Please note that this speech may not reflect the exact words of the speaker.
Mary, thank you for your kind invitation to be here today.
Reading through your packed Conference agenda makes me really feel quite at home.
Today, many conferences are little more than well-orchestrated rallies.
Sometimes, as a Liberal Democrat, I wish our conference was as well!
But this conference, just like Liberal Democrat Conferences, has a strong theme of vibrant debate, on many, many, subjects; and robust campaigning too.
The last time I spoke at one of your Conferences was before the General Election, after I had become Liberal Democrat Education Spokesman in 2007.
In that speech I talked about the unacceptable gap in the life chances of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and the rest of our pupil population.
In that speech I said that I thought we should direct more money to the children and schools which needed it most.
For that reason, I committed the Liberal Democrats to introducing a £2.5bn per year Pupil Premium, were we to enter government.
Perhaps not all of you could envisage a Liberal Democrat Government, back in 2008?
Let me tell you something: I must confess that I did not anticipate the current Coalition government either.
But here we are. In Government. And - far more importantly - delivering that Pupil Premium.
Today I want to talk about what we need to do - together - to ensure that money is used effectively.
I want to argue that we BOTH have an interest in ensuring that the Pupil Premium is a success.
But may I rewind a moment, to say how much I do appreciate the invitation to your Conference here today.
Politicians often talk about the importance of good school leadership.
And, of course, it is important. Very important.
We often attend Head Teachers Conferences and laud the “super-heads” who have transformed some of our most challenging schools.
And when we visit schools, as I often do, we usually have the opportunity to meet head teachers, and be shown around .
But we must never forget that head teachers, however brilliant, cannot deliver by themselves.
To realise our very high aspirations for education, we need top quality, motivated, and committed teachers in the classrooms.
And I want our dialogue to be as regular and rich with those who represent teachers on the front line as it is with those who speak for head teachers and governors.
In that context, may I also say that it is a particular pleasure to be here at your conference.
I have known Mary Bousted, and through her, your union, since 2007.
Mary has been a fantastic General Secretary of ATL since 2003. This year, we are celebrating her 10 years in the “hot seat”.
What I see in your General Secretary is someone who is always passionate, who is always well -informed, and who always puts her points very directly.
I noticed in particular that latter quality in Mary’s speech this morning!
Mary has ensured that the ATL is a teachers union which has a reputation for standing up for its members beliefs and interests, but also for acting with great responsibility towards the children who rely upon your professionalism and dedication.
Mary, even though we sometimes disagree, we respect those qualities in you and in the union you lead.
On these occasions, there is a temptation to make a speech which sets out and defends every aspect of Government education policy.
But, if you will excuse me, that is not want I want to do today.
Instead, Mary has kindly invited me to field questions from you after my speech, and this means we can cover a wide range of subjects then.
In this speech, I want to talk directly about my aspirations for education in this country.
And I want to talk about what I think are your aspirations too.
Too often, politicians talk about education as if we have some unique monopoly of high aspirations for our young people
But I have yet to find a teacher or head teacher who is satisfied with the standards in each and every school in England today.
And I have yet to find anyone who works in education who is complacent about the huge gaps between the educational outcomes for children from rich and poor backgrounds.
We BOTH need to recognise our shared aspiration for improved educational outcomes.
And then we need to work together to deliver these improvements.
It is sometimes said that standards in our education system have fallen over the last 10 or 20 years.
That is not my view.
While recorded grades may overstate the improvement in results, it seems certain that standards have risen over recent years.
In some schools and in some areas - notably London - the improvement in results has been strikingly impressive.
We now have the best generation of teachers in our country’s history, and the most successful generation of pupils.
Whatever our political loyalties, we should be willing to acknowledge that.
We are moving away from an education system which once seemed designed to serve the needs of a minority of 20% of students, to one which can serve the needs of a majority.
But I would say that we have a long way to go before we have an education system that would meet the aspirations of all of us in this room.
Of course, good education is not just about exam results. But results do matter. They capture something important.
And even today, in our country, around 4 in 10 children will fail to secure 5 good GCSEs including English and Maths.
The best schools in the country - maintained schools as well as Academies - have demonstrated that there is nothing inevitable about these levels of failure.
The outcomes are worse - much, much, worse - for children from our most disadvantaged communities and families.
More than 6 in 10 children on free school meals fail to secure 5 good GCSEs.
In some schools and areas that rises to almost 8 in 10 such children. That is quite literally intolerable.
Overall, this means a gap in outcomes of around 27% at Key Stage 4 between those on free school meals and other pupils.
This appalling gap between the life chances of poor children and the rest is a scar on the face of English education.
Of course, it would be far too simplistic, and quite wrong, to blame our school system and our teaching workforce for this miserable outcome.
The unequal outcomes of English education reflect, to a large extent, the unequal outcomes in our society.
I do know how challenging it is for teachers when a child’s home background means that it is often a triumph just to get them through the school gate on time.
But it would be defeatist, simplistic and in fact wrong to infer that there is nothing we can do to address this challenge.
We know that schools can rise to the challenge, because many schools are doing just that.
We know that with the right support, challenge and intervention, poor children can dramatically outperform the low expectations which some people have for them.
Indeed, as I walk into classrooms up and down our country, what often strikes me is the ability and aspiration of children who come from the most unpromising of environments.
I have met children who have come in on the back of lorries from Afghanistan and Iraq, with no English and no money, but who are going to go on to be doctors, scientists and engineers.
There is no inevitable link between poverty today and poor educational outcomes tomorrow.
That is why when I arrived in the Department for Education last September, I asked Michael Gove if one of my ministerial responsibilities could be the Pupil Premium.
It is now a huge pleasure and an honour to be implementing in Government a policy which I championed and developed in opposition.
The Pupil Premium rises to £900 per child this year.
Next year, it will rise again - and at that point we will be spending the full £2.5bn per year which was proposed in the Liberal Democrat General Election Manifesto.
Of course, we would all like the baseline on which the Pupil Premium is built to be higher than it is. Of course, you would - and I would too.
But - thanks to the Pupil Premium - the schools budget is protected in real terms during this Parliament.
I can tell you that many other Secretaries of State look on that protection with great jealousy, and in some cases - so we read - with more than a little resentment.
But this Government believes that the importance of education to our future as a nation fully justifies that protection.
And the Government remains committed to protecting schools in the Spending Review which takes place this June, and which will set budgets for 2015/16.
I hear other criticisms of the Pupil Premium.
Some people say that certain schools do not gain much extra cash.
Bluntly, that is true.
The whole point of the policy is to give more resources to the schools with the greatest challenges.
Others want me to “fine” schools, by removing the Pupil Premium from schools where gaps remain wide, before even giving the policy a chance to work.
I am not going to do that either.
I can already see that the Pupil Premium is making a massive difference where it is needed most.
In schools with 20, 30, 40, and even 80 per cent of children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
In those schools, the Pupil Premium often means hundreds of thousands of pounds more for extra one-to-one tuition, or whatever it is that YOU judge will make the most difference.
And I now need your help to show that the Pupil Premium is working and that it will close that gap between the outcomes of rich and poor children.
Because in these times of austerity, we both need to show that we can use this money effectively.
We must use it well if we are to secure it for the future.
Now, where schools close the gaps, we will not insist on extra accountability and intervention.
We want schools to be free to innovate.
We do not want to return to the days of micro-managing interventions from the centre.
But where schools are failing to close the gaps, and particularly where they lack strong leadership and good overall performance, we will ask OFSTED to report on what can be done.
And we will insist on system leaders - NLEs and others - coming in to work with the schools to draw up and implement plans to close the gaps.
I expect every school and every local authority and every Academy Chain, and - yes - every Grammar School to play its part in the drive to reduce this disadvantage gap.
I will ensure that as we set out our plans for accountability for Primary, Secondary and 16-19 education, “gap closing” will be a central priority.
And the Chief Inspector has made clear that OFSTED will increasingly prioritise this area too.
No school, however impressive, can be an “Outstanding School” if it is not achieving excellence for its most disadvantaged pupils.
So, even where overall attainment is high, we want schools to focus relentlessly on closing this gap by improving outcomes for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
And I want to see this hard work by schools start to make a real difference, as the gaps at Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4 narrow rapidly.
Over the last 5 years, the Free School Meal gap at Key Stage Four has narrowed by just 1.5%.
That is not nearly enough.
At the next General Election I would like to see my Party set an ambition to halve the current gap by 2020, before going further to seek to eradicate it altogether.
We should reinforce that aspiration by setting much more ambitious goals for the proportion of young people who finish primary school ready to succeed in secondary education.
Did you know that over half of children who achieve the Government’s “4c” target at the end of primary school will not achieve 5 good GCSEs, including English and Maths?
Our definition of success at primary school must be a level for secondary readiness that puts the overwhelming majority of pupils on course for success and not for failure.
We will soon be publishing our proposals for primary accountability and assessment.
We would welcome your thoughts on this and other issues in the consultation.
While I am talking about consultations, I hope that you will be encouraged by recent consultations to recognise that sometimes we really do listen.
We published proposals on GCSE reform and introducing EBCs.
You and others didn’t like them - and we listened.
I am very clear that we are not going back to the days of two tier qualifications - we are not going to return to the polarising divide of O Levels and CSEs.
Instead we are going to reform GCSEs and ensure they are fit for purpose and accessible for the overwhelming majority of children - just as they are today.
Let me also be clear that there must and will be a real and respected role for vocational education within our school and college system.
Our recent consultation on Key Stage Four accountability makes clear that we are minded to introduce a new “Best 8” measure.
That can include up to 3 vocational subjects, if that is what the student wants to do.
And we are ensuring at Key Stage 5 that there will be high quality, high value, vocational routes there too.
This will also be recognised in the forthcoming accountability proposals.
One benefit from our decision on GCSE reform is that people can now see clearly that we do want to continue to give a high status to subjects such as the Arts and Music.
I know that this has been a concern for many people.
So let me be clear that these subjects deserve their full and proper place in the curriculum.
Our new proposals on accountability will allow pupils to study these subjects and get full credit for them.
I have talked today a lot about accountability, qualifications, and performance.
Politicians must never forget that a good education is about much more than 5, or even 8, or even 10, good GCSEs.
Much that is most important in education cannot be easily or sensibly measured.
We want to help shape future generations of young people who are not merely literate, numerate and labour market ready.
We want young people who are confident, who can think for themselves, and who can enjoy all that life has to offer beyond the 9 to 5 existence of paid work.
Of course, young people who can read, add up, and understand the world around them are much more likely to become the well rounded citizens who you aspire to develop.
But we must also celebrate all those schools that provide so many other opportunities for their students - from performing in plays and concerts, to gaining their Duke of Edinburgh awards.
These can be some of the great opportunities which we remember most clearly from our school days, and which most give shape to our personalities.
Let me finish by saying just a few more words.
I imagine that if you listen to the national media, you must feel that politicians in my department spend all our time berating you.
Actually, we appreciate what you do. That is why, so far this year alone, I have already written to more than 900 schools to commend them on what they have achieved.
Sometimes too, we speak of our appreciation in speeches such as this one.
Such lines rarely, if ever, get reported.
To be fair to the media, “Minister for Schools praises Schools” is not much of a headline.
Whatever the reasons, we are aware that no political rhetoric ever educated a child.
For that we need teachers.
A well-educated nation is essential for our nation’s prosperity, for its happiness, and for its fairness.
That makes teaching - your job - one of the most important professions in the country.
It is also what makes my job - Schools Minister - one of the most rewarding in the Government.
For as long as I am in this job I want to work with ATL and all its members, whatever our occasional differences, to improve our education system and to give every child a real chance to succeed in life.