23 October 2023

What the left gets wrong about education reforms

By Callum Robertson

Reflecting on the 2010-15 coalition-era education reforms, it is easy to denigrate the work of Gove, Laws and Gibb from the left. However, a look at the data shows that their approach, although controversial at the time, has been almost entirely vindicated.

From phonics to the pupil premium, it is fair to say that the government who put education at the heart of its agenda, has a proud record to stand by.

The prevailing focuses of the coalition-era reforms were curriculum and assessment reform.

The introduction of the Progress 8 [P8] scores allowed for meaningful comparison between different schools for the value added by the school to their student baseline. It also forced schools to compete against one another for a positive P8 score, fostering a race to the top for schools across England. The real benefit of this is that private, grammar and middle class schools can no longer hide behind high performing cohorts whilst adding little of actual value to their headline grades.

This is undoubtedly a good thing, not least because it stops all schools focusing on the ‘C to D’ students to meet the 5 GCSEs at A*-C that existed under the old system. It provided the additional strength of allowing a comprehensive and coherent measure of the quality of teaching in schools and the consequential value added to the education of those young people who reap the benefits. 

It also gives a laser like focus to what the academic offer of schools to those students between the ages of 11-16 is, and builds on the SAT scores – creating a long-awaited semblance of coherence in testing. Something that had hitherto been lacking in English education.

Gove also controversially championed a knowledge-rich curriculum, with supporting schools adopting the mantra ‘Knowledge is power, we make it stick’. This was not without criticism, and recent Labour appointments demonstrate that the likely next government is not quite as committed to the idea of powerful knowledge. 

The idea of a change away from the knowledge-rich curriculum will not sit well with the Govian orthodoxy that has dominated education since 2010. However, there is a consistent misunderstanding of what a knowledge-rich curriculum actually is.

The notion of a knowledge-rich curriculum is often mischaracterised as the pointless memorisation of endless lists of Kings of England. The truth, however, is somewhat different. Its supporters argue that taking students beyond their everyday experiences by giving them a wider knowledge base will give them access to a greater variety of skills. Or, as a colleague sagely pointed out to me, ‘you cannot critically think about a subject you do not first have the knowledge to access’.

The success of the knowledge-rich and competitive comparison measures could not have happened so well without two other reformers in the heart of education during the coalition government, notably Nick Gibb and David Laws, both Ministers of State during the time.

One of Gibb’s most successful reforms was his phonics implementation, which has helped make child literacy in England competitive once again. The success of this achievement cannot be understated. Nonetheless, the argument over how to teach literacy is a highly fraught one, and is summed up quite well by the Weaver case in California. There, phonics was introduced and then quickly thrown out and replaced with an alternative curriculum, as it apparently represented ‘the man telling us what to do’. Now, however, it those same teachers are campaigning for its reinstatement. 

This is a tale as old as time, some in the education profession are quick to embrace the latest fads without considering the lack of evidence surrounding its impact on young people, those same people will have an inexplicable inertia if the idea is floated by a perceived adversary. This is particularly pertinent in the case of phonics, where it was met with an almost illogical resistance to it, despite the transformative effect on the literacy of people from challenging socio-economic backgrounds.

Just as phonics is key to getting kids reading, a knowledge-rich curriculum could not work without the work of the erstwhile Liberal Democrat MPs David Laws and Sarah Teather, who successfully implemented the pupil premium. The policy, which targeted funds at disadvantaged pupils, has had a transformative effect on closing the disadvantage gap (notwithstanding the pandemic) but more oversight of effective spending was needed.

Phonics, the pupil premium, Knowledge and Progress 8 were instances where politicians made clear and unashamed pushes for their approach with an evangelical zeal.

We are now in a position, 10 years on, to assess their impact with some degree of neutrality. Despite Gibb and Gove inspiring the ire of much of the education community, their reforms do stand up to academic scrutiny. Teather and Laws’ reforms were vastly more popular, but equally have helped close the gap for disadvantaged students.

The overarching view of the education profession may have been sceptical at the time, but the coalition reforms have undoubtedly contributed to improving outcomes for working class people.

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Callum Robertson is the Policy Officer for the Liberal Democrat Education Association and campaigns on education and young peoples' rights.

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