The Minister for Schools talks about the schools White Paper and the government's agenda for reform in schools.
Thank you, Nick, and thank you for allowing me to speak today rather than yesterday, when we were launching our White Paper. The least I could do in return for causing you the inconvenience of re-jigging your conference agenda was to get up at the crack of dawn, catch the early train up from London and be here by 9.15am!
But I am delighted to be here again and to have this opportunity straight away to discuss the contents of the White Paper and the detail of the policy direction behind it.
The White Paper itself is 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.
It’s also called ‘The Importance of Teaching’ because many of its policies have been influenced by leading teachers and headteachers, as well as organisations such as the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust.
In my speech at this conference last year, I talked about how we were listening to what schools had told us about the need to cut bureaucracy, to increase autonomy and to improve behaviour.
And most importantly that if we were elected, our approach to education policy would be based not on ideology but on the things that the evidence tells us works and the things that headteachers tell us work.
The case for change
As the introduction to the White Paper says: ‘All the evidence from different education systems around the world shows that the most important factor in determining how well children do is the quality of teachers and teaching.’
The latest McKinsey report, just published, entitled 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% 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% and teachers 33% of a school’s total impact on achievement. (p7)
Also in the McKinsey report, an analysis of Ofsted inspection reports 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, when you read the White Paper, you see that its constant theme is the central importance, above all else, of the profession, and what we can do to ensure every child has access to the best possible teaching.
You will already have seen - and I hope been part of - our drive to increase the autonomy of schools through expanding the Academies programme and giving teachers and headteachers more control over their own destiny. Alongside teacher quality, research from the OECD cites autonomy, combined with rigorous and objective external accountability, alongside teacher quality, as the other essential characteristics of the highest-performing education jurisdictions.
This is just one of the series of reforms that we’ve begun to take forward over the past six months to bear down on unnecessary burdens, to grant schools greater freedoms and to extend teachers’ powers to enforce discipline.
And we’ve done so because our education system, as a whole, is still some way short of achieving its potential.
Still a long way to go
We have some of the best schools in the world, but the truth is that we also have too many that are still struggling.
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.
More young people now stay on in education - but some learn skills and earn qualifications that aren’t as highly valued by employers and universities as we would wish.
And we simply aren’t doing enough to ensure there really is, as the title of this conference suggests, excellence for all, by supporting the education of the most disadvantaged and helping them to overcome life’s lottery.
This is really brought home by the OECD international table of performance, in which we’ve fallen in recent years from fourth to 14th in science, seventh to 17th in literacy, eighth to 24th in maths.
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.
Michael Gove used to cite the unacceptable fact that of 80,000 GCSE students qualifying for free school meals, just 45 went on to Oxford and Cambridge a few years later. He’s had to stop using that figure because the latest year’s figure is that just 40 go on to Oxbridge - a drop of 12.5 per cent.
That’s why the challenge facing us is to reform the whole schools system.
That is the challenge that our White Paper will allow us to meet.
And we want to do so by making the catalysts that have driven improvement in the country’s best state schools available to all schools.
Over the past decade, the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust has played an important role in raising standards, promoting greater innovation and improving the life chances of hundreds of thousands of pupils.
The near universal network of specialist schools attests to what can be achieved when schools are allowed to innovate and have the freedom to develop their own distinct character and ethos.
And it has also demonstrated that if you trust headteachers and the profession, the benefits accrue faster.
It is because specialism is now so firmly rooted in our schools that we’ve decided that it’s the right time to give schools greater freedom to make use of the opportunities offered by specialism and the associated funding.
And just so that we’re all clear, we’ve not removed the funding - all of that money will continue to go to schools - but we have removed all the strings attached to it so that schools have the freedom to spend it on, and buy in, the services they want and need without central prescription.
And while this will naturally also remove the need for schools to re-designate, I hope that the SSAT, and in particular the National Head Teacher Steering Group, will continue to provide a loud and influential voice on behalf of all of its membership.
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 have now, just four - leadership, teaching, attainment and behaviour.
And 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.
We need a new approach to the National Curriculum so that, to quote from the White Paper, it:
…specifies a tighter, more rigorous model of the knowledge which every child should be expected to master in core subjects at every key stage. (p 10)
It is our view that in a school system that moves towards a greater degree of autonomy, the National Curriculum will increasingly become a benchmark against which schools can be judged rather than ‘a prescriptive straitjacket’ into which education is squeezed.
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.
Fifteen 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 the head tells me that a significant minority of their intake has a reading age below nine or eight or sometimes six or seven.
This is unacceptable, which is why we are introducing a new light-touch, phonics-based reading test for six-year-olds, to ensure all children are on track with literacy at an early age.
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. We want all children to acquire that basic decoding skill early on in primary school so they can spend the remaining five or six years reading to learn, developing their vocabulary and comprehension and a love of books. It can’t be right for children to spend seven years of primary education continually struggling with this basic educational tool.
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, further strengthening schools’ powers to ensure heads have the confidence they need to use them - including by ensuring the anonymity of teachers facing allegations from pupils or their parents.
We believe these measures will help all schools to innovate and allow headteachers and teachers to focus on teaching - but the schools that will reap the greatest benefits from our attack on bureaucracy will be the academies.
Of course, academies are already free from central control and aren’t constrained by choice of specialism or the need to re-designate.
They are the schools in which headteachers have been given the greatest autonomy to shape their own curriculum, to insist on tougher discipline, to set their own staff pay and conditions, and to extend school terms and school hours.
And they’re also the schools that have improved the fastest. Last year the rate of improvement in academies was twice that of other schools, and some individual academies, such as Burlington Danes Academy in central London, have delivered incredible improvements of between 15 and 25 percentage points in just one year.
In this year’s Ofsted annual report, published earlier this week, 26 per cent of academies were rated outstanding compared to 13 per cent of secondary schools nationally.
Back in 2005, the former Prime Minister promised that all schools would be able to enjoy academy freedoms - but many of these freedoms were curtailed. An artificial ceiling of 400 academies was placed on the programme and primaries were refused entry.
The Academies Act removed both of these barriers to the rapid expansion of the programme by giving all schools the chance to take on academy status - starting with those rated outstanding by Ofsted.
Since the start of this school year, 144 academies have opened and a further 70 are due to open in the coming months. There are now 347 open academies, with more opening every week.
Just under half of these replaced failing schools and we will continue to challenge schools that are underperforming with converting to academy status under a strong sponsor as one of the options available to deliver improvement.
Last week we began the next phase of the expansion of the Academies programme, which will mean that schools that need to improve can join academy trusts where they will be supported by some of our best leaders in education.
We expect all of the outstanding schools that have converted so far to use their new-found powers and freedom to support weaker schools, and we’ve now extended the invitation to convert to academy status to schools judged by Ofsted as ‘good with outstanding features’.
So the result of the Academies Act will be greater autonomy within a culture of collaboration, where the bonds between schools are strengthened and there is a further step-change in system-led leadership.
A culture of collaboration
In the late 1980s and 1990s, grant-maintained schools were allowed to opt out of local government control. Many enjoyed great success in doing so - but the mistake made then was that people felt that their autonomy created a ‘them and us’ culture.
But in my experience, 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 an NLE or LLE. I’m a huge admirer of all those heads who are NLEs or LLEs. They’re demonstrating that their aspirations have no bounds and 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 1000 over the next four years.
We all have a duty to ensure there are minimum standards of performance through the school system. It isn’t acceptable to any of us that we have so many schools in which two-thirds of children fail to secure five good GCSEs.
Minimum standards have certainly risen in recent years, in line with the increased aspirations of parents and communities and thanks to the hard work of school leaders.
But given the quickening pace of school improvement across the globe, it’s essential that we demonstrate that we are raising the bar for all schools. And that is why our White Paper sets new floor standards that will apply from January next year once we’ve verified final examination data from last summer. For secondary schools, this will be at least 35 per cent of pupils with five 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.
In doing that, we also want to avoid the errors of the past when some schools felt unfairly labelled as failing by Government.
That is why on top of the pupil premium, which will tackle disadvantage at root by providing additional money to schools to extend opportunity to the poorest pupils, we’ve created a new education endowment fund worth £110 million to drive improvement in the most underperforming schools.
But the biggest shift in our White Paper is in how we support teachers.
It is widely recognised around the world that nothing matters more than teaching and that the most important thing we can do is recruit the best, train them well and help them and the teachers we already have to develop throughout their professional careers.
That’s why we’re expanding Teach First and introducing other new high-quality routes into teaching.
Teachers also want the capacity to be able to learn from other teachers if they are to grow as professionals, which is why we are removing the rules preventing classroom observation and why we intend to designate the best schools led by the best heads as teaching schools.
In the NHS, teaching hospitals have become centres of excellence in their local areas by training current and future generations of doctors and nurses while also providing excellent medical care.
We want teachers to have the same opportunities so teaching schools will work with other schools and with universities to deliver excellent initial teacher training, ongoing professional development and leadership development, while also providing an excellent education to pupils.
And as well as ensuring that high-quality training is available, teaching schools will become engines of school improvement themselves because a vital part of their role will be to identify the best leaders and deploy them in a way that will allow them to support those schools that need to improve.
But most importantly, teaching schools recognise that the biggest asset in schools is its people.
They have to be our focus if we’re to achieve excellence for all.
Excellence for all is a fitting title for this conference because it is, I know, what all professionals strive to achieve every single day.
It is what we are striving for too.
And with our White Paper, the reforms that I’ve spoken about today and the continued leadership of the SSAT and its members, it is finally a realistic ambition.
Thank you very much.