What makes a great school? Hard work, committed teachers, an inspiring head and parents who don’t think education stops at the school gate. The recipe is obvious. That doesn’t make it easy.
I’ve huge respect for the many outstanding state schools in this country and the brilliant new generation of teachers coming to work in them. But there’s also a shocking gap between the best and the worst.
For every fantastic school such as Burlington Danes Academy in west London - not long ago “a war zone”, according to its headteacher, but now with a waiting list and shortlisted for awards - there are others that drift along tolerating second best.
Why should we put up with a school content to let a child sit at the back of the class, swapping Facebook updates? Or one where pupils and staff count down the hours to the end of term without ever asking why B grades can’t be turned into As?
Britain can’t let weak schools smother children’s potential. We have got to turn every brain and every willing hand to the task of rebuilding our economy and society.
Already free schools - fully independent schools within the state sector, launched by this government, funded by taxpayers and set up by parents and teachers, charities and entrepreneurs - are revolutionising education. Today, the government is launching plans for more - for children with behavioural problems or special needs.
I know free schools work. I have seen for myself - and what’s happening is fantastic. By next September, more than 80 free schools will have opened across England.
I want them to be the shock troops of innovation in our education system. They are going to smash through complacency. Two thirds of the first ones are oversubscribed, with some seeing more than three applications for every place.
Spotting the real problem schools, looking at the league tables and sending in the inspectors to sort them out is relatively easy. And we remain relentless about combating entrenched failure. We will soon have taken over more failing schools with new academies than in the whole 8 years of the programme under Labour.
But it’s just as important to tackle those all over the country content to muddle through - places where respectable results and a decent local reputation mask a failure to meet potential. Children who did well in primary school but who lose momentum. Early promise fades.
This is the hidden crisis in our schools - in prosperous shires and market towns just as much as the inner cities.
So I am excited that Sir Michael Wilshaw, one of the finest headteachers this country has had, is taking over as Chief Inspector of Schools. He’s already made clear that he has coasting schools in his sights.
This challenge is one for all parts of the country - places where governors, parents and teachers might never guess things might be wrong. That’s why it is vital to shine a spotlight on secret failure by giving people the information they need to fight for change.
The last government shied from the problem. It kept huge amounts of data under wraps - focusing only on league tables that seemed to show things were getting better every year. It set a narrow definition of coasting schools, which allowed many to slip through the net undetected. By contrast, this government is going to widen it so that more average schools are pressed to do better.
From January, we are going to sort out league tables so that everyone involved in schools can see for the first time whether they are doing as well as they should.
From June, we will release data about the performance of all pupils from the National Pupil Database. Of course, it will be anonymous, but you will be able to see what happened to individual pupils: where they started, the progress they made and where they ended up. We’ve also made spending data public. All this will allow people to spot the truth and confront failure where it exists.
We are also toughening up exams. More pupils are taking essential core subjects. Already, around a quarter more children have been entered for modern language and history GCSEs than last year. There’s been a stunning 82% increase in the numbers of pupils studying triple sciences. Later this week, we will also be saying more about plans for apprenticeships.
The point of education is to change lives. It’s not good enough for teachers in shire counties to be satisfied with half of children getting 5 good GCSEs, when Mossbourne Academy achieves 82% in Hackney.
When people involved in education can see what needs to be done to get out of a rut - and are given the freedom to make their own choices, rather than take orders from above - dramatic improvement is possible. Goffs School in Cheshunt, for instance, went from barely half its pupils achieving 5 good GCSEs, including English and maths, to almost three-quarters in a single year.
Schools must help children to go further than anyone ever thought they could. We must give parents the evidence they need to get together to demand better. So that is what we are doing.