Conference for Commonwealth Education Ministers

School Standards Minister Nick Gibb addresses education ministers from across the Commonwealth

Thank you Dr Mohamed. And thank you also to those fellow Education Ministers I have had the opportunity to meet over the last few days. I think this has been a very successful conference. I would like to congratulate the Secretary General and the Fijian Government for hosting a very successful conference. It has been wonderful for me to have had so many productive, interesting and warm conversations with fellow ministers, in meetings and at the very successful receptions that have been held throughout the course of the conference. I have really valued the opportunity to learn about other education systems and to discuss so many shared challenges that we all face across the Commonwealth. I am sure that many of us will stay in touch in future and continue to support each other where we can.

The UK government is looking forward to welcoming your Heads of Government to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in April. We will discuss shared challenges, and move forward - I hope - renewed, and revitalised after that conference.

These international gatherings are helpful in shaping shared policy objectives and working collectively to overcome challenges. For example, the Millennium Development Goals focused minds on universalising access to education. And now, the Sustainable Development Goals are going further.

In recent years, great strides have been made across the world. It should not be forgotten that in 1990 there were 1.8 billion people living in absolute poverty. This has been reduced over those years since by a billion. But, there is still much more to do. As our Foreign Secretary wrote recently:

"Look at those countries where population is growing the fastest, where unemployment is highest, and where the tensions are greatest, and without exception you will find a common factor: female illiteracy."

Boris Johnson was correct when he went on to state that this is both a moral outrage and ‘contrary to the interests of world peace, prosperity, health and happiness.

Globally, 130 million girls are not in school. So I would urge member states to commit to work together and individually to ensure 12 years of quality education for all by 2030.

But we must be more ambitious than seeking universal access. We must turn our attention to ensuring pupils receive the high-quality education they deserve.

Of those pupils in school in low income countries, 90 per cent are not on track to master the basics of maths, reading and writing by the end of primary school.

Raising school standards for pupils from all backgrounds has been the driving force behind the government reforms in my country since 2010. The government’s mission is to provide pupils with the knowledge-rich education that will prepare them for the rigours and opportunities of the 21st century.

Core academic subjects have returned to the heart of the secondary curriculum and we have pursued evidence-based approaches to teaching, raising standards for all. At the same time, the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their more affluent peers has narrowed both at primary and secondary schools in England since 2010.

In education, there is nothing more important to spreading opportunity than ensuring all pupils are taught to read effectively. Figures from the UK show that pupils who are reading well by age 5 are 6 times more likely than their peers to be on track by age 11 in reading, and 11 times more likely to be on track in mathematics.

But, in the years just before we came into government in 2010, we knew something was wrong with the way our primary schools taught reading. England was stagnating in the international league tables and the international data also showed a wider gap between top and bottom performers than in most other countries, leading to England being known for its ‘long tail of underachievement’.

And data from 2012 showed that we were the only OECD country where the maths and reading abilities of our 16-24 year olds was worse than that of our 55 to 65 year olds. A misguided move away from evidence-based approaches to teaching children to read was stifling opportunity for too many children.

For decades, the overwhelming weight of international evidence – including the influential longitudinal study from Clackmannanshire in Scotland – pointed to systematic phonics as the most effective way to teach children to read.

Phonics teaches children to associate letters with sounds, providing pupils with the code to unlock written English. And despite the evidence in favour of this approach – a traditional approach - the government’s phonics reforms were controversial and met with widespread opposition from teaching unions and other vested interests.

All primary schools in England are now required by law to use phonics as they teach pupils to read. But more controversially, the government introduced the Phonics Screening Check in 2012. This is a short test comprising a list of 40 words that 6-year-old children read to their teacher at the end of year 1.

The proportion of pupils passing the Phonics Check has increased every year since it was introduced by us in 2012. In 2012, the first year of the Phonics Check, just 58 per cent of 6 year olds reached the pass mark of 32 out of the 40 correctly read words, so 40 per cent were failing. This year, 81 per cent of 6-year-olds reached that standard, with 92 per cent of children reaching that standard by the end of year 2.

This year, 154,000 more 6 year olds were on track to be fluent readers than in 2012. Last year, 147,000 more 6 year olds were on track compared to 2012.

And the success of this policy has been confirmed by the international PIRLS results (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study). The international study of 9-year-olds’ reading ability in 50 countries showed that England has risen from joint 10th place in 2011 to joint 8th place in 2016, thanks to a statistically significant rise in our average score.

But more importantly, these tests show that we are dealing with the ‘long tail of underachievement’ that has stifled opportunity. The PIRLS results show that reading has improved for pupils from all backgrounds, but it is the low-performing pupils who are gaining most rapidly.

The report found that performance in the Phonics Check was strongly predictive of PIRLS performance, vindicating the government’s drive to universalise this evidence-based approach to teaching. The PIRLS national report for England states that, and I quote:

"Pupils who scored full marks in the phonics check were also the highest scoring group in PIRLS 2016, with an average overall PIRLS score of 617. In contrast, pupils who did not reach the ‘expected standard’ in the Year 1 phonics check perform below England’s overall average, with lower phonics check scores being associated with decreasing average PIRLS scores."

So that is why our government is determined to go even further and see more pupils reach the expected standard at age 6. And if I could just quote the New Zealand Minister’s earlier quote:

"We have gone so far, we’re going to go further still."

The government has also faced-down much opposition to the drive to increase the proportion of pupils studying core academic GCSEs at age 16. The English Baccalaureate, that we introduced as a performance measure, requires pupils to study GCSEs in English, maths, at least two sciences, either history or geography, and a foreign language.

Schools are measured now on the proportion of their pupils entering GCSEs in all 5 categories, and on the attainment of their pupils in these subjects.

Since 2010 – following a long-term decline in pupils taking these core academic subjects – there have been sharp increases in most of these subjects. For example, the proportion of pupils taking the science component of the EBacc has risen from 63 per cent to 91 per cent, and the proportion studying history or geography has risen from 48 per cent to 77 per cent.

Nationally, nearly two-fifths of pupils are entered for the EBacc. This is up from just over one-fifth in 2010. But again there is still much more to do, to reach the government’s ambitious target of 90 per cent of pupils studying towards the full suite of EBacc GCSEs by 2025.

Since 2010, the proportion of pupils studying a language to GCSE has risen from 40 per cent to 47 per cent and we are determined to raise participation in languages much further in the years to come, particularly as Britain raises its eyes to the opportunities that await post-Brexit.

Evidence supports the government’s desire to drive up participation in these core academic subjects. Evidence from the Sutton Trust found that pupils in a set of 300 schools that increased their EBacc entry, from 8 per cent to 48 per cent, were more likely to achieve good English and maths GCSEs, more likely to take an A level, or an equivalent level 3 qualification, and more likely to stay in post-16 education.

And these findings were corroborated by work carried out by the Institute of Education in London examining the effect that GCSE choice has on education post-16, and I quote:

"Students pursuing an EBacc-eligible curriculum at 14-16 had a greater probability of progression to all post 16 educational outcomes, while taking an applied GCSE subject had the opposite effect. There were no social class differences in the advantages of pursuing an EBacc-eligible curriculum which suggests that an academically demanding curriculum is equally advantageous for working class as for middle class pupils."

And this year more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds entered the EBacc than at any point since the measure was created.

Again, there is still much more to do. Disadvantaged pupils remain almost half as likely to be entered for these subjects than their more affluent peers. But it is essential that all pupils, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, are given access to the core academic subjects that widen opportunities at post-16.

But the government is making progress in widening opportunities, whilst raising standards for all. Recent figures from national assessments that are published on a school by school basis taken at 11 and 16 reveal that the attainment gap has closed since 2011 at both primary and secondary schools, by 10.5 per cent for primary and 10 per cent for secondary.

Despite the controversy and claims from many in my country that the government’s standards-raising policies would hurt the performance of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, in fact universalising access to evidence-based teaching methods and widening opportunities to study core academic subjects has been to the benefit of all, particularly those most in need.

There is more to do of course. There are still too many pupils not reading at the expected standard by age 6; and there are too many pupils – particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds – not being entered for the full suite of core academic GCSEs. But much progress has been made since 2010 and the government – in step with teachers – is ambitious and determined to go further in the years to come.

Thank you very much chair for listening. I am very happy to answer any questions you may have on what has been a very controversial seven years of education reform in England.


Department for Education
The Rt Hon Nick Gibb MP