Nick Gibb: Deep knowledge is important for good teaching

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AS a Government, we have been unapologetic in our expectation that schools should employ the most well-qualified, academic teachers they can. Schools should, above all else, be centres of academic excellence within every community in the country.

Significant progress has already been made in this direction. In 2010, only 61 per cent of trainee teachers had an undergraduate degree at level 2:1 or above. This year, that figure stands at 73 per cent. Through Researchers in Schools, even more highly qualified subject specialists will be entering the profession.

Unfortunately, there is a myth still at large within education that teachers who know their subject too well are too detached from the level of understanding held by youngsters, and are as a consequence too ethereal to make effective teachers.

This is nonsense. Deep subject knowledge is invaluable for teachers. When it comes to thinking up the perfect analogy to teach negative numbers; an imaginative experiment to demonstrate exothermic reactions; or a succinct way to explain exactly what the Large Hadron Collider is, a knowledge of, and passion for, one’s subject is vital.

As part of the Researchers in Schools programme, participants are encouraged to design units of work based on their own research fields.

The Researchers in Schools programme prioritises recruiting teachers in STEM subjects, in particular mathematics and physics. Nobody needs reminding that British employers face ongoing skills shortages in these areas, but this should not be interpreted as promoting science at the expense of the creative arts.

We value the sciences and the arts equally: knowledge of both is crucial to becoming a well-educated person who can function in today’s world. We would like to see more pupils entering higher and further education in all academic areas, science and arts alike.

As a model of an educated person, one could take the eminent 20th-century polymath CP Snow. He was a physical chemist at the University of Cambridge, but also a popular novelist, and later in life a senior civil servant.

In 1959, Snow delivered one of the most seminal lectures of the 20th century, called The Two Cultures. The two cultures in question were science and literature, and Snow was insistent that a knowledge of both was important not only to be a well-educated individual, but also to have an economically viable workforce.

But it was science that had been historically neglected within England. Snow explained that, by the middle of the 19th century, ‘far-sighted men were beginning to see… that in order to go on producing wealth, the country needed to train some of its bright minds in science, particularly in applied science. No one listened. The traditional culture didn’t listen at all’.

Snow made that observation in 1959, yet same problem persists today. One in 10 state schools have no pupils progressing to either further maths or physics at A-level, and one in three physics teachers have themselves not studied the subject beyond A-level.

This lack of take-up in the maths and sciences is particularly acute amongst female pupils. Whilst nearly half of boys who gained an A* grade at physics GCSE in 2011 went on to study the subject at A-level, only around a fifth of girls did so.

However, before I begin to sound too gloomy, there are significant reasons to be cheerful. One of the achievements of the previous government of which I am most proud of is this: there were 38,000 more entries for science and maths A-levels in 2015 compared with 2010 – a 17 per cent increase.

We are already well on the way to achieving the aim of the Government’s YourLife campaign. Launched in November 2014, this campaign aims to increase the number of students studying maths and physics A-levels by 50 per cent within three years.

I am also in support of agreement that Researchers in Schools participants have one day off a week to continue their research interests and pursue innovative programme activities.

Education research is a fertile area of contemporary debate. Up until a few years ago, the quality of research in education was – to put it bluntly – embarrassing. In 1999, the Tooley Report showed that almost two-thirds of articles in education journals did not meet a minimum standard of academic good practice.

In 2013, the Government invited Ben Goldacre to write a report about how teaching could benefit from better quality research. Goldacre’s advocacy of randomised controlled trials to test educational interventions has directly influenced Government policy.

This is because our Government believes in basing teaching, as far as is possible, on evidence. In 2011, we established the Education Endowment Foundation to provide teachers with high-quality evidence showing them which classroom practices will help their most deprived pupils.