I am delighted to be here this morning and particularly pleased to have the chance to thank you all - and the National Society generally - for the wonderful contribution you make to education in this country.
Now I am sure that ministers of all parties come along and start their speeches like that, but for what it is worth, I say it as someone who likes choice and variety; is drawn to a patchwork quilt of provision rather than some neat and tidy - and soulless - uniformity, and; is instinctively mistrustful of the state.
All of which makes me a natural fan of Church of England schools, even before citing any evidence that Church of England schools get excellent results and are extremely popular with parents.
And yet - somewhat to my surprise - I find myself having to stick up for faith schools. It is something I am very happy to do, but it is perhaps indicative of how secularist parts of society have become.
It is also all the more extraordinary when one reflects on what the National Society has done for children in this country since its foundation in 1811.
It is astonishing to think that, in the forty years to 1851, the Church of England established 17,000 schools in parishes up and down the land. Free Schools, eat your heart out.
Decades before the state stepped in, in 1870, it was the Church that taught the poor and needy to read and write - spreading knowledge and enlightenment where before there had been ignorance.
I know it is the same moral purpose which drives you today.
Like us, you worry about the gap in achievement between rich and poor, and are anxious to extend opportunity to those in poorest areas.
And I am sure that it was because of that great moral purpose - and in keeping with your historic mission - that the Church of England was among the first to recognise the importance, and potential, of the Academies programme and, of course, became one of the first sponsors.
Now, academies are a subject close to my heart. On my second day in the House of Lords, I had to introduce the Academies Bill and, for two rather crazy months, I did little else but think and, I’m sad to say, dream about the Bill.
Some people accused us of rushing it through, of reaching for the legislative lever too quickly - but my view was, and is, that it was vital to give schools the chance to have these freedoms on behalf of their children as soon as possible.
Children only get one crack at education and we have to give them the best possible chance to succeed. So, yes, the Secretary of State and I were impatient to get on with doing so.
But that brings me to an extremely important point about our overall approach. It is permissive, not coercive. Some schools might not want, ever, to go down the academy route. They might feel that their relationship with their local authority is so good that they don’t want to lose it. Or that greater freedom and control over their budgets, staffing and the curriculum aren’t going to help them give children the best possible chance to succeed.
If that is the case, we fully respect that. We are not seeking to impose a one-size-fits-all solution on every school. If you believe in freedom, I think you should allow people to exercise it - or not - as they think fit.
So we are also introducing greater freedom for all schools. That is why we’ve abolished the self-evaluation form, reduced the data collection burden and told Ofsted to slim down its inspection criteria. We will also be slimming down the National Curriculum, making governance simpler and financial management less onerous. All of these steps will give schools more freedom to concentrate on their core responsibilities - teaching and learning.
Our schools white paper, to be published later this month, will set out a comprehensive reform programme for this Parliament to raise the bar for every school, close the gap between rich and poor, and ensure our education system can match the best in the world.
When you look at the statistics you can see how urgent the need for reform is.
Still a long way to go
In the last ten years we have fallen behind other countries in the international league tables of school performance - falling from fourth in the world for science to fourteenth, seventh in the world for literacy to seventeenth and eighth in the world for maths to twenty-fourth.
And at the same time, studies such as those undertaken by UNICEF and the OECD underline that we have one of the most unequal educational systems in the world, coming near bottom out of 57 for educational equity with one of the biggest gulfs between independent and state schools of any developed nation.
The huge numbers of talented young people who still do not achieve as they should means we need to change.
And so too does the fact that other nations have been forging ahead much faster and further when it comes to improving their education systems.
Global race for knowledge
Across the globe, other nations - including those with the best-performing and fastest-reforming education systems - are granting more autonomy for individual schools.
In America, President Obama is encouraging the creation of more charter schools - the equivalent of our Free Schools and academies.
In Canada, specifically in Alberta, schools have been given more control over budgets and power to shape their own ethos and environment. Alberta now has the best-performing state schools of any English-speaking region.
In Sweden, the system has opened up to allow new schools to be set up by a range of providers. Results have improved, with the biggest gains of all where schools have the greatest freedoms and parents the widest choice.
And in Singapore, often cited as an exemplar of centralism, dramatic leaps in attainment have been secured by schools where principals are exercising a progressively greater degree of operational autonomy.
These governments have deliberately encouraged greater diversity in the schools system and, as the scope for innovation has grown, so too has their competitive advantage over other nations.
The good news in England is that there are already some great success stories here to draw on. In the five or so years after 1988, the last Conservative Government created 15 city technology colleges. They are all-ability comprehensives, overwhelmingly located in poorer areas, but they enjoy much greater independence than other schools.
They have also been a huge success. The proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals in CTCs who achieve five or more good GCSEs A* to C is more than twice as high as for all maintained mainstream schools.
These results were replicated by the group of schools that were turned into academies under the last Government.
I am delighted that so many parents and school leaders have seen how academies can improve performance, with academies securing improvements at GCSE level twice as fast as other schools and the best academy chains doing much, much better than that.
Back in 2005, the white paper promised that all schools would, in time, be able to enjoy academy freedoms - but sadly these freedoms were curtailed. A ceiling of 400 academies was placed on the programme and primaries were refused entry.
The Academies Act removed both of these barriers to the rapid expansion of the programme by giving all schools, including special schools, the chance to take on academy status - starting with those rated outstanding by Ofsted.
Since the start of this school year, 144 academies have opened - more than one for every working day of the term. A further 70 are due to open in the coming months.
Just under half of these replaced failing schools, and we will continue to challenge schools that are struggling; either they improve fast or they will have their management replaced by an academy sponsor, or an outstanding school, with a proven track record.
That is why the Secretary of State wrote to local authorities earlier this month confirming that we want to work with them to consider whether there are schools in their areas where attainment and pupil progression are both low and where they lack the capacity to improve themselves. And we have also actively encouraged sponsors to work directly with local authorities to do so too.
All of the schools that have converted now have the freedom to shape their own curriculum; they are at liberty to insist on tougher discipline, pay staff more, extend school hours, and develop a personal approach to every pupil.
Crucially, all of the outstanding schools that have already converted have also said that they will use their new-found powers and freedom to support weaker schools. For instance, Seaton Academy in Cumbria is looking to employ more specialist staff to support students with additional needs. St Buryan Primary Academy in Cornwall is reducing class sizes by taking on an extra teacher. Urmston Grammar School in Manchester is looking forward to bringing back after-school services now that it has control over its own budget.
We also have schools coming to us talking about forming clusters - clusters of primaries, or primaries and secondaries, working together to raise standards and share costs. That is why I believe the result of the Academies Act will be autonomy within a culture of collaboration, where the bonds between schools are strengthened and there is a further step-change in system-led leadership.
It seems to me that this combination of autonomy and partnership is a very strong one, and one that is likely to appeal to the Church of England. I know that one of your concerns early on was that the Government was somehow turning its back on the moral purpose of the Academies programme and that the converting academies might become islands within the broader educational framework.
In fact, what is happening is rather different.
In the coming days, in the next stage of the expansion of the Academies programme, we will also explain how the next wave of schools - those that are good with outstanding features - will be able to apply for academy freedoms.
I particularly look forward to welcoming more Church of England schools into academy status. And I’d like to say how grateful I am for the Church’s support in encouraging more of their schools to follow suit.
At the moment, some 320 Church of England schools have registered an interest in becoming an academy, and 24 of these have so far submitted a formal application to convert.
As we’ve worked through the conversion process with the first wave of converters, a number of practical issues have come to light - for instance, around pension or land ownership. For church schools in particular, land ownership is often complicated and there have been questions about what role the diocese will have once schools have converted to academy status.
I completely understand these concerns and I think that the National Society has been absolutely right to want clarity. Politicians and governments come and go. The Church has been around a lot longer than any government and you are right to be sceptical about government promises. I am sceptical about government promises too. But I hope I have been clear from the outset that my intention is simply to maintain the status quo in terms of the relationship between the Church of England and the state. And I do sympathise with the National Society’s desire to get that understanding down in black and white and close any loopholes.
So I am very pleased that we now have an agreed set of model documentation for single academy trusts, and a model funding agreement.
We have also agreed a supplemental agreement, to be signed by the Secretary of State, which will set out the Department’s underpinning relationship with the Diocese.
I know that some of you have faced delays while the drafting has been going on, for which I apologise, but I believe we now have a solid foundation on which Church of England schools can move forward to academy status.
Although I have been keen to press ahead, it is important to get things right - and that I think is what we have now done.
The Church has always played an important part in providing choice and quality in this country’s education system.
You’ve always worked hard, often behind the scenes, collaborating with other education partners and sponsors to drive improvements.
I very much look forward to continuing and building on our relationship with the Church and taking our collaborative partnership to the next level - because we need your energy, commitment and experience to be at the fore of school improvement if we are to achieve that shared moral purpose.
Thank you very much.