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Chris McGovern: Hurrah for schools minister Nick Gibb. It hasn’t taken him 23 years to see the bleeding obvious


Able primary school pupils are not fulfilling their potential as they pass through secondary school. Two thirds of children who achieved Level 5 in national assessments (SATs) at age 11 do not go on to our leading universities. Level 5 represents the expected performance level of a 13-year-olds.

The education ‘expert’ who has found this out is none other than Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw. His discovery is based on Ofsted in-depth inspection of 50 schools plus visits to another 100. A formal report is about to be published.

Ofsted was set up by the Education (Schools) Act of 1992. It has, therefore, taken it well over 20 years to make this discovery. And it seems to have come a quite a shock to the aforesaid Chief Inspector. According to The Sunday Times he “is expected to describe the situation as deeply disappointing”, rather than entirely predictable and what most of us already know.

Perhaps, in 20 years time, another Chief Inspector will discover that not only are able children under-achieving but so are both average-ability children and below-average ability children. By that time, of course, our economy will be even more dependent on immigrant workers, who have been well educated in their country of origin.

For children in the most successful education systems around the world, the current Level 4 ‘national expectation’ of 11-year-olds in this country is laughably low. Even children who arrive in the UK from the moderately successful education system of Poland are finding our schools to be undemanding. A research project in Scotland by the Centre for Educational Sociology concluded that: “Many Polish children and their parents viewed school in Scotland as ‘easy’: schools’ expectations of some pupils may be too low…”.

Recently, at our Government’s invitation, a group of Chinese maths teachers arrived on these shores. Their task is to show our primary school teachers how to teach. In essence, this involves whole class teaching, plenty of pratice to secure the basics and plenty of challenge. This really is alien territory for most of our state primary schools and it is small wonder that by the age of 15 our youngsters lag three years behind those in Shanghai.

At least the schools minister, Nick Gibb, seems to be aware of the problem. He knows that we have been getting things wrong for too long and that we can learn something from the most successful education systems around the world, such as those in Asia Pacific. He wishes to see their successful methods being given a chance to raise standards here.

I recall Denis Thatcher once telling me that Margaret always knew that she must be on the right lines if the educational establishment opposed her. Nick Gibb is finding the same reassurance. A few weeks ago, writing in The Guardian, a professor of primary education described her response on listening to his proposals for maths teaching being presented by the DfE:

“As I listened, my blood pressure rose …you’d be forgiven for thinking that we were in China given the level of prescription in the new proposals for primary mathematics. It was based almost entirely on the Shanghai education policies which Nick Gibb, the schools minister, so much admires. The new, highly prescriptive curriculum for England presents – in a year-by-year schedule – the exact maths that teachers have to “deliver” and even suggests the particular methods and layout children must use

The theory is that, because the Chinese and Singaporean children all work through a textbook together, no one falls behind. And they think this system should work in the UK.”

Given the state of our education system I am not accustomed to praising schools ministers, but in the case of Nick Gibb I have to make an exception. Unlike the Chief Inspector, he has not needed 23 years to work out that we have a problem of under achievement. More important he has a strategy for doing something about it. Three cheers!

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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