Education Secretary Michael Gove's speech to Brighton College

Michael Gove speaks at Brighton College about the government's initiatives to address the educational attainment gap.

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

A coalition for good - how we can all work together to make opportunity more equal

What makes a good school?

Thank you for that kind introduction.

And thank you Richard [Cairns] for inviting me here today.

It is one of the many pleasures of being Education Secretary that I get to visit outstanding schools ever week - and am constantly impressed by the amazing work of so many inspirational teachers.

We have thousands of superb state schools - some of the very best in the world.

And we have hundreds of superlative independent schools - collectively the best independent schools sector in the world.

And given the quality of the competition, it is a wonderful accolade for Brighton College to be named UK Independent School of the year.

Wonderful, but not surprising.

Because those of us who know Richard (Cairns) recognise that he is one of the most visionary leaders in education today…

Brighton College’s improvement in the last few years has been breathtaking.

Moving from 147th in the Sunday Times league tables in 2006, to 18th this year; the highest-ranking coeducational school in the country, described by the judges as “one of the powerhouses of the independent sector.”

And Richard has done what every school leader determined to secure excellence should do.

He’s been a curriculum innovator.

He’s introduced Mandarin Chinese as a compulsory subject until Year 9.

And he’s made narrative history, locational geography and the great canon of English literature compelling for a new generation of students with a wonderfully inspiring introduction into the glories of our island story.

He recognises that nothing matters more than improving the quality of teaching.

Over the last six years, Brighton College has aggressively recruited, and generously remunerated, talented individuals from a range of backgrounds, in order to boast, in Richard’s words, “the best teachers in the land”.

He’s been ambitious to spread excellence beyond his own school.

Richard has expanded Brighton College’s reach by taking over other schools, enabling hundreds more children to benefit from Brighton’s unique and award-winning recipe for success.

And, above all, Richard has combined an unflinching focus on academic standards with a deeply held social mission.

As well as expanding scholarship access to this school Richard is leading a consortium of independent schools which are sponsoring a new free school in Newham - the London Academy of Excellence - which will help the poorest students make it to our best universities.

Curriculum innovation, investment in great teaching, spreading excellence beyond just one school, demanding higher academic standards, pursuing a social mission to help the most disadvantaged.

These virtues - which Brighton College embodies - are the virtues which mark out the best in our education system - and they demonstrate that there is enormous public benefit in a healthy and progressively-led independent school sector.

The glittering prizes in gilded hands

But, fan as I am of the virtues nurtured here, I can’t help reflecting on some other facts about our society which the excellence of the education offered in our independent schools underlines.

It is remarkable how many of the positions of wealth, influence, celebrity and power in our society are held by individuals who were privately educated.

Around the Cabinet table - a majority - including myself - were privately educated.

Around the Shadow Cabinet table the Deputy Leader, the Shadow Chancellor, the Shadow Business Secretary, the Shadow Olympics Secretary, the Shadow Welsh Secretary and the Shadow Secretary of State for International Development were all educated at independent schools.

On the bench of our supreme court, in the precincts of the bar, in our medical schools and university science faculties, at the helm of FTSE 100 companies
and in the boardrooms of our banks, independent schools are - how can I best put this - handsomely represented.

You might hear some argue that these peaks have been scaled by older alumni of our great independent schools - and things have changed for younger generations.

But I fear that is not so.

Take sport - where by definition the biggest names are in their teens, twenties and thirties.

As Ed Smith, the Tonbridge-educated former England player, and current Times journalist, points out in his wonderful new book “Luck”:

Twenty-five years ago, of the 13 players who represented England on a tour of Pakistan, only one had been to a private school. In contrast, over two thirds of the current team are privately educated. You’re 20 times more likely to go on and play for England if you go to private school rather than state school.

The composition of the England rugby union team and the British Olympic team reveal the same trend.

Of those members of England’s first 15 born in England, more than half were privately educated.

And again, half the UK’s gold medallists at the last Olympics were privately educated, compared with seven per cent of the population.

It’s not just in sport that the new young stars all have old school ties.

It’s in Hollywood, Broadway and on our TV screens.

Hugh Laurie, Dominic West, Damian Lewis, Tom Hiddleston and Eddie Redmayne - all old Etonians.

One almost feels sorry for Benedict Cumberbatch - a lowly Harrovian - and Dan Stevens - heir to Downton Abbey and old boy of Tonbridge - is practically a street urchin in comparison.

If acting is increasingly a stage for public school talent one might have thought that at least comedy or music would be an alternative platform for outsiders.

But then -

Armando Iannucci, David Baddiel, Michael McIntyre, Jack Whitehall, Miles Jupp, Armstrong from Armstrong and Miller and Mitchell from Mitchell and Webb were all privately educated.

2010’s Mercury Music Prize was a battle between privately educated Laura Marling and privately-educated Marcus Mumford.

And from Chris Martin of Coldplay to Tom Chaplin of Keane - popular music is populated by public school boys.

Indeed when Keane were playing last Sunday on the Andrew Marr show everyone in that studio - the band, the presenter and the other guests - Lib Dem peer Matthew Oakeshott, Radio 3 Presenter Clemency Burton-Hill and Sarah Sands, editor of the London Evening Standard - were all privately educated.

Indeed it’s in the media that the public school stranglehold is strongest.
The Chairman of the BBC and its Director-General are public school boys.

And it’s not just the Evening Standard which has a privately-educated editor.

My old paper The Times is edited by an old boy of St Pauls and its sister paper the Sunday Times by an old Bedfordian.

The new editor of the Mail on Sunday is an old Etonian, the editor of the Financial Times is an old Alleynian and the editor of the Guardian is an Old Cranleighan.

Indeed the Guardian has been edited by privately educated men for the last 60 years…

But then many of our most prominent contemporary radical and activist writers are also privately educated.

George Monbiot of the Guardian was at Stowe, Seumas Milne of the Guardian was at Winchester and perhaps the most radical new voice of all –Laurie Penny of the Independent - was educated here at Brighton College.

Now I record these achievements not because I wish to either decry the individuals concerned or criticise the schools they attended. Far from it.

It is undeniable that the individuals I have named are hugely talented and the schools they attended are premier league institutions.

But the sheer scale, the breadth and the depth, of private school dominance of our society points to a deep problem in our country - one we all acknowledge but have still failed to tackle with anything like the radicalism required.

The scars of inequality run deep

We live in a profoundly unequal society.

More than almost any developed nation ours is a country in which your parentage dictates your progress.

Those who are born poor are more likely to stay poor and those who inherit privilege are more likely to pass on privilege in England than in any comparable county.

For those of us who believe in social justice this stratification and segregation are morally indefensible.

And for those of us who want to see greater economic efficiency it is a pointless squandering of our greatest asset - our children - to have so many from poorer backgrounds manifestly not achieving their potential.

When more Etonians make it to Oxbridge than boys and girls on benefit then we know we are not making the most of all our nation’s talents.

When hundreds of primary schools allow children to leave not able to read, write or add up properly we know we are indulging in a form of national self-harm so profound as to be disabling.

Even when disadvantaged children attend schools which perform well overall, they continue to lag behind their wealthier, luckier peers.

  • At Key Stage one - age 7 - the gap between pupils eligible for free school meals and their peers is already 11 percentage points in maths.
  • At Key Stage two 58 per cent of pupils known to be eligible for free school meals achieved the expected level in both English and mathematics compared with 78 per cent of all other pupils.
  • Then at GCSE - while results go up every year there remains a stubborn and unchanging gap in achievement between the number of disadvantaged pupils who achieved five A* to C GCSEs (including maths and English), and the rest of the population.

Look at the number securing GCSEs in the subjects which the best universities and employers value and the picture is even bleaker.

17 per cent of pupils achieved the English Baccalaureate - good GCSES in English, Maths, the sciences, a language and a humanities subject - in 2010, but only 8 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals even took the exams - and only 4 per cent of children eligible for free school meals actually achieved it.

Pupils from deprived backgrounds are less than half as likely to go on to study at university as their peers. A recent study by the Sutton Trust indicated that the majority of state secondary school teachers would not encourage gifted students to apply to Oxford and Cambridge. One in five of teachers polled said they would “never” encourage their brightest pupils to apply to Oxbridge - something which I doubt very strongly any teacher in the independent sector would say.

All around us, other countries are narrowing and even eradicating the attainment gap.

Deprived pupils in Hong Kong and Shanghai, who struggle with challenges far greater and more debilitating than any we know here, achieve as highly as their English peers from the most comfortable homes.

Only 24 per cent of disadvantaged students in the UK perform better than expected compared with 76 per cent in Shanghai, 72 per cent in Hong Kong and 46 per cent in Finland.

The OECD average is 31 per cent - putting the UK well behind countries like Poland, Greece, Slovenia, Mexico and Chile when it comes to making opportunity more equal.

But the tide is being turned

Despite the evidence that other nations are closing the gap between rich and poor through great state schooling, some in this country still argue that pupil achievement is overwhelmingly dictated by socio-economic factors.

They say that deprivation means destiny - that schools are essentially impotent in the face of overwhelming force of circumstance. And that we can’t expect children to succeed if they have been born into poverty, disability or disadvantage.

I simply don’t accept that.

Not just because other countries show us what can be done.

But because I believe such fatalism in the face of circumstance is a profoundly reactionary doctrine - it denies the possibility of progress through human action, it says to all those driven by idealism to enter the classroom that they are simply spectators in a pageant of futility.

And I am encouraged in my conviction by the knowledge that I am not alone - there are a growing number of schools proving that deprivation need not be destiny - that with the right teaching and the right values they can outperform everyone’s expectations.

As Dr Kevan Collins, Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, wrote recently in the Times Educational Supplement: “the real myth is the idea that a school where pupils eligible for free school meals do well must be a one-off, or have only a handful of disadvantaged students.”

On the contrary there are more than 440 secondary schools across the country - one in nine - where the average GCSE points score is higher for disadvantaged pupils than it is for all pupils.

These schools are scattered all over the country, and all over the spectrum of disadvantage.

Some have a higher than average proportion of children with special needs, some have a higher than average number eligible for free school meals, some have a higher than average number who don’t have English as a first language - and yet they all outperform schools with much more favoured intakes in much wealthier areas.

What they share is an unwavering, unapologetic focus on standards. Led by inspirational heads and teachers, every day, these schools are proving the pessimists and fatalists wrong.

They show us all that there need be no difference in performance - none whatsoever - between pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and those from wealthier homes.

They show us that a difficult start in life can be overcome, with hard work and good teaching.

And that it is entirely possible for children to break free of the bonds of poverty and disadvantage, transforming a deprived start into a bright future.

If we want more children to enjoy these advantages and opportunities, we have to look at what characterises these successful schools.

And the most important lessons will not come as a surprise to you here - the schools which close the attainment gap - like Pimlico Academy, Lampton Academy, the Harris Academy Merton, Wembley High Technology College, Haberdasher’s Askes Hatcham College, Paddington Academy, Burlington Danes Academy, Mossbourne Community Academy, St Marylebone Church of England School and Brighton College’s own partner school Kingsford Community School - do what Brighton College does.

They demand high academic standards from every student - with Kingsford introducing all its students to Mandarin, and Burlington Danes ranking students in order by every subject every term to encourage a culture of excellence.

They are curriculum innovators with Mossbourne delivering intensive support for students who arrive with poor literacy and Pimlico developing a new core knowledge curriculum modelled on America’s best.

They recruit the best teachers - with schools like the Harris Academies training their own.

They operate outside their own four walls with Lampton Academy leading the Challenge partnership - a school improvement chain working across the country.

And they are all characterised by a sense of burning social mission - with free school meal pupils performing better than their peers in Wembley High and Pimlico.

Our reform programme is intended to ensure the virtues which characterise those schools are embedded across the school system. And we start with a relentless focus on overcoming disadvantage.

Intervention in the earliest years

We are acting across every stage of a child’s life to erode disadvantages of birth and background.

  • With 15 hours of free education for the poorest two-year-olds,
  • A progress check on all children between two and three,
  • 15 hours of free education for all three- and four-year-olds,
  • Better qualified staff in nurseries and other Early Years settings,
  • A more rigorous Foundation Stage curriculum with more emphasis on literacy and numeracy.

Opening the joy of reading for every child

And - one of the most important interventions of all - starting next month - a check on every six-year-old to make sure they’re on track to read effortlessly.
Given that one in six eleven-year-olds is still struggling with reading when they leave primary school we are determined to drive up standards in the crucial skill of early reading.

If children can’t learn to read, they can’t read to learn. We are determined to help all children to become fluent and enthusiastic readers, with the life-changing skill of turning words on the page into images, information and ideas.

In a few weeks’ time, six-year-olds across the country will be checked to see how well they’ve mastered phonics - the method of teaching reading which has been proven to be most successful with all children, and particularly those from disadvantaged homes.

We have been clear that the results for the reading check will not be published in league tables, although schools will be required to tell parents their own child’s results - as parents have welcomed.

But last summer’s pilot saw only 32 per cent of children reaching the level which their teachers decided was appropriate - fewer than a third. By monitoring pupil progress at an early stage, the check will help teachers to identify those who need extra help and ensure that they don’t fall behind - indeed, almost half of schools in the pilot said the check identified pupils with reading difficulties of which they were not previously aware.

We’ve offered match-funding to help schools buy high-quality systematic synthetic phonics resources and training from a new, approved catalogue. Phonics and reading are becoming a key part of the new Ofsted inspection framework, with Ofsted inspectors listening to weaker readers as part of every primary school inspection.

From September, a thorough understanding of the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics will be prioritised in teacher training and required for all teachers of early reading.

And we’re introducing a reading competition to encourage all children to read widely and well, instilling the habit of regular reading for pleasure at an early age. Shockingly, a survey by the National Literacy Trust last year showed that a third of children do not own a single book, while two in five pupils in England never read for enjoyment.

The pace never slackens

We will ensure progress is maintained.

We have introduced a tough new primary school floor standard - meaning that a school will fall below the floor when fewer than 60 per cent of pupils achieve the ‘basics’ standard in both English and mathematics and fewer pupils than average make the expected levels of progress between Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2.

At the moment, there are 1310 primaries below this floor - mostly those in poorer areas.

200 of the worst performing primary schools will convert to academy status with a strong sponsor, reopening in 2012. And we’re aiming for academy status for hundreds more primary schools that have been below the floor for the last three years, ensuring all children get the high quality education they have a right to expect.

And for those schools which are stuck in mediocrity a tough new inspections framework will ensure they are held accountable for a failure to get children making progress.

There’s been some criticism recently of the new inspections framework and the new chief inspector.

I’ve listened to that criticism - I’ve considered carefully the arguments made - and I have to say on reflection - it’s misdirected at best, mischievous at worst.

Sir Michael Wilshaw is a visionary school leader who has spent his career in the state sector and has achieved amazing results for children from the poorest homes - when his critics achieve results like him, then I’ll believe their arguments carry the same weight as his experience.

He is determined to improve inspection, drive up standards, encourage great teaching and celebrate good leadership - he deserves the backing of everyone who wants children to succeed - and I shall do everything to ensure that whatever he wants - he gets.

Higher expectations for all

Because the whole point of education is to engage in a restless reach for self-improvement - and all too often, children have been let down by a failure to ensure they are stretched to the utmost.

That’s why we are increasing the number of specialist maths teachers, including prioritising places on primary ITT courses in 2012/13 that offer specialisms in mathematics.

And why we have accepted Lord Bew’s recommendation to assess spelling, punctuation, grammar and vocabulary as part of the writing test at Key Stage 2.

And at secondary:

We’ve introduced the English Baccalaureate to encourage more pupils to study the essential, core academic subjects prized by universities and employers.

In 2011, there were over 150 maintained mainstream schools where not a single pupil - not one - was entered for all the EBacc subjects. I would hazard a guess that it would be hard to find more than a few private schools which would say the same.

In a world where disadvantaged children are all too often barred from elite universities because they don’t know or aren’t told which qualifications they will need, the EBacc’s unequivocal statement of priority is the single greatest aid we have in widening access to elite universities.

And I’m delighted to say that we’re already seeing numbers climbing. From 23 per cent of pupils entering the EBacc combination of subjects in 2011, the proportion has climbed to 47 per cent in 2013 - and hopefully will continue on this upward trajectory, higher and steeper still.

Time spent on teaching history, geography and modern languages has risen by 10 per cent. In 2011 there were around 3400 more teachers teaching in these subjects and an increase of 23,000 teaching hours on the previous year. In languages, for example, the number of pupils set to sit language GCSEs next year has increased by 22 per cent to 52 per cent.

Highly able pupils attending the most disadvantaged schools are also 10 times more likely to take a vocational qualification than those in wealthier areas.

Building on the Wolf Review, we’re making sure that vocational qualifications up to 16 are rigorous and well-respected - and ensuring that vocational qualifications after 16 offer students a high-quality route into employment or further study. Qualifications must be externally assessed and must enable progression to a wide range of study and employment opportunities.

Vocational qualifications are hugely important, and will continue to be so - so we are working hard to ensure that they are just as ambitious and useful as academic courses.

At A Level, Ofqual admits that more than a decade of “persistent grade inflation” which was “impossible to justify” has undermined A levels and GCSEs, we’ve invited top academics and university lecturers to get involved in raising standards and making examinations more rigorous.

And we’ve allowed further education lecturers into schools to share their expertise and experience with as wide a pool of students as possible.

And to ensure the money is there to help accelerate progress in closing that gap, we’ve introduced the Pupil Premium to support disadvantaged pupils, allowing schools to decide how funding is used to answer their pupils’ needs.

Independent schools succeed because leaders give a clear and consistent message about the values of their institution - and every message the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister send to the school system is about one thing - making opportunity more equal.

But independent schools also succeed because as well as setting high expectations - and sending a clear message about values - they encourage professionals to take responsibility for what happens in their classrooms - to innovate in pursuit of excellence.

Freedom to concentrate on what matters

And that’s why we’ve given all schools greater freedoms to meet the standards we expect.

Greater freedoms over the school day, week and year; freedom from excessive, centrally-generated bureaucracy and overwhelming government guidance; freedom to decide who to hire, to get involved in ITT and to devise their own CPD; and greater autonomy in tackling poor pupil behaviour, taking a sensible approach to exclusions and keeping order in the classroom.

And, of course, we’ve invited schools to gain greater independence within the state sector by becoming academies.

Already, over half of all secondary schools are open or in the process of opening as academies, teaching over one and a half million children. During March more than 140 schools applied for academy status (the highest rate since May last year) and every month, now, more primaries than secondaries are applying to convert.

In some parts of the country, more than half of all secondary schools are now academies. In some local areas, it’s almost every secondary school.

And these freedoms are already making a difference.

Evidence shows that sponsored academies are improving at twice the rate of other schools, and have been doing so for a decade.

Across the whole Academies programme, rigorous research from the National Audit Office has shown that the attainment rate for FSM pupils in academies improved by 8.3 percentage points between 2009 and 2010 - almost double the national improvement rate for FSM pupils, 4.6 percentage points.

In other words, the best academies are driving up standards for those children who have the worst start in life almost twice as quickly as other schools. And they’re doing it by giving great heads in the state system the freedom you have in the independent sector - to concentrate on education not bureaucracy.

To take one minor but telling example: one head recently told my Department that since becoming an academy his senior staff have saved 43 days a year previously spent in “irrelevant” local authority meetings.

As well as converting and sponsored academies, Free Schools are being established and driving social mobility, particularly in areas where deprivation is high and parents are crying out for new schools - brilliant centres of innovation like King’s Science Academy Bradford, The London Academy of Excellence, West London Free School and Norwich Free School.

Evidence from America has shown that new schools can bring dramatic improvements in school standards, especially schools for poorer children in poor areas.

And true to form, over a third of the 2011 Free School openers are located in the 20 per cent most deprived areas of the country - half in the 30 per cent most deprived areas.

Although it is too early to confirm, the majority of the groups seeking to open a Free School in 2012 or later have proposed sites which are in the 50 per cent most deprived areas of the country.

Beyond all these structural changes, we’re concentrating on the staff who bring schools to life.

The importance of teaching

Richard’s single-minded focus on high-quality teaching at Brighton was rightly singled out by Sunday Times judges as one of the factors in this school’s meteoric success.

And the recent report on social mobility from the all-party-parliamentary group found that teacher quality is not only the number one factor in educational outcomes, it’s the number one factor in narrowing the gap between rich and poor.

One study from the US found that effective teaching can make a difference of a whole additional year of progress to poor pupils.

Yet schools where more than 20 per cent of pupils are eligible for free school meals are more likely to be rated worse in their teaching, and their teachers are less likely to have come from an outstanding teacher training institution.

Through the new network of 200 Teaching Schools and over 600 National Leaders of Education, we’re giving the teaching profession far greater autonomy over school improvement, recruitment, ITT and CPD, nurturing talent in the next generation of teachers and sharing best practice between schools.

We’ve already designated 1000 Specialist Leaders of Education, testament to the prodigious teaching and leadership talent already working in schools today, and we’re providing incentives for the brightest and best graduates to enter the classroom.

We’re targeting these incentives particularly at the crucial subjects of Maths and Sciences - all the more important when more than half of newly qualified maths teachers don’t have a degree in maths.

Nothing, but nothing, is more important than the quality of teaching.


As you will appreciate, this Government is neither idle nor complacent in the face of the inequality which scars our society.

And that is because we know that progress - for individuals or society - is not a matter of laissez-faire but leadership.

And because we recognise that Governments must take sides in debates - we must be for aspiration, ambition, hard work and excellence - for success based on merit and a celebration of those who do succeed.

How will we know if we’ve succeeded - well success may be decided by events far beyond this parliament - will we, for example, ever see a comprehensive boy or girl ever edit the Guardian? Perhaps not in my lifetime…

But - seriously - we know we are making progress when we hear the opposition from vested interests - from those in trade unions who put adults interests before children’s, from those in local Government who put protecting their power before fulfilling children’s potential, from those who have acquiesced in a culture of low expectations who resist any form of accountability for failure.

That opposition is out there - entrenched, organised, vocal and determined - and it is hoping we in the Coalition Government fail - but if we fail then so do thousands more of our poorest children - and we cannot let that happen.

Published 10 May 2012