15 December 2022

Nick Gibb shows the power of having the right person in the right place


If you want to see the impact that one determined person have by being in the right place at the right time, look no further than Schools Minister Nick Gibb.

It is no exaggeration to say that there are hundreds of thousands more kids in our schools today who can read and thus learn better because of the things Gibb has pushed through since he first became a minister in 2010.

Among his important achievements was introducing a ‘phonics screening check’ (PSC) for all six-year-olds in 2012, It assesses how well they have progressed with their reading in their early years at school, and whether they may need extra help.

The progress has been startling. Just 58% of that 2012 cohort were at the expected level, but by 2016 it was over 80%. That’s over 100,000 more kids each year off to a stronger start with their reading. By any measure this is a huge improvement, the impact of which will be felt over an entire lifetime in terms of joy and learning and liberation.

How was this achieved?

Gibb was canny. He had immersed himself in the issue and research in opposition, and prepared a plan for power. He then set about pushing ‘systematic synthetic phonics’ (SSP) as the best way to teach early reading, and used government levers to create an ecosystem of teaching resources and training to support it. The PSC was a key part of all this, both to nudge schools to do things effectively, but also track how things were improving (or not) across the system over time.

All this was done in the face of persistent and serious opposition from much of the education sector – teacher training institutions, unions, academics and so on. But, backed by Gove and the wider government, he prevailed. More kids than ever can now read well, and few serious educationalists would challenge the primacy of SSP.

Gibb’s achievements go much wider than just phonics. Many of the successful school reforms since 2010 have been carried out at his instruction, with his eye for detail and insistence on quality ensuring that policy and implementation were considered together.

He wasn’t just the right man in the right place; he’s had enough time and support to get stuff done. We’ve had 12-and-a-half years of Conservative-led government, and he’s been a minister for nine and a half of them. 

Sadly this example of keeping the right person in the right position for a sustained period has been all too rare, not just in government, but the public sector more widely. PM after PM has failed to make the most of the patronage they have to appoint smart and effective people to key roles and then keep them there long enough to make a difference.

Indeed, whether by accident or some desire to seem ‘kind’ and liberal, they have often ended up appointing people whose worldview is completely at odds with the Government’s own agenda. A variety of quango heads, advisers, tsars, independent regulators – you name the post, and it has probably had a liberal-left careerist or celeb appointed to it at some point.

This has in turn created powerful opponents with the ability and platforms to resist or undermine reforms. It’s one of the key things that explains why many things feel less conservative after 12 years of Conservative-led government.

After all, if it’s about anything, politics is about getting stuff done. The first step in this is getting people in who are in tune with what you’re doing, so they can set in train the policy and processes needed to achieve the aim. Pick the wrong people and you might as well give up – and this is exactly what has happened on too many occasions since 2010.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown understood the power of appointments. It’s why they were able to shape the nation so much during their time in office, and afterwards as well. They left behind in key roles a whole generation of people sympathetic to their agenda, and few Conservative politicians attempted to systematically change things when in post.

Gibb, along with Michael Gove, did challenge things, and this is a big reason why education reform has been so thorough and successful (even with much still left to do.) Boris Johnson understood this too, and his Number 10 took public appointments seriously.

With the next general election looming, it’s vital that Team Rishi also makes the most of their powers of patronage if they’re to get anything done over the next two years. It’s also essential if they want to protect their achievements from a Labour-led government. 

In education, amongst other things this means Ofsted finding a new Chair and a successor to Amanda Spielman, the exam regulator Ofqual revisiting its Chair, and appointing a permanent board to the new Oak National Academy.

Look across government and quangos more widely and there are a ton of roles up for grabs in the medium term. A top priority for No 10 should be to hunt high and low for aligned experts to appoint – be it as ministers, advisers, board members or whatever.

As the example of Nick Gibb shows, putting the right person into the right role can make all the difference. He’s got at least another couple of years to add to his legacy, and the Government needs more like him if it is to have a decent set of achievements to sell to the electorate in 2024.

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Mark Lehain is Head of Education at the Centre for Policy Studies.