The Education Secretary on the coalition plans for education, including how schools will be identified for the Academies programme.

Thank you, Shireen, and thank you Marion, for your very kind introduction.

It’s a special pleasure to be here in Manchester, home of one of our greatest football clubs (Manchester City), home of one of our most amazing schools (Manchester Academy), and home to one of the most striking examples of urban regeneration in the country - Manchester’s revived city centre. All of them evidence that when local people, local institutions and local government are given a broader canvas on which to operate, their ambitions can exceed anything imagined.

I want to say a little bit today about the ambitious agenda the coalition government has for education - and children’s services. And in particular I want to outline how, working together, we can be more ambitious about what children and young people can achieve in Britain.

A power shift and a horizon shift

It’s been 6 months since the new coalition government was established as a partnership between two parties determined to work together in the national interest to resolve the big problems our country faces.

Since the 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. We have started to reform our political system to make it fairer, more accountable and more transparent; embarked on reforms of education, health and welfare to promote social justice; and taken steps to accelerate economic growth by improving vocational training, investing in science and lifting the bureaucratic burden on business.

Our reform programme is driven by two principles shared across the coalition parties. We believe in shifting power down from central government to the lowest possible level - to local authorities, schools, mutuals and co-ops, GP consortia, community groups, families and individuals. And alongside this power shift, we believe in setting policy with a determined eye on the long-term. Whether it’s reforming higher education, taking radical action on energy efficiency or investing more in pre-school learning for our 2-year-olds, the government believes in a horizon shift where tough decisions are taken now so the country can enjoy a more sustainably prosperous future.

It’s a challenging agenda. But then again it needs to be, because our country can’t afford - literally cannot afford - not to change radically.

The economic mess we find ourselves in means we need to change.

The huge numbers of talented young people who still do not achieve as they should means we need to change.

And the new demands from the public that we deliver services much more efficiently means we need to change.

Changing does not mean rejecting the gains we have already made as a society. It’s quite the opposite - unless we change we will not be able to generate the wealth and opportunities, we will not be able to provide the security and comfort, that we have grown used to expecting.

I am an unreserved admirer of many of the advances we’ve made as a country over the last few decades. In the 80s we put the days of relative economic decline behind us. In the nineties we became a more tolerant, compassionate and open nation. And over the last decade there’s been a renewed emphasis on spreading opportunity more widely.

Specifically, there’s been a growing sense that we must ensure our taxpayer-funded public services are as responsive to individual demands and as efficient in their operations as those private sector organisations that have benefitted from innovation and competition.

Together, these forces and trends have driven progress. But even as we look back and see how far we’ve come, it is much more important that we look around us and see how fast others are going.

Across the globe other nations are modernising their economies, reforming their ways of working, challenging vested interests, demanding better performance, transforming public service, and making power more accountable, government more transparent and opportunity more equal. And the pace of change is everywhere accelerating. In East Asia, millions more are being educated to a higher level than ever before every year. In Scandinavia, taxes are being cut and technological change is driving new business growth. In North America, new ways of providing public services are being pioneered which put the empowered citizen in control.

We cannot ignore, or resist, these trends. It’s in the nature of our world that jobs, investment, innovation and growth will migrate to those jurisdictions with the best trained workers, the best educated citizens, the most efficient governments, the most responsive services, the most civilized public square. If we are to ensure our citizens enjoy a civilized future, with the economic growth which will sustain a prosperous and comfortable future for all, then we must accelerate reform here. We have to keep pace with the world’s innovation nations. And, sadly, at the moment we are falling behind.

The fierce urgency of the need for education reform

In the last ten years we have fallen 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.

If we are to raise attainment for all children, turn round underperforming schools where students have been poorly served for years, close the gap between rich and poor and make opportunity more equal, we need to work at every level to accelerate the pace of change.

Local authorities have a central role to play. The services you provide are critical to our shared mission of giving every child, and young person, the best possible start in life. From the support given in the earliest years, through Sure Start and other settings, to the effective policing of admissions rules to guarantee fair access for all students; from the expertise required to support children with special educational needs to the challenge which underperforming schools require to improve, local authorities are our essential partners in the fight to extend every child’s opportunities.

I am grateful for all the support, advice and encouragement I have received from colleagues in local government, councillors from all parties and officials at every level, and the Schools White Paper we plan to publish later this year will reflect the conversations I have had with local government colleagues as well as outline new and exciting ways of working together.

Increased autonomy for local authorities

I have been influenced by the growing sense among the most innovative leaders in the public sector that we will only secure the progress we need to make as a country if we continually drive responsibility and decision-making down to the lowest possible level.

Progress depends on encouraging creativity, making services more responsive to individual citizens, allowing valid comparisons between different providers to be made and using transparency - not central direction - to drive value for money.

There are huge opportunities here for local government.

As we shift power downwards, there is massive potential for the creative use of greater autonomy on the part of those who lead both schools and local authorities.

We propose to give local authorities progressively greater freedoms as they become strategic delivery partners. At the moment there are countless targets, onerous inspection regimes and a stultifying culture of compliance, with a proliferation of ring-fences, an overkill of regulations and a burgeoning thicket of guidance. All of these centrally-driven interventions have made government less local.

That is why we are stripping them away. By removing comprehensive area assessment and ending local area agreements, we have begun to remove the bureaucratic burdens that have been applied by central government to local government.

The space has been cleared for local authorities to be more daring and imaginative in how they provide services and deploy resources.

Today I am going a step further to liberate local authorities by announcing the ending of statutory requirements on them to set and then police a whole range of externally imposed performance targets on schools and Early Years settings.

Instead, local authorities will be able to develop their own plans to improve the quality of Early Years provision. And you will be free to develop new and innovative ways of supporting the vulnerable across your local areas. With the additional resources we are making available for the education of the poorest two-year olds, the schooling of all poorer children and early intervention to help those most in need, you will have the funding, and the freedom, to make a real difference.

Sharper accountability for underperforming schools

As well as granting local authorities greater autonomy, the Coalition Government is also making good its commitment to grant schools greater autonomy. I am grateful for the constructive way in which local authorities have worked to ensure we can offer all schools the promise of greater control over their destiny.

We have extended the opportunity to all schools to move towards academy status, with outstanding schools leading the way. One new academy has been created every working day of this new school term.

Those schools have used their new freedoms to help others. And all schools, whether or not they are making the journey towards academy status, are being given greater freedoms from central government.

We have abolished the self-evaluation form, reduced the data collection burden and told Ofsted to slim down its inspection criteria. We will be slimming down the National Curriculum, making governance simpler and financial management less onerous. All of these steps will give school leaders more freedom to concentrate on their core responsibilities - teaching and learning.

Different schools will go down different paths, at different paces. Some will want to move rapidly to academy status; others will follow, perhaps as part of a broader trust or federation. Yet others will want to maintain their current status.

A partnership for good

And because there will be a diversity of paths, so there will be a different role for local authorities with respect to schools.

We want all local authorities to play a central role as guardians of social justice, ensuring admissions are fair.

We expect all local authorities to discharge an essential role as providers of support for children with special educational needs.

We will work with all local authorities to ensure there is sufficient high-quality alternative provision.

And we will encourage all local authorities to be champions of educational excellence - challenging individual schools to improve, encouraging great schools to share their expertise, putting underperforming schools on notice if they are not improving.

But we anticipate, and will welcome, a more diverse approach to the provision of school improvement services.

The success of the work of National Leaders of Education, the National College of School Leadership, and trusts led by great school leaders such as Mike Wilkins or Barry Day, demonstrates that school-to-school improvement generates great results.

I expect that local authorities will want to make more use of NLEs, and encourage the creation of more federations to drive improvement.

If local authorities believe they can provide a strong school-improvement service themselves, they should be free to do so by offering their service to schools on a level playing field to other providers. That could mean some local authorities offer school-improvement services to schools beyond their own geographical borders. Greater diversity, and contestability, can only help drive up standards and I know that is our shared goal.

Addressing disadvantage head on

Because I know that all of you, like me, have as one of your top priorities turning round the performance of our most challenging schools.

We all have a duty to ensure there are minimum standards of performance through the school system. It can’t be acceptable to have so many schools in which two-thirds of children fail to secure five good GCSEs.

Minimum standards at GCSE have risen in recent years, in line with the increased aspirations of parents and communities. Those school leaders and local authorities who have driven the fastest improvements deserve special credit.

But given the quickening pace of school improvement across the globe, I believe it’s now essential that we demonstrate that we are stepping up our reform programme.

I will therefore be finalising details of new floor standards shortly, for inclusion in my forthcoming Schools White Paper. These will apply from January 2011, when we have the verified and final summer 2010 examination data.

In setting new standards I want to be clear that we are determined to tackle underperformance, but I want to avoid the errors of the past which meant some felt unfairly stigmatised. That is why we will be offering support first. On top of the pupil premium, and in addition to other financial support for those in greatest need, I have announced the creation of a new education endowment fund worth £110 million. Local authorities should be among those bidding to use this additional money to raise attainment in our most challenging schools.

We will identify the schools in the most challenging circumstances in the fairest and most rigorous way possible. The measures we use will recognise the need for schools to improve both their levels of attainment and the progress they make with their pupils.

Academy sponsors and underperforming schools

Central to our approach to school standards, especially in tackling the most significant areas of underperformance, will be our Academies programme.

I am delighted that so many local authorities and school leaders have seen how academies can improve performance, with academies securing improvements at GCSE level twice as fast as other schools and the best academy chains doing much, much better than that.

I want to expand the programme in three important areas.

First, we should be looking to spread the experience of academies to tackle underperformance in the primary sector, which is why we will have clear floor standards for primaries.

Second, the central role of some academies in federations of schools and more extended networks is demonstrating the potential for academies developed through clusters of schools within a local area.

And most important of all, too many underperforming schools that were above the minimum threshold we inherited have not received sufficient attention and support.

I want the Department to work with sponsors and local authorities to consider solutions to a wider range of underperforming schools. I have been encouraged by my conversations with many local authorities, which have confirmed the potential for further progress. I would like local authorities to consider more schools for academy status, where both attainment and pupil progression are low and where schools lack the capacity to improve themselves.

In particular, I want to focus our shared attention on how to improve schools where:

  • attainment is low and pupils progress poorly
  • the most recent Ofsted judgement is that the school is eligible for intervention or is merely satisfactory (the latter is included to reflect wider issues in the school such as its capacity to improve, or in key areas such as leadership and governance)
  • there is a record of low attainment over time - whether or not the most recent results have crossed a minimum threshold, we should be looking at whether the previous results indicate those increases are sustainable
  • and pupils in secondary schools achieve poorly compared to schools with similar intakes.

The minimum standards on attainment and progression will be set out in the white paper. But these should be regarded as guidelines, not rigid criteria. Where schools fall outside these benchmarks but local authorities consider that schools would still benefit from the involvement of sponsors, I would encourage you to make proposals for the conversion of those schools.

However, where schools are facing challenges across the board, decisive action is clearly needed.

Some of the most successful academy sponsors have been deepening their relationships with local authorities and with groups of schools, to consider how they might bring new solutions to other underperforming schools without the initial involvement of the Department.

I have actively encouraged sponsors to work directly with local authorities in this way.

Equally, we are seeing an increasing number of local authorities proposing the development of new academies and making links directly with sponsors, which I also very much welcome. Officials from the Department will continue to support and facilitate the brokering of new academies between schools, local authorities and sponsors. I see this as a continuation of the collaborative approach that has been fostered over the years to secure the replacement of such schools with academies. I very much want that partnership approach to continue.

For some years, we have also had powers on the statute book for the Secretary of State to intervene directly in failing schools. The new Academies Act enables me to make an Academy Order in respect of any school that is eligible for intervention. This includes, specifically, schools that Ofsted has judged to require special measures or significant improvement or which have failed to respond to a valid warning notice.

I will be ready to use this power in the months ahead where I judge that academy status is in the best interests of an eligible school and its pupils, and where it has not been possible to reach agreement on a way ahead with the local authority, the school or both. Of course, I would hope that I do not need to use these powers extensively as I fully expect local authorities to use their own extensive intervention powers to bring about change in poorly performing schools that are failing to improve. But where there is a lack of decisive action or a reluctance to consider the necessary academy solution, then I will not hesitate to act.

Officials in the Department will be talking both to local authorities and to sponsors, to identify the best opportunities for progress.

Children at the heart of everything we do

Because publication of our Schools White Paper is imminent, I have concentrated so far today on the work we can do together to improve education.

But I am critically aware that your responsibilities extend far beyond the school gate.

From reforming child protection to protecting child and adolescent mental health services, from safeguarding the provision of play facilities to enhancing youth services, from supporting Sure Start to improving careers advice for school leavers, your responsibilities are also my priorities.

And the same principles, and vision, which drive our approach to schools guide us in all these areas.

We believe in trusting professionals more, just as much when they are social workers as when they are teachers, which is why we have commissioned Eileen Munro to review how we can better support social work professionals.

We believe in opening up the provision of services to new providers with new ideas and anticipate we can improve support for the vulnerably by harnessing the dynamism of civil society.

We believe transparency aids good government and makes decision-making better, which is why we have asked for serious case reviews to be published.

We believe that nothing is more important than overcoming barriers to social mobility, which is why we are investing more in getting Early Years education right.

And we are convinced that young people deserve to have their horizons broadened and aspirations raised beyond the expectations of previous generations, which is why we will reform careers advice and guidance.

I appreciate this is change at a pace and across a range of policies which is nothing if not demanding.

But I believe that the world in which we live means we have no option but to embrace change and take control of the future. If we do not shape global forces they will shape us.

And it is, above all, my desire to grant individuals the right to shape their own future, which drives me. Education is, for me, about freeing people from imposed constraints, liberating them from the accidents of birth, allowing them to acquire the knowledge, skills and qualifications which allow them to choose the satisfying job they have always aspired to and the rich inner life which brings true fulfilment.

Everything we are arguing for, and all the changes we hope to make, are about giving more children and young people the power to decide their own fates, to become authors of their own life stories.

I know you all share that ambition, and every time we meet I am continually impressed by the energy, ambition and idealism you bring to the mission of improving all our children’s lives - which is why it is such a pleasure to work with all of you and to be with you today.

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