The Education Secretary refers to the PISA survey of international education performance to outline how whole-system reform is needed to build a world-class education system.
Education for economic success
There could be no better way to start 2011 for me than by welcoming you all here to London.
Because this second decade of the twenty-first century will be characterised by uniquely daunting challenges - but it also holds out amazing opportunities.
The challenges are so daunting because they are global in scope and as testing as any our generation has known.
But the opportunities are even greater because there is the chance - in this generation - to bring freedom, opportunity, knowledge and dignity, material plenty and personal fulfilment to many more of our fellow citizens than ever before.
The great Italian Marxist thinker once enjoined on his followers an attitude he defined as pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.
What he meant was that we should be clear eyed about the difficulties we face, but undaunted, determined and resolute in our belief they can be overcome.
Our world does face huge problems.
A resurgent wave of ideologically motivated terrorism and renewed conflicts between peoples threaten millions. Our global environment is threatened by resource depletion and thoughtless exploitation. A dramatically growing, and increasingly youthful, world population chafes against constraints which deny millions the chance to live their dreams. Economic growth has been spread inequitably and nations which are adjusting to reality after years of folly are finding the process, inevitably, painful.
But bumpy, indeed turbulent, as the journey ahead might be, we are also fortunate in knowing what the best route not just to safety, but to plenty, will be.
It is the pursuit of knowledge.
Nothing is so effective a solvent of hatred and prejudice as learning and wisdom, the best environmental protection policy to help the planet is a scientific innovation policy which rewards greener growth, the route to fulfilment for the next generation is dedication to study, hard work and restless curiosity and the single most effective way to generate economic growth is invest in human and intellectual capital - to build a better education system.
So, in that sense, in talking to those who lead the world’s education systems I have the unique privilege of talking to those who will lead the world out of the dark valley we are currently navigating and onto sunlit uplands where opportunity beckons.
It is, certainly, a special privilege to be involved in shaping education policy at the moment. Because as well as laying the foundations for a world which is better, we are also ensuring that we live in societies which are fairer.
For most of our history people have been victims of forces beyond their control.
Accidents of birth - like where individuals were born, both geographically and in class terms, as well as what their parents did for a living - proved overwhelmingly likely to dictate people’s future.
But education is the means by which we can liberate people from those imposed constraints. It allows individuals to choose a fulfilling job, enrich their inner life and become authors of our own life stories.
And that is why education reform is the great progressive cause of our times.
The Education World Forum is so important because it demonstrates our shared belief that we can educate our children to an ever higher standard and achieve the levels of fairness and social mobility that have long eluded us.
In the coming days, we have an opportunity to talk in detail about the issues that we face, share our expertise and strengthen the bonds between our countries. I’m also delighted that many of you will have the chance to see for yourselves the very best of the British education system.
I am pleased that so many young people in Britain today are enjoying a superb education - and pleased that in many areas we have made progress over the years. In particular, I am overjoyed that we have so many great teachers and headteachers who are playing an increasingly important part in transforming our system for the better.
But I am also conscious that in the world of education, by definition, the quest to improve never ends.
Education is a process of continual learning, of crossing new boundaries, exploring new territory, restless curiosity and perpetual questioning.
And as I have been in this job one of the things I have learned is that we can only improve our own education systems if we make them as open to new thinking, as free to learn, as flexible and innovative, as possible.
Because with every year that passes we are privileged to enjoy new insights about how best to organise schools, how best to inspire pupils, how to use new technology, how the brain absorbs knowledge, how teachers can best motivate, how parents can better support, how governments can best invest.
And we are uniquely fortunate that speaking at this conference are two men who have done more than any others to help us understand what works in the world of education. And by listening to them we can see how much further we all have to go.
Yesterday, you heard from a man I recently have described as the most important man in the British education system - but he could equally be the most important man in world education.
Later this morning, you will hear from the man who is vying with him for that accolade.
Neither will teach a single lesson this year, neither are household names, neither - unsurprisingly - are education ministers - but both deserve our thanks and the thanks of everyone who wants to see children around the world fulfil the limit of their potential.
They are Andreas Schleicher and Michael Barber.
Andreas Schleicher is a German mathematician with the sort of job title that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy - head of the indicators and analysis division (directorate for education) at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
On the face of it, a job description like that might seem like the title of the bureaucrat’s bureaucrat - but in truth Andreas is the father of more revolutions than any German since Karl Marx.
Because Andreas is responsible for collating the PISA league tables of international educational achievement. He tells us which nations have the best-performing education systems and then analyses that data to determine why that is the case.
When the first PISA league tables were published they demonstrated, to the amazement of the German political classes, that their education system was nowhere near the position of world leadership they had fondly imagined.
The phenomenon of discovering just how relatively poorly the German education system performed was termed ‘Pisa-Schock’ and it stimulated a furious debate about how Germany could catch up.
In the US, education experts described the 2006 PISA report as our generation’s ‘Sputnik moment’.
The evidence that 15-year-olds in the Far East were so comfortably outperforming American pupils in maths and science sent the same shockwaves through the West as the Soviet Union’s surprise satellite launch in 1957, an event which prompted a radical reform of science education in the US.
But just because you come top in PISA these days doesn’t mean you rest on the laurels Andreas fashions for you. Far from it.
What characterises those nations which are themselves top performers - such as Singapore and Hong Kong - is that they are restless self-improvers.
They have also eagerly examined every aspect of Andreas’s research to see what their principal competitors are doing with a view to implementing further changes to maintain their competitive edge.
Sir Michael Barber is another visionary educationalist.
In the early part of the last decade, he played a direct role in shaping the English education system as a leading advisor to Tony Blair’s government. As a result of policies that he helped introduce - including an uncompromising focus on literacy, floor standards for school performance and higher standards for teacher performance - improvements were undoubtedly made.
But, rather like Tony Blair, Michael has arguably had an even bigger influence globally than at home in recent years. His seminal 2007 report, How the world’s best-performing school systems come out on top, which he produced for McKinsey provided those nations that were serious about education reform with a blueprint of what they needed to do to catch up.
And his recent report, How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better, provides further invaluable insights for all nations aspiring to improve their education system or hoping to remain amongst the best.
No nation that is serious about ensuring its children enjoy an education that equips them to compete fairly with students from other countries can afford to ignore the PISA and McKinsey studies.
Doing so would be as foolish as dismissing what control trials tell us in medicine. It means flying in the face of the best evidence we have of what works.
And just as the evidence that Andreas and Michael has gathered has influenced education reformers in North America, Asia and Scandinavia, so it is influencing the Coalition Government here in Britain.
Not least because it shows that we are falling further and further behind other nations. In the last ten years, we have plummeted in the world rankings from 4th to 16th for science, 7th to 25th for literacy and 8th to 28th for maths.
These are facts from which we cannot hide. But while they may encourage a certain pessimism of the intellect, the examples of transformed education systems which Andreas and Michael have highlighted, certainly encourages optimism of the will.
From Shanghai to New Orleans, Alberta to Hong Kong, Singapore to Helsinki, nations which have been educational back markers have become world leaders.
And our recently published schools White Paper was deliberately designed to bring together - indeed, to shamelessly plunder from - policies that have worked in other high-performing nations.
It was accompanied by a detailed evidence paper, The case for change, that draws on the insights generated by successive PISA studies and McKinsey reports.
And it is based on the three essential characteristics which mark out the best performing and fastest reforming education systems in the landmark PISA and McKinsey studies.
Importance of teaching
First, the most successful education nations recruit the best possible people into teaching, provide them with high-quality training and professional development, and put them to work in the most challenging classrooms.
Our schools White Paper was called The importance of teaching because nothing matters more in improving education than giving every child access to the best possible teaching and ensuring that every moment of interaction between teacher and student yields results.
We are committed to raising the quality of new entrants to the teaching profession by insisting they are better qualified than ever before, we are determined to improve teacher training by building on intellectual accomplishment and ensuring more time is spent in the classroom acquiring practical teaching skills, and we plan to establish new centres of excellence in teaching practice - teaching schools modelled on our great teaching hospitals - so that new and experienced teachers can learn and develop their craft throughout their careers.
We have learnt from Finland - a consistently strong performer in PISA studies - about the importance of attracting the very best graduates into teaching, which is why we are expanding our principal elite route into teaching, Teach First, as well as providing extra support for top graduates in maths and science to enter teaching.
And we are increasing the number of national and local leaders of education - superb heads who lend their skills to raise standards in weaker schools - so that the best support the weak in a concerted effort to improve education for all children, not just some.
The principle of collaboration between stronger and weaker schools, with those in a position to help given the freedom to make a difference, lies at the heart of our whole approach to school improvement.
The PISA and McKinsey reports clearly show that the greater the amount of autonomy at school level, with headteachers and principals free to determine how pupils are taught and how budgets are spent, the greater the potential there has been for all-round improvement and the greater the opportunity too for the system to move from good to great.
The Coalition Government agrees that headteachers and teachers - not politicians and bureaucrats - know best how to run schools.
That is why we’ve announced a review of our National Curriculum with the aim of reducing prescription and are taking action to shed all unnecessary bureaucratic burdens on schools.
It is also why we’re freeing schools from central and local bureaucratic control by inviting them to become academies.
Schools are taking up our offer because they recognise the huge benefits that being an academy brings - more autonomy, more resources, less bureaucracy and an opportunity to thrive, free from interference from government.
Since the start of the school term in September, more than one school has converted to become an academy every working day. As of last week, more than 400 academies are now open and enjoying many of the same freedoms which are enjoyed by schools in the best-performing education systems. And many more are in the pipeline.
Alongside this, we are also further extending autonomy and choice by making it easier for teachers, parents, academy sponsors and other groups to start their own free schools.
In Sweden, free schools have driven up standards in those schools but also in neighbouring schools too.
And as the OECD points out, two of the most successful countries in PISA - Hong Kong and Singapore - are among those with the highest levels of school competition.
But while increased parental choice can help tackle ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’, which continues to blight the life chances of many children from deprived backgrounds in particular, it does not need be the enemy of cooperation.
Our plans foresee schools collaborating on a scale that has never been witnessed before, which is why all new academies are also working with weaker schools to help them improve.
And this week will see a major advance in that drive.
We will identify those of our schools most in need of support - those where attainment is poor and where students are not making progress.
These are the schools whose children most need our help - those underperforming institutions where opportunity is restricted.
We will work with these schools - all of which have great potential and all of which will have staff ready to accept the challenge to improve.
We will provide them with extra resources.
But on condition they work with us to develop tough, rigorous, immediate plans for improvement.
Those plans will involve weaker schools being taken under the wing of high-performing schools, entering academy chains, changing the way they work, implementing reforms to the curriculum and staffing and putting in place new, tougher approaches to discipline and behaviour.
This drive will be led by an inspirational former headteacher - Liz Sidwell - who has experience of the state and private sector and who has helped turn round underperforming schools as well as setting a benchmark for excellence in the state system.
The reason we’re able to identify great heads like Liz - and the schools which need her help - is that we have, over time, developed ways of holding schools, and education ministers, accountable for the money they spend.
Because the other, central, insight from the PISA and McKinsey reports into what makes great education systems so successful is that they all use data to make schools accountable and drive improvement.
Data allows us to identify the best so we can emulate it, and diagnose weaknesses so we can intervene before it’s too late.
I know that some in the education profession fear that data has been used - perhaps I should say abused - to constrict the autonomy which we know drives improvement.
But the lesson from PISA is that autonomy works best when it’s combined with intelligent accountability. That means making comparisons which are fair. And trying to limit the extent to which measurements can be ‘gamed’ by those in the system.
It’s because it’s so important that the public can make fair comparisons between schools that we are revamping performance tables to place more emphasis on the real value schools add as well as the raw attainment results they secure.
Pupils need qualifications to succeed in life, so I won’t shy away from saying we expect more and more young people to leave school with better and better qualifications. That is non-negotiable.
But we must also recognise that schools succeed when they take children from challenging and difficult circumstances and ensure they exceed expectations and progress faster than their peers.
And because we want to limit the extent to which accountability mechanisms are ‘gamed’ we will also ensure much more information is put into the public domain so that schools can be compared on many different criteria.
That will help schools which believe they have special qualities, undervalued by current performance tables, to make the case for their particular strengths.
And I expect that we will see new performance tables drawn up, by schools themselves, by active citizens and by professional organisations which will draw attention to particular areas of strength in our school system.
In this year’s performance tables we are introducing a new measure - the English Baccalaureate - which will show how many students in each school secured five good passes in English, maths, science, languages and one of the humanities.
It’s been introduced this year to allow us to see how the schools system has performed in the past - in a way which manifestly can’t have been gamed.
And I expect it will reveal the way in which past performance tables actually encouraged many many great schools and great heads to offer certain non-academic subjects rather than more rigorous academic subjects.
I am open to arguments about how we can further improve every measure in the performance tables - including the English Baccalaureate.
But I am determined to ensure that our exam standards match the highest standards around the world.
And in other high-performing nations there is an expectation that children will be tested in a wide range of subjects at 16.
In Singapore children sit compulsory O Levels in their mother tongue (which will be Chinese, Malay or Tamil), in the English language, in maths, in combined humanities, In science and in at least one other subject.
In Germany graduation to sixth form follows on from passing exams in German, maths, English and three other subjects.
In Alberta there are compulsory tests at age 15 in maths, science, English, French and social studies.
In France the brevet diploma is awarded at age 15 depending on performance in tests of French, maths, history, geography, civics, computer science and a modern foreign language.
In Japan there are tests at age 15 in Japanese, social studies, maths, science and English.
In the US at age 17 there are exam requirements in English, maths, science and social studies.
And in the Netherlands at 16, 17 or 18 students are expected to pass tests in Dutch, English, social studies and two other subjects - such as science, classical culture or a second modern foreign language.
England’s current expectation that only English and maths be considered benchmark expectations at 16 marks us out from other high-performing nations.
I am delighted to have a debate about how we both broaden and deepen our education system, but we cannot be in any doubt that while reform accelerates across the globe no country can afford to be left behind.
I’m in no doubt that what we are attempting in England adds up to a comprehensive programme of reform for schools here - but if we are to learn one thing from the groundbreaking work done by Andreas Schleicher and by Sir Michael Barber, it is that whole-system reform is needed to every aspect of our education system if we are to build a truly world-class education system.
It is only by paying attention to improving teacher quality, granting greater autonomy to the front line, modernising curricula, making schools more accountable to their communities, harnessing detailed performance data and encouraging professional collaboration that a nation can become one of the world’s top performers.
The evidence shows us it can be done.
And the challenge facing us in 2011 is to follow the path which the evidence, so patiently acquired by Andreas Schleicher and by Sir Michael Barber, tells us can liberate our children.
What better New Year’s resolution could any of us make this week.