This is the complete text of the Shadow Secretary of State for Education’s speech to the North of England Education Conference on Thursday 5 January 2012.
It is great to be here at the North of England Education Conference. I last spoke in 2005 when I was a junior minister, and it’s wonderful to be back.
Over the years, this conference has set the tone for the year ahead in education. A series of debates and discussions that is truly national. Which reach far further down the M1 than Birmingham, and will echo in the staffrooms not just in Bradford and Bolton, but across England.
As no more than an honorary Scouser, I’m conscious of the minefield of North – South politics. I recently did an interview with the London Evening Standard where I talked of the need to sustain the coalition that Labour established in 1997 with what is sometimes called ‘middle England’. To illustrate the point, I referred to a discussion I had with someone on the doorstep in the Crewe by-election in 2008, who felt Labour was abandoning aspirational voters. The headline in the Standard – Labour must not water down Southern Discomfort.
Even though I made no mention of the phrase, I received a barrage of messages on Twitter saying I should remember Crewe is in the North, not the South. I promise you, I do not need to retake Geography.
The Age of Austerity and the Age of Aspiration
The wider point is this. The idea that aspiration, social mobility, the desire for your children to do better than you is something that is confined to one region of the country, or one section of the population is palpable nonsense. People expect outstanding schools in Hartlepool as much as they do in Harlow or Hampshire. Working class communities want more working class children to go to world class universities.
This is the essence of our social contract, what Ed Miliband has called the promise of Britain.
That sees aspiration and social justice as a shared ambition, not as a choice.
That allows all those with potential to climb the ladder of opportunity.
That wants the next generation to do better than the last.
To succeed in maintaining that coalition of aspiration and social justice, I believe Labour will need to own the age of austerity. We will be the party that comes forward with creative ideas to raise standards and promote innovation at a time of severe reductions in budgets.
First, though, we have to admit that not every penny spent by the last government was spent wisely. I don’t think any government can say that – including this one. But in straitened times it is more incumbent on us than ever to show we value each pound of taxpayers’ money as much as the taxpayer does him or herself.
I will never apologise for the largest school building programme in this country’s history. Nor will I apologise for putting money into repairing leaky roofs, or to get pupils out of portakabins and into proper classrooms, after they were neglected by Conservative governments in the 1980s and 1990s.
But at the same time, we have to learn the lessons from projects such as Building Schools for the Future. It didn’t always provide the best value for money. If there are improvements that can be made, we will put the interest of getting the most for young people over political dividing lines.
But there is little evidence to suggest the Tory-led Government are doing that. They of course claim there is no choice where the cuts fall.
But when the budget to repair school buildings and build new ones is cut by nearly double the Whitehall average, is there really no choice?
When they have reduced the ring fence on funding for programmes like Sure Start, which reduce the burden on the state in the long term, is there really no choice?
And when they spend the same amount of money – £600 million – on 100 new free schools, as they do on places in the other 24,000 schools, is there really no choice?
As Ed Miliband forcefully put it in his New Year message:
“There are choices to be made every day about how best to reduce the deficit and restore growth to the economy. There are choices to be made about who should bear the greatest burden in these difficult times, choices to be made about what Britain will be like to live in next year and in the future. Tough times expose your values, because they force you to choose.”
As the Darling plan to reduce the deficit made clear, Labour would not have shied away from tough decisions. And nor will we. So we will support efficiency measures where they are based on principles of fairness to all. At the same time, we will present our plans for reducing the deficit in 2016 and 2017, because of the failure of this Government to bring it under control by their own target of 2015.
That is a Labour agenda. As Jim Callaghan put it in 1976 in his speech to Ruskin College, “there can be little expectation of further increased resources being made available, at any rate for the time being…There is a challenge to us all in these days and a challenge in education is to examine its priorities and to secure as high efficiency as possible by the skilful use of existing resources.”
But we will not support an agenda that will worsen the life chances of the next generation.
We will develop our plans to improve education in a way that delivers real value for money. That is based on the best possible evidence available from here and abroad. That improves outcomes, by protecting projects that save money in the long term. And that puts the interest of raising standards for all, above a dogma that seeks to promote pet projects for the few.
That is how we will transform the Age of Austerity into an Age of Aspiration.
‘Passion, Potential, Performance’ is the title of this year’s conference.
The Three Ps. It is an especially relevant theme. Though I should say no more so than the Three Rs.
Education is my absolute passion and it is fantastic to be serving as the Labour Party’s spokesman under Ed Miliband’s leadership.
My passion for education stems from my own background, and the fantastic work I see up and down the country.
I have seen the best and worst of education in this country.
I have been inspired by teachers who couldn’t care less where you came from. Like the inappropriately named Mr Coward, who pushed me to become, I believe the first person from Southgate Comprehensive to get into Oxford.
But I also saw what happened to my Mum, who failed the Eleven plus. She was bright enough to retake, but was packed off to work when she was just 15, because that’s what girls did. She taught us a simple lesson: “That’s not going to happen to you. You’re going to university.”
It’s why I’m passionate about more kids from state schools going to top universities, including the Russell Group and Oxbridge.
Although universities should do more, it is a cop out to think it is all the fault of elitist dons blocking poor kids. State schools must be more ambitious for their pupils. Some, like Mossbourne Academy, do extremely well though there is always room for improvement. They secured ten places at Cambridge in their first cohort of A level students. We all have a duty to learn from their and other success stories.
So I am passionate about education, but today I also want to talk about the second ‘P’ – potential.
The Sure Start Generation
The older children I meet, who grew up under a Labour Government should be known as the Sure Start generation. You see the potential in their spirit. But you can demonstrate it in their results.
Those who benefitted from the record investment in early years. With free universal nursery places for three and four year olds, thousands of new children’s centres, and tuition for literacy and numeracy.
Under Labour’s reform and investment programme, we started to turn potential into performance.
Poorer children narrowed the educational achievement gap on children from wealthier backgrounds during Labour’s time in office. Findings from a recent piece of research by the Financial Times support this. This narrowing of the gap is the result of more and better teachers, stronger school leadership, a relentless focus on literacy and numeracy and the introduction of specialist schools, academies and trust schools.
The greatest joy of this job is seeing the potential in children. Childhood is a precious time of life, that most beautiful of all life’s seasons, and it is a privilege to visit schools and colleges and talk to young people. To witness the human spirit at its brightest.
Deepak Chopra once said “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”
For some it will be the inspiration of a teacher or a parent, driving them to succeed. For others, it might be the joy of literature, or the satisfaction of solving a puzzle. For others, it will be the pride in creating something through more practical tools – the idea brought to fruition from design to reality. We must celebrate these moments equally.
At the other end of spectrum, some will experience moments of real danger. The pressure of the gang leader outside the school gate, the temptation of drugs, the first forays in petty crime.
How we steer young people through these moments is our collective responsibility. As Tawney put it, “what a wise parent would wish for their children, so the state must wish for all its children.”
The Educational Divide
And here is the rub.
I’m not sure our education system does represent all its children. Too often our children are divided, and in more ways than we may realise.
As Ken Robinson has forcefully expounded, our education system owes its ethos to competing values, the intellectual traditions of the Enlightenment, with the economic necessities of the Industrial Revolution.
On the one hand, the Enlightenment traditions promote a hierarchy of knowledge, derived from a strict adherence to classical thought, which suggest a core of so-called ‘academic’ subjects are entirely superior to ‘practical’ skills.
So our entire system, from parental nudges to university admissions is predicated on an inequality of esteem. A snobbishness from some conservative quarters that suggests vocational qualifications are intrinsically of less value, to the patronising approach of some progressives that believes pupils from working class backgrounds can only succeed through the fruits of their hands. Both views are out of touch with the real potential of young people.
I am not suggesting for one minute that core knowledge is not important. Clearly, engineering cannot be grasped without the fundamentals of Maths. All subjects are nigh impossible without a grounding in English.
Addressing this inequality requires a cultural shift, deeper than educational reform can achieve alone. But we would go some way to addressing this divide by reflecting the broad ecology of skills and knowledge in our curriculum, reforming the way we measure performance, and ensuring we have a balanced system of appraisal.
If we are to address the wider inequalities in society, we should stop separating our children into sheeps and goats.
We have to address the other divisions and fragmentation in education.
The landscape in education is very different today form when I last spoke to the NEEC in 2005 and it will be even more so in 2015. Since May 2010, we have seen a proliferation of academies and Free Schools.
A system that some fear is atomised. With a lack of local accountability.
In the name of increased school autonomy, the Government is centralising school accountability. This might work with 200 academies, but it won’t with several thousand.
So Labour will also consider the benefit of school commissioners to address the democratic deficit that all new schools are accountable to central government alone.
As part of this discussion, I am keen to include a positive, strategic role for local government in supporting and improving schools.
But while structural reform is important, it is not the most important element. Dylan William and others have illustrated the far more transformative effect of improving teacher quality.
There is far too much divisive dogma in educational debate, particularly when it comes to structures.
So rather than a hackneyed debate between those who think education is being privatised and those who seek to free schools from the deadening hand of council bureaucrats, I will seek a grown up, evidence based discussion of how we can reach the next level in educational excellence.
To put it another way, my three priorities for education, are evidence, evidence, evidence.
This Government is too focused on certain pet projects. There is a risk that by focusing too narrowly on specific structures, its programme fails in its reach.
So I have pledged that Labour will put the classroom at the centre of our debate on the future of the education system.
At the heart of a successful classroom is a confident and inspirational teacher.
We took steps in Government to raise the quality and status of teachers and the teaching profession, by expanding numbers and bringing in bright graduates. Whenever I visit a school, I am impressed by the dedication and passion of most teachers. Too often, politicians have contributed to an environment which is hostile to teachers. A century on, let us finally lay to rest George Bernard’s Shaw’s appalling dictum, “those who can’t, teach”.
This is the best generation of teachers, but there are still too many poor or average teachers.
And too many examples of poor or average teaching. A recent Ofsted report found that only 3% of teaching in secondary schools and 4% in primary schools is rated as outstanding. And at the same time, only one in five teachers who have been accused of incompetence have been sacked and only 17 teachers struck off for incompetence in the last decade.
If heads say there are barriers to getting rid of poor teachers, the Government must not hesitate to address them.
At the same time, we must raise standards of teaching.
In my experience, the biggest critics of bad teaching are good teachers.
Which leads naturally to the argument for peer led performance measures.
I will be talking to teachers and heads about how peer-led reviews might fit into the assessment framework. Continual assessment of teachers throughout their careers is crucial for the quality of the teaching they deliver.
At Lilian Baylis Technology School in Lambeth, the head Gary Phillips has employed a former Ofsted inspector to assess performance on a continual basis. Gary’s expectation is that all teaching in his school will be Good or Outstanding. I want to learn from examples like his to see if this practice can be spread across the system.
There is also a divide that for many children began before they even entered the classroom. I am aware of and have visited some excellent examples of how we can seize the initiative to address this divide.
Whether it is dedicated reading recovery rooms to promote literacy in primary schools, critical early year’s provision in Sure Start centres to give young people in deprived areas the best start in life, or other early intervention programmes like the X-it programme in Lambeth which helps young people at risk of becoming gang members, there is clearly far more to supporting children get the best start in life that what happens inside the school gates.
I have visited some fantastic schools too. Perry Beeches in Birmingham, Elton Comprehensive in Bury, Cuckoo Hall in Enfield, the City Academy in Norwich to name but four.
There are some shared characteristics that the best schools espouse
- An ethos of community and responsibility
- Effective engagement with parents and the local community
- A culture of discipline
- Rigor and excellence at the heart of the school
- Creativity and innovation
- And a focus on the role of the school in preparing children for the world of work
Education and the world of work
I am a passionate believer in the intrinsic good of education and education as a driver of social and economic progress. For me, these twin aims set out the purpose of what we should be seeking to create from our school system: active citizens and active drivers of social and economic development in our communities.
Schools and the state have a responsibility to make sure that we do not leave this to chance. Employers agree.
So the final divide I want to talk about today is that between school and the world of work, which partly stems from the artificial division of children at different ages.
Ken Robinson has correctly argued that the second pillar of our education system that sits alongside the Enlightenment is the value set of 19th century economics, and the Industrial Revolution.
On a conceptual level, many schools are still organised like factories. The workers down tools when they hear the bell ring, and are strictly separated into production lines, focussed on building the constituent parts of knowledge, Maths, Science etc. At the same time, students are rigidly separated. Taught in batches, not by ability or interest, but by their own date of manufacture.
On a practical level, the origins of early years’ education grew from the need to produce suitable labour for mass production – with pioneers such as the philanthropist and early co-op pioneer Robert Owen providing schools in the mills of New Lanarkshire.
While noble in its origins, this 19th century form of industrial education feels distinctly ill at ease with the demands of a modern, globalised economy, which demands collaboration, innovation, entrepreneurship, and an appreciation that developing value comes not from a more efficient forms of production, but more skilled ones.
The CBI’s John Cridland argues that for young people to have a chance in the labour markets of today, we require nothing less than a revolution in the way schools and colleges prepare people for work.
A recent study by the CBI reports that employers believe the school to work transition is not working. The research found that of employers surveyed, the proportion of their work force that left school at 16 that was ‘poorly or very poorly prepared for the work place’ was just under a third.
To address this divide, I am today announcing that we will establish a review into education and the world of work.
Led by the former Select Committee chairman, Barry Sheerman MP, the ‘School to Work’ review will take evidence from teachers, parents, businesses and universities, and look at international best practice to consider how we maintain our economic competitiveness, and support future growth.
We must look at the evidence and see what is working and where action is needed, particularly in relation to getting young people ready for employment.
A number of schools I have visited since my appointment have taken the initiative in this area.
Like King Solomon’s Academy in North London and Perry Beeches secondary school in Birmingham. At both of these schools, the school day has been lengthened. In lengthening the school day, young people are getting a better perspective of the expectations upon them following the transition from school to the work place.
I am interested in exploring school-led initiatives such as this. A longer school day appears to be a smart way forward for a number of reasons.
First, for secondary pupils it would mean getting used to a worklike timetable. A long hours culture has its drawbacks, but how many employers expect their workers to leave the office at 3.30pm?
Second, a longer day can be progressive in nature. Too many pupils who suffer from poor housing conditions struggle to find a quiet place to study or do their homework. Providing a longer school day will give these students a haven away from what in some cases can be chaotic and troublesome home lives.
Third, it can take young people, quite literally, off the streets. Numerous studies have shown that gang activity is often most prevalent in the hours immediately after schools close, and providing longer school based activities may prevent some from getting into trouble.
Some schools and academies that have extended their day have also extended their GCSE programme to last three years – a realisation that effective collaboration must reflect a pupils’ stage, not their age and enabling both academic and practical learning.
Schools like Perry Beeches are offering Key Stage 4 over three years; ensuring that pupils have the best opportunity to develop a strong foundation in Maths and English and for progression in other areas of the curriculum.
Collaboration will be at the heart of Labour’s School to Work agenda.
School partnerships played an important part in our reform agenda when in Government. From the Specialist Schools programme to Labour’s Academy programme, schools were encouraged to seek the benefits of partnerships. Under Labour, academy status was subject to schools forming a partnership with a sponsor. Going forward, in thinking about the role of partnerships, I am very interested to learn about the existing practice in schools and businesses working in partnership to improve the work readiness of pupils.
Evidence from a Business in the Community (BiTC) initiative has identified some crucial factors for partnerships that promote the sustainable foundations of employability
- They must be locally business-led partnerships;
- They must develop meaningful work experiences for young people; and
- Schools and businesses must work together on a long term basis
Business in the Community argues that centrally driven prescriptions are not the answer. We should listen carefully to the evidence in shaping how government can play its role in supporting school-business partnerships.
The CBI recently published some interesting ideas on the role of the education system in getting young people ready for the world of work. They advocate a ‘School Employability’ scheme, measuring schools performance in relation to employability across a range of indicators, which could include:
- successful participation across work experience placements;
- careers advice;
- curriculum content; and
- training in areas such as project work and presentation skills.
I have already seen excellent examples of schools doing all of these things.
On careers advice and guidance, we have seen the Government remove the face-to-face requirement. But I have also seen schools taking on the mantle, like Cardinal Heenan School in my constituency, which hosts industry days with local businesses. There is of course Future First, a brilliant organisation that many of you will have heard of, which takes successful alumni back to their former schools to speak to pupils about their careers options.
The evidence suggests that face-to-face guidance facilitated by someone from outside of the school makes a big impact on the effectiveness of careers guidance.
Technology and ICT
If we are to make this shift from a 19th century factory based model of learning, to 21st century hubs of innovation, I believe schools must embrace technology as vital tool of learning.
I have seen schools that do this incredibly effectively. I visited The City Academy in Norwich last Autumn, which has had a huge upturn in results and attainment in recent years. With specialisms in ICT and English, they have a dedicated technology suite, equipped with the latest Macbooks, where I saw children engaged in online research, blog writing and commenting on each others’ posts. The use of technology promotes enjoyment, often facilitating the most effective style of learning, when pupils aren’t even aware they are being ‘taught’. In Norwich they have pinned up QR codes across the school, so pupils can take part in an educational treasure hunt through the school corridors. And I even had the chance to be quizzed by future Jeremy Paxmans, as two Year 7s put me through my interview paces in their video editing facility.
Equipping children to deal with the demands of the modern world means facing it head on. That might mean lessons in how to keep yourself safe online, it might mean an understanding of the way advertisers and other media providers can sometimes amend and distort reality, it might mean learning how to design and programme video games, to support Britain’s £1bn flagship industry.
Technology can be a cost effective solution too. I am a great lover of books. I know and understand the romantic attachment to the smell and feel of paper.
But do we always need to buy expensive textbooks for every child? Would learning not be enhanced and resources saved if core parts of the curriculum could be taught through interactive and stimulating media delivered via an iPad or a Kindle?
So we must embrace the information society. As I said at the time, the Ofsted report in December on ICT in schools shows that our computer teaching is simply not up to standard. For too many pupils, computer teaching can be little more than a glorified typing course.
The fact that the overall effectiveness of ICT teaching is only satisfactory or poor in nearly two thirds of all secondary schools in England is not good enough. We need far more rigour in ICT teaching, with higher quality training, higher standards and continual assessment of what pupils are being taught.
Pupils need to have an opportunity to understand the mechanisms and coding behind computer programmes. Learning how to type on a wordprocessor, enter data into a worksheet or design a powerpoint presentation is not sufficient. Effective ICT learning must be that, not just a replacement for what used to be delivered by employers.
If the UK is to maintain its competitiveness and educate a new generation of Alan Turings we need to develop programming skills, as well as an understanding of the links between computing, maths and science.
Literacy and Numeracy
On Literacy and Numeracy, our efforts in Government delivered significant gains in attainment. At Key Stage 2, 80% of pupils achieved level 4 or better in English in 2010, compared to 63% in 1997. 80% of children achieved level 4 in mathematics in 2010, compared to 62% in 1997.
But still too many children are leaving the education system without the basics in numeracy and literacy. Whilst progress had been made over the past decade, 18% of children leave primary school below the level of expectation in literacy, and 20% below the expected level in numeracy. 40,000 attained grade F or below in English at GCSE in 2011, and 100,000 young people attained grade F or below in Maths.
It is appalling that the Government removal of the funding ring fence means 9,000 fewer vulnerable children will receive one-to-one support to help them learn to read and write. This is despite the fact that analysis carried out by the Department of Education showed that the ‘Every Child a Reader’ programme, which includes ‘Reading Recovery’ support has made a significant difference to the ability of children to read and write.
Again, too much of the debate on reading and writing is dominated by dogma – the divide of phonics versus traditional methods.
Phonics is an incredibly impressive system, and I have seen it work effectively in schools like Cuckoo Hall. But some children benefit from other approaches, it just doesn’t work, which is where schemes like ‘reading recovery’ to help those at risk of falling behind come in.
Jayne Kennedy, Head Teacher of Barlow Hall Primary School in Manchester, put it this way:
“This programme made a real difference to vulnerable pupils who left with much higher reading and writing skills than they might otherwise have had. In today’s competitive world of work, these skills can be the difference between success and failure. We are worried that as budgets tighten, funding for this kind of critical specialist support will dry up. The reduction in the number of teachers undertaking Reading Recovery nationally is of real concern.”
Ministers should not see one type of learning as a catch all for improving standards for all.
The Government is reviewing the National Curriculum. I have written to the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, proposing that Government and Opposition work together to form a cross-party consensus on a lasting National Curriculum.
Rigorous Literacy and Numeracy must be at the very heart of the National Curriculum and I am encouraged by signs that the Government shares this view.
Numeracy and Literacy are the foundations of an education that prepares young people for the world of work.
In December I welcomed the report of the Government’s Independent Expert Panel, a serious piece of work, commissioned with the task of providing an evidence-based report on a new National Curriculum. Evidence must form the basis for reforms to the National Curriculum; both in its composition and in its content.
Finally, we must develop in our young people what some call ‘soft skills’. In fact, these are not soft at all – the private sector has been effectively churning out pupils for years with presentation skills. It is precisely these skills which have helped private school students to access the top universities.
The ability to interview well, good use of grammar and effective writing styles, the ability to target a message to a particular audience, produce appealing CVs and memos, to dress in a way appropriate for the world of work is critical for future success and progression.
As well as preparing young people for University interviews, the development of these skills is an obvious first rung on the career ladder. If we think about the way we work, how much is about the ability to regurgitate learned facts and memorise information, and how much is about the ability to effectively disseminate and present information to an audience?
These skills can be delivered in different ways of course. Through PSHE or citizenship lessons, or by being integrated into the traditional core subjects. However schools implement the ‘soft skills’ agenda, it must not be an afterthought.
Whilst public spending will remain squeezed, we mustn’t believe those who tell us that schools cannot deliver the quality of rounded education that we would want for our children. Because if we do, those divides that I spoke of earlier will only further entrench and enhance the outcomes of our education system.
When we prepare children for the world of work, and to become socially well adjusted members of society, it must be in schools that are built and designed around the needs of the 21st century economy, protecting our cultural norms in a globalised world, not predicated on an 18th and 19th Century view of enlightened industrialism.
Part of the answer to this paradigm shift will come from leadership.
I know when I visit a school that has good leadership, from the classroom to the board of governors, you cannot miss it. Leadership installs discipline, rigour and a conducive learning environment. More than anything, leadership drives passion in education and inspiration.
So politicians must take a lead, but where real success will take root is the through the leadership you all show, day in and day out, to fulfil the potential of all your students.
So I thank you for your leadership and your hard work, and for listening to me today.