Nick Gibb – teachers can follow the evidence as long as they do what I tell them.

Now that Michael Gove has moved on to sort out prisons and lawyers, it seems that Nick Gibb has decided to fill his place as the Education Department’s principal ideologue. His speech to the ResearchEd conference last weekend (https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/nick-gibb-the-importance-of-the-teaching-profession) contained all the rhetorical tricks we remember from Gove. It also reminded us just how dangerous his narrow ideology is to any idea of free and open debate and the exploration of new ideas.

The speech claimed to be in praise of educational research. It claimed that the government is promoting evidence based policy and wants teachers to use evidence in developing their practice. There is a lengthy section about how school autonomy is transforming the landscape by giving teachers freedom to follow the evidence.

The reality of course is that teachers are free to do what Nick Gibb tells them to do. He is not content with telling schools what they should teach – he is determined to drive them to use only the teaching methods he approves of. No politician before has thought it their place to set themselves up as the sole arbiter of what constitutes effective teaching. A belief in research cannot logically sit alongside a belief in free debate and research. Researchers must always start from the premise that their current opinions might be undermined by further evidence. This is not Gibb’s world.

Nor sadly does he show much understanding of what actually constitutes evidence. Like most politicians, he prefers to base his argument on anecdote. So name checking a couple of academies and a couple of headteachers is apparently sufficient evidence that academies work and that they all do what Gibb wants them to do. But dig a little deeper and you will remember that:

– The London Academy of Excellence routinely kicks out after one year anyone who won’t make their results look good
– Kevin Satchwell at Thomas Telford runs a school that uses its CTC status to ignore the Admissions Code and was one of   the pioneers of gaming league tables through its “4 GCSE equivalent” IT course
– There is of course no place for free schools that have gone off it a quite different direction like School 21.
– And it is of course now well established that academies have had no measurable effect on overall standards and many are failing – but Gibb will go on asserting that the opposite is the case.

Gibb’s ability to cherrypick data which seems to support his case is becoming legendary. So for example, he quotes figures for persistent absentees showing a decline since 2010 and, without any evidence, claims this as a success for government policies. He completely ignores the fact that absence from school has been on a steady declining trend since the 1990’s

Similarly, he picks out some second order data about how many new teachers have 2.1’s but ignores the core issue. That is that in 2009/10, teacher recruitment was 108% of target. In 2014/15 it was 93% of target. But of course, this constitutes a challenge not a crisis!

Gibb is expert too in setting up caricatures to attack and simplistically polarises differing points of view. So he says “a romantic aversion to formal teaching will forever trump the evidence which shows its effectiveness. For them, it will always be more important to have engaged pupils who are not learning, than seemingly ‘passive’ pupils who are”. No one sensible would defend either extreme. But to assert that trying to interest pupils is bad and believing that teaching from the front has never been boring and ineffective is nonsensical and simplistic.

At the end he comes up with five core aims for education – statements that are so broad that no one would reasonably object to them. But he then makes the leap to assert that government policies are the only way of achieving these aims. He says:

• we believe that children across the country are entitled to a basic academic education up to the age of 16
• we believe that all children should leave school with the skills that allow them to thrive in the workplace
• we believe the most effective teaching methods should be pursued to achieve this, irrespective of whether some find them ‘tedious’
• we believe that schools should be civilised and civilising institutions which foster good character, because children do not always know best, and sometimes require the benevolent authority of an adult
• lastly, we believe in a socially just Britain, where the benefits of such an education are available to all, irrespective of background or birth

It’s a big leap from this to claim that EBacc is the right programme for every single GCSE student – school autonomy seems to have gone missing here. It’s interesting too that skills to enable them to thrive in the workplace apparently don’t include all the skills and qualities that the CBI has identified as being missing in many young people.

There is the subtle assertion that people who disagree with him are in favour of ineffective teaching methods and fostering bad behaviour and allowing children to run riot. Whereas in reality what there is here is a difference of opinion about what is actually effective. Gibb is of course dedicated to enforcing the study of Shakespeare – he needs to remember with Hamlet that “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

And of course, the government believes in a “socially just Britain” – one in which

• child poverty is growing;
• international surveys show English children are the most unhappy in the developed world;
• further education – the key route for technical and vocational education and for a second chance in education – is being bankrupted;
• more and more schools are manipulating admissions to become socially selective and new grammar schools are likely to be approved soon;
• many young people are being driven into a casualised, low pay, zero hours contract job market.

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