Ladies, gentleman, let me start by giving a huge thank you to the University of Birmingham for giving me this opportunity to speak here today in honour of Sir Raymond Priestley and to the vice-chancellor for that kind introduction.
I will say a little more about Sir Raymond later, but I want to use this opportunity today to talk to you about my plan for education, and how I intend to use my time as Education Secretary to make our educational vision a reality.
That vision is clear. It’s a vision of an education system which is truly life transforming, which breaks down barriers and narrows inequalities, allowing every young person to achieve his or her full potential. Achieving that vision has been a lifelong passion for me. My experience in Parliament of representing one of the country’s leading universities has shown me just how important it is that we get it right for children right from the start of their education, so that they can succeed later on.
But while it is my passion, I want to argue today that it is the responsibility of us all. Education is too important - to both the individual pupil and to our nation as a whole - to be left solely to me in government, or teachers in schools, or students themselves.
It must be a partnership of many: of teachers and governors and parents and businesses and unions and government and many others. It must be nothing short of a national mission, and that’s what I want to call for today.
It’s fair to say that the last 4 years have been a period of significant change in our school system. From how schools are governed, teachers are trained, to the exams our young people sit, this government has implemented a far reaching programme of reform in the way we educate our children.
Unsurprisingly, not all of that change has been universally welcomed. In fact, one of the things I’ve learned since taking up this job is that education is a topic that almost everyone has an opinion on and they’re not afraid to share it, and if you don’t believe me I just suggest you take a look at my Twitter timeline!
Some have criticised the nature of the changes we’ve made, others the number, and others the pace.
But when it comes to the scale and speed of the reforms we have made, I make no apologies.
Because every day that we delayed, every moment of dithering, second guessing or hand wringing was another day when young people, young people in our schools today not 10 years down the line, were missing out on the opportunities they deserved. And that waste of talent should be enough to make us all angry:
- angry that in 2010, 1 in 3 children finished primary school unable to read, write and add up properly
- angry that more young people from a single private school were getting into Oxbridge than all of the children eligible for free school meals put together
- angry that thousands of pupils were studying vocational qualifications which because they weren’t respected by employers, simply weren’t worth the paper they were written on
These failures don’t just affect the young people who miss out on the chance of a good education, but it affects our whole country as well. You all know, and it would come as no surprise to others, that the growing economic power houses of the 21st century are those nations who have placed an absolute premium on getting their education system right. These countries recognise, as you do, that education is that vital national mission.
So I will make no apology for the changes that we have made, because simply put these were changes correcting a series of damaging and unsustainable injustices in the way we treated our young people.
But I acknowledge this - somewhere along the way, what got lost in the heated debates and the drive for change, was who these changes were for, and why we were making them.
So let me be clear here and now. As Education Secretary I’m committed to implementing these reforms, not because I’m an ideological warrior, determined to impose my world view on schools and young people.
The reason I support these reforms is for one simple reason, because they work. Because this ambition to focus on the basics and driving up standards matches the ambition of parents at school gates around the country.
And because these reforms mean that we have more ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ schools than ever before, more young people entering secondary school able to read, write and add up, and more young people leaving education prepared for life in modern Britain.
And I want to make sure that the parent at the school gate knows not just what is changing in their school but the reason why we’re doing it.
Because when I talk to local parents in Loughborough, they’re not talking about whether the school is an academy or LA maintained, about whether whole class teaching works, or whether a teacher is better qualified by virtue of having PGCE or having spent 40 years working in industry.
What they care about is having the opportunity to send their children to a good local school, a school that will educate and nurture their child, a school that will help their child discover their own unique talents, a school that will keep them in the loop and let them know how they can help their children. And parents need to know that the changes we are making are about ensuring that schools do all of those things and more.
Too often education policy is portrayed as a war, between rival camps of true believers, when the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. And the best example of that? The thousands of teachers across the country who have quietly put our changes to the education system into action.
Because as I said in my speech here in Birmingham just last month, education is a partnership. It isn’t a battle or a war. It isn’t pitting different parts of the education system against each other. Nor is it about false dichotomies between subjects we value and subjects we don’t.
Earlier this month, I gave a speech supporting an initiative to get more young people to study science and maths, and almost immediately I was accused of implying that no arts student would ever get a job again. Needless to say this wasn’t something I said, nor would ever believe.
So my request is that we tone down the rhetoric and let’s have a reasoned debate based on what works. For those looking for an ideological sparring partner to do battle with, quite simply I’m not your woman.
That doesn’t mean I don’t have my beliefs. I do. But I take the view that we need to put the interests of young people at the centre of things and work back from there.
And my commitment is to playing my role in a partnership that delivers for our young people.
Central to that partnership has been the commitment and dedication of our teaching workforce who regularly go beyond the call of duty to secure the best outcomes for the young people they teach.
I want to make sure that we uphold our end of the bargain which is why I launched the teacher workload challenge, to ask teachers what it was that was forcing them to spend so many more hours working outside of the classroom than their counterparts abroad.
In the space of just a month we received more than 43,000 responses to the challenge, which if nothing else gives an indication of just how big the problem is. Over the coming weeks my department, and members of the profession will be analysing these results, with a firm pledge to outline concrete proposals for supporting schools to reduce their teachers workload. Because all of us want teachers to be focusing on what they do best, teaching, supporting and inspiring their students and our children.
But of course this partnership in education goes beyond the government and teachers. It’s a partnership with the whole community - such as with businesses who work with schools to ensure that young people leave with the employability skills to succeed in the world of work.
It’s also a partnership with our great seats of learning, our universities and I’m absolutely delighted to hear that the Birmingham University training school has seen over 4,000 parents registering their children for places ahead of its first year - a real testament to the power of collaboration in our education system and a trailblazing sign of leadership from this university.
But perhaps the most fundamental part of this partnership are the group who are most often overlooked - young people’s parents and carers. For most young people it will be their parents who have the greatest educational influence on their lives, and yet too often there is a false divide between what children learn in school and what they learn in the home.
It’s impossible to exaggerate the impact that parents have on young people’s education, but as the parents in this audience will know, being a mum or a dad doesn’t come with a guidebook and many parents find themselves asking what they should do to help their child learn, how they know that their child is progressing well at school and how involved they should become in their child’s education.
Some parents will want to get involved in the running of a school itself, by joining the governing body. To those dedicated individuals, the largest volunteer body in the country, I have nothing but my thanks to offer, parent governors in particular play a crucial role and their contribution should never be understated.
But other parents, simply want to understand more about how their child is doing and what they can do to help. That means more than just signing a home school agreement and receiving the odd termly newsletter; it means schools taking practical steps to reach out to parents. I’m the first to admit that before I took this job I found the system of assessment levels, now abolished, used to measure children’s progress baffling.
The best schools are already taking steps not just to communicate with parents, but to actively involve them in their children’s learning, and I want to see more schools doing the same, helping parents to take ownership of their children’s education. That might involve promoting Save the Children’s campaign to get parents to set aside 10 minutes a day for their children to read to them or something as simple as practicing their times tables.
Of course this partnership works both ways and schools should be able to place high expectations on their parents as well as pupils. That’s why I’m such a firm advocate that except in exceptional circumstances no child should be taken out of schools for term time holidays, because if they’re not in school, they’re not keeping up with their classmates. Teachers work hard to plan and structure lessons and courses and removing children from school means that they miss out on the structured learning that their peers enjoy.
For the same reason, I applaud headteachers like Elizabeth Churton of Hanson Academy in Bradford, who sent home 150 students on the first day of school for not wearing the correct uniform.
She is absolutely right to insist on maintaining high standards in her school and correct to say that such things set the standard and tone for school life. Hard as it may seem to some, headteachers like Mrs Churton need to know they have the support of us all - and that starts with the parents of the pupils entrusted to her care.
Key to our side of the partnership with parents is ensuring that parents know that our schools are addressing their real concerns. From speaking to parents, not just in Loughborough, but right across the country, I know that many have worried that some of our reforms seem too harsh, that the focus has been on too narrow a set of academic indicators, that young people are trapped on an exam treadmill.
Let me say again, I make no apology for the early focus of our reforms, our immediate priority in 2010 had to be getting the basics right for young people. But now that we’ve made those initial changes, the focus now is to help schools do more of that wider work necessary to prepare young people for life in modern Britain.
Central to that is ensuring that young people not only grow academically, but also build character, resilience and grit. That’s why one of my first acts as education secretary was to announce that my department would have a new focus on character education.
We want to ensure that young people leave school with the perseverance to strive to win, to persevere against the odds, to overcome the challenges that life throws at them and bounce back with vigour and confidence, something that the expeditions of Sir Raymond Priestley demonstrate in abundance.
We want pupils to revel in the achievement of victory, but honour the principles of fair play, to win with grace and to learn the lessons of defeat with acceptance and humility. And we want pupils to become honest citizens who contribute to their communities, neighborhoods and countries.
Much of this work has been inspired by the work of the Jubilee Centre at Birmingham University and its innovative research on character education and its work with schools to build best practice in this area.
Organisations like the Jubilee Centre have been pioneers in recognising that character can be taught. Not through formal lessons in character, but by integrating character building activities throughout the curriculum. These skills, traits and virtues can be strengthened by activities as simple as asking young people to stand up and present in front of their class or to learn about the perseverance and personal sacrifice of some of our most celebrated scientists or to take part in competitive sports.
By focusing on these character building activities, schools can ensure that pupils emerge from school more fully rounded and better equipped to meet the challenges of employment and future life.
Like the Jubilee Centre we passionately believe that we owe it to today’s young people to help them marry the highest standards of academic rigour with the character foundation needed to help them flourish.
One of the ways in which Sir Raymond helped to inculcate these skills was through the foundation of the Midland Youth Forum, to allow young people to debate the topical issues of the day.
Sadly for too long debating in schools has been the preserve of independent schools.
Let me read you for instance the top 10 schools in this year’s Oxford schools debating competition, one of the largest school debating competitions in the country:
- Latymer Upper
- another Dulwich team
- St Paul’s School
- Campbell School Canada
- another Eton team
- another St Pauls team
- St Paul’s Girls School
That ladies and gentlemen is nothing short of a scandal. It simply cannot be the case that the only young people able to stand up and argue their corner are the 7% of pupils educated in private schools.
To correct this, we’ve already invested in the expansion of the charity Debate Mate which works to get young people in a whole range of schools debating and over the coming months we’ll be doing even more to put debating and public speaking skills at the heart of the curriculum.
Of course debating is just one area, and there are many more examples of how we as a government have promoted character building activities in schools. Whether it be through our major investment in sports through the sports premium, or through the creation of our world leading National Citizens Service, this government has consistently emphasised the importance of children leaving education as well rounded individuals.
And I also want parents to know that our schools are keeping their children safe in the classroom and teaching them how to stay safe outside of it. Whether it’s giving them the information that they need to recognise the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships or how to stay safe online.
The media coverage surrounding the tragic death of Breck Bednar just this week will have confirmed many parents’ fears about the dangers the internet can pose to young people, and schools have a crucial role in helping not just young people stay safe, but in helping their parents understand what they can do to keep their children safe as well. I’ll have more to say on this in the coming weeks.
And of course the vast majority of parents want their children to be kept safe from the influence of extremist views or indoctrination. It was here in Birmingham that we saw what happens when a small minority attempt to take over schools and subvert the teaching of young people. Swift action has resulted in those people being removed from positions of influence within their schools and I’m pleased to say that under the leadership of Sir Mike Tomlinson we are making great strides towards restoring confidence in the governance of Birmingham’s schools.
But those events in Birmingham should also demonstrate why the expectations that we place on our schools can’t simply be academic. It’s why I firmly believe that all schools need to be teaching young people the fundamental British values, democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and above all mutual respect and tolerance of other people, preparing them for life in modern Britain.
Because growing up in modern Britain is hard. The current generation won’t enjoy the same opportunities as the last. They are not guaranteed a job for life, with a large pension, generous allowances and the sense of security that brings. They will face huge challenges, both in work and in life, as our understanding of families changes and the society around them changes too. They will be subject to competition from all sorts of places, both here in Britain and from overseas too. We talk often of the global race - and I understand that can seem overwhelming - but it’s a reality which we do need to address.
Modern Britain is a country of opportunity but of real uncertainty too. Our job - the job of anyone interested and engaged in the education system today - is to ask how schools can best prepare young people to thrive and survive in this kind of country.
It’s to ask how they can provide them not only with the knowledge, but also the skills, experiences and values they need to be able to face the future with confidence.
That is what I want to make the focus of my time as Education Secretary.
Those waiting for u-turns will have to continue to do so with baited breath, because none of this means a renunciation of the first 4 years of this government’s reform, nor any slowing in the pace of change. But what it does mean is that now is the time to build on what we’ve done so far, to make the case for why we’ve done it, and above to do more to address the concerns of the mums and dads at the school gate, who like all of us here want the very best for their child.