A Conservative Future
Nick Gibb, Shadow Minister for Schools, wants to make the state sector as good as the independent; he hates political correctness and extols competitiveness. Is this the model for education in the future?
Nick Gibb is the Member of Parliament for Bognor Regis & Littlehampton and the Shadow Minister for Schools. Before being elected to Parliament in 1997, Nick worked as a Chartered Accountant, specialising in corporate taxation with KPMG. He is the author of numerous reports for public policy think-tanks on tax reform and economics. Attain went to Westminster to meet him.
The readership of our magazine is composed almost entirely of either current or prospective parents of children at independent sector schools. One of the key questions which our readers will want to know is how the independent sector is likely to fare under a future Conservative Government? 'Well, we have no plans to do anything so far as the independent sector is concerned. We don't intend to, for example, add to its burden of tax regulation. My view is if something is working, don't change it. So, our policy is not skewed in any way towards the independent sector. The only thing I would say about the sector is that they should continue to do what they do - continue to provide a benchmark and not be embarrassed about being excellent. What we do want to try and do, which might affect the independent sector, is we want to make the state sector as good as the independent. For many of your readers, sending their children to independent schools will be a real sacrifice - they will not be going on holiday or will be working two shifts to pay the fees.'
One in three children in the independent sector are on some form of scholarship or bursary. I agree it is a myth to assume that the parents of children in the independent sector are all wealthy. Some certainly are very affluent but for the rest it is often a real struggle to pay the fees. 'Exactly. My brother is in the same boat - both his girls are at preparatory schools but there is no way that they can afford to send their children to an independent senior school. So we really do want to look at why there is this gap between so many state schools and the quality of education provided in the independent sector. I don't believe that it's all to do with the type of children that the schools take in.'
Quite. Lots of independent sector schools are not in any way selective. 'But the argument then would be that they may not be selective on ability but just by the fact that they charge fees. The odds are that the children come from more prosperous homes with fewer challenging social circumstances etc. But I still believe that a school in even the most deprived part of Britain can provide a quality education regardless of the intake.'
But what is the magic ingredient though? Is it the inspiration from the top or is it a rejection of the notion that you shouldn't have a competitive element in the school - you can't have children that lose, everybody has to be a winner etc. 'I think that's it. These notions that came in during the 1960s - which we now call political correctness - are an egalitarian ethos that actually delivers inequality in outcomes. Children who get the kind of education that the top state schools provide and the independent sector largely provides, have a huge advantage in society over those that went to a school where the Headteacher is obsessed by these egalitarian notions. I went to a school recently and I said, 'Do you have prefects?'. And they replied, 'Oh, no we don't do that. It's not very PC'. You know, that school is in the bottom quartile of Value Added League Tables. I think that schools that obsess about those kinds of issues are letting down the very children that they are purporting to want to help.'
There are several issues at the moment concerning the independent sector which have the potential to cause them big problems - the Charities Bill for example - and many schools are already trying to raise funds to enable them to offer places on a needs-blind basis. Rather than leaving the independent sector alone, is there not a variety of taxation areas where you could justifiably assist them? 'I preferred it when just providing education was regarded as a charitable objective and that should have been the way it remained. But I suspect most schools will be doing enough anyway to fulfil any new interpretation of what is necessary. As regards taxation, this goes beyond my sphere of being able to talk about these things. This is a Treasury matter.'
But surely this is something which has a dramatic influence on the independent sector? 'Well, you're asking for a tax cut and we're not pledging tax cuts. You are also asking for a tax cut aimed at a specific sector, which is not something we're looking at doing.'
OK, but isn't it about time that parents were able to obtain some form of tax relief on school fees? 'Again, this is not an area we're looking into or considering. Our priority is economic stability and if we take power in three years we'll be inheriting power from a Government that has been very liberal in its use of public funds. A lot of that money has been well spent, and properly spent on education and health, but there isn't now - in the public purse - scope for tax cuts. David Cameron has also made it clear that if and when there is money for tax cuts, we're not in the business now of just trying to help people escape from the state sector. He made it clear, even before he became leader, that we want to improve the state sector in education - not find new clever ways to help people escape it. So our policy will not be one of providing tax relief for school fees, I'm afraid.'
What about the concept of voucher schemes? 'Well, the independent sector educates 7% of children and we have got to focus all our attention and policy development on the 93% who are educated in the state sector. The independent sector does a fantastic job; they are not the problem. The problem is that too many schools in the state sector are under-performing and that's got to be the focus of our policy. So we're not going to be introducing a voucher because, even with the best will in the world, the independent sector cannot provide education for the other 93% - it just doesn't have the capacity.'
The independent sector can assist however, through initiatives like independent-state partnerships. Do you think this is an area which should be encouraged, or would you prefer to see the two sectors remain separate? 'I'm very keen on any partnership arrangements between the independent and the state sector. It's marvellous. I've discussed these issues with Heads of independent schools and they're very keen on them too. A lot of independent schools are centres of excellence, with very high quality teachers and a proven track record of being able to provide a high quality education and a broad education of sport and extra-curricular activities. This is often far in excess of what the local state schools are offering. Yes, I am definitely in favour of partnerships.'
Right, changing tack now, this year 20% of children taking GCSEs attained either an A* or an A grade, versus just 8.6% when GCSEs were first introduced in 1988 - are the children getting brighter or is the exam getting easier? 'There is definitely an issue of integrity in the GCSE exam; there is no question about that. The problem started in 1986 when they introduced criteriabased grading rather than normative grading and it's hard to go back to that now. I think we have to look at another method of trying to work out how we can restore public confidence in these exams - a massive lack of confidence in the GCSE and increasingly a lack of confidence in the A Level. That's why I'm quite interested in the iGCSE. It is a very rigorous exam and in addition it has no assessed coursework.'
That's the big problem really, isn't it? Coursework? 'Coursework is a key factor, there's no question. It's definitely open to manipulation and you can get very attentive and educated parents that can help their children more than a parent from a non-educated background. I think it's deeply unfair. I'm in favour of getting rid of coursework in all GCSEs; the Government has a review and they're going to get rid of it in some GCSE exams. But the iGCSE I think must be the way ahead - and we must allow the state sector to use that as an option. We want to give schools more options; more freedom, not less. Once the Pre-U exam is up-and-running and has proven itself in the independent sector, it should also be available in the state sector.'
We have already touched upon the idea of the need for 'competitiveness'. Many schools have abandoned Sports Days as they bow to the politically correct idea that you can't have losers. The result is that two-thirds of 15-16 year old children in the state schools play no competitive sport whatsoever. How can we get away from this notion that everyone must be a 'winner'? 'I think you're right. We need to have a major boost to support, and not fear, competition. There is a colleague here in the House of Commons who took his child away from a primary school that wasn't doing competitive sports or Sports Day because he wants his child to learn how to fail. You have to learn to fail in life because we all fail - even the biggest genius and the most talented person in the world will sometimes fail. The less children learn to fail, when they actually get out into the real world, and they start failing their first job application, they'll take it very badly, they'll be unprepared. It's far better for them to have failed at a football match or come fifth in the Sports Day and learn to deal with that, rather than to confront it the first time they apply for something important. It's the same with Oxbridge applications. I get the impression sometimes that children are discouraged from applying to Oxbridge in case they fail. Whereas in the independent sector, what you often see is that they'll put anybody in for it who they think has a chance. If they fail, tough - they'll go to some other university. But in that way, they get a dozen or fifteen into Oxbridge instead of just one or two 'dead certs', and I think that must be the right approach.'
The Government has stated that they would like to see 50% of students enter higher education by 2010. Is this really both economically justifiable and socially desirable? 'Well, we don't think there should be targets. But my own personal view is that we should be encouraging as many children as possible to be as highly educated as possible, and I would like to see a large proportion going to university to study academic subjects. If you get the schools right, you will then, without targets, encourage more young people to go to university to study academic subjects and that's what we need. There are big drop-out rates from higher education institutions and one of the key reasons is poor preparation at secondary school. So I do think the Government has got its heart in the right place when it comes to encouraging more participation in higher education, it is just not quite in the right order.'
But what about the less academically able? Is there not a desperate need to improve training schemes and apprenticeships? 'What is happening is - if you are a manufacturer - you will design your products in this country, you will arrange funding and development and sales and marketing in this country, but your factory will be in the Far East or in a low wage economy somewhere in the world. So there aren't going to be the manufacturing jobs in this country in the long term. The jobs of the future require people to be educated. For example, to work in a call centre you need to be articulate and polite and have some charm; all these things you acquire through being educated. Of course we want to make sure we don't have a skills shortage in certain areas - plumbing is the classic example people cite - though because everyone's been talking about it, a lot of people have been training themselves to reap these rewards.'
You would be hard pressed to get a plumber in London that isn't Polish! 'Well, exactly, but they're very good plumbers! It's a pity the apprenticeship schemes collapsed, mainly because of Trade Union concerns over the low-wages that apprentices had - by pushing up the wages of apprentices, they destroyed the system, which I think was a great pity. We do need to ensure that young people have high levels of skills and that vocational education is a high quality option. We need to make sure that we have enough FE colleges that are providing high quality skills training in those areas where we have shortages. But I think the big problem for our higher education system is simply that the overall level of general education needs to be a lot higher - for every ability level.'