What a pleasure it is to be here at the Education World Forum again.
It has become a unique meeting of education ministers from around the world and I am personally very proud to be here.
It’s so good to see so many of you, not only willing, but eager to share with us what is happening in education in your countries.
I know that ministers in my department have hugely enjoyed recent meetings with ministers from France, Pakistan, the Netherlands, Uruguay, Brazil, Turkey, Canada and others.
To discuss and witness first-hand, areas as diverse as early years, the curriculum, attendance, teacher recruitment and vocational education.
Last month I met with the Japanese education minister, Hiroshie Hase, to discuss values and citizenship. This sharing of ideas and knowledge makes so much sense because of the globalised world in which we live.
Our neighbours may be our competitors, and I make no secret of wanting England to be a world leader in education, but they are also our partners. The truth is that educational performance isn’t a zero-sum game.
I hope that as a result of this forum each of us will feel that what we have learned will strengthen and improve our approach to education policy, which ultimately enables all of us to better extend opportunity for the next generation.
I know there is so much for us to share here and that particular strides forward are being made worldwide on school inspections, curriculums, assessments and performance tables.
The truth is that nobody has perfected every aspect of education policy. And international benchmarking tells us much about what we need to improve.
For instance here in England we know - from the OECD’s library of PISA data alongside their comprehensive ‘Education at a Glance’ and other studies that the gap between our highest and our lowest-performing pupils is substantial compared to other countries.
We know that pupils approaching the end of secondary education do not perform as well as their peers from a number of countries worldwide and that, as a result, they are not as well prepared for the next phase of their life as their international colleagues.
From the same sources we know that other countries achieve incredible levels of performance in different areas and I want us to learn from those jurisdictions: Shanghai and Singapore have quite literally ‘mastered’ the teaching of maths, and we are beginning to unpick how through our successful exchange programmes in the last year.
In Germany only 2.9% of 15- to 19-year-olds are neither in education, employment or training (NEET). In Macao, Hong Kong and Estonia, pupil performance is much less strongly associated with pupil backgrounds than is the case in other countries, including England.
But there are also many exciting things happening here in England and I would like to share some key themes from what is happening here, framed within our conference theme: a new start for learning and skills through the prism of the sustainable development goals.
Sustainable development goals
How appropriate that the sustainable development goals should be our theme this year considering education not only forms one of the 17 goals but informs the targets on many others.
Unlike the millennium development goals that preceded them, the sustainable development goals are outward-focusing; they are not confined either in letter or in spirit to developing nations but - quite rightly - are goals to which all nations should aspire.
And I am so very pleased and proud the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, was so involved in shaping this agenda.
Education as a sustainable development goal
The millennium development goals did much for education - for example, a near 50% decrease in the number of children not in school - but the focus needed to be widened beyond access to education in general. I think sustainable development goal 4 does exactly that.
It calls for us to:
“Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning for all.”
There are 10 targets attached to it and the first of these is about ensuring all children complete free, quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes.
I think this is crucial for 2 reasons. The first key component is quality. That is to say it isn’t enough simply to have access to education but the provision must be excellent too.
Here in England we have made it our mission to spread educational excellence everywhere.
As I said last year at this forum, all children deserve excellent teachers. Countries like Korea and Japan have demonstrated that this is possible.
Here in England we are introducing a national teaching service to deploy our best teachers and best school leaders to areas that have struggled to recruit and have the most need of new teachers. Our Prime Minister, David Cameron, said just last week that we should give all young people the opportunity to dream big.
To do that our young people need an excellent grounding in education and so we have sought to raise standards at every tier of education and every level of ability.
This time last year we declared our determination to tackle illiteracy and innumeracy for primary school students.
Additionally, in our manifesto last year we committed to matching the standards of reading of the best readers in Europe.
It is a high bar but we want the very best for our young people. Because we know that maths and English are non-negotiable for future success.
And let me say something about knowledge. There are those who say that a knowledge based education system is outdated. They claim that our young people need only creativity, imagination and critical thinking skills to get on in life.
Don’t get me wrong - they do need those. But my view is that these skills cannot be acquired without an excellent knowledge base.
Renowned cognitive psychologists like Daniel T. Willingham have produced compelling research to suggest that knowledge is crucial to educational success.
We have therefore focussed on a rigorous, quality curriculum that accepts knowledge as a necessity in the pursuit of skills.
The second key component is the call for education to lead to relevant and effective learning outcomes.
For me this means that the education we are offering to young people should prepare them for their future.
One of the ministers in my department visited an innovative project in Norway recently. The Jåttå School offers 6 vocational routes which are the basis for around 100 individual occupations.
The minister was impressed by the school’s approach to building partnerships with other vocational schools, community leaders and employers - noting that its focus on achieving excellent career outcomes for its pupils.
Its success is marked by the fact that it is highly oversubscribed.
Here in England we have stripped away outdated vocational training courses that failed to give young people any advantage in the jobs market and have overseen the opening of university technical colleges.
These are specialist colleges for 14- to 19-year-olds, sponsored by universities; they teach the national curriculum alongside high-quality vocational courses.
They are designed to give their students the skills employers really want.
They are focused on knowledge as well as outcomes.
We have done more than any government before us to bring business leaders - both big business and small and medium-size enterprises - into the process of education as well as its governance.
We now have business sponsoring schools, acting as non-executive directors, shaping school mission statements, informing curriculums and driving careers advice.
This is because we take the view that business knows what business needs and with their expertise, complementing the work of excellent schools, we can truly deliver a truly excellent education system. One that ensures our school leavers are workforce ready.
Character and resilience
We believe there is another component that is vital if our young people are to succeed in life and that is character.
I’m talking about the grit, resilience and determination: the ability to work with others, to be humble in the face of success, to bounce back from life’s disappointments.
We are convinced that where character education can complement excellent academic study our students can become the well-rounded citizens we really want them to be.
We are looking at innovative ways of bringing character education into schools which includes input from our sports people, first-aiders, social enterprises - with trials happening up and down the country.
Just this week I am meeting a former England Rugby Captain and World Cup winner to discuss character education. He knows what it’s like to be under pressure, win or lose.
The mentality of an elite sports team is built around the idea of pursuing success collectively - working together, complementing each other’s skills and having clear measures of what success should look like.
This is the mentality any company, whether it’s a small business or a large corporation, expects from its workforce.
We want to give our young people as much opportunity as possible to build their character and we have directed funding towards this important educational tool.
Over the coming years we are confident that we can become a world leader in character education.
As ever, it is a real pleasure to come to this forum and I look forward to seeing many of you at the BETT fair on Wednesday too.
I think the sustainable development goals give us an excellent opportunity to refocus education policy and truly have a new start for learning and skills.
We need to ensure that it isn’t just access to education we offer but access to quality education. That our education systems are designed to lead to the outcomes our students and our economies need and want.
And that our school leavers are workforce ready through the character and resilience building they need to get on in life.
Education can be truly life transforming and is the most powerful tool we have to respond to this challenging world. And our challenges are many - economic change, climate change, inequality and extremism to name but a few.
Let’s resolve to continue to work together, to share knowledge of what works and what doesn’t, and to pursue the sustainable development goals for the good of our global community.