It is a pleasure to be here at this Spectator Conference - and to have the chance to debate the future of our children’s education - not least because the Spectator is intimately involved in shaping that future.
One Spectator writer - the editor Fraser Nelson - has been the most powerful advocate in Britain today for educational reform and, in particular, for learning from other nations like Sweden which have pioneered disruptive innovation.
And talking of disruptive innovators - another Spectator writer, Toby Young, has shaken up education provision in London by doing what so few writers dare to do and testing his ideas in the real world - by setting up in Hammersmith the sort of school he has long argued for in the Spectator.
That school has been a runaway success, offering a rigorous academic education to a socially comprehensive intake, and has become - just months after being established - one of the most over-subscribed schools in the country. Even more popular than schools blessed by the good luck to have Fiona Millar as a governor.
And today’s conference affirms the importance of two principles the Spectator has consistently championed.
Demanding higher standards for all children.
And learning from those nations which have the best performing schools - and the societies in which opportunity is most equal.
Learning from others
So I’ve been eager to find out more about educational transformation in Sweden and Finland, in Singapore and Shanghai, in Australia and New Zealand, in Jeb Bush’s Florida and Michelle Rhee’s DC.
But perhaps the most powerful lesson from abroad that I’ve learned in this job comes from Kenya - from the Masai people of that nation.
Whenever one Masai greets another they ask a question - Kasserian Ingera? Not “how do you do” or “how’s it going”, but “how are the children”? It’s wonderfully revealing about the values of Masai society - their first concern is the next generation.
And the hoped-for reply is equally revealing: “all the children are well”. Not my children. Not some of the children. All the children are well. For the Masai, society cannot be well unless all the children are well.
The question the Masai ask each other is revealing not just of their society - but of ours.
Whatever tests we set ourselves - and whatever achievements we boast of - the question that goes to the heart of the health of our society should be the same - how are the children?
Our failure to our children
Well, all the children are not well.
We are not putting our children first, not respecting the first duty any generation must discharge - to leave the world a better place for those who follow us.
We should be seeking to leave our children an inheritance enriched by our efforts - designed to be shared among all.
But we have been doing precisely the opposite.
We have been depriving our children - depriving them of the share of our nation’s wealth that is properly theirs, depriving them of the protection from abuse and neglect they deserve, depriving them of the opportunities for fulfilment that should be theirs by right and depriving them of the education they need to make them masters of their own fate.
The economic deprivation adults have inflicted on children
The first deprivation we have inflicted on our children is economic.
It is a tragedy that so many children still grow up in poverty - in households without work or the prospect of work.
It is a reproach to all of us that so many children grow up in communities where they are destined to be dependent on the state rather than enjoying the dignity of independence.
And it is unforgivable that our children’s future income has already been taken from them - by a generation who robbed those they claimed to live for.
The extent of worklessness and welfare dependency in our society is a moral issue. Unemployment doesn’t just undermine self-worth and erode self-confidence; it acts against every noble human impulse. It makes it more difficult to save for the future, to marry and bring up children, to buy a house and put down roots, to devote time and resources to others. It is a waste of both talent, and potential.
Which is why the Prime Minister and Iain Duncan Smith are so right to reform our welfare system to encourage and incentivise work. And it is why we have to ask of any Government policy - will it make easier for people to find employment, or does it raise the cost of giving someone a job?
In a world of competing priorities we have to put our children first - and that means setting aside other, perhaps desirable goals, which make it harder for companies to give young people jobs and hope.
That is why the review of bureaucracy in the workplace that Vince Cable and his team are undertaking is so vital - to liberate the private sector to deliver the greatest public good, fighting unemployment.
There is of course one drag on job creation even greater than over-regulation and a dysfunctional welfare system.
As Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Rheinhart have persuasively demonstrated in their comprehensive analysis of economic crashes - This Time is Different - when a nation’s debt gets beyond a certain level it acts as a powerful and, historically, often catastrophic brake on growth. Unless nations can show they are bringing their deficits (and then their debts) under control then growth will continue to elude them.
That was the lesson the Clinton Democrats and the Canadian Liberals recognised in the 90s but some on the centre-left forget today - reducing Government debt is a core progressive mission. Unless you bring debt under control you will not have the climate in which new jobs are created; you will not have an economy that serves the people.
But there is an even more powerfully progressive reason why we need to tackle our debt problems. Because Governments which borrow money are basically financing their current consumption by saying others will pay more for it later. And those others are our children.
A Government - and indeed individuals - who borrow at the levels we’ve seen in the last decade are asking the next generation to pick up the bill - loading up either bigger future tax increases, which steal their income, or requiring greater future spending cuts. No-one I know could defend the act of stealing from children - but that is what the economic policy of the last decade of debt has meant.
Which is why if we want all our children to be well - to inherit an economy that provides opportunity not permanent austerity - we need to reduce our deficit now - and cut debt back.
The failure to protect the most vulnerable
As well as depriving all our children economically, we have also been depriving many of them of the security they need in their earliest years.
One of the saddest parts of my job is reading the serious case reviews which follow incidents when children have been dreadfully abused or neglected.
They are haunting records of blighted lives, in many cases the dreadful final chapter of lives cut short by unspeakable cruelty.
They cover tragedies as disparate as babies like Peter Connelly, killed by those who should have cared for him, or the young woman stabbed in Rotherham by one of the men who sexually abused her because years of neglect had left her vulnerable to exploitation.
But while the cases cover so many tragedies, one lesson comes through relentlessly.
We have failed to be anything like assertive enough in challenging bad parents and supporting good ones.
Critically, we have left children in the hands of adults who are incapable of caring effectively, who either abuse or acquiesce in the abuse of innocents, who inhabit homes where violence is an everyday visitor and love never enters.
And when generous adults have come forward to offer these children a home, instead of doing everything to rescue these children and place them in loving arms we have placed a series of bureaucratic barriers and politically correct protocols in their way.
The children we have left to grow up in squalor - physical and moral - become the adults without hope, the recruits for gangs, the victims of sexual exploitation, the saddest casualties of selfishness in our whole society.
That is why it is so important that we reform our care system, to get more children out of abusive homes and placed with adoptive parents, ensure social workers challenge poor parenting and neglect and get everyone who works with children working better together to help the vulnerable escape from abuse. And the work my colleagues Tim Loughton and Sarah Teather have done alongside Martin Narey has ensured that those children most in need will be protected in the future.
We cannot claim all our children are well when so many suffer so terribly - that is why the State must act to put right what selfish and abusive individuals have done wrong.
The State must also act - clearly, assertively, determinedly - to ensure not just security for every child in the earliest years - but also opportunity.
The historic failure to make opportunity truly equal
Sadly, the test which our nation has most clearly failed - generation after generation - is the extension of educational opportunity to all our children.
England boasts some of the very best educational institutions in the world - whether universities, fee-paying schools or state schools.
Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial and UCL are world class.
As are Eton, St Paul’s, Wellington and Winchester.
As are the academies of the Harris and Ark chains, faith schools like Cardinal Vaughan and Hasmonean and comprehensives like Perry Beeches and Arthur Terry in Birmingham.
But while we should celebrate excellence - wherever it occurs - and take encouragement from the improvements in our education system put in place over the years by Kenneth Baker, David Blunkett, Tony Blair, Michael Barber and Andrew Adonis - we have to recognise that the fundamental problem with our schools is that not enough of them are good enough - and hundreds of thousands of our children are suffering as a result.
We have one of the most segregated and stratified education systems in the developed world - only the USA and Luxembourg are more unequal.
We suffer from assumptions formed in the past that only a minority were ever able to attain academic excellence.
We used to have a system which educated the top 25%, the A stream, those favoured by wealth or exceptional talent, exceptionally well. But which failed to stretch, develop and challenge the majority.
I don’t believe an educational system which fails to give every child the chance to excel is morally defensible.
Whether you are on the left or right - a believer in social justice or natural law - a fighter for social solidarity or a believer in the worth of every individual soul - it cannot be right to deny any child access to excellence, to the best that has been thought and written.
That is every child’s inheritance, which none should be denied.
But even if you think that vision is too idealistic (and if you do, you will have to tell me which parents and which children you will bar from access to excellence) it is now, beyond doubt, an act of economic idiocy to perpetuate a system of educational inequality.
The nature of the globalised economy means that individuals and societies will only flourish if they become ever more highly educated.
Over the last twenty years the economic return to skills - the premium earned by the educated - has soared.
And at the same time the number of routine jobs in developed economies - manual, clerical and managerial - has declined. These jobs have either been exported offshore or have been rendered permanently redundant by technology.
Manufacturing businesses which once required assembly lines thickly populated by workers bashing metal now rely on one highly skilled technician using advanced robotics.
An education system which itself produces only a few highly skilled graduates and bashes out many more unskilled or low skilled school leavers will only cripple any country’s competitiveness. Not to reform education is to settle for stagnation.
The ironclad link between educational failure and youth unemployment
And it is in those parts of our country where education has been least reformed where economic stagnation is most prevalent.
The parts of our country most scarred by youth unemployment, where hope for the future is most elusive, are those with our worst schools.
Where there are poorly performing local authorities, and hundreds and thousands of children go to schools which consistently underperform, year after year.
And the reason those children have been failed is the persistence of a fatalistic culture of low expectations and shop-worn excuses.
We have failed to hold these children’s schools to the highest standards, failed to demand they educate children as well here as they are educated in other nations, failed to ensure that children come first in every thing we do.
In America the assumption that some children are bound to do less well academically because of their background has been styled “the soft bigotry of low expectations”.
In this country we have had a similar attitude at work - the persistent prejudice against excellence which makes everything an excuse for failure and never demands or expects success.
Adults blame children’s home backgrounds, or economic circumstances, for the failure to teach them properly and rigorously.
Adults - when confronted with children’s poor performance – say, “well, what can you expect with these sort of children?”
Adults - when schools are indisciplined and disorderly - blame the children instead of asking who is responsible for establishing authority in the first place.
Adults - when asked why children aren’t achieving good academic results - shift the conversation away from individual children and on to their own ideology - we are a creative school here, or a community hub, or at the centre of a multi-agency approach to delivering public services
Well, these may all be things adults like to boast about - but what about the children? Are they being introduced to excellence, are their minds being stretched, are they learning self-discipline, deferred gratification and the importance of hard work?
Are they on course to get the qualifications which will allow them to choose whether they go into work, go onto further education or opt for university? Or will they be denied those qualifications, denied their own choice over their futures, denied the chance to succeed? Because adults have preferred to settle for a quiet life rather than give children a better life.
I think it’s time we put children first.
All our children.
And that must begin by setting higher than ever expectations for every child.
And if you doubt the corrosive, life-impairing impact of low expectations, consider the state of our school qualifications system.
The errors of the past - entrenching low expectations for a generation
For a decade now we have steered hundreds of thousands of young people towards courses and qualifications which are called vocational even though employers don’t rate them and which have been judged to be equivalent in league tables to one - or sometimes more – GCSEs, even though no-one really imagines they were in any way equivalent.
Whether they were called Level 2 Btecs or Diplomas, these qualifications and courses lacked rigour, they were not externally assessed, they did not provide a route onto other qualifications, they did not confer skills which employers valued and they were overwhelmingly taught to those students marked down at an early age as under-achievers.
The students were told these qualifications would equal up to 4 GCSEs - but employers regarded them as worth much less than a single GCSE.
Indeed, as Professor Alison Wolf pointed out in her universally-praised study of vocational education, possession of some of these qualifications actually lowered the earning power of students by marking them down as under-performing and under-achieving before they even entered the labour market.
But even though these qualifications held children back they were taught by adults because they counted in league tables. Adults who wanted to keep their positions, and keep their schools’ league table positions, used these qualifications to inflate their schools’ performance in these tables. Adults put their own interests before children.
When the last Government opted for a welcome reform of these league tables - and insisted that English and Maths be included in the five GCSE passes by which schools would be measured - there was a predictable outcry from the usual suspects: this was going back to the 1950s, this was squeezing creativity out of the curriculum, this was denigrating alternative ways of learning, this was creating a new hierarchy of subjects, this was recreating an old hierarchy of subjects, this was unfair on students whose backgrounds did not conform to bourgeois expectations and so on…
But while adults complained, at least more children were taught to acquire qualifications which mattered. It was a step forward - but it was still progress made on fundamentally unsound foundations.
Because GCSEs themselves - including those in English, Maths and Science - had been losing their value over time.
Authoritative voices had given warning. Sir Michael Barber feared GCSEs were becoming less rigorous. Durham University showed that GCSEs had become less demanding by a whole grade between 1996 and 2006. The Royal Society of Chemistry noted there had been a catastrophic slippage in science standards in GCSE in 2009. Sir Terry Leahy described GCSE standards as “woefully low” in 2009. The independent exams regulator Ofqual confirmed that questions in maths and science papers had become less demanding over the years.
As other nations asked more of their schools we asked less, as other countries gave their children more knowledge, we gave ours less.
But for the adults who were running our political system - and our exams - there was nothing wrong with this situation. Politicians took the credit for ever rising exam performance - and exam boards took the profits from a system which incentivised dumbing down.
Exam boards competed for custom on the basis that their exams were easier to pass than others. They got round the demand for rigour - for example the requirement to include questions on Shakespeare’s dramas - by letting schools know which act and which lines would be examined, whole terms in advance of the papers being sat. They organised seminars in which examiners tipped off teachers on the questions to be asked. They sold study aids which coached students in the exam strategies and mark schemes required to secure good passes. They made a virtue out of helping adults game the system - cheating children of their futures.
And a culture of low expectations was further reinforced by the creation of two different kinds of GCSE - one which explicitly placed a cap on aspiration.
Important GCSEs like English, Maths and the Sciences were split into two tiers, Foundation and Higher.
The Foundation paper was designed to limit students’ success. It is impossible for students entered for Foundation tier papers to achieve higher than a grade C.
Impossible, in other words, for thousands of students to achieve the most basic grade which is respected by employers, which counts in league tables; impossible for them to achieve the grade B or above which many colleges require to allow progress to A Level.
The very act of entering a child for a Foundation Tier paper is a way of saying - don’t get above yourself - A levels are not for you.
Even colleges which set grade C as an entry requirement often demand a grade C from a higher tier paper – because they treat higher and lower tier GCSEs as separate examinations.
And while the division of exams between Foundation and Higher tiers incarnated low expectations, that was far from the only problem with the structure of these qualifications.
The exam system encouraged rote learning of isolated gobbets of information and schooling in narrow exam techniques rather than deep understanding.
Ministers allowed modules and resits to proliferate, conniving at this reduction in demand. The exam boards made even more money. And our children were even less stretched, challenged or excited.
That is why we have to reform our whole discredited curriculum and examination system. It has worked against excellence and ambition, just when we need more excellence and greater ambition.
Steps towards greater rigour
We have already taken some steps to improve things - ending modules and resits, insisting there be proper marks given once more for correct spelling, punctuation and grammar, ending corrupt coaching sessions and insisting we look beyond our shores for meaningful comparisons of an examination’s rigour.
It is not good enough to measure ourselves against the past - especially when that measure has been debased and devalued - we have to measure ourselves against the best and be as ambitious for our children as other countries are.
We need to have a system where exam boards compete to show their tests are the most ambitious, not the easiest. We need to replace rote learning and lessons in exam technique with deep knowledge and questions which test understanding. We need to have English tests which require fluent composition, a proper knowledge of syntax and grammar and familiarity with literature beyond the twentieth century. We need to have maths tests which provide students and employers with a guarantee of basic numeracy and the knowledge to progress down both technical and academic routes. We need science tests which require students to understand the forces, laws and reactions which govern our world and to use the scientific reasoning which tests hypotheses and establishes the strength of theories.
I know some will say that it is too ambitious to aim this high.
But we have to be ambitious because we are living through a revolution in learning. Knowledge is being democratised as never before. And if our young people are to benefit they need to be stretched as never before.
The best universities in the world, from Stanford, Harvard and MIT in America to Oxford and Cambridge in England are allowing many more people to benefit from the teaching which was once restricted to the privileged few who lived on campus.
Professor Michael Sandel - the brilliant Harvard academic who argues that some of the most important things in life are those which money can’t buy - has put his moral philosophy where his mouth is by putting his lectures online for free. And his lectures are just one of many academic resources and interactive courses which universities are putting free online.
Such developments are shaking the foundations of traditional universities and schools. They give everybody on earth the chance to learn from the best teachers and the best materials.
This means that establishing strong foundations in English, Maths and Science are particularly important. With such foundations, pupils will have the tools to access this new world; without them, this new world will be shut off to them.
Many children who now do not think of themselves as academic will be excited by online courses in computer science and coding - they will want to access the programmes in personal fabrication run by MIT - but they will only be able to enjoy these opportunities if we have ensured they have good foundations in English and Maths in the first place.
Setting the bar higher
I want us to ensure that in the next ten years at least 80% of our young people are on course to securing good passes in properly testing exams in Maths, English and Science - more rigorous than those our children sit now.
This goal, while explicitly ambitious, is also entirely achievable. In Singapore the exams designed for 16-year-olds embody all those virtues and are taken successfully by 80% - and rising - of the population.
Those exams - O-levels, as it happens, drawn up by examiners in this country - set a level of aspiration for every child which helps ensure Singapore remains a world leader in education.
But there is nothing intrinsic to Singapore schools - or Singapore children - which means that we cannot do the same here. The schools there are not better funded. The class sizes are not smaller. The children are not innately more intelligent.
The culture, however, is orientated towards excellence, demanding of every child, and democratic in its determination that every child should be expected to succeed.
For those who say it can’t happen here - I would ask why our children are worth less of our care and less worthy of our ambitions than children in Singapore?
And for those who say it would take years for any such culture change to occur here - I say - we can’t wait. Our children only have one chance at education and we need to ensure they can succeed now.
And for those who say performance like that can only occur in states, societies or neighbourhoods favoured by the privileged and insulated by wealth - I say - come to Hackney.
As Arne Duncan did.
When the US Education Secretary came to London he was encouraged to visit Hackney at the instigation of Sir Michael Barber, and Mossbourne Community Academy at the invitation of Sir Michael Wilshaw.
Mossbourne - like Singapore - gets 80% of its children to attain a clutch of good exam passes at 16. Many of those children are on the special educational needs register, come from the poorest families or homes where English is scarcely spoken. And yet they outperform our national average by a massive margin.
When the US Education Secretary had finished visiting Mossbourne - and seen the children from the poorest backgrounds mastering foreign languages with ease, enjoying discussions of history and literature, rehearsing for classical music performances and conducting sophisticated scientific experiments - he gave me a simple piece of advice:
You should ask yourself why isn’t every school as good as this - and you should ask every principal you meet when their school is going to be as good as this.
That is the question our new Chief Inspector (the former headmaster of Mossbourne) has been asking over the last six months. There have been all sorts of excuses from all manner of adults as to why they haven’t been able to match his performance. But every excuse is another justification for letting children down.
Because we know that it is possible - in the most challenging circumstances - to match what Mossbourne has achieved. The Harris Academies, ARK academies such as Burlington Danes and Walworth Academy, schools in Birmingham such as Perry Beeches or Arthur Terry, the Ormiston Victory Academy outside Norwich, Paddington Academy, Outwood Grange near Leeds - they all show that academic excellence is possible if we are sufficiently ambitious.
Consider the case of Crystal Palace City Academy, part of the Harris Federation. In its final year as a LEA school, only 9% of pupils achieved 5 GCSEs at A*-C. Last year, 100% did (95% with English and Maths). Or another Harris school – South Norwood – where 29% of pupils reached that measure in its last year as an LEA school; 100% last year.
If you doubt transformative change is possible reflect on the example of the ARK Academies, which have seen an average increase of 23 percentage points over the last two years in the number of pupils achieving 5 good GCSEs including English and Maths.
And dramatically higher expectations can be set at primary as well as secondary.
There are existing primaries - Thomas Jones in West London, Woodpecker Hall in North London, Durand Academy in South London and Old Ford in East London - which draw children overwhelmingly from poorer homes and ensure that every child meets the necessary standards in literacy and numeracy, with many children soaring above national expectations.
Zero tolerance for school failure
Given these successes, I have to ask: why is it that there are hundreds of secondary schools where more than half of children fail to get even five current GCSE passes including English and maths?
Why did more than one in ten pupils not achieve a single GCSE last year at grade D or above?
And why are there more than one thousand primaries where more than forty per cent of children fail to reach acceptable standards in literacy and numeracy?
How can we accept so many children being failed?
Well, I can’t.
Which is why we are acting with all the urgency we can to save the children in those schools from more years of failure.
We are accelerating the academies programme as fast as we can - taking chronically under-performing schools out of the control of the bureaucracies which have failed them, either removing their leadership or providing their leaders with new support, and placing the schools in the hands of those with a track record of educational success.
We are asking existing academy groups like ARK and Harris to take over more under-performing schools. And we are getting more existing high-performing schools to become academies and take over under-performing neighbours. So our best school leaders are taking over the management of our weakest schools.
They’re achieving amazing things.
Like E-ACT Blackley Academy, in Manchester. Formerly a community primary school in a deprived area, in and out of special measures, poorly led and unpopular with parents, the new Academy is now oversubscribed and hugely popular, with better attendance, better ethos, better teachers (50% of whom are new) and better relations with the community.
Or Horizon Primary Academy in Swanley, backed by the strong sponsorship of the Kemnal Academies Trust – which has now got a grip of its mismanaged finances, transformed its underperforming workforce, and seen pupil attainment soaring, with some children making more than double the expected annual progress.
Overall, research shows that academies are improving at twice the rate of other schools, and have been doing so for a decade.
New research released today by the Department for Education shows the staggering impact of academy status on some of the poorest schools in the country.
It shows that, between 2005/06 and 2010/11, results for pupils in Sponsored Academies improved by 27.7 percentage points - a faster rate than in other state-funded schools (14.2%) and a faster rate than in a group of similar schools (21.3%).
The longer sponsored academies had been open – and therefore the longer their pupils had been taught in the academy, rather than in the old, failing school – the greater the improvement in pupils’ results.
These increases are particularly impressive for the most vulnerable pupils.
Pupils eligible for Free School Meals or with Special Educational Needs perform better in sponsored academies, and are improving faster, than similar pupils in other state-funded schools.
In attainment and in pupil progress, for pupils from the most deprived backgrounds and for those with the most challenging needs, sponsored academies score more highly across the board than other state-funded schools. The longer the academy had been open, the larger and more secure these improvements became.
So far in this parliament we have allowed 1513 schools to convert to academy status - all of them pledged to help under-performing schools.
135 under-performing secondary schools have been fully taken over and re-opened as new academies and the numbers are set to rise further in September.
We have also extended the academy programme to primary schools. At the beginning of this year I set a target to ensure 200 of the weakest primary schools were taken over and became new academies. Some of those schools - like Downhills in Haringey - attracted attention. Others did not.
But thanks to the amazing work of a dedicated team of officials, 220 of the most chronic underperforming primary schools – more than our target – now have agreements in place to become sponsored academies. Just last week saw the decision that Downhills will become an academy in the high-performing Harris chain.
34 of these new sponsored academies are already open, and a further 166 are on track to open by the end of 2012.
It seems to me that having reached that milestone, now is the time to accelerate - and in particular to increase our ambition for those areas of our country where concentrations of poor schools are failing communities of poor children.
So in the next year I want to extend our academies programme to tackle the entrenched culture of under-achievement in parts of the country where children are being failed.
We will seek sponsors for every primary school in the country which is in Special Measures or the Ofsted category “Notice to Improve”.
And we are inviting more new sponsors to come forward. Brilliant schools, and strong dioceses; existing academy sponsor organisations, and new federations.
I can today announce a new fund to help create the Harris and ARK sponsors of the future – by funding charities, schools, colleges and others to become Academy sponsors.
They are the engine of school improvement – and we want to take off the brakes, so they can go further, faster.
We will also identify the areas with the highest concentration of underperforming schools.
These are parts of the country where children are being let down, year after year after year – and where the alternative options available to parents are poor, or non-existent.
It would be morally reprehensible to allow this situation to continue any longer, and we will not allow it. We need to intervene at every point to help those children.
We need to ensure they have a high quality nursery education - and my colleague Sarah Teather is leading that work. We need to attract more talented graduates into teaching - especially in the poorest areas - and the new head of the Teaching Agency, former head Charlie Taylor, will look at designing incentives to do just that. We need to expand programmes that bring talented people into teaching - like Teach First - and Brett Wigdortz and his team are doing just that. We need to set more demanding targets in our primary curriculum - and my colleague Nick Gibb has outlined how we can do that. We need a funding system which helps the poorest most - and Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander and David Laws have helped design a pupil premium which does just that. We need to give high quality teachers even better opportunities to improve the work they do - and the new network of Teaching schools set up by the National College’s Steve Munby is delivering that support. And we need to create more new schools to generate innovation, raise expectations, give parents choice and drive up standards through competition – and thanks to my colleague Jonathan Hill and hundreds of idealistic groups planning to set up new free schools, we can offer many more children many more opportunities.
But it is critical that we become even more ambitious for these children - improving the qualifications they take at 16, entrenching a culture of higher expectations, insisting that those who don’t secure decent passes in subjects like maths at 16 carry on studying maths until the age of 18, developing new programmes of study and curricula driven by great schools and top academics which deploy new technology to make new demands.
That is why exams and curriculum reform is so important.
But these necessary changes - driven from the centre but created on the ground - will require schools to be built around children.
That is why the academies movement is so important. Because as Tony Blair pointed out an academy exists not to fit into a council’s plans, not to meet a bureaucracy’s needs and not to provide adults with a platform for their ideology but for children.
In academies staff are not held back by the terms and conditions, the restrictive practices, which work against children’s welfare. The school day can be longer - built around children’s needs. The petty rules which prevent teachers in other schools putting up wall displays or covering for absent staff can be set aside in academies - so the whole culture puts children first.
And that is what our whole society needs to do - what our politics must achieve - putting children first.
Making sure every child grows up in safety, has an education which makes demands of them and then liberates them to enjoy the degree, the job, the future which they choose.
That is the driving moral purpose of the whole coalition Government - to use the unique opportunity of two parties coming together to make decisions for the long term - for our children. All our children.
Freeing them from the crushing burden of debt which threatens their employment.
Liberating them from the forces which risk keeping them in idleness and dependence.
And raising the expectations of what they must achieve.
So when any people asks us - how are the children - we can answer with confidence and pride - all the children are well.