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Howard: Education - the key to opportunity

Speech at the Welsh Conservative Party Conference in Cardiff

"I want to thank everyone here who works so hard for the Conservatives in Wales. Bill Wiggin. And Nick Bourne and his team, officially the hardest working Assembly Members in Wales. And all our local councillors and activists.

I've been Leader of the Opposition now for sixteen months. During that time I've enjoyed something Mr Blair can only dream of: a united party, driven by principle, fighting a positive campaign on the issues that really matter to people.

Conservatives: Setting the Agenda

For months we've been setting the agenda - not just for the election, but for government itself. We've taken people's priorities to heart. And now, after eight years in power, it's Mr Blair who's out of touch and out of sync with the aspirations of the British people.

There is a desperate longing across our country for a change of direction. You hear it from people in your communities. I hear it everywhere I go.

This year we've offered hope to hard-pressed Britons who've seen their taxes rise with so little to show for it. Oliver Letwin has set out a detailed, costed, principled plan to give people value for money and lower taxes.

Families work hard for their money and they deserve to keep more of it. So a Conservative Government will cut taxes.

We've offered hope to millions of pensioners struggling to make ends meet because of Mr Blair's punishing stealth taxes.

David Willetts has set out a detailed, fair, principled plan to increase the State Pension by £11 a week - giving pensioners the dignity, independence and self respect they deserve. To those who have given us so much, we must surely give what is their due.

We've offered hope to the millions of Britons - whatever their background, whatever the colour of their skin - who worry that immigration is out of control and want to see sanity restored to the system.

David Davis has set out a detailed, practical, principled plan to get immigration under control. In Britain, fair play matters. People deserve a government that upholds the rules - not one that turns a blind eye when they are abused.

So a Conservative Government will set an annual limit to immigration, bringing it back under control. We'll introduce health checks for people who want to settle in Britain so we protect our public health. And there'll be 24 hour security at our ports to get a grip on the immoral and inhumane trade in illegal immigration.

Mr Blair: Synthetic Anger

So the next election is crucially important for our nation - for all these reasons and more. Because Conservatives don't just offer a change of management style or personnel, important though they are. We have a different set of values from this Government. We will restore principle to government. And we're driven by anger: genuine, justified, moral anger at the way in which the people who work hardest, play fairest and give most are let down.

Not the synthetic anger Mr Blair turns on for the TV cameras every time people dare to question or criticise his Government. His arrogance is breathtaking, his attitude unbelievable. Mr Blair really thinks it's all about talk. That clever lines and carefully crafted sound bites are enough. Well they're not. Good government is about action and accountability.

In the coming weeks, there'll be one phrase we'll hear from Mr Blair again and again:

"It's time to move on."

Every time anyone hears him say "time to move on" they should sit up and listen hard. It's a sure sign there's something Mr Blair doesn't want noticed, doesn't want questioned, doesn't want probed. In fact, he uses it as a "get out of jail free" card to escape what he hates more than anything else - being held accountable.

Accountability makes Mr Blair angry. Well Mr Blair - come polling day you're going to be very angry indeed. Because each and every day, from now until May 5th, we're going to hold you to account for the money you've wasted, for the promises you've broken and for the contempt you've shown for the office you hold.

Whenever I hear Mr Blair speak he reminds me forcefully why I joined the Conservative Party. I grew up in South Wales. Labour was the Establishment then, as it is the Establishment now. It took power, and people, for granted. Its ideology was simple. Get to the back of the queue. Take what you're given. And know your place.

It guaranteed stagnation with all the precision of a chemical formula. And I knew in my heart it was wrong - not just for me, but for all those people who relied most on the State and were the most badly let down.

Now, years later, our country has made massive strides. We have great industries, world-beating scientists, companies with global reach, creative geniuses who rank with the best. Just walk around Cardiff Bay. And we are a remarkably tolerant, welcoming, open people who pull together in a crisis. As I well know. But it is still the case, under Labour rule, that those who rely most on the State are the most badly let down.

It saddens me profoundly that crime, which hits the poorest in our society the hardest, should have risen, turning pensioners into prisoners in their own homes.

It disappoints me that a government which introduced the minimum wage should make people who work just 20 hours a week on the minimum wage liable to Income Tax.

It angers me that the frail and the vulnerable - young and old - run risks with their lives when they go into hospital because they could pick up an infection which kills them.

And it angers me too when I hear stories like Margaret Dixon's - a pensioner facing a life threatening operation who had to say goodbye to her family seven times because her operation was cancelled seven times.

She'd written to John Reid and received no reply. But I did raise her case - and within hours she got a new date for her operation.

Mr Blair tried to pretend that Margaret Dixon's case was an exception. But 67,000 operations were cancelled last year - 10,000 more than five years ago. And it's happening because so much of the money Mr Blair spends on the NHS is wasted on bureaucracy.

Families like the Dixons work hard, they pay their taxes and they deserve value for money.

This morning we learn that John Reid intends to fine hospitals that cancel operations. What planet is he living on?

It's not the hospitals that are at fault - it's his system. It's not the hospitals that need to be fined - it's his centralised system that needs to be changed.

It's the bureaucracy that needs to be slimmed down. It's the Whitehall targets that need to scrapped. It's the doctors and nurses that need to be put back in charge.

That's the way to deliver the world class health care that Britain needs and deserves.

Timetable for Action

It is my mission to right these wrongs. I have distilled that mission into five commitments. Cleaner hospitals. School discipline. Lower taxes. More police. Controlled immigration.

And there's one more: accountability. Because a Conservative Government won't just make a difference, we'll be different. We have a Timetable for Action. What we'll do, when we'll do it. It will put us on the line like no government before.

But driving those five commitments is something more: a passion for our country; a conviction that Britain can be made so much better, if only we are true to our values and trust the people; and a determination to ensure that decent, hard working, law abiding people - the forgotten majority - are given the Government they deserve.

Education: The Key to Opportunity

My driving ambition is to give people real opportunity - the opportunity to make a success of their life. And education is the key to opportunity.

I know. I come from an ordinary family. My parents ran a clothes shop in Llanelli. We didn't have any special privileges. But we were lucky enough to live in a town with a first class state school.

At Llanelli Grammar School, discipline was at a premium. Teachers were respected. We all learnt the basics. Ambition, excellence and hard work were encouraged.

It was the best start any child could have in life - and ever since I have been grateful not just to my old school, but to my country, to Wales, for the wonderful opportunity it gave me. I know education is a devolved issue. But we are all Conservatives and we all share the same principles. And I want to talk about education - here in the country where I was educated so well. Fifty years on, I want everyone to have that quality of education.

And my goodness, we've got a very, very long way to go.

Teaching is a noble profession. Teachers simply want the satisfaction - the sheer joy - of inspiring the next generation, and of passing on that most precious commodity, knowledge. Of course we know that in some schools, thanks to the commitment of inspired heads and dedicated, hardworking teachers, standards are rising. But despite all the millions of pounds that have been spent, one in three children leave primary school unable to write properly.

Lack of discipline is a real and growing problem. And the whole system lacks ambition. A pass grade for a Maths GCSE is now as low as 16 per cent. You get four out of five questions wrong and you still pass.

When I travel round the country, perhaps the most heartbreaking sight I see is the children who've dropped out of school. Youngsters going off the rails - each of them a story of lost opportunity, but also a warning of the kind of country Britain will become if we don't change direction. Let's be clear - the quality of Britain's education system today, will determine our success as a society tomorrow.

If children don't learn respect for authority in class, they're much less likely to respect others when they grow up. If youngsters aren't taught to read or write properly at school, they'll find it that much tougher to get a job when they leave - so the chances of their getting into crime are that much higher. And if British companies can't recruit employees with the right skills, they'll find it even harder to compete.

How much longer are parents supposed to put up with an inadequate education system? How many more families are supposed to suffer as their dreams of a good local school slip away?

In 2003 in my first speech in this job I said that there would be no policy no-go areas for my party - that if something was tough but necessary I would say it. That's what I've done on immigration. And today I'm going to talk about education.

The problem, as I see it, is that our education system has been engulfed by a tide of political correctness. The rights culture, the "all must have prizes" culture, the culture that blurs the difference between right and wrong. All this has undermined teachers' authority in our classrooms and standards in our schools.

It's wrong to pretend that children are adults - they don't always know what's right for them. Children won't necessarily all want to learn their tables or how to spell - just as when they're given the choice between chips and pizza or healthy, nutritious food they're more likely to choose what they like, not what's good for them.

Education should be about giving children what's good for them. Many schools know that. Every school should.

First, there's discipline. Children can only learn in a structured safe, environment. A Conservative Government will give head teachers back control over their classrooms - they'll have the final say on expulsions. Inclusion at all costs is wrong and it's failed. I will not allow the so-called rights of a disruptive minority to ruin the education of the majority.

Next, standards. School discipline and standards are two sides of the same coin. If a child leaves primary school unable to read or write properly, how can we expect them to engage in lessons at secondary school? And if bright kids aren't intellectually challenged, is it any wonder they get bored and cause trouble?

Guess which class children are most likely to misbehave in? Citizenship. I'll tell you how children learn to become responsible citizens: by learning respect for authority and the importance of discipline in school; by being taught about history, about Britain's past and her traditions; by getting a decent education and with it the chance of a successful career.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority recently launched a national debate into the teaching of English.

The challenge, apparently, is to "engage a wide range of people in a national conversation … to embrace new thinking, priorities and technologies … whilst acknowledging the range of newer informal writing". You know what they're getting at don't you - teaching children text messaging as part of an English lesson.

And history is now as much about empathy as learning what actually happened, when and why. I want your children to learn at school, not to ponder, endlessly and excruciatingly, how it might have felt to be a particular historical character.

Imagine being Anne Boleyn. You're about to have your head chopped off - and how do you feel about it? Not great I suppose - but that's hardly the point. Children are at school to learn.

My teachers inspired me with their love of learning. We studied subjects that were, and are, worth studying: maths, literature, foreign languages. Now these subjects fight for space in the timetable.

To question any aspect of our education system is to be accused of undermining the achievements of students and their teachers; of demoralising those we should congratulate; of hankering after some elitist past. It's just like being condemned as a racist for wanting to limit immigration.

But it's none of these things. It's about facing up to the truth.

So we're going to take action to raise standards in schools, and today I have an important announcement to make.

A Conservative Government will, in its first month, start a top to bottom review of the national curriculum.

We'll slim it down so teachers don't have so much paperwork.

We'll review tests, GCSEs and A Levels to restore public confidence in our education system.

And we'll root out political correctness, replacing it with the building blocks of knowledge that are essential to give every child their birthright: a decent education.

And I'm delighted to announce that our review will be carried out by someone who's been an indefatigable champion of higher standards and less political correctness in our schools for a very long time: Chris Woodhead.

Education is, for me, more than a policy area, it's a passion.

A passion rooted deep in my own experience - my own education.

I know that every child is good at something. The challenge of education is to unlock the individual talents that each child has within them.

So I say to parents - whatever your background, however you've voted for in the past: if you want a school that will insist on proper discipline in the classroom; if you want a school that will stretch and motivate its pupils irrespective of their ability; if you want a school that does your child proud - come and join us.

My party shares your values, and the government I lead will act upon them. Our aim will be to help you, and the millions of families like yours, who are the backbone of Wales.

I know these families. Independent, individual, and determined, they are not rich, but they are proud: proud of their self-reliance; proud that they have a home of their own; and proud that they have given their children chances in life they never had. And their hopes? Quite simple: they aspire to a better life for themselves, their families and their community.

My priorities are their priorities. Not the priorities of the trade unions, not the priorities of big business, not the priorities of the pen pushers, but the priorities of the millions of people who work hard, every day, to bring up their families and make their lives that bit better.

Bringing up a family can be tough. It can be a struggle. But this Government isn't doing enough to help. Find a problem that a family faces, and Mr Blair describes it as an "exception".

Well there are millions of "exceptions" in Britain today - the countless families let down by this Government. The families worried about school discipline, about dirty hospitals, about the mayhem in our towns every Friday night - I am on their side.

Unlike you, the Government I lead won't just talk about these problems. We'll act. And our actions will send clear messages. Respect and discipline matter. People should be helped to support themselves and their families. Initiative and success should be rewarded.

These are values that run with the grain of the British character. They make possible what I have called the British Dream. The British Dream which enables anyone, whatever their backgrounds, to go as far as their talents will take them. The British Dream which unleashes the drive, the energy and the enterprise of the British people to the glorious benefit of each and every one of us.

Together, we can make that dream a reality. We've got just over 60 days to make our case. 60 days to show how we'll restore principle and common sense to government. 60 days to make sure that our values prevail. I know we can do it - and for the sake of our country we must."

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