Elizabeth Truss speaks about delivering world-class schools

Education Minister Elizabeth Truss speaks to The Spectator’s schools conference.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Students working at desks

In 1997 Shakespeare’s Globe was re-established on the South Bank of the Thames after a tireless battle by American actor Sam Wanamaker.

He had thought of the idea while visiting London in 1949. Yet he was to meet fierce resistance.

It’s reported that the leader of Southwark Council in the 1980s asked, and I quote, “What has Shakespeare ever done for Southwark?”.

In February I visited schools across China. In a lesser known city, Wuhan - which you are unlikely to have heard of, although it has 10 million inhabitants - I opened a maths textbook at a random page.

In it, I read about the British mathematician Andrew Wiles - by no means a household name in this country, but honoured in China as the man who solved one of the great mysteries in mathematics, Fermat’s last theorem, in 1994.

I wondered as I looked at it - how many English 14-year-olds would know this? How many Chinese mathematicians do we praise in our textbooks?

Why is it that it takes the Americans and Chinese to celebrate our great intellectual achievements?

Honouring the intellect

For centuries, British brains have made this a better world to live in.

From vaccination to television, the world wide web and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ - from Newton, Stephenson and Woolf, to Faraday, Lovelace and Berners-Lee - British brains invented the world we live in.

But over the course of the 20th century, some people stopped seeing our intellectual achievements as something to celebrate, and started to take them for granted.

We were told by postmodernist philosophers that everything was relative; a rap song was just as valid as a Shakespeare sonnet.

They attacked the idea that there was any absolute value of knowledge, or beauty - pulled down Euston Arch, stripped knowledge out of curricula in schools and teacher training colleges, embraced trendy concepts like ‘new maths’ - as Tom Lehrer joked, “so very simple, that only a child can do it!”

Of course, those cynics and critics had all benefited from a rigorous education themselves.

And the results of their intellectual vandalism are still with us.

Last year’s OECD adult skills survey provided shocking proof.

England was the only country where the literacy and numeracy of 16- to 24-year-olds - just out of school, right at their educational peak - was no better than that of 55- to 65-year-olds who had finished education decades before.

Compare this to countries from Spain to Poland - where 16- to 24-year-olds are performing far better than their grandparents.

Or Korea, which has achieved universal primary and secondary education in 3 decades - and has seen their position in global rankings jump from the bottom 5, for their population above the age of 55, to the top 5, for their 16- to 24-year-olds.

This government is reforming our education system because it’s more important than it’s ever been.

The growth of the internet has democratised knowledge - not lessened its value, but increased it - and pushed the benchmark for education and skills ever higher.

Everyone - from China to Chile - knows that education is the key to the future.

OECD data shows that the correlation between educational performance and economic growth across the globe increased by a third between 1960 to 1980 and 1980 to 2000. The economic return to skills is increasing. The future will be shaped by businesses not even invented yet.

To have children who can’t navigate around this world because they are let down by bad schools is shameful.

Look to the young

But we don’t need to look far to get an antidote to the postmodernists.

Generation Y - who are entering the workplace now - have been dubbed by the Spectator as the Ab Fab Generation, the sensible Saffys compared to the feckless Edinas.

I like to think of them as the ‘enlightened generation’.

More than any other generation that came before, they understand the world they’re living in - a world of unlimited knowledge, and unlimited horizons.

They are more likely to support self-reliance, as the British Social Attitudes survey shows; less likely to engage in damaging, destructive behaviour, like taking drugs.

They are working hard at school. Attendance is up - 130,000 fewer pupils are regularly missing school under this government - and they care more than ever about getting a good education.

They are voting with their feet to study the sort of high-value subjects which universities and employers prefer.

Record numbers of students are taking A level maths - the subject with the highest future earnings - and further maths. 70% of entrants to Cambridge University now have A level maths.

Record numbers of students are now taking GCSE physics - including almost as many girls as boys, finally shrinking a massive gap. Modern languages are also on the rise.

Young people are ambitious - they want to get on in life. The percentage of young people in England going to university has reached a record high - and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are now 70% more likely to enter university than in 2004.

In an internet age, businesses are getting smaller and reaching further. One single idea can change the whole marketplace; anyone can set up a business in their bedroom, and sell it to Yahoo for $30 million.

According to a recent report, more than half of 16- to 25-year-olds want to set up their own business - and 14% are actually doing it.

Giving them the tools to succeed

They want to make their own way - and they’re eager to do it.

We want to make sure they have all the support and encouragement they need to succeed.

That’s why we are supporting aspirational academies, free schools and centres of excellence where young people can earn their passport to success.

Like the King’s Leadership Academy in Warrington, a new free school I visited a few weeks ago - where every classroom is named after a top university, to encourage young people to aim for the best.

Or our music and dance scheme, which means that talented young performers and musicians from all backgrounds can attend world-class training institutions like the Royal Ballet School, where I saw dancers who had not only achieved top academic grades, but secured contracts with companies from the Bolshoi to the Paris Opera Ballet.

Or the new university-run maths free schools at Exeter and Kings, where gifted young mathematicians will have the chance to learn from experts in their field.

These schools not only benefit their own students; they force every other school to raise their game.

Since 2010, the number of children in failing secondary schools has fallen by 250,000.

This is thanks to the hard work of the best generation of teachers ever - who can now be properly rewarded for the work they do.

But we need to make sure that the core knowledge on which the world is structured - maths, language, grammar - is not some kind of elitist indulgence, but every child’s birthright.

That’s why we are raising expectations across the board; reforming tests at age 11 to make sure all children are literate and numerate. In particular, we’re removing calculators from maths tests in primary - to make sure that every child masters the core arithmetic they need for more demanding maths later on.

New core maths qualifications will encourage all young people to study maths right up to age 18 and beyond - giving thousands more young people the chance to benefit from the boost to future pay packets which only maths can give.

And we’re making it clear that maths is for everyone - you study core maths into A levels, or alongside new, improved vocational qualifications as part of the Technical Baccalaureate, or TechBacc.

But knowledge does not stand still. No nation on the planet can afford to be complacent. You need to keep pushing, keep moving forwards - keep equipping children with the latest skills and knowledge they need to succeed.

Our new national curriculum has introduced languages at 7. And I’m pleased that the Confucius Institute is opening the biggest centre of excellence in the training of Mandarin teachers outside China itself, here in London - the hub of a network of teaching centres around the country.

Our new, advanced computing curriculum is world-beating, with computer programming from age 5 - supported by a network of master computer teachers.

But we need to learn more

It’s only right that we improve our expectations, because this generation is hungry for knowledge - they are ready to learn.

And therefore it is vital that our country is ready to learn from the best in the world.

It’s simply not good enough to say that we have nothing to learn from the world leaders who are now our competition.

But that’s what Christine Blower, General Secretary of the NUT, did very recently. In her words:

The United Kingdom performs around the average in mathematics and reading… [it’s] similar to Denmark, France, Iceland, New Zealand and Norway. It is ridiculous to suggest that teachers brought in from China will have any more knowledge or expertise than teachers from other countries or indeed our own.

I say to her: average is not good enough.

If you want to see what happens to countries who don’t seek constant improvement - and who give in to the teaching unions on a regular basis - just look over Offa’s Dyke, to Wales.

Which is now, after abandoning national testing, around 40th in maths - significantly lower than the rest of the UK in all subjects.

Even some of the high-performing Scandinavian countries are seeing their absolute results dropping - and like everyone else, they have to be careful of complacency.

Just look at Finland - for so long a top performer, it’s now seeing countries like Poland (which, back in 2000, was a full year of schooling behind) performing at a similar level, and perhaps starting to overtake.

If countries do improve, it doesn’t just happen by chance - it is a conscious, deliberate, sustained effort.

Just look at the German reforms of the 2000s, after their famous ‘PISA Schock’. Their results forced the country out of complacency, and made them be honest about their educational strengths and weaknesses.

It may have been difficult - and involved major reforms to the school day and curriculum - but it worked, and Germany made huge leaps forward. Even now, they have to watch out, and keep improving - like us, they can’t risk falling behind.

So we are taking every step to drive up standards, right across our education system.

We’re learning from the best, engaging directly with top performers on teacher development and pedagogy.

Our school-led maths hub programme will bring 60 Shanghai teachers to 30 new maths hubs across the country from this September - outstanding schools and great teachers working together to drive up standards in maths teaching. Schools and teachers are already jumping at the chance to get involved – and we’ve received a huge amount of interest.

Teachers will be able to take part in masterclasses on techniques like teaching to the top; setting daily homework and offering regular catch ups to any pupils who are struggling.

This is not a central programme, run out of Whitehall - it’s run by teachers. It is now in schools’ hands how they develop and promote talent. And heads have the power to hire specialist teachers for maths and English in primary to drive up standards still further.

We also want to continue to increase core academic subjects, especially maths, sciences and languages.

Before 2010, the number of pupils studying core academic GCSEs halved.

That trend is now in reverse - almost 50% of pupils took the EBacc last year.

This is vitally important. Encouraging more young people to study core academic subjects is one of the most important ways to help young people from poor backgrounds compete with their more privileged peers.

A study by Edinburgh University showed that choosing subjects like languages, English, maths and science was far more important than whether a child went to an independent, grammar or comprehensive school.

Only around 8% of the advantage transmitted by a middle-class parent to their child was linked to school choice. But subject choice accounted for 23%.

At the moment, not enough of our young people are taking these subjects. More than half of all pupils still don’t take these vital GCSEs.

In Poland and Germany, as in most top performers, all students study these subjects until at least 16.

So I would like that to happen here too.

The school day

But there is more we need to do.

Even if we were to import Shanghai’s school system wholesale - we still wouldn’t get Shanghai’s results.

We need extra. We need to deal with England’s persistent tail of poor performance, the stubborn gap in achievement between top and bottom.

Too many children arrive at school with huge gaps in vocabulary, already behind the rest and then fall even further behind.

The problem has deep roots, so we have to dig deep to fix it - and schools need to do more.

Good heads already realise their responsibility.

Great schools in this country - like St Joseph’s Primary, and Great Yarmouth primary, and Folkestone Academy - already go beyond the classroom and playground to help support parents turn their lives around, to work with 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds before they even start school, to visit parents at home, and even help them to get jobs. Or take the Oasis Academy in Hadley - where I saw a full house of parents learning about maths, so that they could better help their children.

That’s why we want state schools - just like independent schools - to offer a longer school day.

More time after school would give all children a richer blend of extracurricular activities and clubs like debating, orchestras, sports teams and cadets; with more time for structured homework sessions, and all the challenge and support which can help young people from the poorest homes achieve just as highly as their peers.

Research on all-day schooling in Germany shows that regular, long-term participation in high-quality extracurricular activities had a positive impact on academic learning.

We’ve already given all academies and free schools the power to extend the school day and term, which we’re giving every other state school as well - and we have made it easier for schools to stay open longer in the evening and offer on-site childcare.

But we want to go further. So as Michael Gove has said, we would like state schools - just like independent schools - to offer a school day 9 or 10 hours long.


In short, I think as a country there’s a growing understanding of what’s gone wrong.

Yes, there are naysayers - those who talk of the “forgotten 50%” as though half the population doesn’t have any academic aptitude whatsoever.

But try telling that to parents in Shanghai or Singapore - where 92% of young people reach a high level of achievement by 15.

Our culture is shifting - we’re valuing intellectual achievement. The Euston Arch is being reimagined. I don’t think anyone would ask today, “What has Shakespeare ever done for Southwark?”.

Not when 1,000 schools took part in the Shakespeare Schools Festival last year; when Shakespeare’s Globe - an independent organisation with no government funding - is one of the largest arts education charities in the UK, reaching more than 100,000 people every year.

And while we are yet to have Andrew Wiles in British textbooks - we do have a Fields Medallist, Professor Tim Gowers, working on new core maths qualifications for 16- to 18-year-olds; and Professor Martin Hyland and the Cambridge University maths department creating advanced materials for post-16 maths in our schools.

Our universities are already world leading.

With the talent we have, there is no reason why our schools can’t be world leading too; why we can’t, like Poland, catch up with and overtake all the best.

We need to be confident about our intellectual strength and humble about learning from others. That is how British education - and the next generation - can succeed.

Thank you.

Published 3 April 2014