A frayed square of carpet in a lift in the House of Commons has caught the eye of Nick Gibb. “You start to notice things after 26 years of working here,” he says, flattening it with his shoe. It is this sort of attention to detail that has been known to catch out civil servants whose policy drafts have found their way into his Red Box.
“Going through these documents with a fine tooth comb, a lot of it is changing grammar and poor spelling,” says Gibb, 63, in a grand wood-panelled meeting room close to his office.
“The documentation matters. What’s written in the national curriculum matters. Every sentence and colon, every phrase and parenthesis, every note and guidance – all that matters.”
Gibb has been described as the most influential schools minister in England’s history, owing to the radical reforms he has pushed through despite fierce opposition from teaching unions. His announcement last month that he would be standing down from his ministerial role at the reshuffle to take up a diplomatic appointment was met with tributes for his dedication to improving education in England.
Schools Week, the teachers’ magazine, created a commemorative front page of the “immovable” minister, picturing him alongside the five education secretaries whom he has outlasted while still in post. “Always the bridesmaid, never the bride,” he has said of his 10 years serving as schools minister without ever becoming education secretary. During that time, he was sacked and reappointed twice.
As he prepares to step down as MP for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton at the next election, he says that he “would have liked” to have risen to the Cabinet rank.
However, he reveals that he believes one reason he has never been made education secretary is because he needed to keep his relationship with Michael Simmonds, his husband, secret for nearly 30 years. “The professions in those days were difficult [to be openly gay],” he says.
“Certainly politics, absolutely impossible in the 1980s and 1990s. So we’ve always kept our relationship quiet, and therefore quiet also from our families because you can’t just tell one person and expect them to keep it secret.”
He’s not interested in “politics as the game”, he says. “But I do think I could have played the game, holding my nose and trying to keep it to the minimum if I’d been able to go to the social things that I have avoided. And I’ve avoided them because I don’t want to go on my own to those things. And I don’t get invited to those things because I’m on my own.”
Instead of going to the receptions and dinner parties that are a necessary part of getting ahead in Westminster, Gibb has chosen to spend his evenings and weekends with his husband.
“I have a lovely life together with Michael and so I didn’t spend enough time doing all those things you need to do. And I can understand why you need to do it – the people need to know you, need to know what you stand for, and how effective you are before they’re going to appoint you to the Cabinet.”
Gibb and Simmonds, 59, met in their 20s at a meal organised by the Adam Smith Institute, a centre-right think tank, and swiftly became a couple. Gibb was an accountant at KPMG and was elected as an MP in 1997. Simmonds worked as a political special adviser in Westminster before co-founding Populus, the polling organisation, in 2003.
They only made their relationship public in 2015, after deciding to take advantage of new laws introduced by David Cameron to legalise gay marriages.
Gibb believes that if he was starting his career now, he would be a more active networker in Westminster because attitudes have changed. “I would be much more social,” he says. “And one of the great things about when we married in 2015 was that suddenly… we got to know our neighbours.”
Worrying about whether the secret would come out was “very difficult” he says.
“It was kind of an open secret in Westminster. People just assumed, but they were polite and therefore didn’t ask.”
He took advice from a friend, which was to get a third party to tell his mother, then 79, a retired primary school teacher. He went to a Chinese restaurant with his brother, the former Downing Street director of communications Sir Robbie Gibb, who “sort of knew” that he was gay, and asked if he would mind telling her.
“It means they can have a shock and say things that are ill-considered away from me. But it was fine with my mother, and it was fine with Michael’s parents as well.”
Gibb was mostly state-educated, including at Maidstone grammar school, Roundhay high school in Leeds and a comprehensive sixth form, Thornes House in Wakefield. He also spent two years in the Canadian state system. But it was his time studying law at Durham University where he first realised he wanted a career in politics.
As a student, he became engaged in young Conservative politics, and, along with his brother, Robbie, formed part of a group known as the “couriers”, who were trained to pose as tourists in the Soviet Union while smuggling in letters and equipment to dissidents in the early 1980s.
“I had to take letters smuggled in boots,” he says. “You were taught the Russian alphabet, how to recognise street names and so on, where to post them… I felt very strongly about it.”
He says he was initially motivated to get into politics because of the economy, not education. As a child in the 1970s, he had seen high inflation, unemployment and “terrible unions” and he was interested in monetarism and Keynesianism.
However, he shifted his focus to education after he thought the free market debate had been won.
Teaching in England’s schools has been transformed since 2010, when he was first appointed schools minister, working with the then education secretary Michael Gove. Gibb had observed in opposition the defects of a so-called “progressive” education model, which focused more on teaching children how to think rather than what they should know. He helped draw up plans to reform curriculums to emphasise the focus on knowledge.
They changed the way that reading and maths were taught in primary schools, and the methods have seen English pupils climb up international league tables. He brought the phonics teaching method back to reading, whereby children learn sounds of the alphabet. “That’s probably my proudest thing, getting hundreds of thousands, millions, reading more proficiently,” he says.
“I’m hoping that we’ll never meet the kinds of children I used to meet when I was visiting schools in opposition. Nine years old, still struggling with that basic skill of decoding words. It breaks your heart, really. There should be no child who struggles with reading after four or five years in primary school, whatever their academic ability.” He oversaw the introduction of Southeast Asian maths teaching methods in primary schools, as well as a focus on early memorisation of times tables.
Tougher maths GCSEs were introduced in England, and maths is now the most popular A-level subject in England, which Gibb believes is partly due to the better preparation that teenagers are receiving. Together with Gove, they tackled pre-pandemic grade inflation and abolished coursework. They looked at the impact of free schools in Sweden and invited teacher groups, parent groups and charities to set up their own in England.
They also extended the academies programme, first introduced by New Labour, giving teachers more autonomy over how they run their schools. Michaela Community School in Wembley, a free school run by Katharine Birbalsingh, topped the latest Department for Education results for “progress 8” scores, which measure how much secondary schools in England have helped pupils improve since primary school.
Dame Rachel de Souza, the Children’s Commissioner for England who set up the Inspired academy trust in Norwich in 2012, says she used to “dread” answering the phone to Gibb because she would think, as a school leader responding to his curriculum ideas, “Oh God, how are we going to do that?”
However, she paid tribute to him this week following the publication of an international league table for reading and writing skills of 15-year-olds, saying “the results speak for themselves”.
Despite a sharp fall in test scores after Covid school closures, in maths England rose from 17th place in 2018 to 11th place in 2022. In reading, England rose from 14th to 13th place in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey. In another international survey this year, English primary school children came fourth in the world, after beating the United States and every other country which participated in Europe.
Gibb appears to have won the argument for some of his teaching methods. Labour, which opposed phonics checks in primary schools when they were introduced a decade ago, has said they will not scrap them if they win the next election.
Although schools in the devolved nations of SNP-run Scotland and Labour-run Wales, which have refused to introduce similar reforms, but doubled down on a skills-based approach to the curriculum, have fallen further behind England. A senior analyst at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which conducted the PISA survey, described Wales as having an education system that is more akin to Malta than top-performing education systems.
“The evidence is that children need knowledge,” Gibb says. “That children from advantaged backgrounds get knowledge from home; they discuss these things, they go to a theatre. If you come from a background where you don’t have that advantage, and then knowledge builds on knowledge, you see that the gap widens. And I’m not sure that that debate has taken off in devolved nations in the way that it has here.”
He says that to be able to be a “sophisticated thinker” and problem solver, you need knowledge retained in your long-term memory to draw on.
He admits there is far more to do in education, especially since the pandemic. He stops short of criticising the decision to close schools, but says, “We were always aware that closing schools was not right… would damage children’s education. There’s nothing that beats a child being in a classroom with an adult, motivating them and teaching them. You can never replicate that.”
The Ofsted inspection system for schools, which he has defended, is under threat after a senior coroner found this week that an inspection contributed to the death of Ruth Perry, a primary school head teacher from Reading who took her own life.
Gibb says now that her death was an “appalling tragedy” and calls on the new Ofsted chief, Sir Martyn Oliver, a former head teacher who will take over from Amanda Spielman in January, to “reset the relationship between Ofsted and the profession”.
During his time as schools minister, he has sought to avoid getting involved publicly in debates around so-called “culture war” issues, such as the creation of long-promised transgender guidance for schools.
He says that they are “important issues”, particularly “if you are a child who is worried about their gender, if you are a child who is gay”. However, he says he has never wanted that debate “to interfere with the debate on the things that matter to me most – which is improving children’s education”. He is not convinced it will be a key election issue for grassroots Conservative voters. “I don’t know,” he says.
“I think people are worried about whether they have a job, the economy, the health service. But I’m not downplaying how important these issues are. Schools deal with these issues every day and want really high-quality guidance. That’s what the Department is working on. It’s got to be right.”
Iain Mansfield, a former political special adviser who worked with Gibb, says he won the “loyalty, inspiration and commitment” of civil servants in the Department for Education, never raising his voice in anger or losing his temper. Gibb has also earned a grudging respect from some of his fiercest ideological opponents in the teaching unions. He was invited to speak this year at the farewell parliamentary reception for Kevin Courtney and Dr Mary Bousted, who have both led teaching unions, including the militant National Education Union, for the past 13 years.
“We were showing respect to him by inviting him,” says Courtney. “I fundamentally disagree with everything he thinks about schools. But I do have some respect for him because he was always sincere and he wanted to do the right thing.”
Winning the respect of people with opposing views should stand him in good stead to take on a diplomatic role. He refuses to comment on what the post is, including speculation in the Australian press that he will be the new High Commissioner to Australia.
He has more reason to be upbeat than many of his Conservative colleagues, who, looking at the polls, fear they will need to find a new job if they fail to hold on to their seat at the next election.
“This is just politics isn’t it,” Gibb says. “My colleagues are busy working very hard in their constituencies to make sure they do hold their seat.”
He has perhaps become hardened to the brutality of the profession, having twice been sacked himself. The first time was in 2012 by David Cameron, two years after he was appointed schools minister. He received a call at 10pm from the prime minister’s private secretary asking him to see him the following morning in the House of Commons.
“That’s the only night I’ve never slept one wink, not even five minutes,” he says. He “took it with good grace” and decided to keep working with the whips and on committees until he was called back, which he was, by the same prime minister two years later.
The second time he was sacked was by Boris Johnson over the phone in September 2021. Gibb goes quiet and then, with a wry smile, says: “In the end, he went. And I came back.”
In his resignation letter to Rishi Sunak, he said that his “passion for ensuring that every child gets the best possible education will remain with me until my dying day”.
In a touching tribute to his husband Michael, he wrote: “No element of my political career would have happened without the love and support of my brilliant, principled and adorable husband and companion of 37 years.”
His advice to colleagues on how to be an effective minister is to focus “all of your effort and intellectual effort into identifying the problem and finding a political solution”.
In a week when the Conservative Party is at risk of imploding itself once again with talk of yet another change of leadership, he says: “The danger comes when politics as a thing becomes too exciting in itself and it absorbs people’s intellectual energies. The energy needs to be focused really on policy development.”
Since standing down as schools minister he has not stopped getting up at 5.45am every day to go for a six kilometre run from his flat in the Barbican. However, he is struggling to find an excuse to continue getting up before dawn on Saturdays to start working through his Red Box.
“I do miss my Red Box,” he says. “I had a routine. I’d get up at 5am at weekends to start work before going for a run and then I’d start again after breakfast. I just loved that. It might seem a painstaking part of the job, but that’s where the policy is made.”