I’m absolutely delighted to be here today and I’m grateful to you for inviting me.
First, because we have much in common. As Minister of State, rather than Secretary of State, I too am a fully paid up member of the ‘deputy club’.
And secondly, because I’m a huge admirer of what the independent sector has achieved.
While the state sector has, over the last half century, fallen victim to the vicissitudes of passing educational fads and ideology, the independent sector has remained steadfast to high quality, well-rounded education based on clear evidence of what works best for children and young people.
HMC schools don’t just set the benchmark for every other school in this country, private or state, to aspire to.
Their excellence is recognised all over the world.
And as I saw on a visit to King Edward’s School in Birmingham in January, that success is rooted in independence, freedom and autonomy.
The independence to develop strong teaching and curricula which maintains academic rigour across the board.
To adopt high quality, internationally recognised qualifications like the IB or the iGCSE.
And to use outstanding artistic, sporting and pastoral provision, to create broad-minded young people, ready to thrive in an ever-changing world.
Our reform programme is based on the same principles of independence - that teachers and professionals know best how to run schools.
Everything we’re doing is about giving the best state schools the same autonomy to get on with the job - without Whitehall dictating day-to-day details.
And so today, I also want to set out how the independent sector and its leadership teams can play a part in raising standards across our education system.
Unashamedly, we want to replicate the best of what the independent sector does - learning and applying the lessons from its success.
But to do that properly, we need to draw directly on the excellence, ethos, and proven track record - what my predecessor, Lord Adonis, called the “educational DNA” of the independent sector.
I was pleased to see that that the title of this conference - Meeting the Challenges - suggests independent schools are not resting on their laurels.
Because the education system is facing some of its toughest challenges in decades.
How do we meet the demands of business, universities and society to compete in a fast-changing, unpredictable global economy?
How do we use early years’ provision and schools to drive social mobility?
How do we drive up standards in the state system in the face of tighter public spending?
Our White Paper last November, The Importance of Teaching, pointed out that there is much to admire and build on in England’s state education system: hundreds of outstanding schools; tens of thousands of great teachers; academies established and outstripping the rest of the maintained sector.
But it was also made clear that too many children are still being let down because the system is not fulfilling its potential.
We’re failing to keep pace with countries with the best education systems - falling back in the PISA international rankings, from fourth to sixteenth in science; seventh to 25th in literacy; and eighth to 28th in maths - meaning our 15-year-olds are two years behind their Chinese peers in maths; and a year behind teenagers in Korea or Finland in reading.
We’re still not meeting the expectations of employers - with the CBI’s annual education and skills survey just last month finding that almost half of top employers had to invest in remedial training for school and college leavers.
And we’ve still not closed the yawning attainment gap - which remains unacceptably wide both between rich and poor and between state and private sectors.
Professor William Richardson’s excellent report for the HMC 18 months ago, showed the top ten universities’ increasing reliance on the independent sector - with 40% of all students on strategically important courses like engineering, science, maths and languages, drawn from private schools.
And last year’s A-level results also showed a fifth of all entrants in chemistry, physics, maths and biological sciences and almost a third in further maths were independent school pupils.
But as a nation, we can’t carry on relying on the seven per cent of young people the independent sector educates, to provide such a high proportion of future generations of scientists, engineers, medics or linguists.
The key to both social mobility and a mobile economy is to realise the potential, ability and talent of young people from all backgrounds.
That’s why we’ve introduced the English Baccalaureate.
The Russell Group has been quite clear about the core GCSE and A-level subjects which equips students best for the most competitive courses - English; maths; the three sciences; geography; history; classical and modern languages.
So the E-Bacc is designed to open up those same subjects to tens of thousands of state pupils currently denied the opportunity.
We need to take clear action.
It is a major concern to us that nine out of ten state pupils eligible for free school meals are not even entered for the E-Bacc subjects - and just 4% actually achieve it.
It is a concern that the proportion taking a modern foreign language GCSE has slipped from 79% a decade ago to just 43% last year - and little more than a third when you take out independent schools.
And it cannot be right that no pupil was entered for any of the single award science GCSEs in 719 mainstream state schools; for French in 169; for geography in 137; and for history in 70.
The most academic subjects must not become the preserve of independent schools.
They should be open to every single student, regardless of background.
In the modern world, there is nowhere to hide for any school leaver. Jobs can be transported across international borders in a nanosecond. The pace of technological change means that new industries are evolving in the space of months not decades.
So it is no longer good enough to judge state education simply by how much we spend or against rigid, centrally arbitrated targets - we need to raise our game.
Our reform programme draws on the clear and consistent evidence base from the leading education systems around the world.
PISA, OECD, McKinsey and others tell us that despite most developed countries doubling or even tripling their education spending since the mid-1970s, outcomes have varied wildly.
Because it is not how much they’ve spent on education that counts most. It is how they spent it.
The strongest systems recruit and develop the best teachers. They have strong leadership. They have internationally benchmarked curricula, assessments and qualifications. And above all, they give schools and professionals freedom to flourish.
That’s why we are getting rid of much unnecessary, cumbersome bureaucracy that bedevils state schools - slimming down the National Curriculum; scrapping the Self Evaluation Form; focusing Ofsted inspections on teaching; closing down quangos; and cutting the overly complex Admissions Code and hundreds of pages of statutory guidance.
But we want to go further.
We want to complete the last government’s unfinished business when it comes to academies.
We’ve enabled every single state primary, secondary and special school to become independent, autonomous institutions. Free to decide how to use their budgets. Free to vary pay and conditions. Free to decide the length of the school day. Free to offer qualifications in their pupils’ best interests.
Academies have already proved a force for good in turning around underperforming schools in some of the most deprived areas. Mossbourne in Hackney; the Harris chain across south London and Burlington Danes in Hammersmith are now watchwords for the best of what the state sector can achieve.
Just as your success is rooted in independence, the evidence is emerging that these early academies’ independence has driven up standards in neighbouring state schools - as new research from the LSE showed last month.
We’re allowing good state schools to convert to academy status and the demand to do so has far exceeded our expectations.
It took five years to open 15 City Technology Colleges and four years to open the first 27 Academies.
But 1244 schools have applied to become an academy in the last 12 months and 430 have already converted - a rate of more than two every school day. A third of all secondary schools are either now academies or in the process of converting. And hundreds more are in the pipeline.
This is a fundamental shift away from government and towards teachers and professionals.
Academies are now reforming in ways never foreseen when the programme started a decade ago:
• established multi-academy chains like Harris and ARK are raising standards in areas failed educationally for generations.
• the first special schools are going through the application process.
• the first generation of specialist technical academies are now opening - offering high-quality, work-based vocational education.
• the door is now open to Further Education and Sixth Form Colleges and alternative provision to become academies through the current Education Bill before Parliament.
• the first free schools are now set to open from September - and hundreds more coming through.
Independent schools have already played an important part - acting as lead academy sponsors like Dulwich, Wellington and Canford; co-sponsoring like Marlborough, King Edward School, Bryanson and Tonbridge; or being active educational partners like Malvern, Winchester, Uppingham and Oundle.
Organisations like ULT, Girls’ Day School Trust, Haberdashers’, Woodard Schools and the Skinner’s Company oversee joint families of academies and independent schools.
And some have actually converted to the state sector like Birkenhead High School; William Hulme’s Grammar School; Belvedere Girls’ School; and Bristol Cathedral Choir School.
But as the brakes come off the programme, scores more opportunities are opening up for the independent sector; HE and FE; charities; and business to play a greater role.
Because crucially, we haven’t forgotten the programme’s roots - to turn round our most challenging, underperforming schools.
Children only get one shot at education. So we’re clear that we will not hesitate to intervene in weak schools which are letting down parents and pupils.
And that’s why we’ve appointed Dr Liz Sidwell, the Chief Executive of Haberdashers’ Aske’s Federation, as our new Schools Commissioner.
Few in education have her track record or experience. And she hasn’t been shy in challenging local authorities and heads to come up with robust improvement plans - brokering academy arrangements; recruiting sponsors; enthusing heads and governors to go for academy status; promoting free schools to prospective proposers; and expanding our existing pool of sponsors significantly.
Many schools in the independent sector have already established successful partnerships with neighbouring institutions through the Independent State School Partnership scheme. And we want that sort of collaboration to continue through the new national network of Teaching Schools; our Education Endowment Fund; and the National and Local Leaders of Education programme.
But I believe that formally sponsoring, founding or partnering an academy must be the next logical step for many more independent and state schools.
Because as academies become the norm in every single part of the system, how the best institutions are judged in the public’s eyes will also change.
We have a clear expectation that the strongest state schools converting to academies should partner the weakest.
And I hope that same expectation can apply in the independent sector too.
Providing an opportunity for the sector to spread its unique ethos, culture and thinking to tens of thousands more children whose parents can’t afford school fees.
Concepts like Brighton College’s plans for a consortium of independent and state schools to establish a sixth form college in East London to get gifted students to top universities.
I know some schools have been hesitant to come forward. I understand those who may feel that the independent sector has enough on its plate - with many parents fighting hard to afford fees and many smaller schools striving to keep their heads above water in the current economic climate.
But many independent schools were born out of a moral drive to help the poorest. That same moral purpose underpins our reforms - to give every single child, of whatever background, the opportunity to make the most of their talents.
Mr Chairman, in the 12 months that I’ve had the privilege to hold the position of Minister of State for Schools I have done all I can to reduce regulation on the independent sector and I hope we can go further still.
We’ve recognised the iGCSE in the performance tables - including from this year the Edexcel iGCSE - and we’ve made our admiration for what the sector has achieved clear at every opportunity.
We all have the same goals when it comes to raising standards throughout the education system and I look forward to continuing to work with HMC and the independent sector to help achieve those goals.