This is a year of historic anniversaries: 800 years since the signing of Magna Carta, 600 years since the Battle of Agincourt, and the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo. Sadly, these seminal events will mean little to many young people. A 2009 survey of undergraduates conducted by Professor Derek Matthews of Cardiff University found that 83 per cent of his students did not know that Wellington led the British and their allies to victory at Waterloo and 88 per cent could not name a single 19th-century prime minister: not Disraeli, not Gladstone.
The principal cause of such weak general knowledge among school leavers has been an ideology that regards knowledge as second fiddle to so-called skills; the intellectual skills of a historian, a geographer, a scientist. Understanding scientific methods became more important than knowing the difference between a metal and a halogen; analysing historical evidence took precedence over knowing the details of key events. While pupils need both skills and knowledge, all the evidence shows that the way to develop those skills is through the acquisition of knowledge, rather than teaching amorphous skills such as "critical thinking", evaluation, reflection and so on.
As the influential American educationalist ED Hirsch has written: "Effective people have gained 21st-century skills because they have domain knowledge in a wide range of domains." This presented the incoming Coalition Government with two challenges: how to ensure that the teaching that pupils receive is based on evidence rather than assertions by charismatic educationalists on the conference circuit; and how to put the acquisition of knowledge at the centre of our education system.
The new national curriculum, which took nearly four years of development and consultation, came into force on 1 September last year. Its greater emphasis on knowledge is challenging for schools, but it will mean that future school leavers will have a stronger grasp of the chronology of British history and key events that shaped our world, improved understanding of geography, better grammar, punctuation and spelling, and a deeper understanding of mathematics. It will mean that foreign languages are taught earlier and that science teaching gives pupils a secure foundation in fundamental concepts in biology, chemistry and physics.
But we need to go further. According to the key international survey the Programme for International Student Assessment, 15-year-old pupils in Shanghai are three years ahead of their English peers in maths. Last year, 71 teachers from this country went to Shanghai to learn why. Whole-class teaching, the use of high-quality textbooks and a determination that every child will become fluent in maths lie at the root of their achievements. In this country, particularly in primary schools, textbooks are rare, and in secondary schools they tend to be geared towards passing exams rather than inspiring a love of a subject. We need a renaissance in textbook publishing and a renewed focus on the important scholarship skills of reading, understanding and précising, which have been neglected in recent decades. These are the skills that employers demand and that are vital to a modern global economy.
It is evidence, not assertion or ideology, that should drive what happens in the classroom. The "ResearchED" conferences, established by the teacher, author and education blogger Tom Bennett as a forum for education research, will play an important role in replacing failed education orthodoxies with approaches to teaching that the evidence proves can really work.
The use of evidence applies also to pupil behaviour. Discipline in schools is far better today than it has been in recent years, thanks to new, clearer powers for teachers and the increased authority over exclusions that we gave to heads in 2010. But there is still too much low-level disruption, whether disrespectful banter or a failure to complete homework, which damages academic achievement. We need further reforms to teacher training to ensure that new teachers are taught the best approaches to classroom management. Head teachers at the best state schools put the drive for better discipline at the centre of everything they do and provide strong support for their teachers, enabling them to control their classrooms with confidence. We need to spread that practice to all schools.
It was evidence from an important study into the teaching of reading that led this Government to encourage primary schools to concentrate on the use of phonics in the teaching of early reading. We introduced the Phonics Screening Check in 2012 to ensure that schools would be sufficiently focused on teaching the basics of reading and that no child would leave infant school struggling to read. It has been hugely successful. In 2012, 58 per cent of pupils passed the check (reading correctly 32 out of 40 simple words). In 2014, that figure rose to 74 per cent, or 102,000 more six-year-olds reading more effectively than would have been the case without this Government's focus on phonics. But we need to do more to ensure that every child passes the check first time. In 251 schools, some of which are in deprived neighbourhoods, every child passes. If they can do it, so can every school.
One of those schools is ARK Conway Academy in London, a fifth of whose pupils speak English as a second language. That it managed to ensure that all of its six-year-olds passed the Phonics Screening Check is testament to its rigorous approach to phonics and to the success of the Government's academies and free-schools programme. Schools such as King Solomon Academy, another ARK school, have grasped the opportunities brought by greater autonomy. Last year, with more than half of its pupils eligible for free school meals, King Solomon ensured that 93 per cent achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, one of the best results of any comprehensive school in the country.
The first four and a half years of this Government's plan for education have resulted in higher academic standards and better pupil behaviour. We need to continue that journey to ensure that young people can compete with school leavers and graduates from the best education systems in the world. µ
The Schools minister Nick Gibb has gained a reputation as the "comeback kid" in education circles. Promoted by David Cameron to become the shadow Schools minister while the Conservatives were in opposition before the 2010 election, he was No 2 to Michael Gove in the formative years for the party's education reforms and was a shoo-in for the Schools minister job when the Coalition took office.
However, he was sacked in a surprise move as part of a Cameron reshuffle three years ago aimed at bringing new blood into the ministerial team – only to be reinstated last summer when Mr Gove himself was reshuffled to take on the role of Chief Whip.
It is said that Mr Gove argued forcefully for his reinstatement if he were to go – and the Conservatives have benefited from his knowledge of the education scene during the post-Gove era.
He has always been an enthusiast for promoting the role of phonics in teaching reading and is widely regarded as the architect of the compulsory phonics check now taken by all six-year-olds to try to identify children who are struggling with learning to read.
Richard GarnerReuse content