Thank you for that introduction.
When Michael Gove asked me what I was doing on Easter Sunday, I thought, how nice, Sunday lunch at the Goves.
After a few seconds, I realised it was because he was asking me to come to Glasgow for the annual conference of the UK’s biggest teaching union.
And I’m delighted that he did.
Having shadowed the Schools Minister post for 5 years in Opposition, I’ve waited a long time to have the opportunity of speaking at the Easter teacher union conferences. But, as they say, good things come to those who wait.
I’ve learnt that it can be quite challenging speaking to large groups of teachers because some of you think that I believe I know how you should do your jobs better, and I know that all of you think you could do my job better.
But I want to begin by putting on record my thanks to the NASUWT - and in particular to Chris Keates.
It’s fair to say that Chris and I don’t always see eye to eye. As she recently remarked, we can at least always leave our meetings by agreeing to differ after having had a good debate. That’s the way it should be.
I have great admiration and respect for the NASUWT - and I enjoy working with Chris - because of the wholehearted way that it campaigns and puts across its case. I never leave a meeting with Chris uncertain of the union’s position.
One of the issues that the NASUWT has campaigned on is better protection for teachers from false and malicious allegations.
I supported the NASUWT’s campaign in Opposition so I’m delighted that, within our first year in government, we are changing the law so that it will be an offence for a newspaper or media outlet to publish the names of any teacher faced by accusations of a criminal nature. And indeed they won’t be able to publish details of a case that could lead a reader to being able to identify the teacher involved.
You campaigned for it - we are delivering it.
It is also vital that pupils, parents and head teachers all fully understand their responsibilities and realise that there will be extremely serious consequences if a false allegation is made.
If there are grounds to believe that a criminal offence like perverting or attempting to pervert the course of justice has been committed, the case should be referred to the police. And in all cases where malicious allegations against a teacher have been made, head teachers have a responsibility to take action, including, when appropriate, permanent exclusion.
For a number of years, the NASUWT has also been a leading voice in drawing attention to the detrimental effects of poor pupil behaviour - both to attainment and to the recruitment and retention of good teachers.
The discipline measures in our Education Bill will ensure that the pendulum, which has swung too far towards pupils in recent years, moves back towards teachers by strengthening the powers that teachers have to maintain order.
Amongst the new measures we are introducing is a specific power to search for and confiscate items like mobile phones and video cameras.
These powers may only be used very rarely, but I would rather teachers are able to decide for themselves whether to use them than have to tolerate pupils using those items to create disruption and, in the worst cases, to bully teachers and other students.
The Government is supporting head teachers and schools, in taking action to ensure strong standards of behaviour prevail in our schools. In turn we expect head teachers to back and support teachers in the decisions they take on a day to day basis in the isolation of the classroom to ensure that pupils can learn in a safe and ordered environment.
And with the backing of head teachers and government, I hope that teachers will be able to instill a culture of good behaviour where pupils behave well not just because they fear sanctions, but because they understand the right way to behave and have due respect for adults and one another.
And let’s not forget the role parents have to play in ensuring their children are well-behaved at school and that they too support the school when teachers take action.
An important campaigning issue for the NASUWT has been the incompatibility of teaching with the views of groups like the BNP.
The Government agrees that the ideology of the BNP cannot co-exist with the education of future generations of young people.
That’s why we want to ensure that head teachers and governing bodies can dismiss any teacher who promotes inappropriate views or behaviour or advocates discrimination in schools. The independent review of teachers’ standards will look at how best to achieve this. And I hope the NASUWT will contribute strongly to that Review.
In the same spirit of partnership and dialogue, I want to say a few words about public spending and pressure on school budgets.
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; three times what we spend on the salaries of every teacher in England, just to service the interest on the debt.
Very difficult decisions have had to be taken across policing, health and other vital public services. In education too, we have had to face some very difficult choices 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 still 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.
I am also 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 isn’t welcomed, 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.
And while we are doing the best we can with the finances we have available, by far our biggest asset is the people working in our schools.
There is nothing more inspirational than being on the receiving end of great teaching.
There was one particular teacher who inspired me. His name was Mr Rogers. We called him Brian. It was after all the mid-70s. And he taught me A-level economics. At that time, he himself had only recently graduated and, despite his own left-of-centre politics, he provided me with a genuine understanding of how economics works and he enthused me so that I became 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 I remember must now be contemplating retirement.
A good pension has long been an important part of the overall reward package for teachers. We are committed to ensuring that continues to be the case.
The issue of pensions is extremely important to the profession and I know that the recommendations of Lord Hutton’s Commission have given rise to huge anxieties. I wanted, therefore, to set out where we have got to in those discussions and negotiations and to say something about the long term problems the Government is forced to address.
Over the last 10 years, the private sector has been moving away from defined benefit pensions to the much less generous money purchase schemes. We are not going to go down this route. We are determined - as is Lord Hutton - to keep defined benefit pensions in the public sector and for public service pensions to remain the benchmark standard.
The Government asked Lord Hutton, with his experience as a Cabinet Minister in the last Labour Government and his strong commitment to the public service ethos, to head up a commission to review how we tackle the cost issues arising from increased life expectancy, while maintaining good quality defined benefit public service pensions.
In 2005/06, the cost of paying teachers’ pensions was around £5 billion per year. By 2015/16, the cost is forecast to rise to almost £10 billion.
Lord Hutton’s recommendations have already been the subject of some very constructive discussions between the Government and the TUC. A series of further meetings is planned and I am pleased that Chris is so actively involved to ensure that the specific interests of teachers are properly represented.
What is needed now is more negotiation and discussion so that the specific issues that distinguish the teachers’ pension from other public sector pensions can be drawn out and addressed.
And just to be clear - from the start, the Government has made an absolute and public commitment to protecting accrued rights. All the benefits that have been built up in a teacher’s pension will not be affected by any future reforms.
So, false allegations, pupil indiscipline and bullying, BNP membership, pensions. These are all areas where the NASUWT and government are working together to address the issues that matter to practising teachers.
Because at the end of the day, everything comes back to what teachers do.
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 too.
And the most important thing it did was prove why teachers deserve so much thanks and respect for what they do.
But one of my principal concerns with our education system is that teachers haven’t been afforded that trust and respect.
Over the past decade, 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 we are to raise the professional status of teachers, which this Government is committed to doing.
That is why we are so determined to give teachers more space and flexibility to teach by reducing central prescription and by cutting back on bureaucracy.
We’re shrinking and clarifying guidance.
We’ve scrapped the National Strategies.
Our review of the National Curriculum has the express aim of reducing prescription in primary and secondary schools about how to teach.
We’re reforming Ofsted so it focuses on a school’s core activities and removes the paper trail for inspection - and let me say too that written lesson plans aren’t a requirement for inspection, nor will they be in the future.
The GTCE - by this time next year, it will be gone.
And just as teachers are responsible for delivering high standards in schools, 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 them at a national level.
After years of hard work and training, it is only right that teachers are trusted to get on with their jobs.
We also need to celebrate their achievements by ensuring that excellent teachers can continue to demonstrate their high quality professional skills.
And we need to ensure that teachers can access more and better continuous professional development.
We believe that one of the best ways to improve teaching practice and to allow teachers to become better professionals is by observing other, more experienced teachers.
That is why we intend to reform teacher training and establish new centres of excellence in teaching practice - teaching schools - that 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-based initial teacher training. As a nation, we need about 35,000 new teachers each year so there will always be a major role for universities in preparing new teachers.
Throughout teachers’ careers, keeping their knowledge of their subjects up to date is a vital part of being a good teacher.
In the coming months, we intend to introduce a new Scholarship Fund, which 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.
And alongside the other improvements we are making to strengthen professional development, it will ensure that teachers remain the intellectual guardians of the nation.
I want to end by reflecting on why all of this matters.
Why is it important that we support, protect and develop teachers and why should we enhance, raise and improve the standing of the teaching profession?
The answer is the same reason that teachers get into teaching in the first place - to help all children, irrespective of their background and where they went to school, receive the support they need to succeed.
Despite the hard work of teachers, the least likely to succeed are still those children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.
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.
And of course, it’s not just about qualifications. It’s the end result of unemployment, 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 to make opportunity more equal 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 extending free childcare for the most disadvantaged two year olds and focusing Sure Start on the most vulnerable families.
And it’s why we’re spending an additional £2.5 billion on the pupil premium that will provide more resources directly to schools for the education of the poorest pupils.
But the most important thing that we in government can do to close the attainment gap between rich and poor is ensure that there are well-trained, qualified teachers working in the state sector with the freedom and protection they need.
Because it is those same teachers who make the biggest difference of all.
That’s why our White Paper is called The Importance of Teaching.
It is a great privilege for me to be the Minister of State for Schools. I believe it 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.
Whatever our differences on particular policy areas, I know that we all agree on that.
I’ve enjoyed working with Chris over the last 11 months.
And I look forward to a fruitful and constructive dialogue with the NASUWT in the months and years to come.