have Henry Fielding, Tom Jones on their shelves? But really the Fielding test was just ‘Have they got the classics?’ Often, they have, but they’re not read. But the fact that they’re in the library means they can be read.

TB: How can a policy-maker reconcile the direction that evidence sometimes takes us in, as opposed to manifesto and party pressure?

NG: The only way it has conflicted was really this issue of the party being driven by this notion of autonomy, driven by structural reforms, the academies programme, and the Conservative party had felt that was sufficient. And all the centre-right think tanks around Westminster, that was all they were interested in: how do you create a structure that would drive up standards? And so to have policy saying ‘Actually there’s a better way to teach or to read, or there’s a better approach to pedagogy like direct instruction rather than learning by self-discovery,’ this jarred with Conservative party thinking at that time.

What was great about the PIRLS results last year, 2017, based on nine-year-olds’ reading ability, taken in 2016, was that it was a vindication of all the stuff I’d been talking about for years about phonics. It was a vindication of everything that I’d been talking about. And that therefore gave me more credibility. You do need to be engaged with ‘How is maths taught? How is history taught?’ So it gave strength to my argument in that debate.

I’m pleased that more and more control over teacher training is happening at a school level. And the schools are driving what they want, from the university courses and students. And/or they are awarding QTS themselves.

TB: Why are some parts of the education sector still relatively reluctant to embrace things like phonics, or evidence bases in general?

NG: It’s difficult to know. It really is. I still go to schools and you see they haven’t genuinely bought into this debate and they tend to be schools that are getting 70–75% of their children through the check. And then you look into their reception class and it’s all a big play area, very little teaching going on. I think it’s because they’ve been trained this way, ten, twenty, thirty years ago…

TB: Can you describe some of the directions you might like to see ITT going in the future?

NG: I’m quite critical of education faculties of universities; I’m on the record for being critical. I remain critical. I find it absurd that the whole debate about the knowledge-based curriculum has taken place on the websites, or has taken place at conferences like yours, researchED, or the Knowledge Network and you don’t hear a bleat of this debate from those university campuses. And if you look at the reading lists, it’s fairly hard to find Willingham or Hirsch. And there’s something very atrophied and unintellectual about those faculties, and the debate is still not happening. It’s happening elsewhere. And that should not be the case in our university sector. We have some great universities, but as Hirsch says it’s something he worries about, the education faculties of great universities – what is actually going on in these places?

But what I’m pleased about is that more and more control over teacher training is happening at a school level. And the schools are driving what they want, from the university courses and students. And/or they are awarding QTS themselves.

But I want the universities to come on board. I’d like them to be a bit more pluralistic in terms of the approach they take to teacher training. I will keep trying.

TB: What have been some of the least evidence-informed fads in education?

NG: I just look at the national strategies and things that came in the maths curriculum – this notion of chunking of long division, and the grid method of multiplication. I showed these methods to the Shanghai Education Service – and they just laughed. They just thought this was absurd. Why would you develop new, written methods only done in this country, and despite centuries of mathematical development? I’ve never understood that. So that’s a classic example. Same with reading. People say, ‘Where’s your evidence for phonics?’ I say well there’s the Clackmannanshire studies, the National Reading Panel in the US, there’s loads of evidence. But you ask someone for the evidence for Look and Say, and there’s no real evidence for these approaches, and they’ve been a disaster.

TB: Who are the writers that you think other policy-makers should read in order to make sure that their decisions are evidence-informed?

NG: Well obviously the canon is E.D. Hirsch and Daniel Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School? It’s Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths, and I would also recommend Robert Peal’s Progressively Worse. If people were to read those four books, they would have a much better understanding of education policy.

TB: Has the OECD become too political in its pronouncements?

NG: I think so. They are pushing a particular, progressive approach to education, the 21st-century competence-based curriculum. We tried this in this country with the 2007 curriculum, and what happened was that schools stopped teaching the quantum of knowledge they needed. So history was confined to the Tudors and the run up to WWII, because they were focusing on the so-called skills of a historian. I don’t know how many people become historians out of our schools system. It’s a tiny percentage. We don’t need that many historians. What they do need and they’re not getting, is the ability to read a history book, to read complicated language, and they need to have the deep knowledge of the complexities of those periods and other periods.

When you go to these international conferences with Andreas Schleicher and others, it’s almost assumed that you want to have a competence-based curriculum; and I talk to other education ministers from around the world, including some from developing countries who have been advised by the OECD to go down this route that we know doesn’t work. So we have to challenge it, and I’ve started challenging it internationally and I am a lone voice (laughs). But Nuno Cratto for example, who was the secretary of state for education in Portugal, absolutely agrees with what we’re doing in this country and shares our concerns. And I think that gradually we’ll get the message across that this is not the right approach.