There is no profession more noble, no calling more vital, no role more important than teaching. Far and away the best part of my job is spending time with teachers – watching and admiring, listening and learning, being uplifted and inspired.
Whether it was the brilliant young head of History at Lampton School, Hounslow, the English lesson I observed at ULT’s fantastic Manchester Academy, the superb science teaching I was privileged to glimpse at Urmston Grammar in Trafford or the wonderful primary lesson I so much enjoyed when I visited Durand Primary in Brixton, each of these encounters with great teaching left me feeling more optimistic about the future.
I believe we have the best generation of teachers ever in our schools, and one of the most dynamic factors behind that has been the phenomenal impact of Teach First.
The single most enjoyable evening I’ve had in politics was spent at the Teach First annual awards, celebrating the brilliant and inspirational work of young people like Manjit More and Ed Watson, teachers whose passion for their subject and sheer enjoyment in learning are life enhancing, indeed for those they teach, life changing.
And one of the reasons I’m here at Westminster Academy today is that Teach First teachers are playing their part, alongside so many other gifted professionals, in changing the lives of young people immeasurably for the better. This school, like many other great schools is generating impressive results for children from a challengingly diverse range of backgrounds.
But one of the tragedies of the last thirteen years is that, despite record spending, there still aren’t enough of these good schools.
While we have some of the best schools in the world, we also have too many which are still struggling.
There are hundreds of primaries where the majority of children fail to get to an acceptable level in maths and English.
The majority of children leave those schools without the knowledge and skills required properly to follow the secondary school curriculum and make a success of the rest of their time in education.
For many of those children who have not reached an acceptable level of literacy by the end of primary, their time at secondary is marked by defiance and disruption. We have hundreds of thousands of persistent truants and thousands of pupils are excluded for disruption and assault.
Overall – as a country – about four in ten do not meet basic standards by the age of eleven and only about half manage at least a ‘C’ in both English and maths GCSE.
What makes this situation so much worse, indeed indefensible, is that poor performance is so powerfully concentrated in areas of disadvantage. In our education system it is still far too often the case that deprivation is destiny.
The gap in attainment between rich and poor, which widened in recent years, is a scandal. For disadvantaged pupils, a gap opens even before primary school. Leon Feinstein’s research has shown that the highest early achievers from deprived backgrounds are overtaken by lower achieving children from advantaged backgrounds by age five.
Schools should be engines of social mobility – the places where accidents of birth and the unfairness of life’s lottery are overcome through the democratisation of access to knowledge. But in the schools system we inherited the gap between rich and poor just widens over time.
The poorest children in our school system are those eligible for free school meals. There are about 80,000 children in every school year who are eligible. Tracking their progress through school we can see they fall further and further behind their peers by the time they reach the end of primary. At secondary the gulf grows wider still. By sixteen, a pupil not entitled to free school meals is over 3 times more likely to achieve five good GCSEs as one who is entitled. By the time they reach university age just 45 children out of a cohort of 80,000 on free school meals make it to Oxbridge.
On a moral level, this waste of talent, this blighting of individual lives, is an affront to decency. And in economic terms, as we face an increasingly competitive global environment, it’s a tragedy.
Other nations have been much more successful recently in getting more and more people to be educated to a higher level. With capital so footloose, labour needs to be better educated and trained than ever before. But while we have been moving backwards with education reform over the last few years, as Tony Blair has pointed out, other nations have been forging ahead much faster and further when it comes to reforming and improving their education systems.
The international comparisons are stark.
Under the last Government in the most recent PISA survey – the international league tables of school performance – we fell from 4th to 14th in science, 7th to 17th in literacy, 8th to 24th in maths.
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.
Governments often choose to compare the present with the past and say: haven’t we come far. But the entire human race is progressing at an accelerating pace – technologically, economically and educationally.
Especially educationally. And we are falling behind. As a nation instead of comparing ourselves with the past, we should compare ourselves with the best.
And those who want to stay the best, or be the best, are changing fast.
There are three essential characteristics which mark out the best performing and fastest reforming education systems.
Rigorous research, from the OECD and others, has shown that more autonomy for individual schools helps drive higher standards.
Landmark work by Professor Michael Barber for McKinsey, backed up by the research of Fenton Whelan, has shown that teacher quality is critical: the highest performing education nations have the best qualified teachers.
And research again from the OECD underlines that rigorous external assessment – proper testing you can trust – helps lever up standards.
And these lessons are being applied with vigour and rigour in other nations.
In America, President Obama is pressing ahead with radical school reform to close the gap between rich and poor. And he’s implementing all three policies to generate lasting improvement.
He is promoting greater autonomy by providing cash and other incentives to encourage more charter schools, the equivalent of our free schools and academies.
He has offered extra support to programmes designed to attract more great people into teaching and leadership.
And he has encouraged states and school districts to provide greater accountability through improved testing and assessment. In other ambitious countries, the drive for greater autonomy is generating great performance.
In Canada, and specifically in Alberta, schools have also been liberated, given the autonomy enjoyed by charter schools in the US. Headteachers control their own budgets, set their own ethos and shape their own environments.
In Calgary and Edmonton, a diverse range of autonomous schools offer professionals freedom and parents choice.
And the result?
Alberta now has the best performing state schools of any English-speaking region.
In Sweden, the old bureaucratic monopoly that saw all state schools run by local government was ended and the system opened up to allow new, non-selective, state schools to be set up by a range of providers.
It has allowed greater diversity, increased parental choice and has seen results improve – with results improving fastest of all in the areas where schools exercised the greatest degree of autonomy and parents enjoyed the widest choice.
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. The Government has deliberately encouraged greater diversity in the schools system and as the scope for innovation has grown, so Singapore’s competitive advantage over other nations has grown too.
The good news in England is that a new Government committed to following this path to success already has great examples here to draw on.
Granting greater autonomy has already generated some great success stories here. In the five or so years after 1988 the last Conservative Government created fifteen city technology colleges. They are all-ability comprehensives, overwhelmingly located in poorer areas, but they enjoy much greater independence than other schools.
They have been a huge success. Now the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals in CTCs who achieve five or more good GCSEs A* to C is more than twice as high as for all maintained mainstream schools.
These results are now being replicated by the small group of schools that were turned into academies under the last government – and which were modelled on the CTCs.
As a group they improved three times faster than other schools this year and some individual academies posted incredible improvements of 15 to 25%. Those in some particularly challenging areas, such as Burlington Danes on London’s White City estate, run by the charity ARK and the Harris Academies in South London secured dramatic gains.
It’s absolutely clear that academies and CTCs succeed because of their autonomy. Heads are given the freedom to shape their own curriculum; they are at liberty to insist on tougher discipline, pay staff more, extend school hours, and develop a personal approach to every pupil. In his memoirs published last week Tony Blair gave an excellent description of why they’re so effective:
[An academy] belongs not to some remote bureaucracy, not to the rulers of government, local or national, but to itself, for itself. The school is in charge of its own destiny. This gives it pride and purpose. And most of all, freed from the extraordinarily debilitating and often, in the worst sense, political correct interference from state or municipality, academies have just one thing in mind, something shaped not by political prejudice but by common sense: what will make the school excellent.
These freedoms were curtailed. But this Government trusts teachers to control the classroom and trusts parents to choose schools.
That’s why we’re offering all schools the chance to take on academy status – starting with those rated outstanding by Ofsted. Already over 140, and counting, of the best state schools have taken up our offer of academy freedoms – in just three months. All of these schools have committed to using their new found powers and freedom to support weaker schools.
It’s also why we’ll continue to challenge schools that are struggling; either they improve fast or they will have their management replaced by an academy sponsor, or an outstanding school, with a proven track record.
There was an artificial ceiling of 400 such academies placed and the programme was not refused to primaries. But I am removing both of these barriers to the rapid expansion of the programme.
And we’re helping great teachers, charities, parent groups and some existing academy sponsors, to start new Free Schools. This morning we’ve announced the very first batch of 16 projects that are ready to progress to the next stage of development and are keen to be up and running in a year’s time.
Given that it typically takes three to five years to set up a new school I’m incredibly impressed that just ten weeks after launching the policy there are already projects at this advanced a stage. It’s a tribute to the incredible energy and commitment of these pioneering sixteen groups and the immense hard work and commitment of a superb team of civil servants who’ve been helping them.
Following their lead are hundreds of other groups, each with innovative and exiting proposals, in active contact with the Department and the New Schools Network.
I’m particularly excited that amongst this first batch are projects proposed by outstanding young teachers like Sajid Hussein – who’s King’s Science Academy will be located in one of the poorer areas of Bradford and Mark Lehain - another state school teacher who sees the potential for Free Schools to help students who’ve been let down by the current system.
One of the reasons I’m so attracted to the Free Schools policy is the experience of the KIPP schools – which started with two Teach for America graduates in Houston with an incredible vision for transforming the life chances of some of their city’s poorest young people.
Now parents queue round the block for a chance to get their child into a KIPP school and there are almost hundred across the US – their results are astonishing and almost all their pupils get to a top university. Only by allowing new providers to set up schools will this kind of innovation breath life into our education system.
And only by allowing new providers into the system will we meet the growing demand for new primary school places in those parts of the country where the population is increasing.
Under the old bureaucratic system of controlling education it could take five years or more to get a new school up and running. But we have real and pressing demographic pressures which demand the creation of more good school places in the next few years.
I don’t believe that enough was done to prepare schools, especially primaries, for this pressure. The way that capital was allocated was much too bureaucratic and slow moving, primaries weren’t prioritised properly and local authorities were given the wrong sums of money. We’re taking steps now to put that right – and one of those crucial steps is helping new schools to become established in areas where there’s a growing demand for school places.
While this drive towards a more autonomous school system is an essential part of our plans it is only part of a wider series of reforms necessary to make us truly competitive internationally and to close the gap between rich and poor.
Our first Education White Paper, to be launched later this year, will lay out a programme of reform for this parliament that will not only lead to a more autonomous school system led by professionals but will also
- increase the number of great teachers and leaders in our schools
- give teachers the power to tackle poor discipline
- create a fairer funding system so that extra funds follow the poorest pupils who need the most support
*introduce a simpler, more focused National Curriculum
- restore faith in our battered qualifications system.
Teachers and other education professionals will be at the front and centre of the White Paper because everything else we want to achieve flows naturally from the quality of the workforce. And that is the second great principle of education reform - nothing matters more than having great teachers - and great headteachers.
In the 1990s a series of in-depth studies conducted by American academics revealed a remarkably consistent pattern. The quality of an individual teacher is the single most important determinant in a child’s educational progress. Those students taught by the best teacher make three times as much progress as those taught by the least effective.
And the effect of good teaching isn’t ephemeral but cumulative, with students exposed to consistently effective teaching making faster and faster progress than their contemporaries, while the effect of bad teaching isn’t just relative failure but regression in absolute terms.
Research in the Boston school district of the US found that pupils placed with the weakest maths teachers actually fell back in absolute performance during the year - their test scores got worse.
Indeed, wherever we look across the globe, a crucial factor which defines those countries whose schools are most successful is the quality of those in the teaching profession.
In Finland teachers are drawn from the top ten per cent of graduates. In the two other nations which rival Finland globally for consistent educational excellence – Singapore and South Korea – a similar philosophy applies. Only those graduates in the top quarter or third of any year can go into teaching.
In South Korea the academic bar is actually set higher for primary school teachers than those in secondaries, because the South Koreans, quite rightly, consider those early years to be crucial.
Of course academic success at university doesn’t automatically make you a good teacher. You need emotional intelligence as well as the more traditional kind. The best teachers demonstrate that indefinable quality of leadership which springs from enjoying being with young people and wanting to bring out the best in them.
And the reason why Teach First has been so incredibly successful in this country is that they have not only recruited some of our most gifted graduates from our top universities, they have rigorously sifted them to identify those with the leadership and personal qualities that make the best teachers.
Thanks to Teach First, more and more of our most talented young graduates have gone on to teach in some of our toughest schools. In 2002, only four graduates from Oxford University chose a career teaching in a challenging school; in 2009/10, 8% of finalists applied to teach in a challenging school through Teach First, and the programme is now 7th in the Times’ 100 top graduate recruiters. The impact on schools has been incredible. An evaluation by the University of Manchester found that challenging schools which take Teach First teachers have seen a statistically significant improvement in their GCSE results and that the more Teach First teachers were placed in a challenging school, the bigger the improvement.
With programmes setting up in dozens of countries from Lebanon to Australia it is now a global success story.
And many Teach First alumni are now getting involved with Free School and Academy projects – applying the entrepreneurial spirit that won them places on the programme to the new powers and freedoms that we’re offering to professionals.
All of this explains why one of the first decisions I took in office was to increase Teach First’s grant by £4 million to enable them to double their number of recruits each year; expand across the whole country and for the first time into primary schools.
In the White Paper we will unveil a whole range of proposals alongside the growth in Teach First to ensure we attract the best possible people into education to help in our mission.
And alongside that we will, perhaps even more critically, ensure that we help those teaching now to do their jobs even better by providing them with the support, additional professional development and security they need to fulfil their full potential and help their pupils do the same.
We’ll be announcing new policies which will make it easier and more rewarding for teachers to acquire new skills and additional qualifications. We will make it easier for teachers to deepen and enhance their subject knowledge, ensuring teachers are seen, alongside university academics, as the guardians of the intellectual life of the nation.
We need to act because not enough good people are coming to teaching, or staying in teaching.
Teachers who have left the profession tell me that the grinding load of bureaucracy which has been piled on them has been a major factor in walking away from a job so many entered with such high hopes and idealism. One of the best headteachers I’ve ever met told me during the election that he yearned to be free from a Government which had baseball-batted him over the head with bureaucracy. So we will be tackling bureaucracy at source, stripping out unnecessary obligations placed on hard-pressed teachers and overworked governors, simplifying the Ofsted inspection regime and tackling health and safety rules which inhibit out-of-classroom learning and have undermined competitive team sports.
But, crucial as reducing bureaucracy will be, nothing is a bigger barrier to getting more talented people to become teachers, and stay teachers, than discipline and behaviour. Among undergraduates tempted to go into teaching the reason most commonly cited for pursuing another profession, well ahead of concerns about salary, is the fear of not being safe in our schools.
There are massive problems with violence and disruption in our most challenging schools. There are over 300,000 suspensions per year and about a quarter of a million persistent truants. Thousands of teachers every year are physically attacked and about one in three teachers have been subject to false accusations.
We will never get more talented people into the classroom; we will never give disadvantaged children the inspiration they need to succeed, unless we solve this problem.
In our first months we’ve already taken action to give teachers more power to deal with discipline problems. First, we’ve removed the ban on same-day detentions, giving heads and teachers a stronger deterrent against poor behaviour. Previously, teachers had the power to put pupils in detention, but only if the school gave their parents 24 hours’ notice in writing. In future each school will be able to decide what notice to give and how to inform parents.
We’ve also increased teachers’ powers to search troublemakers.
Previously teachers could only search, without consent, anyone who was suspected of carrying a knife or other weapon.
We’ve significantly extended this list to include: Alcohol, controlled drugs, stolen property, personal electronic devices such as mobile phones, MP3 players and cameras, legal highs, pornography, cigarettes and fireworks.
In the White Paper we will outline further changes including the clarification and simplification of use of force guidance and crucially how we’ll protect teachers against false and malicious allegations from pupils and parents. This growing problem acts as a huge deterrent to teachers – especially male teachers in primary schools.
Newly released figures show that 28% of primary schools now have no male teachers at all – which can make it even hard to provide a supportive and safe environment for disruptive boys.
So the message is clear.
We’re on the side of teachers, we’re determined to restore order and we’re not going to be deflected from laying down lines which the badly behaved must not cross.
But just as we need to be clear about the need for order we also need to be clear about the pressing, urgent, need to improve provision for those disruptive, difficult and damaged children who need special help.
In the White Paper we’ll lay out plans to radically improve the environment in which disruptive and excluded pupils are educated and we will ensure that those organisations with a proven track record in turning young lives round are given the opportunity to do more.
And, of course, we need to tackle the deep-rooted causes of educational disaffection that leads so many young people to be disruptive in the first place. At the heart of our White Paper plans for a simpler, fairer funding system is the Pupil Premium.
This will see extra money attached to young people from deprived backgrounds - which will be clearly identified to their parents.
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.
And to help ensure money is spent wisely right at the beginning of schooling we will take radical action to get reading right.
Children cannot read to learn before they have learned to read. Without that secure foundation even the most gifted and innovative teacher will struggle to inspire and inform.
We know that, whatever else may work, teaching children to read using the tried and tested method of systematic synthetic phonics can dramatically reduce illiteracy.
So we will make sure that teacher training is improved so every new primary teacher - and every teacher in place - is secure in their grasp of phonics teaching. We will ensure teachers have the best reading materials to help embed great phonics teaching.
I am clear that we need that solid foundation, but we also need to create room for greater flexibility once the basics are secure. That is why we will develop a new National Curriculum that excites and challenges young people while giving teachers the space to develop their own pedagogy. I will be saying more over the coming weeks about our plans for a curriculum review but it’s crucial that the expectations we set of what children should know will be more ambitious and based upon global evidence concerning what knowledge can be introduced to children at different ages.
In particular we have to move beyond the sterile debate that sees academic knowledge as mutually exclusive to the skills required for employment; and rigour as incompatible with the enjoyment of learning.
The most exciting curriculum innovations in development at the moment are those which find ways to trigger the curiosity inherent to young minds towards intellectual tough material.
To take one example, the computer games developed by the brilliant mathematician Marcus du Sautoy show children’s imaginations can be harnessed to a deep understanding of the most complex ideas.
Hand in hand with curriculum reform is the need to restore faith in our exam system. Qualifications are the currency of education – and just like with the money markets – confidence is everything.
Over the past few years there has been a growing and justified concern, from parents and from teachers.
Last month the exams regulator Ofqual acknowledged that the GCSE science exams were not set at a high enough standard. I’ve been saying this for years – backed by learned institutions like the Royal Society for Chemistry.
But my warnings were ignored and the status quo retained despite the fact that it was actively damaging the education of hundreds of thousands of children a year.
Critical to restoring confidence in our exams system is a much more assertive and powerful regulator. We will legislate to strengthen Ofqual and give a new regulator the powers they need to enforce rigorous standards.
We will ask Ofqual to report on how our exams compare with those in other countries so we can measure the questions our 11, 16 and 18 year olds sit against those sat by their contemporaries in India, China, Singapore, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
Our young people will increasingly be competing for jobs and university places on a global level and we can’t afford to have our young people sitting exams which aren’t competitive with the world’s best.
And for A Levels we’ll give those institutions with the greatest interest in maintaining standards – universities – more power to shape exams and determine their content.
As well as reforming exams to make them more rigorous we need to change league tables to make them more effective.
One thing I’m determined to do is publish all the exam data held by the Government so that parents, schools and third parties can use web-based applications to create many new and bespoke sorts of tables.
This will mean they’re not dependent on the measures that Government decides to use; and also that there is complete transparency about the qualifications our young people are taking.
But Government still needs key measures of secondary school performance to ensure that the reforms we’re putting in place are having a real impact on performance in our schools and are closing the gap between rich and poor.
Over the next few months – before the publication of the White Paper – there’s the opportunity for a real debate about what we, as a nation, should expect of young people at the age of 16. And so what these key measures should be.
I think most people would agree that English and maths GCSE are an irreducible core that nearly all young people should be expected to achieve at 16.
But I believe there is an argument that the vast majority of young people should take a wider range of core academic GCSEs: an English Baccalaureate that would ensure that all children – especially those from less privileged backgrounds – have a chance to gain a base of knowledge and a set of life chances too often restricted to the wealthy.
So I’m proposing that the Government look at how many young people in each secondary school secure five good GCSEs including English, maths, a science, a modern or ancient language and a humanity like history or geography, art or music.
Such a broad yet rigorous suite of qualifications would allow students here the chance to secure a school-leaving certificate which shares many of the virtues of the European baccalaureate approach. I am a great admirer of the already existing International Baccalaureate and am determined to support a wider take-up of that qualification. But the GCSE is a popular and resilient qualification, well understood by employers, teachers and students.
It seems to me that one of the best ways of capturing the breadth and rigour of the IB while making the most of the strengths of the GCSE is to create special recognition for those students who secure good passes in a balanced range of rigorous qualifications.
An English Bac could incentivise schools and students to follow the courses which best equip them, and us as a nation, to succeed.
I am deeply concerned that fewer and fewer students are studying languages, it not only breeds insularity, it means an integral part of the brain’s learning capacity rusts unused.
I am determined that we step up the number of students studying proper science subjects. Asian countries massively outstrip us in the growth of scientific learning and they are already reaping the cultural and economic benefits.
And I am passionately concerned that we introduce more and more young people to the best that has been thought and written, which is why I lament the retreat from history teaching in some of our schools and believe also that we should incentivise deeper knowledge of our shared cultural heritage.
I believe that a change in how we measure and grade schools, to reward those who have pupils who succeed in all these areas, and a special recognition of student achievement with the award of a Baccalaureate certificate to those pupils who secure these passes, could reinvigorate the culture of learning in this country.
I’m not suggesting this would or should be the only measure used but I do believe that this is a valid expectation of most young people in the 21st century.
It also would not preclude the study of other GCSEs outside of this core or any vocational qualifications that would be of genuine benefit for student’s progression to post-16 education and employment.
But it would dramatically strengthen the position of core academic subjects in our schools and stop the shift to less challenging courses driven by the current perverse accountability system.
And it would align us with the expectations other advanced countries have of their children.
In nearly every other developed country in the world children are assessed in a range of core academic subjects at 15 or 16 even if they are on a “vocational” route.
This is true in Europe, where for example in France all children take the Brevet des Colleges which assesses French, maths, history/geography/civics and a modern foreign language.
In places like Holland that have separate vocational routes from the beginning of secondary school all children are still typically assessed on the core academic subjects (in Holland this is languages, arts, science, maths and history).
In Finland – the best-performing country in Europe according to international league tables – all children are assessed in maths, Finnish, history, science and art/music at GCSE age.
In Asia there is typically assessment of the whole core curriculum at GCSE level. In Singapore, for example, all pupils must take English, another language, maths, science, humanities, plus one other subject (of course they also still use O Levels in Singapore).
And in the States nearly all schools have mandatory assessment during high school in maths, English, science and social studies (including history and politics).
We are extremely unusual in having no requirement to study anything academic apart from English, maths and science after 14 (and only English and maths have to be assessed using GCSE).
Taken altogether, the changes we want to make represent a formidable reform programme. A more autonomous school system led by professionals; a new generation of brilliant teachers; a new era of discipline in our schools; a fairer funding system; a simpler and more challenging curriculum and a qualifications system that restores standards rather than diminishing them.
I’m under no illusions about how tough it will be to drive this programme through but the scale of the challenge is such that we have no choice but to be this radical and this ambitious. There is no option but to push ahead on all fronts as quickly as possible.
Children only have one chance - and I am impatient to ensure that my children – that all children – get the best possible chance to succeed in our state schools.