Thank you, Clare, for that kind introduction and thank you for inviting me here today.
Your timing is impeccable - what with this conference today coming shortly after the Spending Review and shortly before we publish our first schools white paper.
I have to tell you that not much keeps me in London on a Saturday. In fact, I’m not sure that I’d have stayed here for anyone else other than the NGA.
I said yes for one very simple reason: I believe that school governors are the unsung heroes and heroines of our education system.
And I wanted to come here to say a huge thank you through you to all of the 300,000 school governors up and down the land who slog away, for hours on end, in their own time, often at the end of a long and busy day, to help their local schools improve, to give something back to their local communities, and to do their bit in the common endeavour in which we are all engaged - driving up standards so that all children have the chance to aim high, achieve their potential and get on in life. I cannot think of a better embodiment of volunteering and of civil society than the work that governors do, and I want you to have the recognition that I believe you deserve.
I know that the theme of your conference today is funding - and I will say a few words about that because it is obviously very important.
But I want to start by talking about some thing which I think is even more important - school governors.
Nature of school governance
Since I began doing this job and as a result of the discussions I’ve had with the NGA and others, I’ve been thinking about the nature of school governance and how we can make it easier for people like you to become governors and make a difference, which I know is what you all want to do.
I started by thinking about the broad principles that guide the Coalition Government’s approach to public services, as well as our approach to education more specifically.
What do I mean by that?
Well, we want to devolve more power and responsibility down to the lowest possible level - away from Whitehall, towards schools, hospitals and local communities.
We want to spread autonomy and trust professionals to get on with the job.
We want to bear down on needless bureaucracy, targets and paperwork.
In short, we want to get out of people’s hair - but provide support where they want support and encourage professionals to share good practice and learn from each other.
If those are the principles that guide our approach, how does the current system of school governance stack up against them?
The answer, I am afraid, is not terribly well.
We have a very prescriptive model of who can be a governor.
We have an approach which is applied regardless of individual need or circumstance.
We have a lot of central guidance, direction and legislative requirements.
Far too many governors tell me that they spend hours in meetings discussing what are, frankly, relatively trivial issues, when they could be concentrating on strategic leadership and making a difference. And the recent NGA report on bureaucracy raised a series of important issues that we need to address.
So it is a testament to the dedication of governors that despite these obstacles, Ofsted says that governance is good or better in 70 per cent of schools.
If those are the core principles, and if you share the analysis - which I hope you do - where does that leave us? What conclusions can we draw as we prepare our white paper?
First, it is absolutely clear to me that the most important decision-making group in any school is the governing body.
Second, governing bodies should set the overall strategic direction of a school, hold the headteacher to account and have a relentless focus on driving up standards - but not get dragged into micro-managing the school or the minutiae of its day-to-day activities.
Third, we need to ensure that governing bodies have the best possible people, with the right mix of skills and expertise, rather than just because they are there wearing a particular hat.
Fourth, all schools are different and need different things at different stages of their development - so school governance needs to be more flexible.
Fifth, we must mount an energetic and sustained attack on the culture of guidance and paperwork - a lot of it issued by my Department - that tells you how to do your job. I know it’s all meant to be helpful - and I am sure some of it is useful - but if you are serious about trusting people, you have to start trusting them.
And finally, we need - even in these straitened times - to find ways of supporting governors, especially chairs of governors, including by providing access to high-quality training and also making it easier to see a wide range of information and data about the performance of local schools.
In the white paper, I hope that we will provide a real boost to school governance by setting out how we will take forward a range of measures in each of those areas. There will be much more detail to come and we will, of course, work with the NGA and with all of you to help you perform your vital roles.
As well as strengthening school governance, the white paper 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.
The global race for knowledge
In the last ten years, we’ve fallen well 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.
Across the globe, other nations - including those with the best performing and fastest reforming education systems - are forging ahead much faster and much further when it comes to improving their education systems.
In America, President Obama is encouraging the creation of more charter schools - the equivalent of our free schools and academies - which are giving school leaders and governors more autonomy and transforming the life chances of the poorest pupils.
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 have their competitive advantage over other nations.
We want to ensure that schools in our country can enjoy the same kind of autonomy that has served schools in America, Canada, Sweden and Singapore so well.
That’s why we’ve invited all schools - including primaries for the first time and special schools - to apply for academy freedoms - starting with those rated outstanding by Ofsted.
Since the start of the school year, more than one academy has opened for every working day of the term - that’s more than 80 in total - and they all now have the freedom to shape their own curriculum, pay staff more, extend school hours, and develop a personal approach to every pupil. We have got more coming down the track each month and I expect this to continue and spread.
Crucially, they’ve also committed to using their new-found powers and freedom to support weaker schools.
In the coming weeks, with 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.
One of the exciting things that is emerging is the appetite for groups of schools to come together in clusters - clusters of primaries or groups of primaries and secondaries, so that we get the combination of freedom and partnership which hits at the heart of our reforms.
Some of you might already be governors of academies. Some of you might be governors of schools that have been amongst the first to convert this term. I hope the rest of you will talk to your leadership teams about whether academy freedoms will enable you to improve your schools.
I realise that many of you will have questions about finance, staff pensions, land transfer, premises, the model document and, of course, governance.
I’m determined to do all that I possibly can to answer those questions and to support you, which is why I’ve written to all chairs of governing bodies setting out the further help and advice available - including the guidance on our website, first-hand advice from many of the schools that have been amongst the first to convert and dedicated project leads within the Department to support you if you decide to move forward.
Of course, some of you might not want, ever, to go down the academy route. And that is also absolutely fine, because our approach overall is to be permissive and not coercive.
If that is the case, I fully respect that - and we will still do all we can to support you. That’s why we’ve already 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 and making financial management less onerous.
I wanted to talk about our white paper because it is so important, but my speech today was titled ‘Funding for schools over the next three years’ and funding is the theme of your conference, so let me now turn to that.
Since the Coalition Government was formed, we’ve set to work to restore our finances, reduce the massive deficit we inherited and put public services on a sustainable footing.
That has involved making tough choices - and I don’t for one second underestimate that there will also have to be equally tough choices made in every school in every part of the country.
The biggest part of our budget is spent on schools and I’m delighted that the schools budget will rise from £35 billion to £39 billion over the next four years. This means that all money allocated for grants, from the Every Child programmes to grants for specialisms, will still go to schools. The ring-fences and strings attached to that money will also be removed so that headteachers and governors have complete freedom over how to spend it.
Of course, schools have been finding - and continue to need to find - greater efficiencies. We believe that the best way to help you do that is by giving you freedom and allowing you to decide where the savings can best be made. But we do want to ensure you have all the information and tools you need to secure the best possible value for money.
To ensure you do, there is a range of materials available on our website that we’ll be updating and adding to over the next few weeks. One of the things that we’ll be adding are case studies of where schools have made efficiencies that we believe other schools might be able to follow, including in procurement.
Because procurement is an obvious area to try to find savings, we’ll help ensure that schools know more about the best deals on offer and, if needed, seek out new, cheaper deals for schools to take advantage of.
These efficiencies, combined with the real-terms overall increase in funding and the greater freedom, should enable that schools can meet the increasing basic need demand for places and still also deliver a £2.5 billion pupil premium to support the education of disadvantaged children.
The pupil premium is designed to tackle disadvantage at root by attaching extra money to young people from deprived backgrounds, which will be clearly identified to their parents.
Once again, schools that benefit from this additional cash will not be told exactly how to use it - but we will expect them to ensure that children struggling with the basics get the extra support they need so they don’t fall irretrievably behind their peers.
One further funding area that I know concerns you - and me - is the disparity that you often find between the amount schools receive even when they have similar costs, are achieving similar results and are located in areas of similar deprivation. That’s why one of the objectives of the white paper will be to move to a fairer, more transparent funding system.
The capital budget will also bear its share of the reductions. I realise this will be disappointing for many of you but we will still spend almost £16 billion over the next four years to meet demographic pressures and rebuild or refurbish 600 schools, which is more than each of the first eight years under the last Government.
I do not pretend that it is all going to be plain sailing. There will be difficult decisions ahead. But I think that there is also an opportunity to move to a system where schools are more autonomous, where professionals are trusted and given more respect, and where funding is fairer, more rational and more transparent.
Central to all of this will be the role played by governors, which is why I end how I started - by thanking you for all that you do and by saying that I will do all I can to support you in that role.