16 November 2023

Goodbye, Mr Gibb


Amid the noise surrounding Suella Braverman’s sacking, and the sudden resurrection of David Cameron in this week’s reshuffle, a quiet, but important, departure from government was announced by a minister who, more than most of his contemporaries, can look back on his achievements and be proud.   

Nick Gibb has been Schools Minister for ten years (although in that time he was sacked, and reappointed, twice).  In Whitehall terms a decade is an eternity, and throughout this period he has remained, by his own admission, ‘obsessed’ with systematic synthetic phonics (SSP). This is a method of teaching reading by linking letters to the speech sounds they represent; children are taught that sounds can be blended, or ‘synthesised’, to form words, and then sentences.  

That sounds rather dry, but being a very competent reader (and writer) is, of course, the foundation of a good education, and is one of the most effective ways of overcoming social and educational disadvantage.  If you’re going to invest time and money in schools then all the evidence shows that doing it early, in literacy and numeracy, pays the biggest rewards later, both in secondary schools and beyond. 

Gibb’s unwavering commitment to this form of teaching has been crucial in transforming reading levels in England’s primary schools. The recent (and internationally respected) Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) confirmed that this country’s 10-year-olds are, out of 43 countries assessed, the fourth strongest readers. This is remarkable and, you would think, a cause for universal celebration.   

Not so. Because, of course, there are those who feel that this traditional form of teaching is too rigidly narrow in its application, too methodically dogmatic. Instead, advocates of other, more child-centred approaches want, inevitably, greater autonomy for teachers and less control by (Conservative) central government. Mary Bousted, the recently departed and unmissed far-left leader of the National Education Union declared phonics to be a result of ‘prejudice’, and for Michael Rosen, phonics threatened to replace the pleasure of reading with teaching purely for assessment (all tests, for many on the left of politics, are to be treated with suspicion). Of course gaining pleasure from reading depends on being able to read in the first place, and phonics has helped more children do that – and to enjoy Rosen’s books – than the less regulated systems that preceded it.  As an English teacher, I am familiar with those in education who see any form of academic discipline, whether it is phonics, or teaching grammar, spelling and punctuation, as forms of child abuse which should be resisted in favour of something infinitely fuzzier, warm, ill-defined but, ultimately, ineffective across all ability ranges.   

The debate about how to teach, as well as what to teach, and whether to have a knowledge-rich curriculum for our children, or something more skills-based, continues to take up a surprising amount of time and money among policy makers and educationalists. You would think that the predictable failure of Scotland’s ‘content free’ (and, in retrospect, ironically entitled) ‘Curriculum for Excellence’, which has resulted in such a decline in that country’s educational standards, would persuade politicians and school leaders to move the other way, and to see knowledge – being able to read, write and do maths well – as the enablers of essential skills, rather than somehow at odds with them. Such debates start from the wrong set of assumptions. As Daisy Christodoulou has recently written

‘Asking what the right balance is between knowledge and skills is like asking what the right balance is between ingredients and cake. The ingredients make the cake, just as the knowledge makes the skill.’  

Or, to put it another way, without knowledge there can be no skills.  

Nick Gibb’s tenure as schools minister has provided a generation of young people with a secure knowledge of the most spoken language in the world. That is truly transformative. He has empowered millions of young people to have more agency over their lives, their careers, as well as countless other opportunities that would have been denied them if he had not been so obsessed, or if he had given way to his many opponents. As the writer Ian Leslie has accurately observed, Gibb’s career is ‘the extreme opposite of how most ministerial roles go – [he] just did the same job forever, plugging away, building domain/institutional knowledge and seeing things through.’  If only government could be filled with other figures equally committed, and with similar levels of self-belief and a desire to improve the lives of others, no matter how long it takes. It is public service at its best. 

Whoever forms the next government, the progress made in this crucial area must not be sacrificed to the transience of political expediency and ill-informed, untested, progressive, ideology. Because the results are in, the books are marked, and we know what works. It is very easy to think that everything is broken, and that nothing works, and that we have lost the ability to plan for the long-term future. But, look more closely, and you will see that with conviction politicians it is still possible to achieve something wonderful, and lasting, that enriches the lives of millions, and makes the world a better, more hospitable and hopeful place.  

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David James is deputy head of an independent school in London.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.