Nick Gibb: “In politics, we’ve got to stop just being negative. We’ve got to talk about what we are in favour of"
Schools Minister Nick Gibb believes politics has become far too negative. He tells Sebastian Whale that he’s determined to cut through the Brexit noise and make the positive case for the government’s education plans
Nick Gibb woke on Tuesday morning with a slight sense of dread. With memories of a scorching Easter beginning to fade, the schools minister set off for Westminster knowing he’d find it as he left it; with clouds hanging overhead.
Gibb had spent the bank holiday between London and his constituency of Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, during which time he celebrated his mother-in-law’s 90th birthday. Solace from the rigmarole of Brexit was “pleasurable”. “Politics today is very negative. It’s very easy to find negative things,” he laments. “People are too easy on themselves in just voicing what they’re against.”
For Gibb, a minister who served during the early days of the Coalition government, this intransigence is deeply frustrating. Compromise, in his eyes, is a lost art – a relic from a simpler political time. Any Brexit deal struck by the UK government and the EU would by its very nature be a form of compromise, he argues. Instead, he believes politicians have put their own interests above those of the United Kingdom.
“Many of my colleagues have behaved irresponsibly and they are jeopardising Brexit. We are, then, in very uncharted and highly risky territory if we don’t deliver the verdict of the British people,” he warns.
I meet Gibb in his seventh-floor office on the first day back after the Easter recess. The atmosphere is claggy – the atrium in the Department for Education, just a short walk up from Westminster Abbey, has trapped in much of the weekend’s heat.
Over the break, Gibb confirmed that from September year 7 pupils will be required to study a language through to GCSE, with the hope of ensuring 75 per cent of pupils achieve an English Baccalaureate (EBacc) by 2022, which includes maths, English, at least two sciences, a foreign language and a humanity, and 90 per cent by 2025.
England languishes at the bottom of European leagues when it comes to languages. Is this a case of making up for lost time? “Yes, we have to be much more respectful of other cultures when we are either exporting to those countries or buying products from those countries. We have to make more of an effort as other countries do,” Gibb says.
Is there a connection between Brexit and this policy? “Yes and no,” he replies. The EBacc started in 2011. But he adds: “Now that we’re leaving the European Union, it’s even more important that we make more of an effort as a nation to speak other people’s languages.”
Labour’s education team was also busy over recess, announcing that the party would scrap level 1 and 2 SATs in a bid to reduce stress on pupils. “It’s a mistake, and they’re seeing a lot of negative reaction to that decision,” Gibb argues. SATs, which were introduced by the Major government, have been “instrumental in raising standards”, he continues, as you “need to hold schools to account”.
“Don’t forget, no school should put pressure on young people taking those SATs. They’re not about the future of that particular young person who takes the test,” he says. But NASUWT, the teachers’ union, said last week that “cramming sessions” during holidays were becoming more common ahead of the May exams. “Some schools do that, but the most effective schools are teaching children effectively for the whole seven years,” he explains.
The fact remains, though, that there is a worrying rise in the number of children dealing with mental ill health. According to the National Education Union (NEU), 83% of school leaders, teachers and support workers said they had witnessed an increase in the number of children in their care with poor mental health in the past two years. What is behind this rise?
“It’s not to do with SATs, and it’s not to do with GCSEs. I think it’s to do with other factors in society, one of which is social media,” Gibb answers. “We’re really learning more and more about the dangers of social media. So, we have to take the issue seriously.”
In December, Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced the launch of mental health teams to help support up to 8,000 children and young people in around 20 schools and colleges. The DfE is also funding training for mental health leads in schools.
As for preventative measures, Gibb has a few ideas of his own. “My personal view is that mobile phones should be banned from school. It’s a personal view – this is a matter for headteachers of course. [But] they should not be in the classroom,” Gibb says. He agrees that parents “do need to lead from the front and show that you shouldn’t be glued to your phone the whole time”. Gibb also endorses the view that phones are a “socially divisive instrument” because educated parents are more likely to “understand the dangers and will stop their children spending too long on them” than less educated parents.
“Therefore, their children will be on these things for many hours and come to school exhausted the next day and then not work as hard or as effectively at school, and so the divide in society will continue. What we’re trying to do… is to close that gap, frankly. It’s driven all the reforms since 2010, how do we close the attainment gap between children of different backgrounds. This thing [Gibb points to his phone] is acting in the opposite direction.”
It’s not just pupils’ wellbeing that is currently under the microscope. Teachers are also feeling the strain, with concerns about huge workloads and excessive accountability, according to a survey by the NEU. Gibb says the Government has been working closely with teachers to alleviate pressure and to provide clarity over what is actually required from them.
“We’ve published a recruitment and retention strategy that’s about all these issues, how to create an ethos in schools that’s more supportive. We’re particularly concerned about the early years of the career. That’s when the drop off is at its steepest,” he says.
“My own view is that for young graduates coming into teaching, we ask them to do too much. We ask them to start a full-time job in a profession for the first time aged 22 or 23. We ask them to get a place to live, to get up, get to work and all these things that are pressures on anybody starting in a job. And we ask them to devise a curriculum, to learn how to teach. So, we’re trying to make it so that they have much more support in those first two years. That’s what the early career framework is all about,” he says.
There is no shortage of bleak news coming out of the education sector. A primary school in Birmingham is closing early on Fridays to save on costs, while teachers at a primary in London are volunteering to have their pay cut to save jobs. Gibb argues these examples are a “tiny minority” of more than 17,000 primary schools that are doing a wonderful job. Does he believe negative reporting is having an impact on recruitment?
“It is unhelpful when you have people, often for their own reasons – the NEU and the Labour party – presenting a view of the profession that I don’t think always reflects reality. There are pressures on the profession – it’s a profession. Everyone who enters a profession is under a lot of pressure, whether it’s law or medicine, accountancy or teaching. These are tough businesses to be in.
“But we have a strong economy and in a strong economy we have recruitment competition for the best graduates from those other professions and from industry, from commerce. They all want the best graduates. We’re doing all we can to make teaching an attractive profession, which it is because you’re dealing with young people. It’s a privilege to work with young people, to shape the next generation. The teachers I speak to, they love their job, they do love teaching children. What they don’t love is these other pressures – how to mark and the data obsession, all these other excessive [things] which we are addressing.”
Gibb, whose brother Robbie is Director of Communications at No10, was elected in 1997, having worked as a chartered accountant at NatWest, Kibbutz Merom Golan and latterly KPMG. He has held several frontbench roles and served as schools minister for the first two years of the Coalition. He returned to the DfE 2014 and has remained in post ever since.
Having served under four education secretaries, he has found himself at the heart of much of the Tories’ reforms. And as schools minister, he has often defended the Government’s education cuts. Gibb says the Government has protected school funding for 5-16 education in real terms overall. But the IFS found last year that per-pupil funding had gone down by 8 per cent in real terms between 2010 and 2018.
“But that includes a whole raft of other things. It includes post-16 funding, which we’ve never said we’ve protected,” Gibb interjects.
He recognises though that both post-16 funding and money for children with special education needs and disabilities – which has fallen by 17% since 2015, according to the IPPR – need to increase.
“Yes, we have acknowledged that there are pressures on high needs spending. There’s no question about that,” he says. “This has happened because we extended the right to education beyond 19 to 25 in the 2014 act. We funded it, of course, but it turns out that we need to fund it more and we’re trying to investigate why. But there’s no question we do.”
He adds: “It will be a priority for our spending review bid.”
Compared to the Coalition years, the Conservatives have not made the case for restrained public spending with as much gusto. I put to Gibb that as a result the public is left unsure as to why the taps are still being kept tight.
“I think that is a fair criticism, and my own view is we need to talk about the economy more because it underlines everything we do,” he says. “When you have a financial crash of the severity that we had in 2008 and when your economy is so heavily dependent on the success of the city of London, it does take a minimum of 10 years to recover from that financial crash. That’s what has been happening.”
He adds: “I just say to headteachers that we are at the darkest hour just before dawn. It’s important to – how to phrase this – to get through this period in the best way that we can. We’re helping schools to do that.”
Gibb cites schemes to help with energy and insurance costs and the Teaching Vacancies service to help with recruitment as examples. “Having said all that, the IFS will tell you that school funding in real terms is 50 per cent higher this financial year than it was in real terms and per pupil than in the year 2000. Schools have cumulative surpluses of £4bn compared to cumulative deficits of £300m. So, there is money in the system, but some schools are struggling, there’s no question about that.”
While he passionately defends the Government’s spending programme, Gibb continues to press for more education funding. “There isn’t a spending department in Whitehall that doesn’t want more money. But we also understand the pressures that the Chancellor is under. We will prepare the best bid possible for not just high needs and post-16, but also for school spending as well.”
An enduring minister in an ever-changing world, Gibb has become frustrated at the trajectory of political discourse, and people’s refusal to say what they’re for, only what they’re against. Seeking to buck the trend, he outlines his beliefs. “I’m in favour of Mrs May’s deal with the European Union because you have to compromise if you’re going to get a deal with the European Union. I’m in favour of Mrs May as Prime Minister because she’s very effective but has been dealt a very difficult hand. I’m in favour of the national funding formula, I’m in favour of SATs, I’m in favour of the EBacc, I’m in favour of our education reforms.”
He concludes: “In politics, we’ve got to stop just being negative. We’ve got to talk about what we actually are in favour of.”