The timing of the conference could not be better, with the white paper published at the end of November and the Education Bill to be published shortly.
And the theme ‘Our World, Our Future’ could not be more appropriate.
The context in which this conference is held is dominated by global factors - the growing dominance of the emerging economies of China and India; the global economic crisis; and the indebtedness of nations that during the boom years overspent and are now on the brink of financial collapse, as the global capital markets no longer regard them or sovereign debt as risk-free investments.
Greece and Ireland are still teetering as they struggle with their structural deficits. And it is to avoid that fate that the Coalition Government has had to take some very difficult decisions.
It’s not comfortable being a minister in a spending department in the midst of these problems, having to take decisions to reduce and refocus programmes on those in most need - programmes such as the Education Maintenance Allowance. And I know it isn’t comfortable either for those involved in local government, facing similar pressures.
But it would be far worse to see our country’s economy plunge into crisis, as would happen if we failed to tackle our massive structural deficit. This year alone will see £156 billion added to our national debt, with an interest charge of £120 million every single day - enough to build 10 new primary schools.
The independent 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 all assumes, of course, that the capital markets would be willing to lend us these huge sums, which the experience of Greece and Ireland demonstrates that they would not. The longer the economy languishes in crisis, the later the economic recovery and the jobs that are so desperately needed, particularly for young people - the group who bear the brunt of a stagnant economy as companies freeze recruitment.
But the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury do understand the importance of education to that recovery and to the long-term prosperity of this country.
Education is a key priority for the Government which is why the Department for Education secured one of the best settlements in Whitehall.
Spending on schools will remain at flat cash per pupil over the course of the spending review period, which means there will be extra cash for demographic increases in the school population.
And on top of this will be the Pupil Premium, extra money for each pupil who qualifies for free school meals. This will amount to £430 per pupil in this coming financial year but will rise significantly over the next four years, to some £2.5 billion a year by 2014-15.
But although we have secured the best possible settlement it still requires us to find cuts in the overall departmental budget of 3.4 per cent by 2014-15.
Our approach has been to ensure we protect school budgets, while devolving as much autonomy as we can to headteachers by collapsing numerous funding streams into the main schools grant. We’re also giving local government far greater autonomy - streamlining 45 local government grants into just four funding streams.
To ensure schools do receive this cash, we have had to take some difficult decisions over centralised programmes and ask ourselves this question: given that we have secured the very best possible settlement we could hope to have achieved from the Treasury and given the budget deficit, do we continue with a particular central programme and slice off a little from the amount we want to give to schools? Or do we end the programme and ensure that schools have that cash?
Each programme has its supporters. Most of these programmes achieve things. Some - but not all - are good value for money.
The problem is that the money isn’t there.
Our approach to spending - devolving as much control over limited resources as possible to the front line, to headteachers in particular - is the same approach that we take to education policy generally.
Research from the OECD cites autonomy, combined with rigorous and objective external accountability, as the essential characteristics of the highest-performing education jurisdictions in the world.
That’s the reasoning behind our drive to increase the autonomy of schools through expanding the academies programme and giving teachers and headteachers more control over their own destiny.
We have always supported Labour’s Academy programme and pay tribute to the energy and commitment of Lord Adonis as Schools Minister in developing this policy and transforming so many schools.
In the seven months since we came into office we’ve doubled the number of academies and hundreds more schools have applied to convert later in 2011.
And we will support teachers, charities, parent groups and education foundations who have the vision and drive to open Free Schools where there is parental demand, particularly in areas of deprivation where poor provision is especially acute.
And I hope that we can persuade some of the trade unions that Free Schools offer a real opportunity for teachers to put their professional expertise into practice. We would be delighted to see one or more of the teaching unions setting up their own Free Schools. They would certainly have our active support if they sought to do so.
The case for change
At the end of November we published our White Paper, entitled The Importance of Teaching, reflecting the earnestness of our desire to raise the status of the teaching profession and to return teaching to the centre of what happens in our schools.
The theme of this conference, ‘Our World, Our Future’ is the right theme for an education conference, reflecting, as it does, the way today’s education system will determine the society we will have in 20 or 30 years’ time. It is a cliche to say that we live in a global economy. But like most cliches it reveals a truth, that young people will now be competing for jobs and income with the best-educated people not just in this country but from around the world.
Which is why we need an education system that is on a par with the best in the world. And although we have some of the best schools in the world, the truth is that we also have too many that are still struggling.
The attainment gap between rich and poor remains enormous - a gap we are determined to narrow and ultimately close; there are still too many weak schools in deprived areas; and teaching is rated by Ofsted as no better than satisfactory in half our schools.
In 2010, 54.8 per cent achieved 5 or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, including English and maths. But of those eligible for free school meals just 30.9 per cent achieved this standard. And the gap between these two figures has remained stubbornly constant in recent years.
In the OECD international performance table we’ve fallen from 4th in the year 2000 to 16th in science, from 7th to 25th in literacy, and from 8th to 28th in maths. The survey also showed that 15-year-olds in Shanghai, China, are two years ahead of our children in maths, and that 15-year-olds in Finland are two years ahead in literacy.
Studies undertaken by Unicef and the OECD tell us that we have one of the most unequal education systems in the world, coming 55th out of 57 countries for educational equity and with one of the biggest gulfs between independent and state schools of any developed nation.
And so our White Paper reform programme, and the Education Bill implementing that programme, is geared around the same simple truth that all leading systems share - that high-quality teaching is the single biggest determinant of a pupil’s achievement.
The latest McKinsey report, Capturing the Leadership Premium about how the world’s top school systems are building leadership capacity, cites a number of studies from North America, one of which found that:
… nearly 60 per cent of a school’s impact on student achievement is attributable to principal and teacher effectiveness. These are the most important in-school factors driving school success, with principals accounting for 25 per cent and teachers 33 per cent of a school’s total impact on achievement.
Also in the McKinsey report, there’s an analysis of Ofsted inspection reports which concludes that:
For every 100 schools that have good leadership and management, 93 will have good standards of student achievement. For every 100 schools that do not have good leadership and management, only one will have good standards of achievement.
This is why the constant theme of the White Paper is the central importance, above all else, of the teaching profession and what we can do to ensure every child has access to the best possible teaching.
Every single one of our reforms should be judged on how it equips teachers to do their job better - expanding the academy programme; encouraging new providers to galvanize and innovate; rigorous recruitment and training; strong discipline powers; a slimmed-down curriculum; robust assessment and inspection; and the Pupil Premium.
We have some of the best headteachers and teachers working in our schools. But too often they say they’re constrained by needless bureaucracy, central targets and guidance, and an overly prescriptive curriculum that dictates, for example, that lessons should be in three parts, with a beginning, middle and end.
We will slim down the National Curriculum. At present, the National Curriculum contains too much that is not essential, too much that is unclear and too much prescription about how to teach. Instead, it needs to be a tighter, more rigorous model of the knowledge which every child should be expected to master in core subjects at each key stage, to be a benchmark against which schools can be judged rather than a prescriptive straitjacket into which education is squeezed.
Alongside greater control over budgets, we’ve scrapped the burdensome Self Evaluation Forms for school inspections and the overly bureaucratic Financial Management Standard in Schools.
We are also committed to reducing central bureaucracy still further, cutting down on unnecessary data collection burdens and reforming Ofsted so that inspection is more proportionate, with fewer inspection criteria: instead of the 17 we will have just four - leadership, teaching, achievement and behaviour.
What underlies an effective education is the ability to read.
Despite the hard work of teachers there are still too many children who fail to master this basic skill to a level that gives them the key to secondary education.
15 per cent of seven-year-olds don’t reach the expected level in reading at Key Stage 1. One in five 11-year-olds leave primary school still struggling with English.
And I’ve been to too many secondary schools where heads tell me that a significant minority of their intake has a reading age below nine or eight or sometimes six or seven.
We need to identify early on those children who are struggling so they don’t slip through the net and so that schools can give those children the support and help they need.
That is why we are introducing a new light-touch, phonics-based reading check for six-year-olds to ensure all children are on track with literacy at an early age.
And because we understand why schools might have felt that the system - and Government - hasn’t been on their side in the past, there are also new measures in the White Paper to improve the exclusions process; ensuring that violent children cannot be reinstated against the wishes of the school, while improving alternative provision - and measures to protect teachers from malicious allegations by pupils and parents; including anonymity until charged with an offence.
We want to move away from the top-down approach to education policy. That’s why we’re now giving schools the primary responsibility for their own improvement.
This is not cutting schools adrift to let them sink or swim, as some claim. We will still set high minimum expectations for schools. For secondary schools, this means, at least 35 per cent of pupils with 5 or more GCSEs at grades A* to C including English and maths. And for primary schools, 60 per cent of the cohort achieving level 4 in English and maths combined and where progress is below the expected level. Crucially, both of these new floor standards will involve a progression measure as well as the raw attainment figure.
But the onus should be on heads themselves to drive up standards, working together and drawing on the own wealth of expertise, experience, leadership and capacity within the system - without needing central government to mandate it through continual targets, ring-fenced grants and field forces.
A culture of collaboration
We believe that collaboration between schools and within the profession is a better and more effective means of school improvement than the top-down approach.
The very best school leaders are characterised by their refusal to put a cap on aspiration for children and, consequently, tend to be those who are working in more than one school.
This might mean that they’re an executive head in a federation where they lead two or more schools.
It might now mean they’re an academy principal in an outstanding school working with another school to help them improve.
Or it might mean they’re a national or local leader of education. I’m a huge admirer of all those heads who are NLEs or LLEs. They’re demonstrating that they want to go the extra mile to improve standards; not just for the children in their own schools, but in other schools too.
That’s why we want to double the number of NLEs and will designate 1,000 over the next four years.
We’re building a network of teaching schools.
And we’re putting in place incentives for schools to work together - with a new £110 million Education Endowment Fund to encourage innovative approaches and inviting applications from schools and local authorities.
We will also establish a new collaboration incentive worth £35 million a year to help schools support weaker schools.
Role of local government
I’ve been asked many times about the role of local authorities in a more autonomous school system, particularly as the number of academies continues to grow.
We are clear that local authorities have a crucial role to play - as champions of children and parents, to ensure the school system works for every family; using their democratic mandate to challenge underperformance; and to ensure fair access to all schools for every child through the admissions system.
The Secretary of State has established a ministerial advisory group with representatives from local government and education to work through what this means in practice - that local authorities would take action if there are concerns about the performance of any school in the area, using their intervention powers to act early to secure improvement in their own maintained schools.
And where a local authority has concerns about an academy, it will be able to ask Ofsted to inspect the school and will, as now, be able to pursue those concerns with the Secretary of State.
There is a lot more I could talk about.
But what I hope I have been able to demonstrate today is the seriousness with which we take education reform.
And that at the core of that reform is the objective of closing the attainment gap between those from the wealthiest and poorest backgrounds.
Deprivation should not mean destiny and it is ending that link that lies behind the urgency of our reforms.