By Joseph Willits
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The Prime Minister began by highlighting the need to be “ambitious”, both for economic and social reasons. He said that “any complacency right now would be fatal for our prosperity”, making comparisons with educational advancement and priority in India and China. Probably with reference to the recent riots, he stressed that education was also key to mending Britain’s broken society:
“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.”
Cameron set out his determination to set out a clear vision for education, contrary to a past of politicians being “bogged down in a great debate about how we get there”. He said that “it’s clear what works. Discipline works. Rigour works. Freedom for schools works. Having high expectations works.”
Here are the three points that he set out in the main part of his speech:
“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.”
He defended the decision for the creation of free schools, suggesting it was a “bold policy” and like any other bold policy, “free schools are not without their critics”. He described them as being “accountable to each and every parent who decides to send their child there”.
The Prime Minister emphasised the role that parents play in much of his speech, suggesting that free schools would give “frustrated” parents “a new chance of a better education”. The case in favour of free schools, however, is not solely about parental choice, but is part of a wider scheme to improve the eduation system, in that “they also encourage existing schools in the area to compete and raise their game.” The changes made to current structures, and a significant increase in standards, would have “a profound impact across our education system”, he said. He also called for an end to the “patronising” attitudes with regards to certain, more deprived areas, that “some schools … will always be bad”, and in terms of educational standards this would be no longer an excuse.
Aside from free schools providing significant improvement to the educational system, Cameron raised more general educational issues about the standard of education, levels of literacy, and avoiding a brain drain by keeping and encouraging Britain’s brightest graduates. He quoted Michael Gove, who has said that "you cannot read to learn until you have learnt to read". Cameron talked of the ““wrong headed methods that have failed thousands of our children” and pledged to eliminate illiteracy by “making sure every school has the resources and every teacher the training – to deliver effective synthetic phonics teaching in the classroom”.
Cameron announced the expansion of the Teach First programme. This scheme has allowed for 772 graduates (200 up on last year) to start working at schools across the country this term, as evidence to show the Government’s determination to make sure that the best graduates were offered employment in British shools. Cameron also announced that, as an incentive to encourage new maths and science teachers, £20,000 bursaries would be made available to those with first class degrees.
In what was probably the most controversial element of the speech, Cameron raised the possibility of strict measures to control and maintain discipline in Britain’s schools. The social policy review has been asked to explore the possibility of cutting the benefits of parents with truant children, another proposal to emphasise the role of parents in education more generally. Cameron described this as a “tough measure” but said that “we urgently need to restore order and respect in the classroom and I don’t want ideas like this to be off the table.”
Other measures to be introduced in classrooms would be the ability to search students and confiscate items such as mobile phones, video cameras and blackberries, and any other item banned under specific school rules. Teachers would be given the power to implement such searches. Cameron also insisted on the need for clarity with regards to physical intervention from teachers, a previous grey area. Cameron said “no school should have a ‘no touch’ policy”.