The latest news on educational standards – that a national times tables test will be introduced in primary schools – is good news in terms of the continued push for improved educational rigour. It comes on the back of further improvements in pupils’ attainment across the board, and following particularly good results on reading and writing.
Such changes don’t materialise from nowhere. The champion of times tables is the same person who drove through the phonics system which has improved standards of reading so much: Nick Gibb, the once and future Schools Minister. When the history of this decade’s educational reforms is written, I suspect Gibb will gain more recognition than he currently receives. His work has already improved the lives of a large number of children, and he evidently isn’t resting on his laurels.
Readers who pay attention to such things might recall that the 2015 Conservative manifesto committed that: ‘We will expect every 11-year-old to know their times tables off by heart and be able to perform long division and complex multiplication.’ On that question of improved rigour in primary school, at least, Nicky Morgan was of a similar mind to her predecessor, Michael Gove, and Gibb looked likely to get his way.
Under Justine Greening, however, the proposals stalled – whether due to disagreement with them on the part of the Secretary of State or in the hope of assuaging the teaching unions, which dislike the idea (not coincidentally, the NUT also bitterly opposed the successful phonics reform). Happily, it seems that Damian Hinds, the new Secretary of State, is less concerned about union opposition and has opted to back Gibb’s judgement on the matter, so the new focus on times tables will go ahead. It probably doesn’t hurt that Gibb’s brother, Robbie, is now Director of Communications in Downing Street, either.
When Gove left the Department for Education, there were some who thought that reforms to schools and schooling would cease – either through a lack of will, or a lack of the boundless energy required to push them through. While the pace has never returned to that of the early years of the Coalition (much to the relief of some), and was allowed to stutter for a while, this is another reminder that the job continues. It’s to Gibb’s credit that he has been a near-permanent presence at the forefront of improvements that have the potential to help millions of people.