Nick Gibb is a Minister of State at the Department for Education, and is MP for Bognor Regis.
The race for the post of leader of the Labour Party has revealed much of the dark underbelly of left-wing belief, and not just from Jeremy Corbyn. The soft bigotry of low expectations is alive and well in Labour ranks as the leadership candidates fall over themselves to criticise the Government’s academies and free schools programme.
This is a policy that gives power to thousands of teachers – giving them control of their classrooms. It is a policy that gives parents more choice about where to send their child. And it is delivering ever-higher academic standards with at least a million more pupils now being taught in schools judged to be good or outstanding. It is a policy started under Andrew Adonis and Tony Blair and has been turbocharged by this Government, but which Andy Burnham, Jeremy Corbyn and even Liz Kendall want to undermine by taking freedom away from teachers on the ground and restoring the straightjacket of local authority control.
But while Labour’s hopefuls are quick to pronounce on these structural reforms, there’s been hardly a peep from any of them about this Government’s reform agenda to restore standards in our schools, from improving the teaching of reading in primary schools to or our drive to learn from the Far East about maths teaching.
Three years after we introduced the phonics screening check to ensure that every six year-old was on track to becoming a proficient reader, 100,000 more of them are now reading more effectively thanks to a relentless focus on phonics teaching. And while in 2009 one in three children leaving primary school couldn’t read, write and add up properly, this year four in five achieved the expected standard. I haven’t heard a word about this from Yvette Cooper. Have you? No mention from Andy Burnham of our successful determination to tackle grade inflation, or our reforms to the curriculum and the content of GCSEs that puts them on a par with the best public exam systems in the world.
This week, hundreds of thousands of Year 10 pupils will start being taught the new and more rigorous English and maths GCSE, which are an improved preparation for life in a modern economy and which provide a smoother transition to A-level. I listen in vain for some welcome from Jeremy Corbyn.
In 2011, Professor Alison Wolf conducted a review of vocational qualifications taught in schools. On her advice, we have removed over 3,000 low-value qualifications from performance tables and introduced rigorous new standards ensuring that the vocational qualifications that are taught in schools genuinely prepare students for the world of work, rather than the hollow qualifications that didn’t lead to a job. Andy Burnham has paid lip service to the importance of technical education but no mention of this important reform that is transforming the quality of technical education in schools.
During the Labour years, the number taking core academic GCSEs in modern languages and humanities fell year on year, with pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds hit the most. We have reversed this trend by introducing the English Baccalaureate performance measure, which challenged schools to enter more pupils for English, maths, science, history or geography at GCSE. The proportion of pupils entering the EBacc has risen from 22 per cent in 2010 to 39 per cent last year. We want to go further, which is why all pupils starting secondary school for the first time this week will be expected to take the EBacc combination of GCSEs, including a foreign language, in 2020. But do you have any idea what any of the Labour leadership candidates, including Liz Kendall, think about this?
At A-level, we have promoted rigorous qualifications which open up opportunities for pupils in higher education and the world of work. One of the most heartening developments over the last five years has been watching pupils become markedly more ambitious in their A-level choices: entries for Physics A-level are up 17 per cent since 2010; Chemistry up 19 per cent; Further Maths up 28 per cent. Today, mathematics is by a stretch the most popular A-level subject, with 92,000 entries in 2015 compared with 76,000 in 2010. Entries for English Literature, History, Geography and Spanish have also seen significant increases.
These are just some of the education reforms that have been put in place over the last five years and which are demonstrably improving English schools, unlocking real social justice through an education system that helps every young person realise their potential. These issues matter – they matter a lot. They determine young people’s life chances. And yet none of the leadership candidates for one of Britain’s major political parties believes them to be issues that are important to Labour.