Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of John F Kennedy’s assassination - and the death of a president who promised so much for the people of America.
It also - of course - marks the fiftieth anniversary of Lyndon B Johnson’s assumption of presidential office. LBJ’s initials do not inspire the affection in our memories that JFK’s do. But whatever else he did - and did not - do President Johnson achieved something both wonderful and powerful in office - he passed the civil rights legislation which at last allowed African-Americans the opportunity to take their place alongside white Americans as equal citizens of their republic.
When we look at America’s story the crimes of slavery, the horrors of Jim Crow, the ugliness of segregation are all - mercifully - in the past.
But even now - 50 years after Kennedy died, 50 years after Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech, 150 years after Lincoln declared in the Gettysburg address that all men are created equal, there is still terrible inequality in America.
Black children face a tougher fight than others to get up and get on - they are less likely to succeed, more likely to fall on hard times.
As President Obama has pointed out - the struggle for civil rights goes on. And the arena in which that fight is fiercest is education. Because black children are less likely to graduate from high school, less likely to go to college and less likely to graduate from college than their peers, their futures are blighted and their horizons are narrower. That is why Barack Obama has said that school reform is the civil rights struggle of our time.
That is why he has championed reforms which create more charter schools, like our academies here, which demand minimum standards for every child, like our national curriculum tests here and which reward great teachers more generously, as our pay and conditions reforms do here.
He has been joined in that fight by African-American political leaders like Cory Booker - the newly-elected senator from New Jersey who was mayor of Newark - and Deval Patrick the highly successful 2-term governor of Massachusetts. Other Democrat leaders in cities with large African-American populations - like Rahm Emanuel - have prosecuted the struggle with rare political courage. And Republican leaders who take their heritage as Lincoln’s heirs seriously are in the fight too - which is why Jeb Bush secured so much support across all ethnic communities in Florida and why Governor Chris Christie won by a landslide in New Jersey.
I’m lucky enough to have met many of these politicians - and I admire their commitment to social justice.
The challenge for Britain
Just as I admire the commitment of politicians - across party lines - in our country who are dedicated to advancing opportunity through education. Whether it’s David Laws or Andrew Adonis, Tony Blair or Boris Johnson.
Because we need to fight more energetically for social justice in this country just as they’re doing in America.
We too have anniversaries that should spur us to new action.
Sixty-five years ago, the Empire Windrush landed at Tilbury, Queen Elizabeth I’s old stomping ground - carrying to these shores the first West Indian immigrants, hoping to start a new life.
Sixty-five years on - we have to ask - have we fulfilled our promise to those new Britons?
Twenty years ago, Stephen Lawrence was brutally murdered on a London street by a gang of racist thugs - one of the darkest episodes in the history of race relations in this country.
Twenty years on - we have to ask - have we created a truly colour-blind society in which every single child in this country, no matter what their background, no matter what their ethnicity, is given an equal opportunity to succeed?
I don’t believe we have - yet.
But I do believe we are getting there - making progress - and making progress because this government is committed heart and soul to the civil rights battle of our time - the fight to give every child a great school.
For too long, there have been shocking, stubborn gaps in attainment between children from black and minority ethnic backgrounds and their peers.
These things are never simple, either to observe, or to fix.
But even as we can identify many different factors at work, one huge reality remains. The gaps in achievement between BME children and their peers have been far too large for far too long.
At key stage 1, black children show the lowest proportion of pupils achieving the expected level in reading, writing, maths and science.
At key stage 2, a smaller proportion of black pupils than of any other ethnicity achieve the level we expect to see in English and maths - a full 3 percentage points below the national average. In fact, there is a staggering gap of 14 percentage points between black pupils and the top-performing ethnic groups in terms of how many children achieve a level 4 or above in maths.
At age 16, almost 3 in 5 pupils in the country as a whole achieved 5 or more A* to C grade GCSEs or equivalent including English and mathematics last year. But only around half of all black pupils managed to do so.
At age 18, fewer black pupils than the national average achieve 2 or more A levels or equivalent qualifications.
And although 8% of all pupils studying at this level in 2009 to 2010 went on to a Russell Group university, the equivalent figure for black pupils was only 5%.
Of course, the challenges faced by BME children are all the greater when they come from materially deprived backgrounds.
We already know that children from disadvantaged backgrounds fall further behind as they move through school.
But the problem is particularly acute for black Caribbean boys. Boys from a black Caribbean background who are eligible for free school meals have been among those suffering from the worst academic performance.
Of course, there is no single change we can make that will instantly transform the education of disadvantaged or minority ethnic children.
That is why this government is determined to radically reform the whole school system.
We are determined do everything we can to make sure that every child, from every background, is given an equal opportunity to succeed.
Over the last 3 years, this has been our top priority.
By giving schools independence and autonomy so that heads and teachers are free to support and challenge all pupils, including ethnic minority pupils, to achieve their full potential.
By embedding higher standards, and higher aspirations, in a new national curriculum and new accountability measures.
By raising the quality of teaching and raising the bar for new entrants to the teaching profession.
And by finally rejecting the soft bigotry of low expectations which has governed education for too long - by refusing to accept that children from poorer homes can’t be expected to do just as well, to achieve just as highly, as their wealthier peers.
School reform extending opportunities
One of the first education reforms we put in place was the Academies Act - which gave many more schools the chance to enjoy greater freedoms.
When this government came to power, there were just 203 academies. They’re schools with all the freedoms of independent schools - but in the state sector - free to all. They’re free to innovate in every area, to recruit and reward the best staff, and to tailor their curriculum, school day and year to suit pupils and parents.
In the last 3 years on, the number of open academies has grown from 203 to 3,444 - with many, many more in the pipeline.
These new schools are already teaching more than 2 million pupils.
And a crucial - and often-overlooked - fact is that academies are specifically benefitting those BME pupils who most need new educational opportunities.
Many academies have far higher levels of BME pupils than the rest of the state sector, both at primary and secondary.
Almost 40% of pupils in primary sponsored academies come from minority ethnic backgrounds, compared to just 28.5% in all state-funded primaries; and 30.0% of pupils in secondary sponsored academies from minority ethnic backgrounds (compared to 24.2% in all state-funded secondary).
In some schools, the numbers are even higher.
Like Harris Girls’ Academy in East Dulwich - a school in a disadvantaged area where the proportion of students known to be eligible for free school meals is more than twice the national average; almost half of students speak English as an additional language; and around 85% are classified as coming from minority-ethnic groups, mostly black Caribbean or black African.
Yet at its last Ofsted inspection, the academy scored outstanding in all categories - and the value added scores show that students make more progress at Harris Girls’ Academy East Dulwich than at 99% of other state schools in England.
In fact, across all 27 Harris academies - set up by Lord Harris of Peckham, a Streatham boy who is determined to transform London education for the better - 44% of last year’s GCSE cohort came from black or minority ethnic backgrounds (double the figures in 2012 across the country as a whole - just 22%) and 31% just from black backgrounds (almost 10 percentage points higher than the equivalent figure for London in 2012 and fully 6 times as many as across the country as a whole in that year - where the proportion is just 5%).
ARK academies - another of this country’s leading chains - have similarly high BME levels.
In recent years the results of sponsored academies like these have gone up faster than other state-funded schools.
Their performance has continued to improve this year, in fact the longer they are open the better on average that they do.
And BME pupils in sponsored academies outperform pupils from similar backgrounds in comparable local authority maintained schools.
Last year, for example, the proportion of mixed race pupils achieving 5 or more good GCSEs or equivalent (including English and mathematics) rose by just 1.3 percentage points nationally; but by 5.7 percentage points in sponsored academies.
Earlier I mentioned Harris Girls’ Academy in East Dulwich, where around 85% of pupils are classified as coming from minority-ethnic groups. But this year, figures provided by the school show that 67% of all pupils got 5 good GCSEs including English and maths, 7 percentage points above the national average of 60%.
And across all ARK academies, the school’s own figures show that 58% of black children achieved at least 5 GCSEs at A* to C including English and maths - above the national average for all black children.
So the numbers are clear. Sponsored academies have higher proportions of black children than other state schools - and black pupils’ results are improving faster in those academies than in comparable LA maintained schools.
That’s why the academies programme is a major step forward for racial equality in this country.
It’s bringing high standards and high expectations - the sort of education traditionally available only to the privileged - to those children who have historically been left behind.
And in free schools…
Our free schools programme is another powerful route to greater opportunity for more disadvantaged children.
Free schools are entirely new schools, set up by dedicated and passionate teachers, parents, local communities and charitable organisations in communities often poorly served for generations.
In the last 3 years, 174 free schools have opened and over 100 more are in the pipeline.
What’s more, almost half (44%) of all those free schools open so far are located in the 30% most deprived communities in this country.
These new schools are bringing choice to parents who can’t afford to pay a premium for a house in a prized catchment area.
And they are offering higher standards - free schools are outperforming the rest of the maintained sector. Three-quarters of the first cohort (those open in September 2011) were rated good or outstanding by Ofsted under its tougher new inspection framework. Just 64% of maintained schools inspected under the same inspection regime achieved that.
And free schools achieved that level of success starting from scratch - indeed over the same period only 50% of new local authority schools were rated good or outstanding.
But most important of all, just like academies, free schools are catering disproportionately to BME pupils, with higher proportions of BME pupils than the national average - and, often, higher than the average for their local area.
Overall, 40% of pupils in all mainstream free schools for which we have figures come from minority ethnic backgrounds - compared to a national average in mainstream state schools of 26%.
And the proportion of BME pupils is often disproportionately high in free schools, even compared to other neighbouring schools.
In Krishna-Avanti Primary School in Leicester, the proportion of minority ethnic pupils is more than 33 percentage points higher than in the local authority as a whole; in Rainbow Primary School in Bradford, the proportion of minority ethnic pupils is more than forty-one percentage points higher than in the local authority as a whole.
And there are examples here in London too.
At the Greenwich Free School, where all children study politics, philosophy and economics and ICT has been replaced with computer programming, 53% of children are from minority ethnic backgrounds.
At Peter Hyman’s School 21 in Newham, where science classes start in Reception and extra curriculum time is devoted to ensuring all pupils leave with exceptional English language skills, 71% of children are from minority ethnic backgrounds.
Nine in 10 pupils at the Aldborough E-ACT Free School in Redbridge and the Woodpecker Hall Primary Academy in Enfield are from a minority ethnic background - higher than in both respective local authorities.
Using a rigorous curriculum
What all these successful schools demonstrate is the importance of high expectations - specifically the vital importance of a rigorous and demanding academic curriculum for every child.
Children of every ethnicity and every socio-economic group - not just those in the most expensive schools, or in the most wealthy communities - have an absolute right to be introduced to the best that has been thought and written.
Every child should be able to enjoy the type of knowledge-rich, subject-specific curriculum which gives them the best possible preparation for university, apprenticeships, employment, and adult life.
That means physics, chemistry and biology not play-based learning, project-work and an anti-knowledge ideology.
Every child should have the chance to read great literature - from Charles Dickens to Derek Walcott - appreciate great music - from Ludwig van Beethoven to Jelly Roll Morton - and enjoy great art - from Poussin to Basquiat.
Because these great creative figures help us understand the human condition - they appeal to the emotions and the sensibilities we all share as one human race - and they are the legacy our civilisation has bequeathed to us all.
And every child should have the chance to acquire the proper rigorous qualifications that our best employers and academics value.
Far from such an insistence being oppressive and reactionary it is liberating and progressive.
But don’t just take it from me - listen to Diane Abbott, the Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington and one of this country’s most active and most respected BME campaigners, has said:
An emphasis on rigorous education and on obtaining core academic subjects is not, as is sometimes argued, contrary to the interests of working class children, and of black and minority ethnic children.
On the contrary, precisely if someone is the first in their family to stay on past school-leaving age, precisely if someone’s family doesn’t have social capital, and precisely if someone does not have parents who can put in a word for them in a difficult job market, they need the assurance of rigorous qualifications and, if at all possible, core academic qualifications.
I couldn’t have put it better myself - giving every child the chance to enjoy a traditional academic education is the most powerful lever for greater social mobility and racial equality we have.
And monitored by tighter accountability
We want to make sure that as many pupils as possible benefit from new opportunities.
Which is why in our reform of the way we hold schools accountable for results, we’re focusing particularly on the attainment of pupils who’ve been overlooked for too long.
Schools will be expected to close the gap in attainment between children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers.
We’ve introduced a new secondary accountability system which will no longer concentrate just on the proportion getting 5 GCSEs at A* to C - a flawed approach which perversely incentivised schools and teachers to narrow their focus to just a few subjects and just a few pupils on the C/D borderline.
From 2016, every school will be judged on the progress students make in a combination of 8 subjects (3 from the EBacc, maths and English and 3 other). This will mean that schools in poor areas, which achieve great results for their pupils, get particular credit. It will recognise achievement across all grades, not just between a C and a D - incentivising schools to focus on high-flyers and low-attainers alike. And it will encourage schools to offer (and pupils to study) a broad, balanced range of subjects, including the academic core which is the best possible preparation for employment and further study.
That academic core is the subjects contained in the English Baccalaureate, or EBacc - our new measure looking at how many young people study at least 5 of the essential academic subjects: English and maths, the sciences, foreign languages, history and geography.
Figures from 2012 show that black children were less likely to achieve or enter for the EBacc.
In the country as a whole, 23% of children were entered for the EBacc - but just 18% of black pupils. Sixteen per cent of young people in the country achieved it; just 11% of black children.
But across the whole system, the EBacc has seen the number of children studying those subjects starting to rise.
These increases will help drive up the number of black pupils studying these subjects, in turn - meaning that more BME children leave school with the subjects most prized by employers and universities.
And in London - under the leadership of the mayor - those schools which have the very best record in raising standards for disadvantaged and BME children have been recognised and charged with supporting others to improve. The Mayor’s Gold Club of outstanding schools is a rare - and welcome - example of principled leaders in local government not just accepting the higher standards we have been setting in Whitehall but raising the bar even higher. The beneficiaries of this ambition are the poorest and most disadvantaged children of London - especially those from BME backgrounds.
Driving forward racial equality
Since this government came to power we have seen the achievements of black and minority ethnic children improve.
At primary school, the proportion of black children achieving level 4 in maths has risen from 75% in 2010 to 80% in 2012 - narrowing the gap with all children.
And at secondary, the proportion of black children achieving 5 A* to C including English and maths has risen from 49% in 2010 to 55% in 2012 - narrowing the gap with all children from 6 percentage points down to 4.
We have seen more schools than ever before - with more freedoms than ever before - transform the lives of more BME children than ever before - by giving them the sort of opportunities which were once restricted to a privileged few.
But there is more - much more - still to do.
That is why it is so welcome that the Mayor of London is not just driving up standards for BME children through the Gold Club - but also helping us to establish new free schools in areas of deprivation and disadvantage.
That is why it is so welcome that more great educators from within the BME community - Lindsay Johns who works with Leaders of Tomorrow - Dr Tony Sewell of Generating Genius, Devon Hanson of Walworth Academy, and Katharine Birbalsingh who is setting up the new Michaela Community School in Brent - have been given the opportunity to help more young people thanks to our reforms.
And that is why we must not allow the pace of our reform programme to slacken.
Why we must not succumb to what Martin Luther King called the tranquilising drug of gradualism.
Because we have it in our power - in this generation - to fulfil the dream of equality which has inspired so many of the great heroes whose memories we cherish this week.