Thank you, Mary for that introduction.
It’s a real pleasure to be here. I’ve waited many years to have the opportunity of speaking at the annual ATL conference. Having shadowed the schools minister post for 5 years in opposition, I don’t think I’ve ever been invited before but, as they say, good things come to those who wait.
As part of my job I regularly meet Mary Bousted and other union leaders. When I saw Mary a few weeks ago I asked her what to expect at this conference.
She was very honest.
She said it would probably be challenging.
She said the delegates would speak their minds.
But she said that was because her members are dedicated professionals who take great pride in what they do.
I see this whenever I visit schools. During my five years as the Shadow Minister for Schools, I visited over 200 schools and, as a Minister, I try to continue to visit as many schools as I can.
One school I visited recently was Kingsford Community School in Newham. It’s a Confucius School, so it teaches Mandarin and I had the chance to sit in on a lesson with a Year 9 class. Given how difficult the language is to learn, I was astonished at how well the pupils could read and speak Mandarin. But after just a few minutes in that classroom, it was apparent why. It was the brilliant teacher who commanded the whole class’s attention superbly and instilled a deep love of the language in the pupils.
This dedication was clear again earlier today in the hour I spent with a group of delegates.
If I said that that we’d agreed on everything, there would probably be a few eyebrows raised - followed by several hundred requests for a list of the people in the room.
Suffice to say, we didn’t agree on everything - but I do believe that we agree on more than we disagree and we all agree on the importance of education to the individual child and to the country as a whole.
I think being Minister of State for Schools is one of the best jobs in Government, because, as someone who went into politics to improve people’s lives, I’m convinced that whatever their background nothing is more important than a child’s education. For children from the poorest backgrounds in particular, education is the only route out of poverty.
One of the overarching objectives of this Government is to close the attainment gap between those from wealthier and poorer backgrounds, an ambition that I know is shared by the ATL.
As the ATL survey released last week showed, nearly 80 per cent of teachers have students living in poverty. Four in 10 say that poverty has increased over the last three years. And 86 per cent say it is having a negative impact because their pupils are coming to school tired, hungry or lacking on confidence.
As so, despite the hard work of teachers, it is still the case that the least likely to succeed are those children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.
Children from poorer homes start behind their wealthier contemporaries when they arrive at school. At age five, those children living in poverty are around eight months behind their peers.
The achievement gap then becomes entrenched during primary school. At Key Stage 2, 25 per cent of children from poorer backgrounds fail to meet the expected level, compared to just three per cent from more affluent backgrounds.
And it then stubbornly persists through secondary school. Only one in five young people from the poorest families achieve five GCSEs at grades A* to C including English and maths, compared with three-quarters from the richest families.
The odds are even worse for children in care - just one in seven reach that basic benchmark.
And of course, it is not just about qualifications. It’s the prospect of unemployment or a low-paid job, poor health, generational cycles of poverty and a greater likelihood of getting into trouble that really brings home the importance of a good education.
The same mission drives us in government - and in Michael Gove, we have an Education Secretary whose own upbringing ignited a burning passion to extend better opportunities to the most vulnerable children.
That is why we’re spending more in the vital early years and cutting the bureaucracy associated with the EYFS so children get a better start in life.
It’s why we’re spending an additional £2.5 billion on the pupil premium that will mean the poorest pupils get the extra help and support they need.
And we’d like to do more. But whichever political party came into office at the election it would have faced the challenge of tackling the economic consequences of a spiralling budget deficit.
A deficit in which we were spending £156 billion more than we were receiving in income. And an accumulated debt that was costing £120 million in interest each and every day - enough to build 10 new primary schools, every single day. The Office for Budget Responsibility reports that without any further action to tackle the deficit, interest payments would rise to a staggering £67 billion a year by 2014-15 - that’s almost two years’ total spending on schools; twice what we spend on the salaries of every teacher in England, twice what we spend running every state school in the country - just to pay the interest on the debt.
And that £156 billion budget deficit, had we not taken measures to address it, would have resulted in the same financial crises that have devastated Greece, Ireland and Portugal.
And in the Department for Education we have had to make some very difficult decisions that we would not otherwise have wanted to make in order to help tackle that deficit.
But I am pleased that we have managed to protect - at least in cash per pupil terms - spending on schools. I recognise that even this means difficult decisions for schools but in the context of cuts in spending in other Government departments I am proud of the settlement that Michael Gove negotiated with the Treasury.
And I am pleased that we have been able to honour the third year of the teachers’ pay deal agreed before the election.
I know the pay freeze we’ve had to impose beyond that isn’t popular but it’s a freeze that applies right across the public sector and it doesn’t include increments or pay rises due to promotion. Our priority is to be as fair as possible to all public sector workers and the freeze is helping to maintain the number of teaching posts.
At the same time, we are also making the funding system for schools fairer and more transparent. It’s just not right that similar schools in different parts of the country receive, in some cases, vastly different amounts of money.
But while we are doing the best we can with the finances we have available to us, by far our biggest asset is the people working in our schools.
I’m sure that many teachers have been watching Jamie’s Dream School on Channel 4 with a combination of intrigue, horror and glee as celebrities have tried their hand at teaching a group of pretty difficult young people.
There are some other valuable insights from watching a renowned historian like David Starkey, at least initially, struggle to convey his passion and expertise to his class.
What the programme demonstrated so vividly is that good teachers not only need good subject knowledge, they also need to be able to communicate that passion, they need an understanding of how young people learn and they need to know their pupils.
And the most important thing that the programme did was prove why teachers deserve so much thanks and respect for what they do, as well as why teaching should be revered alongside the most esteemed and highly skilled professions.
But, despite this, it’s also true that teachers haven’t been afforded the trust and respect they deserve. And consequently, I believe more needs to be done to raise the professional status of teachers, something this Government is committed to helping to deliver.
Over the past decade, there has been ream after ream of guidance issued to schools and law after law passed about education.
But for every step forward, it has been a case of three steps backwards as yet more targets and responsibilities have been heaped upon teachers.
There has been nothing short of a perpetual revolution inflicted on schools, which we have to bring to an end if teaching is to become the kind of prestigious profession we want it to be.
That is why we are so determined to cut back on all unnecessary burdens and bureaucracy.
We’re removing those onerous duties.
We’ve scrapped the National Strategies.
Our review of the National Curriculum has the express aim of reducing prescription about how to teach.
Through the measures in our Education Bill, we’re refocusing Ofsted and we’re cutting back on back-office functions - including by getting rid of the GTC.
And just as teachers have the responsibility for delivering high standards, so we too as ministers will no longer hide behind arms-length bodies like the QCDA. Instead, we’re taking responsibility by bringing essential functions back into the Department where we can be held properly accountable for the decisions made.
Of course, there are areas where teachers need strong powers.
Tackling bad behaviour is one of the toughest parts of a teacher’s job.
I can also understand why teachers might feel that the system - and Government - hasn’t been on their side in the past.
Our Education Bill will ensure that the pendulum, which has swung too far away from teachers in recent years, moves back in their favour by ensuring teachers have clear powers to discipline pupils and maintain order in the classroom.
Just as importantly, it makes clear that we are backing head teachers and teachers - but that we expect all those in leadership positions to stay in touch with what is going in their classrooms and to back teachers too.
And perhaps most importantly of all, ensuring teachers get proper protection from false and malicious allegations that are not only hugely damaging, but which can blight careers and lives.
We also believe that professionals should have access to more and better continuous professional development.
As Mary often says, teaching is a vocation and teachers need the highest possible skills. I can think of no one better qualified to lead a discussion with Ministers and with professional associations about the role and future of CPD, which is what Michael Gove and I have asked her to do next month.
Teachers are the intellectual guardians of the nation and keeping their knowledge of their subjects up to date - whether it’s theoretical physics or English literature - is a vital part of being a good teacher.
In the White Paper, we made a commitment to introduce a new Scholarship Fund. It hasn’t attracted much attention so far but our intention is that it will enable a number of teachers every year to study for post-graduate qualifications or other equally rigorous subject-based professional development that will benefit them and their careers.
The ATL has long championed teachers improving their professional skills by observing other teachers. We agree that it is one of the best ways to improve teaching practice and to allow teachers to become better professionals.
That is why we intend to reform teacher training so that, alongside thorough initial training, more time is spent in the classroom.
It’s also why new centres of excellence in teaching practice - teaching schools - are being established. Modelled on teaching hospitals, they will allow new and experienced teachers to learn and develop their professional skills throughout their careers.
But this doesn’t mean the end of university initial teacher training - as the country needs about 35,000 new teachers each year there will always be a major role for universities in preparing teachers for the profession.
And in giving schools more autonomy some have claimed that we want to set schools free to go it alone. But by removing needless bureaucracy from schools and by encouraging school-led professional development, we believe schools can strengthen the bonds that exist between them and allow for more opportunities for teachers and schools to collaborate with each other.
So, more freedom, more and better professional development, and more collaboration. All of these are essential to enabling teachers to improve their own effectiveness and, in turn, to improve the effectiveness of their schools.
Because there is nothing more inspirational or memorable than being on the receiving end of great teaching.
I remember one teacher from my own school days, Mr Rogers, or Brian as we called him - it was after all the mid-70s - who taught me A-level economics. He was himself only recently out of university and, despite his own left-of-centre politics, taught me economics so thoroughly that it gave me a genuine understanding of how economics works and turned me into a confirmed economic liberal.
I owe him a huge debt of gratitude, but as I turned 50 recently, it’s horrifying to think that that young teacher must now be contemplating retirement.
The issue of teacher pensions is one that is exercising the minds of teachers, teacher unions and the Government. As well as the huge pressures on public spending as a result of the Budget deficit, there are also long term pressures on all pension funds - both public sector and private - as a result of longer life expectancy and reduced financial returns on pension capital.
We asked Lord Hutton to look at public sector pensions because of his experience as a Cabinet Minister in the last Labour Government and also because of his unparalleled commitment to public service values.
In his report, Lord Hutton underlined the importance of continuing to provide high quality pension schemes to essential public service workers like teachers, whilst ensuring that current and future generations of public servants can also be rewarded for their hard work with a fair but affordable pension.
We have already been clear that we don’t want to see a race to the bottom in pension provision - and that public service pensions should remain a gold standard.
A good pension has long been an important part of the overall reward package that teachers expect.
Our priority is to ensure that continues to be the case. Opt out rates from the Teachers Pension Scheme are extremely low and we want to keep them that way. But we won’t be able to achieve all of this if we ignore the realities of the cost pressures that all pension schemes are facing as life expectancy increases.
The combination of more teacher pensioners and the increase in their life expectancy has meant that the cost of teachers’ pensions increases every year. In 2005/06, the cost of paying teachers’ pensions was around £5 billion. By 2015/16, the cost is forecast to rise to almost £10 billion.
This is why long term reform of public service schemes is needed - and why teachers and other public service scheme members are being asked to pay a higher pension contribution from April 2012.
From the start, the Government has made its commitment to protecting accrued rights absolutely clear. All the benefits that have been built up in a teacher’s pension will not be affected by any reforms recommended by Hutton. This means there is absolutely nothing to be gained by teachers seeking to retire earlier than they have planned.
The Government has accepted Lord Hutton’s recommendations as the basis for discussions with all the trades unions. There have already been some constructive discussions between the TUC and the Government. The aim is to agree a package of principles for pensions reform by the end of June. I fully understand the strength of feeling here in this room - but I strongly urge the ATL to wait for the outcome of those discussions before deciding on whether to take further action.
In preparing for this conference I looked back at the speech that Mary made last year.
There was one phrase that really stuck in my mind. And it was this:
“It’s the teachers, stupid.”
I’m not sure who the “stupid” was directed at. I can only guess……
But she was right.
We have to attach the highest possible importance to teachers and the teaching profession.
That’s why our White Paper is called The Importance of Teaching.
Its aim is to help teachers to be better professionals by reducing bureaucracy, improving professional development and supporting teachers and head teachers to maintain high standards of behaviour.
And the reason why is because that is the only way that we can close the attainment gap between those from poorer and wealthier backgrounds.
Whatever our differences on particular policy areas, I know that we are united in that aim.
I’ve enjoyed working with Mary and with Martin over the last 11 months - and I look forward to a fruitful and constructive dialogue with the ATL in the months and years ahead.