Education Secretary Michael Gove's speech to ASCL

Michael Gove's speech on the future of education to the Association of School and College Leaders.

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

Good morning - and thank you for the very kind invitation to come to Birmingham this morning. My last visit here was made memorable by the warmth of the welcome I received from Ninestiles School, a secondary in a challenging area which has made fantastic progress under the leadership of Chris Quinn. It was a pleasure for me to talk to the students there and especially one sixth former - Cameron Kigonaye - whose parents are from Kenya and Cameroon and who is now course to read law at Oxford. It was a reminder of just how much latent talent we have in this country.

I visited another outstanding school in challenging circumstances earlier this week - Freemantle Academy - in one of the most deprived parts of Southampton.

The head there, Kevin Barratt, became a teacher after a successful career in consulting engineering - something that has proved useful in helping design the new buildings he has delivered for his school in record time. I was intrigued as to why Kevin had left one high-paying profession for another profession and why, having become a teacher, he wanted to become a head. “Simple, really” he replied. “I wanted to help children. And being a head gave me the chance to help more children.”

In one sentence Kevin, I am certain, spoke for everyone in this room.
The reason we work in education is because we want to help children.
And the reason people take on leadership positions is they want to help as many children as possible. That is the central moral purpose that brought all of you into education.

And it is what animates the work of the leaders whose schools I have been fortunate enough to visit in the last year.

The magificent seven

Like Amanda Philips in Old Ford Primary in Bow - whose students come from one of the poorest parts of one of the capital’s poorest boroughs but who leave with the sort of love of literature you’d expect of English undergraduates.

Or Yasmin Bevan in Denbigh High in Luton- whose students again come from some of the most challenging areas of one of our most ethnically diverse cities and who again excel - securing superb results in the GCSEs which set them on course for the best universities.

Or Pete Birkett - who leads the Barnfield Federation - whose studio school is delivering an amazing technical and academic education for those students - overwhelmingly from disadvantaged homes - who have struggled most at primary…

And then there’s Jerry Collins from Pimlico - the head who has recorded the fastest progress yet in taking a school from categories to outstanding - and who is now devising a whole new secondary curriculum designed to ensure his students - again overwhelmingly from disadvantaged backgrounds - can out-compete privately educated children.

Or Patricia Sowter - at Cuckoo Hall in Edmonton - whose students come from one of the poorest areas of the Labour borough of Enfield and who secures for every student - including those with special needs - Level 4 at Key Stage Two.

Or Greg Wallace at Woodberry Down -whose students are drawn from the poorest parts of Hackney and who have benefitted hugely from a rigorous approach to reading in the early years which makes them enthusiastic devourers of every book they can get their hands on by years 4, 5 and 6.

And I cannot miss out Barry Day - in Nottingham - who again draws his students from the most challenging neighbourhoods in an ethnically diverse city - and who generates outstanding academic results in an environment where grace, civility and cultural ambition are expected of every child.

The reason I mention these - and I could mention many more - is that I don’t think any leader in education should give a speech - or appear in public to talk about education - without celebrating success and giving a shout-out to those who’ve achieved it.

But there’s a special reason I mention these magnificent seven today.
And it goes to the heart of the moral purpose of this Government.
I’ve said in the past - will say again - and the evidence backs me up when I say it.

We have the best generation of young teachers ever in our schools.
We have the best generation of heads ever in our schools.
And our whole school system is good- with many outstanding features.

But our education system - our country- is still held back by two weaknesses.

We have - for generations -failed to stretch every child to the limit of their ability.

And we have - for all our lifetimes- failed the poorest most of all.
And tackling these problems for me isn’t just business, it’s personal.

When you spend the first months of your life in care. When you know your life could have taken many, very different, courses. But you know that education liberated you to enjoy opportunities your parents could scarcely have dreamt of, then you know that it’s a sin not to do everything in your power to help every child transcend the circumstances of their birth to achieve everything of which they’re capable.

Which is where the magnificent seven come in.

Every single one of them proves -every single day of their lives - that deprivation need not be destiny. That the assumptions of a generation ago of what students were capable of were narrow, limiting and unfair.
And that with great teaching - and that’s really it - we can democratise access to knowledge, find the talent in every child and make opportunity more equal.

We’re all in this to help children- as many children as possible.
But when there are schools where more than forty per cent of children don’t reach an acceptable level of reading, writing and maths then there are more children who still need our help.

And when children eligible for free school meals are in schools where they fall further and further behind their peers at every stage of their education then there are more children who still need our help.

And when children from wealthy homes who go to schools in comfortable areas are getting the GCSEs that give them a wide choice of futures - and poorer children going to schools in poorer areas aren’t getting those GCSEs then there are more children who still need our help.

The terrible temptation of fatalism

Yet from some quarters in the political world there’s still a lack of rooted determination to make all our schools excellent, because there are individuals who have succumbed to the terrible temptation of fatalism.
They believe that there are some children who cannot be expected to succeed.

They hold that there are some students who will never transcend the circumstances of their birth.

For some - usually on the right - there can only ever be a small percentage of children who either can - or even deserve - to make it to the top. They see society either as a pyramid or a bell curve. Those with the intelligence to make something of themselves are the minority at the far right of that bell curve - the cognitive elite - those with a higher than average IQ who are - by definition - only ever a minority of the population.

Sometimes injustices, or inefficiencies, mean that those at the far right of the bell curve do not make it to the top of the pyramid - but beyond ensuring that the minority who are smart are also the minority who are rich there is nothing much more to be done.

For others - usually on the left - the existence of material inequality determines everything - and as long as there are differentials of wealth and background you can never expect real progress to be made.

From their point of view, poor children cannot succeed because their circumstances prevent it. Poor children will lag behind their wealthier peers in any school that educates both. And a school with a large number of poor children will be so weighed down - or held back - by the socio-economic background of its intake that those children will always be at a disadvantage.

Only if every school has as close to an identical intake as possible will every child have as close to an identical chance as possible. You cannot solve in the classroom the problems created by fundamental class divisions. Both the Bell Curve Right and the Class Struggle Left agree on more than they might like to admit.

Both agree that there are some children who won’t succeed because of their background.

Both would say of our weakest schools - where poor students from poor homes do poorly - well, what do you expect?

Both of them, however, are wrong.

We know they’re wrong because there are schools in this country with very challenging intakes - with a higher than average proportion of children with special needs, a higher than average number eligible for free school meals, a higher than average number who don’t have English as a first language - that outperform schools with much more favoured intakes in much wealthier areas.

Schools such as those I mention run by the Magnificent Seven, and by so many others of you here in this hall.

More than that, many of these schools prove that there need be no difference in performance - none - between students from disadvantaged circumstances and students from wealthier homes.

No such thing as an attainment gap

There is no such thing as an attainment gap at Cuckoo Hall or at Thomas Jones Primary in North Kensington. In both schools exactly the same percentage of children eligible for Free School Meals reach an acceptable level in English and Maths as children from wealthier homes - and in both cases that is 100%.

There are more than forty primaries across the country which have achieved the same - eliminating any attainment gap between rich and poor. The same has been done at secondary level as well. At Paddington Academy, which has an especially challenging intake, there is no difference in pupil performance on the basis of background.

These schools demonstrate on the ground what brain science is telling us in learned journals and best-selling paperbacks. There is nothing determined, fixed or immutable about a child’s chances of success.

Neither the genetic or material inheritance of any child need automatically determine how far they will rise, or what achievements they might secure.
In Matthew Syed’s ‘Bounce’, in Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’ and - most comprehensively of all - in David Shenk’s The Genius in All of Us, the evidence shows that hard work, application and properly directed activity can produce phenomenal results in almost any individual.

If an individual has the will, if we as society have the will, we can achieve far, far more than we may have ever imagined.

Shenk shows us that genes do not immutably dictate our destiny - it is the interplay between what we inherit and the environment and culture in which we grow up which determines what we become.

He, and Syed, and Gladwell, all prove with countless examples that effort and application can generate success in almost any field. And if children are educated in an environment where hard work is expected, where every child is assumed capable of success, and no excuses are allowed for failure, then children will succeed - from any background.

What Shenk, Syed and Gladwell believe is what the best schools ¬ in this country and across the world - are putting into practice.

In King Solomon Academy in Lisson Grove - in the top 10 per cent of the most deprived schools in London - it is expected that every student - every student - will make it onto higher education.

The school hours are longer - the homework is demanding - the expectations pitched deliberately high. Children study Shakespearean tragedies in depth, Jane Austen, Aldous Huxley and Primo Levi.

In Pimlico Academy - which again draws students from some of the toughest parts of London - every young person is equipped with a level of cultural literacy designed to make university natural. They study the Renaissance architecture of Brunelleschi and Bernini alongside the role of Archbishop Laud and Henrietta Maria in provoking the English Civil War.
In Thomas Jones, a primary, children who are ten and eleven - again drawn from some of London’s most challenging areas - are called scholars and taught what scholarship means - through the medium of works by Dickens, Wilde, Blake, Larkin, Matthew Arnold and Tennyson.

These high expectations - and the hard work required to meet them - generate not just statistically astounding results, they also transform the lives of children from the poorest homes.

They are given access to the same cultural heritage wealthier children expect as of right, they are capable of exceeding the performance, in any test of knowledge or ability, expected of far wealthier children, they are set for success in any field.

It is because we cannot allow children to suffer - when we know they can achieve so much more - that we are pressing ahead with our reform programme.

And it is because all of you I know are dedicated to making opportunity more equal that I am so grateful for your support in this work.

The World at an inflection point

And lest anyone think we should slacken the pace of reform - let me reassure them - we have to accelerate. Over the next ten years the world we inhabit will change massively. We are at an inflection point in the economic and educational development of nations.

Technology will change out of all recognition how individuals work, how we teach and how students learn. Millions more across the globe will go onto higher - and post-graduate education.

Globalisation will see the number of unskilled or low skilled jobs in this country diminish further and the rewards to those with higher level qualifications continue to soar further ahead.

We cannot ignore, wish away or seek to stand aside from these developments. Not least because they promise a dramatic step forward in the unleashing of talent, the fulfilment of human potential and the reach of our creativity.

So we need to have an education system equipped for that world - one which equips young people for all its challenges - and opportunities.
We need to cultivate higher order thinking skills and creativity.
We need to be adaptable and fleet-footed. We need to welcome innovation and challenge as a way to ensure we lead rather than meekly follow.

And it’s a consciousness of the changes which are sweeping across the world which drives our education reform programme.

We need to ensure every child achieves their fullest potential because we need every mind motivated to succeed if our society as a whole is to prosper.

The five pillars of reform - a vision beyond 2020

And it’s an awareness of the scale of reform needed which is driving change in each area of our policy programme.

In funding
In human capital
In the curriculum and qualifications
In accountability

And in the structures we create to drive innovation and excellence.
In funding - we must over the next ten years move away from a system in which no-one ¬ literally no-one - can explain why schools receive the sums they do. Where pupils with the same needs in different parts of the country receive wildly differing sums for their education. Where the amount spent to help the poorest is arbitrarily distributed and where accountability for how money is spent is opaque and confused, to a much more rational system with a set amount for every child - related to their age - and course.

With an additional sum - the pupil premium - for every poor child and special support for schools in exceptional circumstances or children with special needs. Money should more transparently follow students, schools should be freer to expand, and accountability for what is done with that money must be clearer. If we move to such a system - the unfairness of our current funding arrangements will become a thing of the past.

On human capital - we must continue the trend we’ve seen over the last fifteen years of recruiting more talented people into teaching - no education system can be better than its teachers.

So we need to remove one of the biggest barriers to people staying in teaching - poor behaviour and discipline - which we’re doing with reforms to make detention simpler, exclusion easier and fairer, attendance easier to police and adult authority unquestioned.

We also need to support the best students, particularly in disciplines such as maths and science, to come into the classroom - which we’re doing by paying them more.

We need to ensure they are prepared better for the classroom - which we’re doing by reforming teacher training to reward those institutions with the highest standards.

And we need to ensure there is high quality and well-funded continuous professional development - which we’re doing through the National College, Teaching Schools, the growth in academy chains and the work of organisations like the Prince’s Teaching Institute.

And if we embrace these changes media and political criticism of professional standards in teaching will become a thing of the past.

On the curriculum and qualifications:
We need to encourage much greater creativity - led by teachers -which is why we’re allowing academies total curriculum freedom and stripping back prescription in the national curriculum for non-core subjects.
We need to move away from an expensive and time-consuming culture of proliferating external examinations - modules, re-sits and retakes - towards fewer high quality qualifications overseen and conferred not by commercial organisations but by institutions of academic excellence such as our best universities.

We need to see innovation in new areas such as computer science.
And we also need to ensure a higher level of cultural literacy and greater familiarity for all students from all backgrounds with the best that’s been thought and written globally.

And if we ensure we deliver these changes concerns about dumbing down and sheep and goat divisions between academic and vocational will become a thing of the past.

On accountability:
We need more data not less. We must move away from reliance on just one or two benchmarks to a rich and nuanced account of achievement. Every month, week, day and hour we have data about the economic performance of the nation.

But for years we have only two reliable - and publicly shared - data sets about our children’s development - at 11 and 16 - based on levels which few parents understand or GCSE performance narrowly measured.
We need to know more about how our children are doing. Which schools are succeeding - and why. Which pedagogies are working - and why. Which leaders are proving transformational - and why. And that data will of course be complemented by thoughtful inspection from professionals.

Which is why I want Ofsted to be run by, with, and for school leaders.
And why I think Michael Wilshaw is absolutely right to say he wants more and more inspection to be done by and with the people in this hall - not to them. And if we secure those changes then accountability as a crude filter will become a thing of the past and instead it will be a powerful means of continual self-improvement.

And on our structures:
I think we need to welcome innovation and flexibility. That’s why I am delighted so many of you have chosen to become academies - more than 40% of secondaries now enjoy academy freedom and now more primaries are applying than secondaries every month.

That’s why I am delighted that free schools are up and running - and more are opening - led by great heads and pioneering new ways of teaching and learning.

It’s why I welcome the injection of new thinking which has come into communities where under-performance has been entrenched as more and more academies - many represented in this hall - open their own free schools, sponsor existing schools and enter new partnerships and federations.

Because access to the education children need is still rationed by the inflexible structures we all inherited.

Just a few days ago we had the annual recording of how many parents had failed to secure a place for their child at the school they hoped for.
Under the system we want to build - with good schools expanding, sponsoring others, new entrants providing choice and challenge and parents empowered to choose - the annual wrangle over admissions and the creation of fixed hierarchies of schools will become a thing of the past.
But the thing which I wish most of all to consign to the past is the fatalism which holds that this country cannot be the best-educated in the world, the fairest and the most open.

Because I know how offensive that is to the people in this room - how belittling of their talent, how dismissive of their ambition, how ignorant of the moral purpose which drives you to all work so hard.

We all know the truth of the words of Martin Luther King in his letter from a Birmingham jail:

Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability - it comes through tireless effort - and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. I am an enemy of all the forces of social stagnation.

And there are no better allies to have in defeating those forces than all of you in this room. It is to defeating those forces that I know all your amazing hard and tireless work is dedicated - for which I thank you.


Updates to this page

Published 26 March 2012