Thank you, Father [Michael] O’Dowd, for that introduction.
With the Spending Review imminent, members of the Cabinet are locked in rooms across Westminster this week. But Michael asked me to pass on his best wishes to you for your conference and I’m delighted to be here to share our vision for education with you.
The last time that I saw many of you was at St Mary’s University College in Twickenham for the Big Assembly with His Holiness Pope Benedict [XVI].
First and foremost, it was an extremely successful event and I’d like to congratulate Oona [Stannard] and the Catholic Education Service on the leading role that it played in organising it.
There were some of the very best choirs that I’ve ever heard, which is testament to the importance that Catholic schools place on the wider development of pupils through extra-curricular activities.
But above all, it was a fantastic celebration of the role that the Catholic Church plays in our education system and the perfect way to mark the start of the Year of Catholic Education.
In his speech, His Holiness said:
As the relative roles of church and state in the field of education continue to evolve, never forget that religions have a unique contribution to offer.
Faith schools have been part of the English education system since it began.
The historian Nicholas Orme traced this back as early as the 7th century when he described churches and cathedrals as ‘centres of literacy’.
By the 15th and 16th centuries, the Church had become one of the most important providers of education in local communities.
And when Catholicism re-established itself in the mid-19th century, the establishment of Catholic schools was prioritised so that children had places to learn.
Faith organisations have just as important a role to play in education in the 21st century.
Today, around a third of maintained schools in England are faith schools and, despite operating in some of the poorest areas of the country, they are consistently outperforming other schools.
At a pupil level, 6 per cent more pupils in secondary faith schools achieved 5 A* to C GCSEs including English and mathematics than the national average, while 6 per cent more pupils in primary faith schools reached the expected level in English and mathematics. When you look just at Catholic schools, both of these figures increase further still to 7 per cent.
At a school level, almost half of the 200 best-performing secondary schools in the country are faith schools, while 64 per cent of the 200 best-performing primaries are faith schools - of which nearly a quarter are Catholic.
And as well as having more diverse intakes than other schools, Ofsted recognises that faith schools are more successful than non-faith schools at promoting community cohesion.
A few weeks ago, I visited St Gregory’s Catholic Science College in Harrow.
It was the first school I visited when I became a minister and I was delighted to be asked back because I was blown away by my first visit there.
Last summer, 66 per cent of pupils achieved five A*-C GCSEs including English and mathematics. But I was struck most by the strong ethos that the headteacher has instilled, the emphasis on aspiration and, as tends to be the case with the happiest and most industrious schools, how I could tell just walking through the gates that there was a culture of respect and good behaviour.
If we could replicate schools like St Gregory’s, there would be no need to have a schools minister or a Department for Education. But while we do have some of the best schools in the world in our country, we also have too many which are still struggling.
Still a long way to go
As we saw from the Key Stage 2 progression statistics published last week, there are hundreds of primary schools where the majority of children fail to get to an acceptable level in mathematics 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.
Overall, four in ten pupils don’t meet basic standards by the age of eleven, and only about half manage at least a ‘C’ in both English and mathematics GCSE.
What makes this so much worse is that poor performance is so powerfully concentrated in the areas of the greatest disadvantage.
It is enormously demoralising to track the progress of the poorest pupils.
The stark report published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission earlier this week showed that only a third of children eligible for free school meals reach a good level of development by the age of five, compared to more than half who are not.
This gap then continues through primary and secondary school until, aged 16, pupils entitled to free school meals are over half as likely to achieve five good GCSEs and more than twice as likely to be permanently excluded.
By the time they reach university, just 45 children out of a cohort of 80,000 on free school meals make it to Oxbridge.
It is because deprivation still far too often dictates destiny that we are introducing a pupil premium. It will provide extra funding for schools with the poorest pupils to pay for smaller classes, extra tuition and the best teachers.
But we are also determined to learn from the other nations that have been much more successful recently in getting more and more people to be educated to a higher level.
The most recent PIRLs study of 10-year-olds saw England fall from 3rd out of 15 countries in 2001 to 15th out of 40 countries in 2006.
While the PISA study showed that only 2 out of 57 countries have a wider gap in attainment between the highest and lowest achievers.
Three pillars of reform
There are three essential characteristics which mark out the best performing and fastest reforming education systems.
First, they are guided by the principle that more autonomy for individual schools helps drive up standards.
Second, the highest performing education nations invariably also have the best teachers.
Third, there is rigorous external assessment based on a curriculum that provides a deep and rich learning experience.
The coalition government is determined to implement all of these lessons in our country and I will reflect on how we intend to do so today.
One of the first things we did was to offer all schools - including primary schools for the first time - the chance to take on academy status - starting with those rated outstanding by Ofsted.
In recent years, academies have consistently outperformed other schools. Last year, their rate of improvement was twice that of other schools, with some individual academies posting incredible improvements of between 15 and 25 per cent. 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, have all secured dramatic gains.
In his memoirs, 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.
Whether it’s new approaches to the curriculum, to assessment, to discipline and behaviour, to pastoral care, to careers guidance, to sport, the arts and music, new ways of gathering data on pupil performance, new ways of supporting teachers to improve their practice, new ways of tackling entrenched illiteracy and new ways of ending the culture of low expectations, it is that single-minded focus on what will work for them that we want all schools to have.
Over 140 outstanding schools have already taken up our offer and will lead the way - and I hope that many more will follow, including faith schools.
I am grateful to Oona and to the CES for the constructive dialogue that we’ve had over the past few months about the involvement of faith schools in the Academies programme.
In that spirit of partnership, let me also say that you have been right to raise concerns about the potential impact that conversion would have on land, on governance, on the curriculum, amongst other things.
I want us to work through all of these issues and that is why we were pleased to provide a small amount of funding to help develop a model funding agreement for Catholic schools.
And I do want to be 100 per cent clear that it would be wrong for us to expect faith schools converting to academies to do anything differently. That is why faith designation will continue into academies and, while they must of course comply with the School Admissions Code so that they are inclusive, academies will be able to continue to give priority to children of their faith.
I believe that, in time, faith schools can play the same kind of leading role in the Academies programme as they do in the wider schools system, not least because they have so much to offer in working with other schools that need more support to improve.
As well as expanding the Academies programme, we’re helping teachers, charities, churches and parent groups to start new free schools.
Bishop McMahon pointed out earlier this year that free schools are about local communities getting together, pooling their resources and supporting the needs of the local community, and how this resonates with the way that so many Catholic primary schools were founded.
Despite the robust approach that we’re taking to assessing proposals, we’ve already announced the first sixteen projects that are progressing to the next stage of development and want to be up and running next September.
Given that it typically takes between three and five years to set up a new school, it is a tribute to the incredible energy and commitment of these pioneering groups that they have already reached such an advanced stage.
Encouragingly, there are already a number of proposals from faith groups and, while the door of course remains open for faith groups to establish new schools through the existing voluntary-aided route, I hope you will look at this route as a means of increasing the number of faith places available.
While I’m on the subject of new schools, let me also say that I understand why some communities were disappointed by the announcement to end the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme.
Sadly, we inherited a scheme that was characterised by massive overspends, tragic delays, botched construction projects and needless bureaucracy so we had to take action.
The end of the BSF programme does not mean the end of school rebuilding. I believe we can build more schools more efficiently and more quickly in the areas that need it the most in the future and that is what we’ve asked our review team to deliver.
Similarly, Oona has been lobbying on your behalf recently about the removal of home to school transport, which I understand is an important consideration for you and for parents.
Parents have the right to bring up their children in the way that they see fit and, if they adhere to a faith, to bring up their children with respect to the tenets of that faith.
Our education system must reflect that choice and LAs must respect a parent’s wishes.
Every council’s budget is under pressure but their primary responsibility is to spend taxpayers’ money in a way that meets local needs and, if you or parents don’t believe that’s happening, I have no doubt that you will let them know.
While the drive towards greater autonomy is an essential part of our plans, it is only part of a comprehensive programme of reforms to make us truly competitive internationally and to close the gap between rich and poor.
Comprehensive programme of reform
Our first Education White Paper, to be launched later this year, will set out the whole-system improvement needed to improve standards and close the gap between rich and poor.
Teachers and other education professionals will be at the fore because everything we want to achieve starts with, and flows from, the quality of the workforce.
In the White Paper, we will unveil a whole range of further proposals to ensure we attract the best possible people into education and, perhaps even more critically, provide those teaching now with the support, professional development and security they need.
We’ve already doubled the size of the Teach First programme so that more highly skilled graduates come in to help us with our mission, and we will also make it easier for experienced, talented people to change career and move into teaching.
To ensure they get off to the best possible start, we will look at how we can improve the quality of initial teacher training and, in particular, strengthen phonics and mathematics training for primary teachers.
And because the best teachers apply their passion for learning to their own careers as well as to their pupils, we will make it easier and more rewarding for teachers to acquire deeper knowledge and new qualifications, including postgraduate and management qualifications.
As crucial as recruitment and training will be, there is nothing more dispiriting for teachers than dealing with a grinding load of bureaucracy and nothing more likely to put them off completely than dealing with bad behaviour,
We are determined to lift burdens on teachers so that they can get on with their jobs, and to build on the action that we’ve already on ill discipline by simplifying the use of force guidance and protecting teachers against false and malicious allegations from pupils and parents.
Once teachers are secure and able to develop their professional skills, we then have to create more room for them to use them.
So we will develop a new National Curriculum that excites and challenges young people. It will be informed by teachers and experts, but based on the best global evidence of what knowledge and concepts can be introduced to children at different ages.
We will set out more details in the White Paper but I can assure you that I believe that RE is an important part of the curriculum.
RE is thought provoking, allows pupils to develop a greater understanding of the communities they live in and, importantly, it is valued by parents.
Finally, hand in hand with curriculum reform comes the need to restore confidence in our battered qualifications system.
So we will legislate to strengthen Ofqual and we will also ask it to evaluate how our exams compare with those in other countries so that we know how well our children stand against those from the countries with whom we are increasingly competing.
I’m proud to call myself a supporter of faith schools - and Catholic schools in particular - because they have such a strong track record of building strong communities that work together to help one another and of supporting the most disadvantaged.
We want to learn from you and are committed to working with you as we take forward the far-reaching reform programme that I’ve set out.
Because, just like the Catholic Church, we want to ensure that all children get the best possible chance to succeed.