Nowhere is the case for reform in this country more urgent than education. In the last ten years we have slipped down the international league tables, with England dropping from 4th in the world for the quality of our science education to 14th, 7th in the world for the quality of children’s literacy to 17th, and 8th in the world for mathematics to 24th.
At the same time the gulf between the educational opportunities enjoyed by the wealthiest and those open to the poorest has grown wider. Every year the poorest children in our schools, those eligible for free school meals, fall further and further behind their contemporaries. In the last year for which we have figures, out of 80,000 children eligible for free school meals just 45 got to Oxford or Cambridge. That is an offence against any idea of equal opportunity, a massive waste of talent, and telling evidence that social mobility has stalled under Labour.
Our teachers are working harder than ever, our students are worked harder than ever, but the system Labour presides over just isn’t working, and it’s the poorest who’re suffering most.
It is because we are seized by the fierce urgency of the need to act now, that we have been outlining a series of policies over the last few days to reform our schools.
We have a comprehensive reform package which will improve discipline; give professionals more freedom from bureaucracy to concentrate on teaching; improve exams to make them more rigorous; open up state education to new providers so we can have a new generation of high quality smaller schools with smaller class sizes on the model of America’s KIPP schools; and overhaul our curriculum.
And last week we outlined the action we will take in each of these areas in more detail.
On Sunday, the front of the Express carried our policies on giving teachers more power to deal with violent and disruptive pupils and our plans to protect teachers better – ideas that I repeated that day to Spring Forum in Brighton. Other papers (e.g. the News of the World) reported our new figures showing about 1,000 pupils are expelled or suspended for physical and verbal assaults every school day.
On freeing professionals from bureaucracy
On Monday, the front page of the Telegraph previewed our event with about 200 heads of Outstanding schools at which I announced: a) an immediate Bill to allow the expansion of the Academy programme; b) freedom for all Outstanding schools from Ofsted inspections; c) freedom for all schools to apply for Academy freedoms (i.e. particularly freedom from the National Curriculum and freedom over pay and conditions) with Outstanding schools pre-approved.
On making exams more rigorous
On Tuesday I gave a speech at the Royal Society announcing: a) all state schools will be allowed to do the international GCSE or the old O Level (still set in Cambridge and sat around the world but not Britain) from September 2010; b) we will restore the reputation of A Levels by getting politicians out of the business of writing their content and structure; c) we will rewrite the National Curriculum in English, Maths and Science in the first year, in particular so that all pupils have the chance to study the three separate sciences, which they do not now; d) I raised questions about where we should go next with the Curriculum to keep our country competitive – for example, given the way in which 'normal distribution' and discussion of randomness and prediction permeates every aspect of public policy, should it be included in the GCSE syllabus…? The Telegraph covered the speech on page 1 the next day.
On getting a new generation of high quality smaller schools with smaller class sizes
On Wednesday, the New Schools Network hosted an event for over 200 parents and teachers who had travelled from around the country to discuss our plans in detail. They included:
- The mum of three from Kirklees who has held marches and demonstrations of thousands of people to campaign for a new school for their local community.
- The deputy head teacher from Bedford whose dream has always been to set up a school and can’t understand why this Government won’t let him.
- The group of parents in Wandsworth – officially the bottom of the choice table when it comes to secondary schools – who have had over 1,200 people sign their petition for a new school.
- The Hindu community leader who wants to start Hindu schools across the country.
- The established organisations such as Teach First, Teaching Leaders, and Future Leaders many of whose high quality alumni want to set up their own new schools.
I took questions from an audience that was, fascinatingly, better informed on our school policy than any think tank event I've done in three years. If you were in that room that night you could be in no doubt that there are teacher and parent groups desperate for new schools. This is just the start – the movement is now growing every day at grassroots level. Wednesday’s event was a milestone for school choice.
On Thursday, the Spectator published pieces by me and Rachel Wolf, the brilliant founder of the New Schools Network, and hosted a Conference on our policy with some of the foremost experts in the world, who made clear the huge weight of academic evidence for how parent choice improves standards from the Chicago ghetto to Alberta to Sweden. This coincided with us publishing new figures showing how Labour has closed schools and made remaining schools bigger (Mail; Telegraph).
On Friday and Saturday, I did various interviews: the FT explored the role of the private sector in our plans; the Times explored my speech on the Curriculum (story, interview); and CityAM ran a leader on my comments re the financial crisis, statistics and maths education.
The purpose of this week was to show that there is no magic bullet to improve standards in our schools; we need action on a broad front.
We must give teachers the powers they need to keep order. We must extend freedoms particularly over pay and conditions. We must extend school choice to end the scandal of rationing good schools by house price. We must stop politicians devaluing the exam system and we must rewrite the National Curriculum in a way that fits with the global trend of building from dispersed wisdom.
And because I believe in so much in the wisdom of crowds I’d be really interested in any thoughts you have on where we should go next – either posted in the thread below or sent to me via this email address.