Thank you Councillor David for that kind introduction.
And thank you - not just for staying right until the very end of your conference for which I do owe you a special debt of gratitude, but also for the invaluable public service that you provide to your communities and the contribution that you make, in turn, to our country.
So many of the services on which our citizens rely depend on the vision, leadership and sheer hard work of people in local government. And yet far too often local councillors and officials aren’t recognised, thanked and applauded for their commitment to public service.
No one becomes a councillor for the money, and no one works in local government for the glamour but without you our country would be less safe, less just and less civilised. So thank you all.
Let me also thank the LGA for the leadership that it provides on your behalf.
Under the chairmanship of Dame Margaret Eaton and in particular through the Children and Young People’s Board led by Baroness Ritchie, the LGA has consistently campaigned for Whitehall to provide more support to councils to improve children’s services, and also to relinquish more control to councils over education issues.
The latest example is the excellent report, ‘Local freedom or central control’, which the LGA published on Tuesday. The examples of good practice it cites, and the evidence of great leadership you provide underline the crucial role you have to play in helping us all make opportunity more equal in our society.
A commitment to extending opportunity, and greater social justice, is at the heart of what our new Coalition Government wants to achieve.
And let me say that the confidence I have that our coalition can work successfully in the national interest stems from the proven success of the coalitions we have delivering for people in local Government. Whether in Birmingham or Leeds, coalitions - built on the principle of honest partnership - can bring real benefits. Policies can be explored and discussed more rigorously and a consensual style in town halls can generate a fruitful partnership beyond and across communities.
And because this coalition Government has partnership at its heart I want to ensure the partnership between central and local Government is stronger than ever. We need to listen, and learn, from your experience. We need to consult with you as the people who deliver and champion you as the generators of success. That is why my department will set up new, robust, arrangements to allow local authority leaders - elected members and officials - a central role in helping to shape the future.
And in that spirit of honest partnership, can I apologise to you as I apologised to the House of Commons yesterday for the confusion that arose following my statement about Building Schools for the Future on Monday?
One of the reasons I wanted to change the way in which capital was allocated is because I believe the old BSF way shut out local communities, was insufficiently respectful of the expertise you have, and was wasteful of the limited resources you have at your disposal. It required you to invest in procurement costs and consultancy rather than bricks and mortar, teachers and classroom assistants. And I was aware even before we entered Government of the desire to have a system of capital allocation which placed much more power in local hands. That is what I have asked my review team to deliver.
But in setting the direction of a new policy I believe is right and necessary I failed, and it was my failure, to provide totally accurate information on a school-by-school basis about which schools would be affected. I’m the person responsible, and accountable, for that and I do apologise. I wish in particular to apologise to people in those local authorities such as Sandwell, who are doing such a great job, where schools were wrongly informed their rebuilding would proceed under BSF when, sadly, it will not. I want to apologise to them unreservedly.
But I also want to stress that the end of this method of allocating capital does not mean the end of new school building. My department will work with you to identify how we can allocate capital more quickly and fairly in future, I have asked an experienced local Government chief executive, Barry Quirk, to help us and our thinking will be shaped by your needs. Many schools, including in areas where BSF has been halted, will receive capital in due course for refurbishment and rebuilding. Making sure that money was in your hands more effectively has always been my aim and that is the principle which will guide our policy-making.
Children’s services Whatever mistakes I may have made, or may make, one thing I’m certain of is that I have a great team of ministers who are all, individually and collectively, doing a great job.
Nick Gibb in the Commons and Jonathan Hill in the Lords lead for us on schools.
And my deputy in the Department - with explicit responsibility for Children and Families - is Sarah Teather. Many of you may know Sarah, as a former councillor, great campaigner and thoughtful, sensitive shaper of policy.
I count myself incredibly fortunate to have her dealing with some of the most sensitive, delicate and important issues with which our department deals.
And I am really glad that alongside her we have Tim Loughton, another MP who has benefited from time in local government, who has devoted his career in the House of Commons to children’s issues.
Both of them appreciate that there is no more important or sensitive role in local government than exercising responsibility for children’s services.
Sarah is deeply committed to improving our support for families and ensuring that children get off to the best start in life.
That is why she announced on Tuesday that Clare Tickell, the Chief Executive of Action for Children, will lead a review of the Early Years Foundation Stage that will aim to free up early years professionals in nurseries, children’s centres and playgroups to work with young children.
She has also announced that, this year, we will extend free childcare for three- and four year-olds to 15 hours a week year and announced that we will fund early learning and childcare for more than 20,000 of the most disadvantaged two-year-olds.
And we are determined to do more to target services at the poorest families, including by expanding the number of health visitors.
Tim is leading our work to improve transparency across children’s services and place greater trust in frontline professionals.
We want to learn the lessons of what has gone wrong in the past so we can keep children safer in the future.
That is why Tim has announced that Professor Eileen Munro will lead an independent review of children’s social work and frontline child protection practice. It will build on the work undertaken by the Social Work Task Force under the leadership of Moira Gibb and will look specifically at how we can strengthen frontline practice by removing the barriers and bureaucracy which prevent social workers spending valuable time with vulnerable children.
And while the safety of vulnerable children is, of course, paramount, we must take a measured approach that allows children to be protected but does not consider every person who comes into contact with them as a risk.
That is why we will end ContactPoint as soon as is practicable and have also halted registration for the existing Vetting and Barring Scheme. New solutions that better support practitioners and the public will be developed in their place.
In all of these areas, local authorities are playing the leading implementation role. Many are doing an excellent job, but it is also the case that some areas have been found wanting. While there are of course issues with the inspection framework that must be addressed, this is naturally concerning.
But I am clear that the knowledge and expertise that we need to drive further improvement can only be found in the sector itself and our job is to ensure that it can be properly harnessed, including by continuing to bear down on bureaucracy and by helping you to increase your capacity for improvement through organisations like C4EO and the National College.
And just as I believe strong local government leaders are the best people to drive improvement in local government children’s services departments so I believe great leaders and teachers in our schools are the best people to lead the improvement drive we need in our education system. In the LGA report I mentioned earlier, Dame Margaret writes:
Councils don’t run schools and haven’t done for many years. What local government does is make sure there are enough school places for all the children who need them. It makes sure the admissions process operates fairly so that every child gets a chance to go to a good local school, and oversees the distribution of funding in a cost-effective way. Councils provide support for all children with special education needs and are also the champions of children in care.
And she is right.
Local councils must be champions for parents and children in the local area. After all, that is the right role for any democratically elected council and it is the one that they are best placed to play.
First, by ‘holding the ring’ on admissions and exclusions.
We believe that promoting greater parental choice helps to improve standards for all children and this means there needs to be sufficient school places.
As you know only too well, making sure there are enough school places for every child this year, next year and in the years ahead will be a challenge.
You have the primary role in ensuring that schools adhere to the admissions code and we want to do all that we can to ensure that you work closely with the Office of the Schools Adjudicator to ensure that fair admissions arrangements are in place in every area.
You are also responsible for ensuring that schools take their fair share of the hardest to place pupils and for commissioning suitable alternative provision.
Second, by being consistent local champions for social justice.
Our first priority must be raising the attainment of the poorest.
That is why I am proud that at the heart of our Coalition’s programme for Government is a commitment to spending more on the education of the poorest through our pupil premium.
Local government has the critical role in tackling disadvantage at root by advocating on behalf of children in care, supporting schools in strategies to make sure every child arrives to start the school day ready to learn, bringing together local partners and agencies to provide extra support and ensuring that the needs of pupils with special educational needs and their parents are met.
Third, by taking ownership of school improvement across your local areas.
The London Challenge and the Black Country Challenge drove improvement in education but some I know felt they were perhaps too prescriptively designed by the centre.
When the National Challenge was launched, it maintained the impetus for improvement but again the feeling was that the centre was driving too much, leaving local communities out of the picture.
I understand those concerns, although I also firmly believe that floor targets have helped to focus attention on driving improvement in the lowest achieving schools.
I now want to see more ambitious expectations set for achievement in our education system. And those are not expectations that I will set centrally.
You are the first in line to tackle failure where it exists. And we in the centre have a backstop power that means we will step in and take control of the worst-performing schools where there is no sign of improvement.
But I want you to have a vision for improvement across all schools in your area, including those schools whose results seem perfectly acceptable on the surface but which are coasting.
I would like to see Northamptonshire Challenges, or County Durham Challenges in which local communities agree the level and pace of improvement they want to see in the academic achievement of young people in their area.
My job is to provide you with the right incentives. I am particularly attracted to the kind of approach taken by President Obama in America through the Race to the Top programme, under which states come forward with proposals for improvement that might include bringing in outside providers, stronger collaboration between schools or imaginative proposals on CPD for teachers, and rewards are offered to the best ideas.
And we will look closely at how we can recreate this kind of competition in our country.
I know that the vision that I have set out raises questions. Questions about the powers that you need to fulfil your responsibilities. About funding. About the speed of travel, the inspection framework and how health services and other partners will support you.
I can’t answer all of these questions today. And nor is it right that I try to. None of them have easy answers and many of them have potentially serious implications for us, for you and for people around the country.
I would rather we work through all the issues and answer them together. And that is why I intend to ask the LGA, the ADCS and SOLACE to take part in a new ministerial advisory group on the role of local authorities.
In the coming months and, importantly, with input from elected members and officers, it will consider what further action should be taken to ensure that local government has the powers and support it needs to fulfil its strong, strategic role. And I hope you will take the chance to shape our thinking.
I won’t deny that we have an ambitious agenda, nor that we are trying to achieve it in the most difficult and testing of circumstances. But as you know, there’s no point being in politics, fighting elections and seeking office unless you’re ambitious to make a difference.
And I do believe that we have an opportunity to change our country, irreversibly, for the better. There is no task more urgent for government than securing the future of our country, whether that’s by restarting the economy or getting education right. And there is no doubt that the best way for us to do achieve both if through all parts of government, central and local working together, working together, in partnership.