David Laws speaks to the National Education Trust on raising standards

The Schools' Minister speaks at the National Education Trust on 'Higher standards: completing the journey'.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon David Laws

Politicians get asked to give a lot of speeches, but to be asked to give this one is a real honour.

Firstly, because I am a great admirer of Roy Blatchford and the National Education Trust.

We all have to be involved in a lot of meetings and discussions in our professional careers. Some are productive. Many are not.

But I have never met Roy without coming away with a list of 4 or 5 really good ideas which have stimulated my thinking and often directly influenced our policies as a Government.

So I guess that at least if it all goes wrong, Roy, I will now have someone else to blame!

It is also a privilege to be asked to give a lecture which helps to commemorate the life and work of Mike Baker. I met Mike on a number of occasions while I was Liberal Democrat Education Spokesman in opposition. And, of course, I was acutely aware of his work as a journalist over a long period of time. Mike was, for almost 20 years, the authoritative face and voice of education news. His work was also clear, informed by real analysis and knowledge, but also honest and objective.

Of course, many of those who knew Mike well will remember him fondly not just for his educational output but for his personality.

This is what one colleague said about him shortly after his death:

Mike was often described as a thoroughly nice man, but that fails to express his principled and fundamental respect for others. In a media world where questionable behaviour often stems from large egos and deep insecurities, Mike’s generosity and kindness stood out. He encouraged younger colleagues and was quick to recognise other people’s success.

It is for these personal characteristics, rather than their professional achievements that individuals are ultimately most remembered.

I am delighted that we are recognising Mike’s life and contribution in this way, and I would like to thank Mike’s daughter, Louise, for being with us tonight.

I want to use this opportunity to outline my vision for education, and set out some of the concrete steps that we are taking to make that vision a reality.

Over the next decade I want to see English Education complete its journey to the destination of high standards for all. For the last few decades we have, thank goodness, been moving away from an education system which served the needs of 10 or 20% of the population to a system which now serves the needs of a majority. If that journey was an alphabet in which we were seeking to travel from A to Z, I would now judge that we are somewhere around an “M” - in other words around half way to our end destination.

Some people will say that is unfair. Too gloomy. I can already hear the predictable voices who will want to argue that massive progress has been made and that little more can reasonably be achieved. But consider just briefly where our education system is today. Our primary floor standard still permits a school to “pass” while 4 in 10 young people fail to secure basic minimum standards of English and Maths after years of schooling.

Around 40% of young people fail to secure five GCSEs at C grade and above, including English and Maths - a standard which many parents and employers would already consider to be too low.

Shamefully, that same failure rate rises to over 60% when we look only at children from poorer families. As for the outcomes for children who have been in care, they are so low that it is unsurprising that a large number of these young people go straight from education into the criminal justice system. We must as a nation set very big and bold ambitions for what we can achieve.

And Ministers in my own department must feel constrained neither by the apparent pessimism of some of those who claim to speak for parents and teachers nor by the understandable temptation to set targets at levels which are limited by our capacity to intervene in schools.

Intervention can always target the lowest performers. Intervention capacity must never get in the way of us from setting big ambitions and being impatient about what people refer to as “the urgency of now”.

So when I think of an education system in the future what I think of is this:
85 to 90% of young people leaving primary school equipped for real excellence in secondary education. 85 to 90% of young people achieving new, more rigorous, qualifications at Key Stages 4 and 5. A massive closing of the unacceptable performance gaps between young people from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds. And schools in every part of the country and in every community in the country where children’s expectations are not constrained or capped by their parent’s skills or incomes or by an expectation that when they reach 16 or 18 they will just dawdle off down the road to whoever is the largest local employer.

In every single school in the country, I want children to dream of being doctors, engineers, scientists, head teachers, and even - whisper it - lawyers, journalists, investment bankers and Prime Ministers.

So, this vision is one in which the overwhelming majority of children are successful in school.

My definition of success is that of children getting the qualifications and grades that will allow them a choice of good jobs, and give them a resilience in the labour market as it evolves over their working lifetime.

It is, of course, about more than that. It is about young people becoming well educated citizens who can play their role in society, but - most importantly - make the most of their lives in ways which go well beyond the aspirations of the work place.

Music, drama, education for its own sake, these are all crucial elements of a good education. This vision requires a sea-change in expectations for many people. We know that most parents are on side.

The millennium cohort study showed that 95% of parents would like their child to attend university. Parents want their children to do well. There are some who claim that children from poor backgrounds cannot succeed. Some people mutter about genetics. Others talk about how poverty is so crushing as to make a school’s job impossible.

We know that such views are wrong. We know that they are wrong because the best schools in our country have proven them to be wrong. There are schools in Britain that are succeeding with all their children. On my first day as Minister of State for Schools, I visited one such school with the Deputy Prime Minister - Mulberry School for Girls, in London.

Fortunately such schools are no longer the isolated exceptions. These schools show that this vision can and must become a reality. What will this vision mean for pupils, society and for teachers? Firstly, an education system that delivers more highly qualified people is good for the people who end up better educated.

Now I realise, of course, that there are people out there who say that more qualifications just means people end up overqualified for the jobs that are available. This is the same argument that was used in the nineteenth century to oppose compulsory schooling and universal literacy. It is the same argument that was used to oppose every rise in the school leaving age and every rise in school standards. It is an argument that has been shown to be wrong time and time again, in Britain and in every other country.

It is emphatically not the case that there are a fixed number of skilled jobs, and a fixed number of unskilled jobs. On the contrary, the lesson from the last fifty years is that creating a more skilled workforce leads to the creation of more skilled work.

The wage premium for graduates, for example, has not fallen as the number of graduates has tripled. With more graduates, firms create more graduate level positions. The ability of the economy to use people with high levels of generic skills is very great.

Sadly, the same is not true at the other end. Mechanisation has been replacing unskilled jobs for two centuries now, and shows no signs of letting up. If you want a sense of the future, just look at the ranks of self-service tills in supermarkets today.

Of course, there will always be some unskilled work available. But even today, Britain has too many people with too few skills relative to the demand for such labour. That is why so many of these people are unemployed, and the remainder are largely in low wage employment.

Qualifications also bring economic security when times are tough. The Resolution Foundation has recently shown that those with good qualifications are less likely to lose their jobs in a recession. Even if they lose their job, they are more likely to find other work quickly. And - crucially - that work is more likely to be at their previous wage rate.

We cannot know how the economy will evolve between now and when the current generation of school children retire, but we can be sure that there will be many changes ahead. We need to equip people to be successful with whatever life throws at them. A good education achieves just that.

And we should be aware that other countries are not standing still.
Educational standards are rising across the world, particularly in what were formerly defined as “developing” economies.

If Britain wants its economy to continue to be globally competitive, it must not lose the race for educational success.

The effects of good education on society mirror those for the individual. A society in which people have good jobs, and do not remain unemployed for long when a recession hits, would be a great society to live in. The costs to all of us of failure - having to pay benefits for those let down by a bad education - would fall. Tax revenues would be higher and more stable, allowing us to have lower tax rates, and better public services.

And it would be a marvellous world in which to be a teacher. For sure, you would be expected to deliver, and held to account. But you would be part of a system that did deliver, and was seen to deliver. Everyone would know that our schools were some of the best in the world, and would respect teachers as part of that. I want a system where when someone says at a party “I am a teacher”, the person they are talking to sees them as clever, effective and part of a world class system delivering for our country.

That, rather than the negative images so often conveyed through the media from the Easter union conferences is what I want people to associate with the great career of teaching in the future.

That, then, is the vision.

Let me move on to how we get there.

Education starts young. It starts at home, when parents and others talk to, and interact with, tiny babies. Our knowledge of brain development tells us that these years are crucial.

This is when children from affluent backgrounds get their first head start. I am not criticising poorer parents whose own education was weaker. They want the best for their children as much as anyone. Nor am I criticising more affluent and supportive parents. The desire to do your best for your children is one of the most admirable human characteristics. We should never criticise people for it.

The reality is, however, that if the parents’ education is weaker, the child will hear fewer words, and their linguistic skills will lag. By the age of 4, a child from a professional home has heard on average 45 million words. By contrast, at the same age, a child from a disadvantaged family has heard only 13 - one three - million words.

That is why I am proud that the Coalition is offering a free early education place to every 2 year old whose parents are not well off. The offer is initially for those who are in the bottom 20%, but will be available to those in the bottom 40% by the end of this parliament. Wherever possible, we have asked local authorities to ensure that these places are in good and outstanding, settings.

Funding free early education places for 2 year olds is a huge and expensive undertaking, and our willingness to do it in an era in which money is exceptionally tight demonstrates our commitment to educational success for all.

There is an increasingly strong body of evidence that says that the quality of personnel is the most important factor in early years education, just as it is for people in school or even university settings. For that reason we are trying to move away from nurseries for three and four year olds being staffed by people with low skills, on low wages. Our reforms in this area have been controversial, but I am convinced that they are right.

This combination of increasing quantity and quality of early years education is designed to ensure that all of our children are school ready when they start school.

Early years education is crucial and it must be supported by proper funding, which targets additional resources effectively to the most disadvantaged children.

My Party - the Liberal Democrats - has advocated the development of a “Nursery Premium” to complement the Pupil Premium, and this is an issue which I am personally looking at very closely.

Let me now move on to primary schools. I think that primary schools are the single most important part of the school system. The reality is that if a child does not succeed at primary school, they are most unlikely to succeed at secondary school and beyond.

Let me gave you a rather stark statistic.

Only 1 child in 17 who averages level 3 in their key stage two tests goes on to get 5 good GCSEs.

Achieving level 4 is not, however, a guarantee of success. A child averaging a 4c in their KS2 assessments has only a 47% chance of getting 5 A*-C including English and Maths. Let me repeat that. A majority of young people who just clear the current primary school bar will fail to achieve the current, relatively modest, performance benchmark in secondary school.

I ask you, in all seriousness, how can we in the future define a 4c as a successful outcome at primary level, when the overwhelming majority of 4c children are not on track?

I want more children to jump over the existing bar. But we must prepare children for success in secondary school, not for failure or mediocrity.
That is why I also announced yesterday - and this was the far more important announcement - that when the new national curriculum comes in, the new primary standard will be higher. There is work to be done on the details, but let me be crystal clear. A pass at 11 will mean that a child is on track to be successful at 16. That will mean a standard at least equal to level 4b at present. Nothing else is good enough.

It is some time before we will introduce the new primary assessment and accountability system. I am not willing to wait that long. That is why I am also announcing that for the first time later this year we will be publishing the proportion of children in each school who get a good level 4 - a 4b- or better. These children are on course to succeed at secondary level, and we should recognise and celebrate those schools that do well on this measure.

We have not decided what proportion of children we will require to reach that standard for a school to be above the accountability floor standard. But let me give you a sense of my thinking, and my ambition, by recounting a visit I made to a school last week.

That school is King Solomon’s Academy, a new ARK school near Paddington Station. Around half of the pupils are on free school meals and two thirds have English as a foreign language. Max, the head, told me that his target was for 85% of children to reach the standard in Key Stage 2 tests.

I was impressed.

I was even more impressed when Max told me that his standard wasn’t 85% at level 4c, but 85% at 5c.

That is why if I stay awake at night it won’t be because I am wondering if the unions and others might be right to criticise the level of our ambition.
The best schools, even in the toughest areas, are showing all of us - including my department - the way. They are the real leaders in the education debate.

And just let me repeat that target: 85% at level 5 and above. I have looked at what that means. This is the conclusion: those children will be set up for life. More than 9 in 10 children with a level 5 go on to get 5 good GCSEs, with the majority getting far more than that. Those children are then well placed for A levels, and entry into selective universities. Beyond that - well, who knows? The world will be their oyster. So if King Solomon Academy, with half or more of pupils entitled to the Pupil Premium, can deliver that, is it unreasonable to expect that all schools could get almost all children who do not have demonstrable learning difficulties to something akin to level 4b or 4a? Personally, I think that this is a reasonable expectation for every single one of our mainstream schools.

Let me turn now to secondary schools.

There are some excellent secondary schools in Britain - some of the finest in the world. It was my privilege to write to 400 of the best schools earlier this year, to congratulate them on their excellent results. I wrote to schools with high levels of both attainment and progress. And yet there are schools, and even areas, where too many children still leave with almost nothing to show for 15,000 hours of schooling, and at least £60,000 of taxpayers money. Almost 4 in 10 children in Knowsley and Hull leave school with 5Ds or less at GCSE. That is a disgrace for Knowsley and Hull, and a disgrace for our country. These children are entering adult life with what the OECD PISA studies define as only “basic literacy”.

I know that those areas have particular issues, but many of those issues are the same as in some of London’s poorer communities. Yet places in inner London, such as Tower Hamlets, and places in outer London, such as Dagenham, have transformed their educational outcomes over the past decade or so. If we could replicate Tower Hamlets success in raising standards nationwide, the number of children leaving school with only basic literacy would fall by more than three-quarters.

Nor is it just poor areas that are struggling. Herefordshire, for example, has some of the lowest proportion of children on free school meals. Yet they have more children than average leaving school without meaningful qualifications. We cannot let such areas’ failures be hidden behind their affluence.

I have already been clear that my vision is for an education that works not for 40 or 50%, but for 80 or 90%. That is why I want universal secondary readiness by age 11. And that in turn will allow us to hold secondary schools to a much higher standard.

Let me say something about our proposals to reform secondary accountability. We made that announcement on the same day as we announced the new national curriculum, and that we would not be replacing GCSEs with English Baccalaureate Certificates. As such the accountability proposals did not get the attention that they deserve.

I think we all know the problems with the existing 5 A*-C including English and Maths threshold. Many schools are allowed to coast, safe in the knowledge that they will cross the line in any case. In other schools, too much pressure is placed on a handful of teachers, teaching a handful of children, while the rest can be given less attention. The system all but guarantees us a 40-50% system, since schools only have to get a small number of extra children over the threshold.

Once more, if I am honest, I do not understand how anyone could ever have thought that this was a sensible method by which to judge our schools.

We propose instead to judge schools by two yardsticks. The first is a C grade threshold in English and Maths. The reality is that both further education and employers do place a unique value on these qualifications. It is right and proper that schools should do all they can to get as many children over this line as possible. And there are schools up and down the country who achieve amazing results on this measure. The head of Bishop Rawstorne school in Lancashire gave a seminar in the department recently. 81% of his pupils get at least a C in both subjects. It can be done, and, bluntly, it must be done.

The second yardstick is the average progress pupils make in 8 subjects. These 8 must include English and Maths, any three EBACC subjects, and any 3 other subjects. This last group can be traditional academic subjects, or creative subjects, or vocational subjects. This yardstick rewards those schools that get a pupil who is genuinely struggling up from 5Es to 7Ds. It rewards those schools that get bright pupils up from 7Bs to 8A*s. In fact, we think it rewards all schools for teaching all pupils well.

The accountability proposals are just that: proposals. If you like them, please tell us, and please tell us why you like them. And if you don’t like them, please tell us and please tell us why. Our response to the consultation on qualifications shows that we listen.

At some level it is hard to dislike my vision. It would be odd if people in this room were going to object to more people getting a better education.

But it is legitimate to ask whether we can deliver.

I have already outlined our new policies for 2 year olds from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Our policies to improve the quality of those educating the under 5s.
How rises in the primary threshold, and in due course a higher standard, will ensure that more children enter secondary school ready to engage with physics, history, languages and so on.

I have set out how the new proposed secondary accountability regime will give secondary schools an incentive to improve outcomes for all.
But let me talk now about two other crucial policies.

The first is the pupil premium.

I have believed in the pupil premium ever since LSE Professor Julian Le Grand came up with the idea in the late 1980s, and since it was further developed by Nick Clegg at a time when he sat in the European Parliament. Nick is actually the politician who deserves the credit for picking up this ball and running with it.

I am proud to be part of the government that has now delivered the Pupil Premium. And I take very seriously my responsibility to make it work.
The Education Endowment Foundation has done excellent work to build a robust evidence base as to which approaches make a difference. Put simply, a school that follows their recommendations is overwhelmingly likely to see the performance of children from disadvantaged backgrounds improve. That in turn can be a life changing experience.

So the pupil premium is capable of achieving great things in our schools and in our society. But not all schools are using it effectively.

There are some who say that I should direct schools as to how to use the pupil premium.

I do not want to that. It can never make sense for a minister in Whitehall to issue central diktats saying that schools must do X or Y. Such an approach would be odd coming from someone proud to describe themselves as liberal.

There are others who say that I should take it away from schools whose pupils do badly.

Again, I do not wish to follow this approach, interesting though it may be. I would worry that schools would choose to return the money rather than educate those children well. I would worry that we would be penalising the next cohort for the failures of the previous, locking in a cycle of repeated failure and fines.

But failure is not an option.

Where schools are successful, they will have the freedom to use the money as they see fit. Ofsted will judge schools, and their reports will look explicitly at the performance of disadvantaged pupils. Ofsted have made it clear that doing well for these pupils will be a requirement to be rated good or outstanding.

But where schools are neither good nor outstanding, and where pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are doing particularly poorly, we will not stand back.

In those circumstances, we will be introducing a policy proposed to us by the National College of School Leaders. Let me be clear that the following only applies to category 3 schools that are also category 3 for leadership, and which have low attainment for disadvantaged children. In these cases the school will be required to draw up an action plan for the pupil premium in consultation with a system leader - perhaps a national leader in education, perhaps someone from another school with a particularly good track record in this area. Ofsted will then take that plan, and adherence to that plan, into account when they decide the future of the school.

And if the school continues to fail, well, Ofsted category 4 beckons. Avoiding that outcome is a real incentive for school leaders.
Finally, I want to hint at new thinking in the department. We are aware of the success of London challenge. People have asked us why we cannot create a Doncaster challenge, or a Hull challenge.

The reality is that things are more complicated. The London Challenge started off with some huge advantages. First, almost every school in London has a large number of schools within easy distance that look roughly like them. It is easy to group schools in London so that they can learn from others with whom they readily identify. Second, London challenge happened in an era in which government spent money as if there was no tomorrow. Well, tomorrow has arrived, and we cannot do that.

We realise that there is a challenge, and we are working with a range of partners to develop innovative solutions to improve standards outside of London. Those children, in my constituency and elsewhere are just as important as any other. We will not rest until we have delivered a range of measures that will ensure that all schools have access to the best teachers, the best leaders, and the best thinking about what makes a good school.

As part of this, we will hold Local Authorities and Academy Chains fully to account for supporting and intervening when necessary in their schools. The bright light of accountability will be shone in all places without fear or favour.

Today I have set out a vision.

I have told you what we have already done to start to deliver on that vision.

And I have given you a sense of the challenges that we are working on at present.

Now I look forward to your questions and comments.

And for those of you are school leaders or teachers, I genuinely hope that we can work in partnership to design better policies and to realise the ambitious visions that we all have for our schools, our children and our country.

Published 7 March 2013