Thank you so much.
I am delighted to be here. It makes a very nice change not to be in the House of Lords, where we’ve been holed up for the last fortnight, sleeping bags at the ready, while voting - or not voting - on the electoral reform bill.
Your timing is immaculate, as this morning we published the new Education Bill. I will say a bit more about that, and about academies in particular, in a moment.
But first of all, I just want to say a very big thank you for all that you do.
No one becomes a head or a teacher for fame, money or anything other than a deep conviction that education enriches children’s lives and helps them reach their full potential. I know how hard you all work - day in, day out - to increase opportunity and raise aspiration.
My mother was a teacher, so I was brought up to understand the importance of learning; how education transforms lives; and how books have the power to set people free. And I’m glad to say that at nearly 84, she is still going on doing a day a week to her local primary school to help children with their reading.
I also don’t need convincing about the fantastic job that Catholic schools in particular do.
The CES ‘Value Added’ report, published earlier this month, spells it out.
Your GCSE and Key Stage 2 results are consistently above the national average. Seventy-three per cent of your secondaries and 74 per cent of your primaries are rated outstanding or good by Ofsted, compared with 60 and 66 per cent nationally. And your leadership quality, teacher training and CVA scores far outstrip your peers.
So it was right that his holiness Pope Benedict celebrated your achievements on his visit last year, as part of the Year of Catholic Education - and it was a great treat to be at the Big Assembly at St Mary’s in Twickenham as the sun fought with the clouds, to hear his thoughtful speech about faith, society and schools.
I know your theme today is ‘stewards of the common good’. And I am sure that we have a shared purpose in seeking to promote the common good, working to overcome the situation whereby too many children have their life chances determined by where they are born.
We know the figures, but they bear repetition:
- Children not on FSM are twice as likely to get five good GCSEs as those who are on FSM.
- Last year 40 out of 80,000 children on FSM went onto Oxford or Cambridge.
- Children who attend private schools are three times more likely to achieve three A-grade A Levels than those who attend state-funded schools.
Gaps in attainment start young and get worse as children grow older. These figures are a reproach to us all.
And just as the Christian churches took the lead in setting up the first schools to teach the poor long before the State stepped in, I hope that we can work with you on the next stage of education reform in England.
The need for change
Let me say a few words about our overall approach.
In a way, I hope the title of our white paper - The Importance of Teaching - says it all.
I know that there has been a lot of emphasis on the structural reforms we have introduced - the academies and Free Schools. But structures without people are nothing. We all know that the key to good schools are great heads and great teaching. So the purpose of the structural change is to give heads and teachers greater freedom and more control over their own destiny, so that they can get on with doing what they do best - teaching and running their schools.
Our white paper makes clear there is much to admire and build on in the current system: hundreds of outstanding schools, tens of thousands of great teachers, the best generation of heads and leaders ever.
But too many children are still being let down. There are still too many weak schools in deprived areas. Teaching is only rated as satisfactory in half of our schools. And other countries have not been standing still.
Over the last decade in the PISA world rankings for 15-year-olds, we have fallen from fourth to sixteenth in science, seventh to 25th in literacy, and eighth to 28th in maths.
So there is a big job to do.
That is why we have announced plans to strengthen teacher recruitment and training - expanding Teach First, increasing cash incentives for shortage subjects, making initial training more classroom-based, and creating a new national network of teaching schools and university teaching schools.
And we need to do more to support teachers in the classroom.
So in our Education Bill published today, we plan to introduce tougher discipline powers - so teachers can search for any items banned by the school rules, making it easier for heads to expel violent pupils; protecting teachers from malicious allegations; and removing 24 hours notice on detentions so schools, if they want to, can impose immediate punishments.
We also have plans for a slimmed-down but strong National Curriculum, more robust assessment and inspection, a fairer funding system, the new Pupil Premium, and to move away from central targets and red tape.
More autonomy for heads
But I know there has been a lot of focus on academies - and that’s what I want to turn to now.
I am enthusiastic about academies for two main reasons.
First, because of their track record to date. Not all are perfect and not all have done equally well. But taking their results as a whole, their GCSE scores are improving at almost double the national average. And in terms of ethos, they have shown how to turn around the deep-seated culture of defeatism and low expectations in so many of our poorest areas.
Second, because evidence from around the world shows that there is a very strong correlation between top-performing education systems and autonomy at school-level - where heads and principals are free to determine how pupils are taught and how budgets are spent.
So while we want to carry on with the last government’s approach to use academies to raise standards in underperforming schools, we are also opening up the programme to all primary, secondary and special schools who want to convert.
What has been particularly exciting in recent months has been the number of approaches that we have been having from schools wanting to become academies in chains or clusters. I recognise that at the time of the Academies Act last summer the key message coming across was about autonomy. What has become clear to me when talking to schools is that perhaps even more powerful than autonomy is the combination of autonomy and partnership. That seems to me to combine the advantages of professional freedom, with the real move that there has been in recent years towards schools working together and learning from each other.
We don’t want academies to be seen as islands entire unto themselves - nor do the academy principles that I talk to. That is one of the reasons why we said in the Academies Act that we expected outstanding schools which wanted to convert to partner another local school which would benefit from their support.
As you may know, in November we announced a further opening up of the programme by saying that any school could apply for academy status, regardless of its Ofsted rating, if it applied as part of a group with a school that was rated as outstanding or good with outstanding features. There has been a very encouraging response to that, as schools have come up with their own ideas for working together - groups of secondaries, or primaries, or primaries clustered around a secondary, perhaps with a special school. This development seems to me to go with the grain of the culture of schools, and the fact that it is bubbling from the bottom up makes me think that it is all the more powerful.
So far as faith schools are concerned, we’ve also been clear that conversion to academy status would be on an ‘as is’ basis.
From the outset, I have been keen that faith schools should be free to become academies but equally clear I hope, that we have no wish to undermine the special status, values, freedoms, assets or anything else that is a part of a being a Catholic school or part of a family of Catholic schools.
So I understand why the CES was initially cautious about academies. I think that ‘beware governments bearing gifts’ is a good principle. Catholic schools have been here a lot longer than all of us and will be around a lot longer than this Government - I think I am allowed to say that without being accused of disloyalty. So you are right to think about the long term and to look before you leap.
To date, 204 new academies have opened since September - that’s at least one every working day - doubling the number open when the Coalition came to power and meaning more than one-in-ten secondaries overall are now academies.
And we expect many more to follow. Earlier this morning I was at a conference for special schools who want to become academies, where there was a great deal of enthusiasm.
And I know that many of you are also interested in the freedoms that academy status provides - over 150 Catholic schools have formally expressed an interest in converting.
The Department and the CES have been working closely together, and I believe we have made good progress in providing the reassurance the CES has sought.
We’ve helped to fund the CES to develop a tailored funding agreement to make clear that Catholicism will be at the heart of a faith academy’s object and conduct. It puts in black and white that diocesan boards will be able to appoint and maintain the majority of the governors - and that no principal can be appointed without fully consulting them.
So I hope the safeguards the CES understandably asked for are in place and that this will allow Catholic schools which want to become academies to become part of the patchwork quilt of provision that I would like to see and encourage.
Another part of this patchwork quilt, of course, are the new Free Schools. Set up under the Academies legislation, the first ones are due to open this September - new schools set up in under a year. There has been a fantastic response from inspirational teachers, charities and faith groups keen to open new schools, often in areas of the greatest need, to extend opportunity and raise aspiration.
Responsibility, accountability and partnership
But although I am a great enthusiast for academies, they are only part of the story. The Government is keen to set higher expectations and aspirations for the entire school system.
We know from international league tables and the pioneering research of Tony Blair’s former education advisor, Sir Michael Barber, that the more data you have on schools the easier it is to spot strengths and weaknesses.
That is one of the reasons that we have introduced the English Baccalaureate. We will of course listen to any strong cases about what should and shouldn’t be included but I think the basic principle is right - that while students should have the broadest possible curriculum, including a statutory requirement to offer RE, their parents should be able to know how they perform in the core academic subjects at 16.
We are also setting new floor standards for secondary schools. This will include both an attainment measure and a progression measure:
- For secondary schools, a school will be below the floor if fewer than 35 per cent of pupils achieve 5 A*-C grade GCSEs including English and mathematics, and fewer pupils make good progress between Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4 than the national average.
- For primary schools, a school will be below the floor if fewer than 60 per cent of pupils achieve level four in both English and mathematics, and fewer pupils than average make the expected levels of progress between Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2.
We expect there to be firm, decisive action when results are persistently below this level, where management is weak, where there is a little capacity to improve, or when there is serious Ofsted concern.
And we have recreated the post of schools commissioner to help us drive the process of school improvement forward. The highly respected chief executive of Haberdashers’ Aske’s Federation, Dr Elizabeth Sidwell, will take up the post in the spring.
These are just some of the areas where we have been pushing ahead. The Secretary of State, Michael Gove, has set a cracking pace and I know he is impatient for improvement. He is impatient for improvement because he sees the waste of talent, the loss of opportunity, the lottery of birth and the strides forward that other countries are making.
There is an economic imperative for those of a more Gradgrindian bent. But much more than that, there is a moral imperative. All of us here in different ways have had our lives changed for the better by education. Catholic schools have a long and proud tradition of transforming lives. I am very keen to work with you, to build even closer ties, and to see how we can develop that theme of autonomy and partnership together.