This free school, like all the others, is born of a real passion for education – a belief in its power to change lives.
It’s a passion and a belief this coalition shares. We want to want to create an education system based on real excellence, with a complete intolerance of failure.
Yes, we’re ambitious. But today, we’ve got to be. We’ve got to be ambitious if we want to compete in the world. When China is going through an educational renaissance, when India is churning out science graduates, any complacency now would be fatal for our prosperity.
And we’ve got to be ambitious, too, if we want to mend our broken society. Because education doesn’t just give people the tools to make a good living – it gives them the character to live a good life, to be good citizens. So for the future of our economy, and our society, we need a first-class education for every child. Of course, everyone’s agreed on that, the trouble is that for years we’ve been bogged down in a great debate about how we get there. Standards or structures? Learning by rote or by play? Elitism or all winning prizes?
These debates are over – because it’s clear what works. Discipline works. Rigour works. Freedom for schools works. Having high expectations works. Now we’ve got to get on with it – and we don’t have any time to lose. Every year that passes without proper reform, is another year that tens of thousands of teenagers leave school without the qualifications they really need.
So there are three bold things we’re doing:
One: ramping up standards, bringing back the values of a good education.
Two: changing the structure of education, allowing new providers in to start schools - providing more choice, more competition, and giving schools greater independence.
And three: confronting educational failure head-on.
Let me take each in turn.
First, ramping up standards. Now a lot of people think this is all down to money. And yes, money is vital. That’s why, despite all the pressures on the public finances, this Government is protecting the current schools budget. But improving standards is not just about spending more and more money – if it was, we’d have solved the problems by now. It’s also about the values you bring to the classroom – and it’s here we’re wasting no time in putting things right.
We believe that children need to grasp the basics at an early age. As Michael Gove argued so powerfully last week, ‘you cannot read to learn until you have learned to read’. But one in six children leave primary school unable to read properly. So we’re acting, bringing to a close the wrong-headed methods that have failed thousands of our children and making sure every school has the resources - and every teacher the training - to deliver effective synthetic phonics teaching in the classroom. That’s the method that’s proven to work – and that’s how we can eliminate illiteracy in our country.
We also believe that when a child steps into the classroom, the most important thing that will determine their success is who the teacher is. But in the past, this country hasn’t done enough to attract and keep the best talent.
So again, we’re acting. When it comes to attracting them, we’ve expanded Teach First. This is the programme that takes our best graduates and puts them straight in the classroom. 772 are starting work this term – that’s two hundred more than last year including – for the first time – eighty-five in our primary schools.
What’s more, from next year, we want to introduce bursaries worth £20,000 for every maths or science graduate – with a first class degree – who goes into teaching. That’s a real incentive for the very brightest to teach our most important subjects.
And in order to foster talent, we’re planning to give schools more freedom to set their own pay structures, giving the teachers who add the most value the biggest rewards. Of course, the flip side of this is that head teachers should also have the power to get rid of those who underperform - so we’re making that easier too.
I know this is difficult. But if it’s a choice between making sure our children get the highest quality teaching or some teachers changing career I know what I choose.
Another value we passionately believe in is discipline – and we’re acting on it. New powers for teachers to search for phones, video cameras, blackberries – in fact anything banned by the school rules. New rights for teachers to impose detention on the same day the rules are broken, rather than having to give parents notice in advance. And new clarity on whether a teacher can physically intervene to maintain order. We have made clear that no school should have a ‘no touch’ policy. If the teacher feels they need to physically restrain a child, they should feel free to. But restoring discipline is also about what parents do.
We need parents to have a real stake in the discipline of their children, to face real consequences if their children continually misbehave. That’s why I have asked our social policy review to look into whether we should cut the benefits of those parents whose children constantly play truant.
Yes, this would be a tough measure – but we urgently need to restore order and respect in the classroom and I don’t want ideas like this to be off the table. There’s something else we believe: that every child is different, with different interests and different talents. That’s why we’re setting up university technical colleges – with longer hours, longer terms, a stretching technical curriculum and all the discipline of the workplace. And we're setting up new Studio Schools offering a unique way of learning rooted in the real world with a curriculum tailored to those who will benefit from more practical learning, with support from skilled craftsmen and work experience with local employers.
But if you ask me, the most important value we’re bringing back to the classroom is a commitment to rigour. Rigorous subjects, tested in a rigorous way. However well students perform in their exams, we cannot deny the reality of the past few years. The numbers of people taking core academic subjects – they went down. The voices from business concerned about the usefulness of some of our exams – they grew louder. We are determined to stop this slide – and already we’re making an impact.
Our new English Baccalaureate – the set of core subjects that colleges most like and employees most want means that this September, for the first time in years the proportion of pupils who are studying history, geography, a language and three sciences at GCSE is increasing. What’s more, our curriculum review will mean we are really demanding in what we expect our children to learn. A real grounding in algebra in maths. The essential laws of science. The great works of literature in English.
And when it comes to testing them, we will be equally demanding.
We’re stopping modules – which let our children take and re-take exams throughout their GCSEs and making sure they take all their exam papers at the end of the course. And we’re also making sure spelling, punctuation and grammar are properly taken into account when the marks are dished out. In every way we can, we are going to make our education system as robust as possible fewer, more rigorous exams so it has the full confidence of employers – not just at home but around the world.
Everything I’ve spoken about so far is about driving up standards.
But the truth is this: The way we make sure these things happen in every classroom, in every school is by changing the way education is delivered in our country. It’s about changing the structure of education – spreading choice, giving schools more independence, recognising the need for competition so we create real and permanent pressure in the system to encourage schools to drive improvements.
That’s what we’re doing.
Instead of parents having to take what they are given, we are giving them real choice in where their child goes to school and backing that decision with state money, with an extra payment for those from the poorest backgrounds. And to make that choice really meaningful, we are making everything that matters about our education system transparent.
The exam results of individual schools. Their truancy rates. The effectiveness of their teaching. It will all be there – online – so people have the information to choose. There are also new freedoms for schools to turn into academies and improve standards the way they see fit – whether that’s through more extra-curricular activities or longer school days. We know schools want this: in just a year, the enthusiasm of heads has meant we have created almost 1000 new academies.
And we know this works.
Just look at the ARK Academy in St. Albans. When that school was under local authority control two years ago, thirty-one percent of pupils got five good passes at GCSE including English and Maths. Now, that number has more than doubled – to sixty-eight percent.
And what about the Harris Academy in Peckham, one of the most deprived parts of our country? It has managed to increase the percentage of its pupils getting five good passes at GCSE including English and Maths from five percent to fifty percent.
Indeed, every single one of the schools Lord Harris has taken over gets at least an additional twenty per cent or more young people to pass five good GCSEs compared to the record when the Local Authority ran it.
Added to this choice and freedom, we are also bringing in the dynamic of competition. This is what our free schools revolution is all about. We’ve said to charities, to faith groups, to businesses, to community organisations, teachers: come in and set up a great new school, in the state sector. And the response has been overwhelming. Twenty- four, including this one, opening the September. More than two hundred applications for next year.
This has really taken off – in a way no one predicted or no one thought possible. Of course, as with any bold policy, free schools are not without their critics. But let’s just look at the arguments used against them. Critics say they aren’t democratically accountable. Yes, they are. They’re accountable to each and every parent who decides to send their child there.
Critics say we don’t need new schools, we just need to make existing schools better. But this misses the point entirely. Free schools don’t just give parents who are frustrated with their local schools a new chance of a better education. They also encourage existing schools in the area to compete and raise their game. And then some critics say free schools will harm the poorest. Nonsense. Half of the first tranche of free schools are in some of the most deprived parts of our country.
Isn’t the reality this?
Those opposing free schools are simply defending the establishment – an establishment that has failed pupils and infuriated parents for too long. Those who support free schools are on the side of parents, charities and committed teachers who are trying to make things better on the side of the choice, freedom and competition that will really drive up standards.
By raising standards and changing structures we can have a profound impact across our education system. But some schools will still slip through the cracks. That’s why we’re doing a third thing: intervening to sort out failure wherever we find it. For a long time in this country there has been a scandalous acceptance of under-performing schools. It’s the attitude that says some schools – especially in the poorest areas – will always be bad. That meekly accepts educational failure as a fact of life. Well I’m sorry, that’s patronising nonsense.
So – as I’m in school today, let me spell this out. There will be no more excuses for failure with this government. We are being more honest about what constitutes a failing school, and more radical in the way we deal with them. The last government deemed a secondary school to be failing if five good GCSE passes were achieved by less than 30 per cent of their pupils.
We thought that was far too low – so we’re raising the bar.
By the end of this Parliament, an underperforming failing school will be deemed one where less than fifty per cent of pupils are getting five good GCSEs. And we’re introducing tough benchmarks for primary school too. For the first time, unless sixty per cent of their pupils achieve the accepted level - Level 4 - in English and maths at Key Stage 2, they’ll be judged to be failing.
As well as being clearer about what constitutes failure, we’re acting more decisively to deal with that failure by demanding an improvement plan from the governing body or local authority in control of every failing school and if that plan isn’t good enough, insisting on fresh, established leadership to turn them round from successful, local academies and yes, even private schools.
Our plans mean by the end of next year, we will have transformed around 150 failing secondaries and 200 failing primaries into Academies. And today, we’re considering whether we need to go further and faster. Because it’s not just failing schools we need to tackle. It’s coasting schools, too – the ones whose results have either flat-lined or where they haven’t improved as much as they could have.
Just take this one fact. Take two schools – Burlington Danes Academy and Walworth Academy they are both in relatively deprived parts of Inner London with high proportions of pupils on free school meals. But you know what? Last year, 70 per cent of Walworth pupils and 75 per cent of Burlington Danes pupils got 5 or more good GCSEs including English and Maths.
Compare that with Surrey and Oxfordshire – the counties that Michael and I represent. Only 16 state secondary schools in these two relatively affluent counties did better than those two inner city schools. Put another way, more than 4 out of 5 state schools in Surrey and Oxfordshire are doing worse than 2 state schools in relatively deprived parts of inner London.
That must be a wake-up call.
Why is there this difference? Why are these schools coasting along? With us – and we see this as parents, not politicians - every school needs to be striving for excellence – and to make that clear we are looking at raising the official standards below which no school can fall, even further.
So be in no doubt: where there is failure we’re confronting it where there is complacency, in coasting schools, we will help deal with it and where there is excellence in education, whether in Academy schools, local authority schools or private schools, we’re determined to celebrate it and spread it.
So I hope I’ve conveyed to you today this government’s level of ambition. A belief in excellence. An intolerance of failure.
An ambition that every child is taught to the best of their abilities. And to those who say this is unrealistic or impossible I say this is perfectly realistic; it’s totally possible.
Britain is a modern, developed country. If they’re seeing excellence as standard in cities like Shanghai, why can’t we see that in cities like London?
If they’re soaring up through the world rankings in Estonia, why can’t we? If they’re making huge strides in science and maths in India, what’s to stop us? We’ve got the resources, we’ve got the fantastic teachers, we know what works.
Now we just have to have the will – the energy – to make this happen and believe me, we have it.
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