Thank you for that introduction, and thank you for inviting me to the Grammar Schools Heads Association conference. I’m very pleased to have the opportunity to talk to, and hear from, the head teachers of so many excellent schools. Although most of my secondary school education was spent in comprehensive schools, I have very happy memories of my one year at Maidstone Grammar School. It was - and I know, under the leadership of Nick Argent, still is - a fantastic school, with a strong ethos and an emphasis on academic excellence and rigour.
Grammar schools are renowned for their focus on standards, high quality of teaching, excellent results, and a culture of achievement. Last year, over 98 per cent of grammar school pupils achieved five good GCSEs including English and mathematics. Virtually all achieved two or more passes at A Level and equivalent, with over a quarter achieving three or more A grades. And on top of these achievements, the schools represented here today offer a vast array of extra-curricula activities and sport, helping to create well-rounded, as well as well-educated, young people.
Your achievement is a great testament to the skill, dedication and professionalism of all staff and pupils, as well as to the hard work of the governing bodies that I know play an important role in supporting and developing the ethos of individual schools.
This Government has a radical agenda to raise standards right across the education sector, to improve outcomes for the most disadvantaged, to restore confidence in our qualifications and exams system, and to ensure that children leave school with the knowledge and the important skills they need to succeed in further and higher education and the world of work.
But, if we are to affect real change, restore Britain’s education system, and close the achievement gap between the richest and the poorest in our society, we have to raise aspiration and attainment. And the guiding principles we will follow are those that unite the coalition partners right across this government: freedom, fairness and responsibility.
At the core of our approach to education policy is trusting professionals: leaving behind the top down prescription which was the flawed - albeit well-intentioned - approach of the previous government.
We need to give teachers the freedom to decide how to teach, and to some extent what they teach, their pupils.
That’s why one of the first steps we took was to introduce the Academies Bill, now working its way through committee in the House of Lords before coming to the Commons next month. This Bill builds on the successful introduction of academies by the last Government, and will allow more schools to benefit from the freedoms and opportunities of academy status.
Academies are free from local authority control, can deploy resources in the most effective way and have the ability to set their own pay and conditions for staff. They have greater freedom over the curriculum, and may also change the length of terms and school days. Yet they operate within a broad framework of accountability which is designed to ensure that standards remain high, and consistent.
Our Academies Bill will allow more schools to benefit from these freedoms including, for the first time, primary schools and special schools. And we will enable teachers, parents and education providers to set and run new free schools.
Schools rated outstanding by Ofsted - including grammar schools - that want to become academies will have their applications fast-tracked through the process, and ready to open this year if that is what they want to do.
This is permissive legislation. We are not instructing schools to become academies unless their performance is a serious cause for concern. But many schools are keen to benefit from the additional freedoms that academies deliver.
Indeed, so far, over 1770 schools have expressed interest. 870 are rated outstanding - including over half of all outstanding secondary schools in the country - so this is something that schools clearly want.
I’m also delighted that, of the 164 grammar schools, 75 have already expressed an interest in acquiring academy status which will allow them to enjoy these additional freedoms and to partner with at least one other school to help drive improvement across the board.
The Admissions Code will continue to apply to all academies and to any new Free School being established by parents, teacher groups or other philanthropic organisations. So selection by ability will not be an option for those schools. But for grammar schools that opt to become academies, which already select pupils by general ability, they will be able to continue to do so.
Freedom does not start and end with academy-status. It is also about sweeping away the reams of paper and bureaucratic burdens piled on to teachers and schools: the fortnightly delivery of lever arch files that languish unread in the supply cupboard but whose presence serves to undermine confidence. In Opposition, we added up the total number of pages sent to schools in one 12 month period. It came to 6000 pages, more than twice the length of the complete works of Shakespeare. We will ensure that, in the coming years, schools will be able to find more useful things to keep in their supply cupboards.
And we have also announced an inspection regime for high performing schools that is very light touch. We want Ofsted’s resources to be focussed sharply on those schools that are coasting or struggling and which are failing to deliver the best quality education to their students.
The second guiding principle of the Coalition is fairness.
Our education system continues to be characterised by inequality.
- The chances of a child who is eligible for free school meals getting five good GCSEs including English and Maths are less than one third of those for children from better-off families.
- 42 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals did not achieve a single GCSE above a grade D in 2008.
- More pupils from Eton went to Oxford or Cambridge last year than from the entire cohort of the 80,000 students eligible for free schools meals.
This is a dreadful situation which no government should be prepared to tolerate. Not only does this let down hundreds of thousands of bright children who should have the opportunity to go to excellent schools and to swim in the pool of knowledge that pupils from the better off families take for granted, it will also impair all of our economic and cultural futures.
I believe strongly that the teaching of knowledge - the passing on from one generation to the next - is the fundamental purpose of education. Yet, over the years, too often the teaching of knowledge has been subsumed by an over focus on life skills and well-meaning additions to the curriculum designed to deal with wider social issues and problems. But it is this very drift away from core traditional subjects that is actually widening social division.
It is a huge concern, for example that the number of pupils being entered for modern foreign languages has fallen from over 450,000 in 2003 to just under 280,000 last year. It’s a concern that 47 per cent of A* grades in GCSE French went to pupils in the independent sector despite educating just 7 per cent of pupils. And it’s a real worry that while in 2001 30.4 per cent of pupils gained five or more GCSEs including English, maths, science and a modern foreign language, last year that figure was six percentage points lower, at 24.5 per cent.
E.D. Hirsch, the American academic writes brilliantly about the importance of knowledge. He says, ‘It is the duty of schools to provide each child with the knowledge and skills requisite for academic progress - regardless of home background’.
He goes onto say, ‘Among advantaged children, wide knowledge nourishes an active curiosity to learn still more, and more, so that the ever-active tentacles create still more tentacles.’
An education system with fairness at its core will ensure that all children regardless of background have access to the rich body of knowledge that is the hallmark of any culture. Knowledge is the currency of a common culture, it is a basic requirement of a civilised nation. Children from knowledge- and education-rich backgrounds start school with an in-built advantage over those from backgrounds without those features. If the school then fails to make up that knowledge deficit, those divisions widen still further.
Which is why we know from Leon Feinstein’s research that low-ability children from wealthy backgrounds often overtake and outperform more able children from poorer backgrounds during the first years of primary school.
In pursuing fairness in our education system, we need to sharpen our focus on the core business of teaching and learning at every level, ensuring that pupils have the opportunity to select the qualifications that best suit them, and restore confidence in our exams system.
We will slim down the National Curriculum to ensure pupils have the knowledge they need at each stage of their education. We want a curriculum and qualifications that are comparable and on a par with the best the world has to offer: whether that is the Massachusetts of E.D. Hirsch, Singapore, Finland, Hong Kong, or Alberta.
We will reform league tables so that parents have the reassurance they need that their child is progressing. But we must also restore confidence in our exam system. Pupils must be entered for qualifications that are in their best interests, not with a view to boosting a school’s performance in the league tables.
And we have opened up qualifications unfairly closed off to pupils in state maintained schools - such as the iGCSE - to offer pupils greater choice, and to ensure that they are afforded the same opportunities as those who have the money to go to independent schools. I know that a number of grammar schools have wanted to offer these qualifications to their pupils and now that opportunity is there.
The third coalition principle is responsibility.
The Government has a responsibly to ensure we have a high quality education system, but it is the responsibility of pupils and their parents to ensure that behaviour in our schools is of a standard that delivers a safe and happy environment in which children are able to concentrate and learn.
I became an MP in 1997, bright-eyed and eager, never dreaming I’d spend the next 13 years in gruelling Opposition. But over the last five years as the Shadow Minister for Schools, I visited nearly 300 schools which has given me real insight into some of the wonderful schools we have in this country. The best schools I have seen have succeeded for many of the reasons that the grammar schools represented here succeed: strong leadership; rigorous standards; recruiting and retaining talented teachers; and, above all, good behaviour.
I have been to schools in some of the most deprived parts of the country that have excellent behaviour. Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney is a great example.
But I’ve also been to schools in leafy suburbs where behaviour is challenging to say the least. We are determined to give teachers and head teachers the powers they need to ensure they can maintain a safe and secure environment for their students. And we are working to ensure that teachers are protected from the professional and social humiliation of false accusations.
Mr Chairman, thank you for giving me the opportunity to set out the principles that underpin the coalition government’s approach to education.
- Freedom for the teaching profession to teach rather than wade through an ever-ending process of bureaucratic initiatives.
- Fairness for the children let down by our education system.
- A renewed sense of responsibility - that the education of the next generation is a shared duty, between Government, the profession, parents and pupils themselves.
Getting this right could not be more important. It will determine the kind of society we will have in twenty or thirty years’ time. Thank you.