Nick Gibb departed last week but had been Schools Minister since 2010 with one short break. There are numerous reasons to be grateful to him.
1) He had a clear agenda based on an understanding of what works.
In his famous 1953 essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox, Isaiah Berlin wrote that ‘a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing’. Gibb knew one big thing – that intelligent people need knowledge.
He was influenced by the work of the American academic E D Hirsch who demonstrated that ‘twenty-first century skills’ could not be taught in isolation but only on the basis of knowledge taught within established subjects. Critical thinking could not be taught as an isolated skill because you cannot think critically about something unless you know a lot about it.
This led to the beefing-up of subject-knowledge in the reformed National Curriculum.
2) The PISA scores were important too. Gibb and Gove were aware that the UK was slipping down the international league tables, especially in relation to countries in East Asia.
3) This led to the successful imposition of Singapore Maths methods and the mastery approach to learning. Gibb is a mathematician at heart.
4) As shadow schools’ minister 2005-2010 Gibb worked out that the phonics method of teaching early reading was far better than the alternatives. This one reform has greatly improved standards of reading in primary schools. What could be more important?
5) The EBacc is a performance table measure, nothing more. It encourages schools to ensure pupils take GCSEs in English, Maths, the sciences, history or geography and a foreign language. The only reason this was introduced was that Gibb realised too many pupils from disadvantaged homes were not taking these subjects and that made it much less likely they would get to university. The EBacc is disliked because it omitted arts subjects, but in fact the EBacc leaves plenty of room for other subjects.
6) Gibb, Gove and Ofqual halted grade inflation – which had been undermining confidence in GCSEs and A-levels. It was becoming impossible for higher tariff universities to distinguish between the best students and the merely ‘good’. He believed in exams and in rigour.
7) Having said that, the abolition of modules, re-sits, January exams and the demotion of AS-levels greatly reduced the number of exams taken by pupils in England.
8) Gibb believed in textbooks. Schools in England use textbooks much less than schools in more successful countries. Textbooks determine the depth of the curriculum. Textbooks are easier to follow and learn than handouts or digital texts.
9) Although many disagreed with him, you knew where you stood with Gibb. He had a determination to improve standards in state schools based on a set of clearly stated principles.
By Professor Barnaby Lenon
Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Buckingham