The Lantern Bearer: A Personal Tribute to Nick Gibb

The first thing anyone who spends any amount of time with Nick Gibb will notice is how much he cares about teaching children to read. The second is just how much he knows about the subject of education – not just by the standards of a minister, but by any standards. He knows more than most civil servants, more than many teachers, more than 99% of people who have Strong Opinions about education – and he certainly knows more than me. And the third thing that one will notice, if one spends any time at all with him, is what a thoroughly decent man he is.

Most members of the public will rightly credit Michael Gove as the driving force behind the Conservative’s 2010 school reforms: the dynamic Education Secretary who ‘battled the blob’ to introduce tougher exams, abolish coursework, stop grade inflation, introduce free schools, expand academies and strengthen both autonomy and accountability. But those involved in education know that working alongside Michael Gove was Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister, who then stayed in the role (with a couple of small breaks(1)) ever since, only stepping down earlier this week. If the reforms could not have been delivered without Gove, it is doubtful whether they could have been sustained without Gibb.

I was privileged enough to work with Nick for a period while I was a Special Advisor. There are many people who know him better than I do, but this is my personal tribute to him and his work(1.5).

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“Permanence,” intoned Sir Humphrey, “is power. Impermanence is impotence. Rotation is castration.” That is the backdrop to understanding the influence of Nick Gibb, a man who has served in the same ministerial role for over 10 of the last 13 years. During this time there have been four Permanent Secretaries, five Prime Ministers and no fewer than ten Education Secretaries, as all the while he has carried out his labour of love.

Even before 2010 he had shadowed the Schools Minister role for five years, reading deeply into the subject. He has visited over 1000 schools, a phenomenal number, and is a genuine expert in the subject. He has read the books – and the critiques – of the major educational theorists and practitioners, and can discourse at length on different methods and approaches to pedagogy. He is the sort of minister it can be difficult for civil servants to write speeches for, not because he himself is difficult – far from it – but for the simply reason that he invariably knows more about the subject than the poor soul set to the task(2).

He is a devotee of ED Hirsch and has championed the knowledge rich curriculum throughout his time as Schools Minister. He has robustly interrograted the veracity of Finnish Fairy Tales and found them wanting, and fought a dogged battle against the false siren-song of ‘skills’, ‘learning-styles’ and other progressive idols. In his own words:

My belief, and my argument today, is that we will only deliver on the promises that all politicians make, of ensuring that every child receives a first-class education, if we ensure that all our children are taught in schools with an extensive knowledge-rich curriculum by well-trained and supported teachers;

In schools where strong discipline means pupils are taught in a safe and caring environment, with high expectations and where success is rewarded and celebrated;

In schools that develop character and resilience;

In schools that encompass the arts, languages, music and the humanities as well as science and maths;

In schools that give every child the knowledge they are entitled to as part of their cultural inheritance.

If every school delivers these key objectives, only then will we succeed in reducing the gap between children who come from backgrounds where the importance of education can sometimes take a back seat to the trials of day-to-day living and those whose families have the time and ability to add to the education that their children receive at school.

Nick Gibb, 2021

He also believes passionately in helping those from disadvantaged backgrounds – and rejects, utterly, the soft bigotry of low expectations that says that some children can be written off, or are not capable of learning subjects, such as Shakespeare, proper history, or advanced mathematics because of their background. It drives him, the need to make excellent education available to everyone. He has visited schools, many of them, with high proportions of children on free school meals who achieve this: where children from these backgrounds achieve five good GCSEs, pass the EBacc, tackle a knowledge-rich and demanding curriculum and go on to Russell Group universities. He knows it can be done – and he has never stopped fighting to deliver it for everyone.

Thomas Jones Primary School serves a disadvantaged part of west London and is ranked third state school, scoring higher than all but four of the independent schools in the Sunday Times list. I have visited the school a number of times because of its quiet focus on standards, particularly in reading where 10-year-olds are routinely reading secondary school level literature. The head, David Sellens, has high expectations of every pupil regardless of that child’s background or ability. It’s an approach and attitude we want to see replicated in every school in the country.

Nick Gibb, 2018

And when it comes to the clamour for ‘relevant’ curricula, he rightly believes that knowledge, ‘the best that has been thought and said’, is the heritage of every pupil, regardless of background. And he believes that children should learn about the struggles and achiements of all races and nations, but in a way that is knowledge-rich and founded in genuine learning, rather than tokenistic.

I believe the job of the teacher – and our best teachers indeed do this – is to teach a curriculum which opens up a world of wonder and beauty from people of all creeds and colours, far beyond the narrow experience of an individual child.

A curriculum based on relevance to pupils is to deny them an introduction to the ‘best that has been thought and said’.

And of course, there is no reason why the work of a ‘dead white man’ is not appropriate for children from ethnic minorities to learn about. As Maya Angelou famously said, “Shakespeare must be a black girl,” because his poetic words expressed so intensely what she, a victim of poverty, racism and childhood sexual abuse, felt inside.

We will not create a more harmonious, tolerant and equal society through promoting a curriculum based on relevance to or representativeness of any one group…

…And the broader the knowledge is that is taught the more inclusive it can be.

E. D. Hirsch showed what is possible with his Core Knowledge Curriculum. In his book ‘What Your Fifth Grader Needs to Know’, he shows that 10-11-year-old pupils – equivalent to our last year of primary school – can learn an incredible amount.

In just a single academic year, they will cover the Maya, Aztecs and Incas; the discovery of the ‘New World’, including the transatlantic slave trade; the European Renaissance and Reformation, including the role played by Muslim scholars in contributing to discoveries in maths and science; 15th to 18th century England; Russia; Japanese history; Westward Expansion in North America; the US Civil War and Reconstruction; and Native Americans and the impact of settlers.

This is an incredible amount of subject content. We need to be ambitious for what our children and young people can achieve – because they can do it.

Nick Gibb, 2021

And, of course, he is best known for his relentless championing of phonics, replacing the hodge-podge (and often failing) means whereby schools were trying to teach children to read before, where it ‘didn’t matter’ if some children were still not reading by year three or four. His focus here has been relentless, and it has paid off, with England now ranked fourth best in the world for reading:

Just before the 2010 general election, I visited a school in north London to see children being taught to read. One nine year-old girl was unable to read a single word unaided. Her reading book had words in it such as “Tyrannosaurus” and yet she struggled to read the word “even”. It was clear that she was expected to learn by sight and repetition rather than through decoding words by sounding out the letters. It wasn’t clear to me that she even knew the sounds of the alphabet and yet she was being expected to read this children’s book to the teacher.

It broke my heart to see a child just a couple of years from secondary school so far away from developing even the basic skills of reading – let alone a love of the written word that would sustain her throughout her adult life.

The memory of that young girl stayed fresh in my mind every day during my nearly ten years as an Education minister. It was experiences like this that led us, when we came into office in 2010, to place a greater emphasis on phonics teaching, strengthening its primacy in the National Curriculum.

In 2012 we introduced the Phonics Check for six year-olds to make sure they were on track to becoming fluent readers. This enabled schools to identify and support those children who were falling behind, because the evidence is clear that reading is within the grasp of almost every child.

When the test was introduced, just 58 per cent of six year-olds reached the expected standard. As a result of schools improving the teaching of reading through the adoption of systematic phonics, 82 per cent were at or above the expected standard by 2019.

Nick Gibb, 2021

I forget the precise words my Secretary of State said when I first came in to DfE, but I remember them being to the effect that he trusted Nick, that Nick knew what he was doing and I should leave him alone to get on with it. This was very good advice! Later on, as my role evolved to cover schools, I was fortunate enough to work with Nick on a variety of matters, including updated behaviour guidance, or the Initial Teacher Training Reforms. My role was minor – helping to liaise with No. 10, or ensuring the right experts had access to ministers and officials, or helping to ensure programmes kept to deadline – but I’m very pleased to have been a part of it, and of what was achieved.

Of course, there was the occasional area I disagreed with him. I am a strong believer in teacher apprenticeships, and I have always worried that not enough was done to replace Labour’s ‘Gifted and Talented’ scheme. Flawed in its targeting though that undoubtedly was, there are still too many state schools where bright kids are seen as ‘doing well enough’ and not stretched. I must confess to taking advantage of one of the brief periods in which I was in and he was out of the department to advance the cause of the former and get it moving again, which now looks likely to happen (the current Education Secretary is a big champion of teacher apprentices).

Generally though, the heuristic that what Nick Gibb thinks is correct, is correct, is a good one – for he has undoubtedly looked at the evidence more closely than most. This applies most firmly to anything to do with schools, teaching, the curriculum or behaviour – but it very often also applied to other areas. I remember one time when I was looking at Student Union reform(3), including auto-enrollment and why the taxpayer was subsidising hard-left organisations to the tune of tens of millions of pounds a year. He casually handed me a report he’d written in the 1980s, showing he’d reached the same conclusions as I had 35 years before!

The fundamental truth is that our schools are much better, and that disadvantaged kids have far more opportunities to get a good education, now than they did thirteen years ago. And this is in large part due to Nick Gibb’s persistency, his refusal to yield under pressure, and his willingness to steadily advance ideas until they are embedded – whether that is synthetic phonics, times tables, behaviour or the knowledge-rich curriculum. He knows how fast the tide can run out again – on one of his returns to the department after a short absence, he was reportedly ‘deeply frustrated’ that several important measures, such as the proportion of children doing the eBacc, had been championing for years had been junked and rapidly reinstated them – and that constant vigilance is required to maintain high standards against the tide of progressivism:

I always feared that, when I stopped being a minister at the Department for Education, the proponents of “progressive” education would begin their counterattack. The school reforms that so successfully helped raise academic standards over the last decade have been achieved by a relentless challenge to the prevailing orthodoxies beloved of education professors, local authority advisers and others in the “education establishment”.

At the heart of their analysis lies opposition to testing and exams; a belief that children learn best through self-discovery rather than by direct teaching from a teacher; a dislike of discipline; and a fixation on what they call “learning how to learn” instead of the primacy of imparting knowledge. And most damagingly, adherents of “progressive” education believe that learning to read through phonics is a boring abomination. As schools minister for nearly 10 years, I often felt like the boy with his finger in the dyke, resisting on an almost daily basis pressure to water down our reforms or introduce measures that the evidence was clear had failed children in the past.

Despite expecting the counterattack, I have been taken aback by its speed and by the number of fronts on which the establishment is fighting: the campaign to abolish GCSEs; The Times Education Commission with its clear (to me at least) anti-reform agenda; the 600 page tome from the educationalists Tim Brighouse and Mick Waters published this month which argues against the very changes to the curriculum, assessment and accountability that have been central to raising standards.

Nick Gibb, 2022

And if this sounds as if he’s single-minded, that’s because he is – but he is also deeply creative. Those who believe he is opposed to the arts, should take a look at the Model Music Curriculum, championed by Nick and developed with the help of leading experts. Throughout his tenure he has sought out and promulgated new initiatives that could help improve schools, such as Isaac Physics, the Mandarin Excellence Programme, Oak National Academy, or the network of ‘hubs’ – maths, english, behaviour and more, with leading schools supporting others to improve. At each Spending Review, many of these would be marked out for culling by officials(4), only to be firmly reinstated by Nick(5), staunch in his defence of what works.

I once asked him why he didn’t want to do more to tackle the surge in radical teaching on race and gender that has taken place in many schools, under the guise of RSHE. Surely, I asked, he couldn’t agree with it? His reply was that, yes, ideally he’d rather children were spending that time learning to read, or do their times-tables or study proper history – but that what he was doing was too important to let it get caught up in this. If the work on phonics, maths and the knowledge-rich curriculum, much of which had by now won broad cross-spectrum support, became associated with these new, highly contested struggles, it would become discredited – and that would be a disaster. It was a humbling answer, and one that I could not but admit the merits of. For Nick, there was truly nothing more important than ensuring that as many children as possible got a good education,

And school by school, and silently, the revolution has gained ground, with more and more schools adopting the succesful recipe of a knowledge-rich curriculum, firm and consistent behaviour policies, with high expectations for all. What is more, the network of those who believe in the reforms have increased, including classroom teachers, school leaders and others involved in education, whether in the Department for Education, Ofsted, the Education Endowment Foundation or elsewhere. By and large these people are not conservatives – indeed, some of them may be actively opposed to the Conservative Party – but they believe in knowledge-rich education. And they believe in it because it works. Even Bridget Philipson, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, has said that Labour has no plans to scrap phonics, saying that, “We will be led by the evidence on this. I want better outcomes for our children.”

For the truth is it has worked. Our schools are better than ever – with children from all social backgrounds and ethnicities doing better than they were 13 years ago. An international ranking of schools system, PIRRLS, found that England was now the ‘best in the West’ for reading, fourth in the world and outperformimg the rest of Europe and the US. Increasing numbers of state schools now regularly outperform private schools, whether you are looking at measures such as children getting into Oxbridge, or the performance of those with Free School Meals getting five good GCSEs. It works.

But the Tories are terrible, so why should I care?

If you’re reading this blog, you’re presumably the sort of person who doesn’t think that all Tories are scum – and that there are dedicated, hard-working and well-meaning MPs in all the major parties. And in an era where too many politicians can seem motivated only by ambition, or lack morals, it’s good to hold up an example of one who strove diligently, year after year, to make a difference in the world.

I appreciate that there may be some contentious areas (perhaps immigration, or the death penalty), where people would find it hard to like or respect a politician on the other ‘side’ from them, no matter how hard they worked or how pure their motives. But improving children’s education is surely not one of those areas. Even if you disagree with everything he did – even if you think every reform on phonics, or curriculum, or behaviour is wrong – the absolute worst you can say about him, the least charitable interpretation of his career, is that, after studying the evidence in depth, he was mistaken about what would improve schools, and then worked steadfastly, honestly and without thought of self-preferment, in pursuit of those goals. And that conduct, surely, is what we should all want from our nation’s politicians, regardless of whether or not one supports their party or position.

A slightly more sophisticated argument would be to argue that schools are in such a state of crisis that one can’t credit him with success in the role. There are probably three major areas where many people across the political spectrum, including me, would agree that schools face challenges:

  • The school estate (i.e. crumbling concrete)
  • Recovering from the impact of the pandemic
  • The teacher recruitment and retention crisis.

On the first, I’ll let you into a secret: the Schools Minister doesn’t decide how much money is spent on schools – any more than the Policing Minister decides how much is spent on police, or the Prisons Minister how much is spent on prisons. Other people make those decisions. I’d be willing to lay good money that every single Schools Minister, past and future – whether Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat or Monster Raving Loony Party – asks for more money for the school estate. So let’s judge individual ministers by what is in their control, rather than by what isn’t.

On the second, this is so not going to be a COVID post, but I will say that ever since the Hancock WhatsApps were published, it’s been very clear that the extensive lockdowns, and most of the other intrusive measures in schools, did not originate in the Department for Education and, indeed, that the Department (rightly) actively opposed many of them. Particularly by time of the second lock-down, very few people in DfE were unaware of the serious damage being done to children’s education and wellbeing by closing schools for extended periods of time.

Finally, on teacher recruitment and retention, this is something he cared about tremendously, and worked on throughout his time as Minister. On recruitment, the system of bursaries and golden hellos was a matter of constant focus, and he fought hard for the increases in starting teacher salaries announced in 2019. Regarding retention, we know that workload and behaviour are two of the biggest things that impact morale– and both of these were matters he looked to addres. Improving behaviour, as I have set out already, has been a golden thread throughout his tenure. On workload, an initiative established by him in 2016 had succeeded in cutting average working hours (as reported by teachers) by almost 5 hours a week, until COVID drove a coach and horses through it; one of his last acts before leaving was to establish a new workload-reduction drive, supported by the unions.

The teacher recruitment and retention crisis is a deeply thorny problem, driven by Baumol’s cost disease, increasingly better and more flexible options for teachers elsewhere in the economy, the end of ‘careers for life’ and wider challenges in our society that make teaching more difficult, from the mental health crisis to family break-down to the declining respect for authority. It’s fair to say that Nick didn’t solve this – but I’d be surprised if anyone else could have done better. It certainly wasn’t for lack of trying.

Ultimately, as I’ve set out above, the level of school improvement over the last thirteen years is phenomenal, and stands in stark contrast to what happened over the thirteen years before (when, despite doubling spending per pupil in real terms, the UK’s international performance actually dropped). Turns out that what is taught in schools, how it is taught, behaviour, and an effective balance of autonomy and accountability matters a lot more than just the amount spent(6). While challenges remain, our schools are better today, and our children are better educated – and that is what counts.

So it’s all about the schools?

Well, schools have been the linchpin of his career. But still waters run deep. In the early 1980s, he joined a group of volunteers who smuggled letters and pro-democracy literature into the Soviet Union, bringing in books and pamphlets that exposed the true brutality of the Soviet regime. To quote from the Telegraph:

Letter-posting was also an important part of the couriers’ work: providing dissidents with facts to help counter Soviet propaganda. Nick Gibb was a young graduate of 21 in 1982 when he was sent to Leningrad, now St Petersburg, to deliver up to 100 letters, which were strapped to the inside of his legs under ‘horrible baggy black cord trousers’ and tucked into his boots in order to evade Soviet customs.

Posing as an ordinary tourist on a £200 Thomson’s package tour, the future minister checked into the Leningrad Hotel and spent the next few days walking the city streets posting letters into the blue boxes for domestic mail, a handful at a time so as not to attract attention.

The Daily Telegraph, 2021

This was the height of the Cold War, and an action which carried no small amount of personal risk. There are some politicians who would never have stopped talking about such deeds, but in true Gibb fashion, I never heard him speak of it – indeed, I only found out about it when I read about them in the article above.

Similarly, despite being one of the first openly gay Conservative ministers, he never sought to trade on this status, or to publicly make a ‘thing’ of it. Yet anyone who has heard him mention his husband will know how much the Same Sex Marriage Act (2013) meant to him, at last allowing him to marry his long term partner, with whom he has been with for over thirty years.

He was not only an effective Minister, but a thoroughly decent one, treating everyone he worked with with kindness and affection. He had high standards and demanded the best, but I never once heard of him raising his voice in anger or losing his temper. Any Minister with his commitment, work ethic and expertise would have won respect from his officials, but for many he won more than that: their loyalty, inspiration and commitment.

His private office has tended to be particularly devoted to him. Notoriously, one private secretary, when playing a game with colleagues in which people had to choose which of several good things they would choose to give up, declared that she would sacrifice her boyfriend before allowing any harm to come to Nick Gibb’s teeth. Defending the decision, she declared, “But without his teeth, he would be unable to talk. And then how would he be able to do his work?” Well quite.

No-one can doubt that he would have made a good Education Secretary. As to why his many years of service were never rewarded in that way, one can only speculate, but my own guess would be that his utter devotion to the cause of school improvement crowded out playing the political game. Teaching children to read was simply too important for him to have time for the politicking and manoeuvring that are so often needed to climb to the very top of the greasy pole. He is a surprisingly modest, almost self-effacing, man; I never once saw him seek the limelight, or court publicity for its own sake. For Nick, it truly was about the cause: he cared about children’s education far more than he cared about himself.

And whither now?

To quote his own words, “I am not giving up on education policy; I am just giving up on being a minister.” He has said that he will be taking up a diplomatic role after the next election, and I have no doubt that he will serve in it with distinction.

Nor should we doubt that he will continue to maintain significant influence in education policy: during his most recent hiatus from being Schools Minister, he used his influence to succesfully oppose a threat to academy freedoms. As he said:

What I am very proud of is that I think I have facilitated a proper debate about education. A debate that only used to take place in the hallowed halls of education faculties at universities. 

I think I have helped facilitate challenge, discussion and debate, and I have opened the gates to the secret garden. And in that garden now are teachers – it is them leading the debate about curriculum content and teaching methods and pedagogy, and I don’t think that was happening before.

We now have a proper debate within the profession, and that is one of the things I am most proud of.

Nick Gibb, 2023

These are words from his final interview. He has left millions of children better off: more able to read, better educated and with a richer and deeper knowledge of the world. He has done more for our country than most politicians can ever dream of achieving, with a record of achievement measured in countless lives directly improved.

Rosemary Sutcliffe wrote of the Lantern Bearers that they will not always be remembered, though those who follow them live and die in their debt. Yet it is they who keep something burning, to carry what light they can forward into the darkness and the wind. In education, it is Nick Gibb who has kept that flame alive this last decade.

It may be that we stand at sunset, and that the night will close over us in the end. Bad ideas in education arise with depressing regularity, and must be fought and defeated in every generation. But I believe that we may yet thrust the barbarians into the sea, and even hold them there – for a while. For the great Rutupiae Light is lit and the flames run crackling up, spreading into a great golden burst of fire, a blasting, blinding core of heat and brightness, a defiance against the dark. May it blaze in England for many years to come.

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(1) For example, under the Truss premiership.

(1.5) If you wonder why I am writing about him, rather than other ministers I have worked with more directly, it is because these other ministers are still active in front-line politics, whereas Nick has just announced that he will be stepping down, both as a minister and – at the next election – as an MP.

(2) He was recently kind enough to speak upon a panel I was chairing about maths in schools. Most ministers in this situation would open with a platitude about about some new Government initiative, or boast that since 1997/2010 X millions had been spent. Nick opened by critically examining, in detail, different pedagogical approaches to teaching maths, their pedigree, and why the evidence showed that certain ones were better.

(3) Something that sadly went nowhere.

(4) Possibly a form of ritual dance.

(5) I do remember one time early in my time as a Spad, scrutinising the spending review returns, when I queried one of these that at the time I didn’t recognise. I very shortly afterwards received a call from Nick where he politely but firmly told me what this programme was doing, why it worked and why it was essential to preserve. Needless to say, he was right and I rapidly withdrew my query!

(6) As a family, we have certainly placed a very low priority on ‘facilities’ and other geegaws when selecting schools, or early years settings, for our children.

2 thoughts on “The Lantern Bearer: A Personal Tribute to Nick Gibb

  1. Thank you for sharing, I knew almost none of this!

    I’ve never encountered a 1.5 footnote before. Is it just that you belated realised the need for it, and couldn’t be bothered to renumber the others? (Do you remember how in BASIC you had to give each line a number so we went in tens in the hope that we wouldn’t need to insert too many at a point we hadn’t planned?)
    I think the first ‘and’ of the footnote is extraneous (as is possibly the first comma).

    Something has gone wrong with the formatting just after “with England now ranked fourth best in the world for reading” – it may be that there’s a graph or table missing here?

    “before allowing any harm to come to Nick Gibb’s teach” appears, bizarrely, that it should be ‘teeth’.

    1. Yes! I kept getting the footnotes wrong due to adding new paragraphs in editing – which you kept pointing out – so decided to just switch to using decimals. I was indeed thinking of the BASIC precedent.

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