Thank you so much for that warm welcome. Having spent much of the last four days stuck camping away in the House of Lords in my sleeping bag. I can tell you that it is extremely nice to be here. It may seem a funny way to run the country, but at least - thanks to our sleeping arrangements - I can now say that I having finally slept with a member of the cabinet.
The second thing to say is how very sorry the Secretary of State is not to be here. I know he has been looking forward to tonight and he has asked me to pass on his best wishes and to thank the SSAT and you for all you do.
Apart from the change of scene, I consider myself very lucky to be here tonight with you, the real heroes and heroines of our education system, the people who are day to day helping out to lay the foundations for the better, fairer society which all of us want to create.
No one becomes a teacher for fame or money. And no one gives up their time by becoming a governor or a school sponsor out of anything other than a deep sense that education is the means by which we enable children to enrich their lives and fulfil the limits of their potential.
Over the eight months or so since I became a schools minister, I’ve developed a huge admiration for the work that all of you do.
Your vision, passion, expertise and leadership is what ultimately will make much more difference than anything I can do in central government. Because in any system I can think of it is people who matter the most.
So although an important part of my job is to do with structures, I am very clear that those changes are merely a means to an end. In a nutshell, what we are trying to do is to create the space for professionals to get on with what they do best and to allow people who are passionate about education and young people to make their contribution without feeling they are constantly having to wade through treacle.
So I’m delighted to have the chance this evening to celebrate your achievements and, also, to say thank you.
If this event is a celebration of the very best of our education system, I also want to recognise the role SSAT plays in it. I am grateful to them and to the work they have done in helping and supporting academies.
Expanding the academies programme
International evidence tells us very clearly that schools see fastest improvement where school leaders are given the greatest control over what happens in their schools.
The near-universal network of specialist school shows what can be achieved when schools are allowed to innovate and have the freedom to develop their own distinct character and ethos.
We want to remove the bureaucracy that surrounds specialist status so that all schools can decide how to develop their specialisms in the light of the total resources available to them.
And more generally we want to extend the autonomy that schools can enjoy.
That’s why the very first thing we did when we took office was to lift the brakes that had been placed on the academies programme and gradually open it up to all schools, including primaries and later this year special schools.
The response has been very encouraging.
There has been real enthusiasm in many schools to take advantage of the freedoms that academy status can bring.
Why? Because they’ve recognised that it can help them to offer an ever-better standard of education.
We now have well over 400 academies.
More than one academy has opened every working day since the beginning of the school term in September.
And the pace seems to be quickening. We had 129 new applications in the first week back in the New Year alone.
What I am particularly excited about is the combination of autonomy and partnership that the Academies programme is opening up. We don’t want academies to be islands entire unto themselves to mis-quote John Donne. So one of the developments I am keen to encourage is applications from clusters or chains of schools - from groups of primaries, or primaries grouped around secondary as part of a dealing with the issue of transition.
But there’s no way that we could have done what we’ve done - or what we want to do - without the support of many of the people in this room.
The SSAT has played a vital role helping schools that want to make the transition to academy status.
I know that well over a thousand headteachers have attended the seminars that you’ve organised where they’ve been able to hear about the benefits of converting and about the experiences of those who have been through the process.
The National Headteacher Steering Group has also provided us and prospective convertors with invaluable advice that has been crucial in allowing us to achieve this early momentum.
There is no doubt that networks like those operated by the SSAT are the best way of spreading the word, telling it like it really is and developing the culture of collaboration in which schools help other schools to innovate, develop their staff and offer a better educational experience to young people.
Expanding the academies programme also means there will be more opportunities for business people, charities, faith groups, successful schools, higher and further education institutions and other groups with a track-record of success in education to come forward as sponsors.
I am keen to encourage more primary schools to convert to academy status and for more sponsors - both existing and new - with expertise of working with primary schools to come forward as sponsors.
I hope more sponsors with an excellent track-record of working with schools to help them to innovate and improve will come forward. I know that the SSAT itself has exciting plans to become a sponsor, a move which I am keen to encourage. There are certainly plenty of outstanding role models here tonight for any one that wants to do so.
It is only because of the often superhuman efforts of sponsors and school leaders that the specialist schools and academies programmes have been such successes.
It is therefore only right that on a day like today we stop for a moment to celebrate the fantastic life-enhancing contributions that you make day in, day out across the country. And I would like to thank you for allowing me to be here to share in it with you.