It is a real pleasure to be able to take part in this Bright Blue conference focusing on the challenges and opportunities facing young people in modern Britain, not least because my boss is now the hon president of Bright Blue. As someone who regards himself as a liberal Conservative I’m a keen supporter of the work of Bright Blue.
Two of Bright Blue’s defining principles are key to my view of politics: “optimism about human potential” and “enthusiasm for the future”. I strongly believe there is no problem facing mankind that we cannot resolve, provided we live in a free society committed to the rule of law, to democracy and to market economics. Disease, famine, energy crises – all can be resolved with human ingenuity and the right incentives in place to find solutions. War, brutality, corruption – all can be conquered with the right philosophy, democratic government and a strong education system.
Democracy is the greatest of all human inventions, ensuring our society is benignly regulated to our mutual benefit; and without education we cannot pass on to the next generation all that has been learned by thousands of generations of our forebears. But both have suffered damage over the last 30 or 40 years.
Even before the expenses scandal of 2009, disillusionment with politics was deeply entrenched. The turnout in the 1997 election was 69% – by 2001 it had fallen to 59% and the phrase “all politicians are the same; they’re all in it for themselves” could be heard in every focus group and political discussion outside the beltway. Leo McGarry summed it up when he began his search for a presidential candidate to support – “I’m tired of having to choose”, he said, “between the lesser of who cares.
Yet Britain is probably one of the best run countries in the world; virtually corruption free, we are a nation that is prosperous, tolerant and free. Why should cynicism about our politics be so strong? And what can we do to restore faith in politics and by extension to democracy? What can we do to boost confidence in mainstream political parties,
Part of the reason for this disillusionment is the tribalism of our political parties, which on occasion seems to put party advantage ahead of what’s right. Just after the 1997 general election, for example, Conservative MPs voted against Labour’s plans to privatise the air traffic control service, ostensibly because it wasn’t the right kind of privatisation but in reality because Labour’s left wing was rebelling and we sensed an early defeat for Tony Blair. So we were voting against what we believed to be in the best interests of our country for cynical party advantage. Just for balance I should add that in 2006 under David Cameron’s leadership we voted FOR Labour’s flagship Education and Inspections Bill despite a Labour rebellion so large that without our votes the Bill would have been defeated and with it, probably, Tony Blair’s premiership. We voted for the Bill because we agreed with it.
The yah-boo of Prime Minister’s Question time baffles people. I’ve disliked it ever since I was first elected in 1997. It’s not the exchanges between the party leaders that’s the problem, nor the questions from backbenchers, but the constant braying and jeering that entrenches the impression that politics is all about party tribalism and that political parties and Members of Parliament put their own interests above those of the people and our country. The juvenile bacchanalia of PMQs is a self-indulgence that is deeply damaging even though it belies the reality of serious politics,
Another major cause of the disillusionment is the failure of politicians to deliver on their promises. Police on the beat is a classic example. All political parties make this promise in the full knowledge that chief constables regard what they see as a Dixon-of-Dock-Green approach to policing as ineffective and out of date. In education, politicians have, in the past, promised a return to basics, to higher academic standards, to traditional teaching, while presiding over changes to the curriculum in the late 1980s, the late 1990s and again in 2007 that at each stage increased the influence of progressive and failed teaching methods in our state schools. The reason for the disconnect between what politicians promise and what they deliver is, in a way, a lack of confidence or ability to challenge the experts who run our public services – the chief constables, the educationalists who dominate the education faculties of the universities and the local education authorities. In a technically demanding modern country it’s never easy to defy the ranks of long-serving experts, even when the public service they deliver is demonstrably under-performing.
And here’s the Catch 22. The more disillusionment there is with politics and politicians the more it undermines politicians’ confidence to challenge the resident experts and the vested interests. And the more we fail to take on these interests and consequently fail to deliver on our promises the greater that sense of disillusionment.
How many times have we heard the call for politicians to keep out of decisions over the curriculum? Tax experts, they cry, should preside over the technical aspects of the Finance Bill. Teachers and education academics should determine the school curriculum, not Michael Gove or Nicky Morgan, or Heaven help us, Nick Gibb. Why is he telling us which algorithms children should use to multiply and divide?
In recent years politics and politicians have been under pressure and under attack. Politicians need to regain confidence in themselves and in the importance of politics; by being serious about the way we conduct politics but also by not joining in the disparagement of politics and politicians. We know why we all came into politics – to help improve the way our country is run and to help improve people’s lives. If politicians themselves cannot make the case for politics then democracy itself is in danger of being overwhelmed by a tidal wave of cynicism.
That’s why my firm belief, is that we simply can’t restore faith in politics by constantly criticising our political system as it is, although there are things we need to change. We’ll only succeed in doing it by outlining a confident, optimistic vision of what we want our politics to be and to make sure that the next generation are inspired to do their bit to realise that vision of the future.
One of the characteristics of David Cameron’s leadership of the Conservative Party has been to keep people in place as shadow ministers and ministers for long stretches of time to enable them to acquire the expertise with which to challenge civil servants and experts in their department. This isn’t a plea for me to keep my job after the election – although of course it is – it is an argument that ministers need to be executive officers of their department not non-executive directors monitoring decisions taken by others. Ministers need to ensure that the ideas and policies that led to their election are delivered. Over the last five years the most successful reforming departments of this administration have achieved precisely that – from the Treasury to the DWP, from the Home Office to the Department for Education, challenging the police, challenging the educationalists, taking bold decisions about the public finances and the reform of the benefits system. Five years has been too short a time for these achievements to undo decades of disillusionment and, of course, there are some areas of policy where a successful outcome is still a work-in-progress or where the politics of coalition have proved an obstacle. But if we are to restore faith in politics we need to ensure that our next term of office continues to deliver effective reform and delivers on the promises made in our manifesto.
This conference is about the future; it’s about the opportunities and challenges faced by our young people. This week’s Economist features the challenges from China, a country that manufactures 60% of the world’s shoes and 70% of the world’s mobile phones. And even as China’s wage costs rise, Northampton is unlikely to see a resurgence of its famous past as a world centre of shoe manufacturing or source of thousands of unskilled or semi-skilled jobs. Britain’s future lies in having an educated population that designs shoes, that designs products that are manufactured in low cost countries in a global economy. Britain’s future is in its high value-added manufacturing; it is in its creativity in the arts, literature and music. It’s in finance and entrepreneurialism – setting up new and innovative businesses. It’s in the sciences, medicine and bio-technology.
All this means we must have an effective education system. Shanghai’s 15-year-olds are three years ahead of their British peers in maths, according to the PISA 2012 survey. That’s why we’re learning from their approach – whole class teaching, extensive practice, good quality textbooks, detailed and effective teaching, traditional algorithms – no chunking in division and no grid method for long multiplication – methods introduced into our schools under the last Labour Government that had no evidential basis and which have demonstrably failed. That’s why I have a view about what algorithms children should use in maths! We are currently working with the publishing industry to create a new generation of high quality textbooks that go beyond the curriculum and exam syllabuses, for use in primary and secondary schools.
We have re-written the national curriculum, ensuring it is equal to the best curricula in the world. We leaned on the Singapore curriculum for maths in primary schools. Now every 9-year-old will need to know their multiplication tables to 12 times 12 by heart. In English we’ve changed the way reading is taught and now because of our focus on phonics 102,000 6-year-olds are reading more effectively. We’ve introduced a knowledge-rich curriculum ensuring young people have the knowledge to help them understand the world. All this was against a back-drop of opposition from the educationalists in the university education departments who claim knowledge doesn’t matter, it’s the processes of learning that’s important; educationalists who fiercely opposed phonics and the explicit teaching of grammar, spelling and punctuation that we now test at age 11. And we want pupils in all schools to have read as many of the great works of literature as children are reading in the best state and independent schools.
We’ve given professional autonomy to at least 60% of all secondary schools who are now free to adopt approaches to education that the evidence says works rather than obeying advice from a cadre of local authority education advisers. Already 17% pf primary schools are following in their trail and adopting academy status. These 4900 schools are now blending into academy groupings or chains and competing on reputation for academic excellence. Last week I visited ARK Priory Primary Academy in Ealing – where Year 1 children – 5- and 6-year-olds – had learned to read so effectively in the Reception class that many of them were reading full-length children’s novels. They were able to answer with ease questions such as 17 minus 8 and 3 times 4.
I’d like to take everyone here to see Michaela Community School, a free school in Wembley, run a by a formidable group of Teach First teachers headed by the remarkable Katharine Birbalsingh, or the East London Science School, a free school run by David Perks. These schools are putting the acquisition of knowledge at the core of the curriculum and nurturing well mannered, happy young people in a caring and safe school environment.
Yet we all know the opposition we faced from some teacher unions and the left generally when we sought to convert some of the weakest schools in the country to academies. Downhills school in Haringey for example was chronically underperforming and in special measures but when forced to become an academy sponsored by the highly successful Harris Academy Federation had to resist fierce opposition from the Save Downhills campaign, from the local authority and the local Labour MP. In 2009 just 40% of pupils at Downhills secured a level 4 or above in both English and Maths in their KS2 assessments. But under Harris and renamed the Harris Primary Academy Philip Lane its level 4 results in reading, writing and maths are now at 77% and its Phonics Check results have risen from 36% passing in 2012 to 75% passing in 2013. Children at that school are now benefiting from a first class education that they would not have had had we not resisted that opposition.
Nationally, there are now over a million more children in schools graded good or outstanding by Ofsted than five years ago.
We have reformed GCSEs and A levels, moving away from assessing coursework and modules to end of course exams and we have strengthened their academic content. We introduced the new English Baccalaureate performance measure revealing how many pupils in a school achieved C or better in the key combination of GCSES, namely: English, maths, two sciences, a foreign language and a humanity. It resulted in the number of pupils taking foreign languages rising by 29% since 2012 and an increase in the number taking history and geography GCSEs.
We have raised the bar for entry into the teaching profession. As a result, 71% of new entrants into teaching last year had a 2.1 or first class degree. We have given schools more say over teacher training, challenging universities’ monopoly over how teachers are trained.
All these reforms have been implemented in the face of bitter opposition from the vested interests but all of these reforms are essential if we are to give young people the opportunities they need to compete in the global jobs market and to prepare them for life in modern Britain. No-one’s potential should be lost because of a poor education.
Having the courage and expertise to stand up to the vested interests in education has been essential to delivering our manifesto promise to raise standards in schools. There is more to do to entrench and strengthen these reforms, and to ensure all schools are as good as the best. But what I believe we have demonstrated is that with determination, a clear sense of direction and two Secretaries of State committed to reform, politicians can effect change in the face of opposition from long-entrenched vested interests. This more than any other reform to our political structure will, in the long run, restore faith in the political process and in democracy and I hope will encourage young people to regard politics as a noble and worthwhile profession.
I am hugely optimistic that human ingenuity can solve the problems confronting our world, including restoring faith in our politics. I am hugely optimistic about the future of our country and what Britain can achieve if we keep on the current course. The decision voters will make in 50 or so days’ time will determine whether we do. But I am increasingly confident that we will.
Nick Gibb MP is the Minister of State for Schools