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Michael Gove: The scale of our education challenge is so great that we need urgent reform. On every front.

Michael Gove MP is Secretary of State for Education.

Gove Michael in office

Just before Christmas the most comprehensive survey of global educational achievement ever conducted showed that in the last ten years we have plummeted in the rankings: from 4th to 16th  for science, 7th to 25th for literacy and 8th to 28th for maths. In tests of mathematics, Chinese 15-year-olds are now more than two years ahead of 15-year-olds in this country.

At the same time as we are falling behind other nations, the gap between the opportunities enjoyed by rich students and the chances available to poor students is growing.

What makes this growing inequality worse is that richer children, who have access to the highest performing schools, study rigorous subjects and take internationally respected exams while poorer children have been corralled into subjects and exams that are not widely respected. This is not just unfair, it also means we are denying ourselves the chance to harness all the talent we need to compete economically.

The scale of our education challenge is so great that we need urgent reform. On every front.

First, we must improve the quality of entrants into teaching by recruiting more talented people into the classroom. The best performing nations – like Finland, South Korea and Singapore – recruit their teachers from the top pool of graduates which is why we are reforming teacher training and expanding great schemes like Teach First which attract the brightest and the best into teaching. It's also why we’re reforming the rules on discipline. We know that poor pupil behaviour is the main factor which puts talented people off teaching, which is why we will enhance teachers’ powers to maintain order.

Second, we must give great headteachers more freedom over how they run their schools. The best performing education nations, like Hong Kong and Singapore, devolve power to the frontline. They give heads more freedom over pay, staffing, timetabling, the school day, and spending.  And we are doing the same here. Over 400 good and outstanding secondaries have applied to take up our offer of Academy status with all the freedom that brings. And, in just a few months, over 200 teacher, parent, and charity groups have applied to set up Free Schools. It is absolutely vital that we extend this frontline freedom because it is only by shifting powers from bureaucrats towards parents and professionals that we can create an unstoppable momentum toward higher standards.

Third, we must improve the curriculum and exams. Our English Baccalaureate will encourage more children to take the types of qualifications that open doors to the best universities and the most exciting careers. We have put all the exam data on the web so that the public can examine in far greater detail than ever before exactly what local schools do.

The current National Curriculum is the worst of all worlds: it is too long but it says far too little about what a child should know at what age.

We have a compulsory history curriculum in secondary schools that doesn’t mention any historical figures – except William Wilberforce and Olaudah Equiano - the great abolitionists (and then only in the explanatory notes). We have a compulsory geography curriculum in secondary schools that mentions no countries apart from the UK, no continents, no rivers, no oceans, no mountains and no cities - although it does mention the European Union. We have a compulsory music curriculum at Key Stage 3 in secondary school that doesn’t mention a single composer, musician, conductor or piece of music. We have a primary maths curriculum that does not properly cover calculating with fractions or the solution of algebraic equations, and a secondary maths curriculum that does not introduce children to fundamental statistical concepts that are central to natural and social sciences. We have a science curriculum that does not spell out basics such as cellular structures and the energy requirements of plants and animals.

Our Review will examine the best school systems in the world and the best scientific evidence about what children can learn. The National Curriculum should become a national treasure respected and copied in independent schools and around the world.

Yes, this pace of change is radical and some have attacked me for going ‘too far too fast’. Labour and their allies justify opposition by deluding themselves and others about the world around us. Millions of Asian students, graduating from schools which outpace our own, joining the international trade system? Ignore it. Moore’s Law in computer science, genetics, biological engineering and robotics transforming industry after industry before our eyes? Ignore it. Other nations ruthlessly plundering best practice from the highest-performing jurisdictions to get better and better? Ignore it and just say that more As at A-level than 25 years ago means everything is fine.

They seem to think that trying to make us a world leader in maths curriculum, maths exams, and maths teaching is somehow old-fashioned. Nothing shows quite so clearly just how profoundly out of touch Ed Miliband and Andy Burnham are if they think that insisting on major improvements in the teaching of mathematics and science so that we can compete with Asia is somehow a retro affectation.

The computers in our pockets are millions of times more powerful than the mainframes of yesteryear and over the next decade there will be another  thousand-fold increase in computer performance with untold consequences for health, energy, and almost every aspect of human existence. Just in the last fortnight IBM has made announcements about supercomputers they are building for 2018/19 that will be ‘exascale’ - that is, capable of generating a million trillion calculations per second - with all the consequences for scientific innovation and technical advance that this will bring.  The children who are in primary school now are going to have to look for jobs in this world. If we do not profoundly improve maths and science education, this country will be sunk.

There are powerful forces who want to keep us stuck in the past, and I absolutely reject their argument. We must change or we are going to be culturally and materially impoverished. The future lies in elevating our sights, raising aspiration, and daring to imagine the new heights our children might scale, which is why we need to step up the pace of reform, not slow down.


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