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Duncan Smith: Labour's corrosive 'dumbing down' of education

Speech to the Bow Group at the Armoury, Honourable Artillery Company, London

I am delighted to be speaking tonight to the Bow Group at its Annual Dinner.

When the Group was set up in 1951 the future MP Peter Emery wanted it to be "an effective counter to the Fabian Society".

Over the last 50 years it has well exceeded that expectation.

It has informed many important party debates, and it is has helped launch the careers of several Conservative stars -- Peter Lilley, Geoffrey Howe, and Michael Howard among them.

Today, my colleagues and I very much value the work you are doing.

Several members of my frontbench are attending your meetings this spring, and you have forged close links with my office's Policy Unit -- to the point where Jocelyn is now working there on our plans for community government and healthcare.

I am sure that he and many other Bow Group members will continue to play an important role in the Conservative Party's process of policy renewal.

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Tonight, by way of emphasising how important it is that we succeed together, I want to talk to you about the issue that will do much to define the future of our country: the state of education in our country.

If our education system were one of our own children, I think that, as parents, even the most indulgent of us would be pretty worried by now.

Our first instinct might be to excuse its more obvious shortcomings, trumpet every small success, and try to explain away its most serious failures.

But eventually we would have to face facts:

From our universities to our primary schools,

we are letting down our future as a nation.

Even our leading universities are struggling to maintain themselves among the world's best.

Yet access to higher education beyond the middle classes is no better now than it was 40 years ago!

There is widespread unease that public examinations in our schools have become devalued.

Yet there is a growing gap between the results achieved by inner-city pupils, and those elsewhere.

With great fanfare, the Government established literacy and numeracy strategies for our primary schools.

Yet every fourth child leaves primary school unable to read, write and count properly.

These problems in our system of education have two factors in common.

Last week my colleague Damian Green addressed the first of these: over-centralisation.

And he reminded us that it was Labour's last Prime Minister who first articulated the natural desire to see a basic curriculum with universal standards properly taught in all our schools.

Under the present Labour Prime Minister, this idea has become entirely debased.

So much so, indeed, that those very standards, and the teaching of that curriculum, have been badly undermined.

Over-centralisation is one cause of our educational malaise, but it is not the only one.

Jim Callaghan spoke out all those years ago because schools were failing to teach basic skills like reading, writing and mathematics. They were failing to instil self-respect, and respect for others.

And how had this happened? Because the Labour Party had introduced into our education system a notional egalitarianism that was meretricious, pernicious and corrosive.

And we are still stuck with it today.

So the time has come to launch another Great Education Debate.

As Conservatives we need to speak openly and honestly about the damage egalitarianism has done to our children and will go on doing unless we take the measures necessary to counter it.

At its simplest, egalitarianism means making our children more equal by dumbing-down our education system to the point where standards become meaningless because everyone can achieve them.

This means making exams less taxing or reducing the role of merit in determining admissions.

It means 'rigging' the system so that educational results depend less and less on the aptitude roster, and more and more on the socio-economic roster.

Because of that too many children in this country are still being told to expect less from their education but that that's okay -- because less is expected of them.

We have schools where teachers refuse to use red ink to correct pupils' homework for fear of undermining their self-esteem.

We have councils that patronise parents who want a better education for their children but have nowhere else to turn.

We have politicians and academics who condemn as 'elitist' all attempts to define and defend standards.

All this is done in the name of 'fairness' and 'social justice'.

These are laudable aims, and yet egalitarianism has proven neither fair nor just.

Those who can afford to - the middle classes, the articulate and the mobile - flee from its consequences by moving their children to better catchment areas or out of the state system altogether.

It is the families and the children they leave behind who end up paying the price for outdated and discredited educational theories as yet another generation of young people are short-changed.

And it is costing our country dear.

Last year more than 30,000 pupils left school without even a single GCSE to their name - an increase of more than a third in the last two years.

Standards in our inner city schools are worse than the

national average by almost any measure, and in many cases they are falling ever further behind.

As a 16 year old in a Northern city, you are 50% more likely to emerge from school without a GCSE than in the country as a whole.

In cities like Durham, and Newcastle, and Sheffield and Leeds, the number of school-leavers failing to obtain even a single GCSE is going up.

In Manchester, more than one in ten pupils fail to do so.

Labour say that the era of the 'bog-standard comprehensive' is over.

But the 'bog-standard' thinking that lay behind their creation is still very much with us.

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Conservatives must challenge that thinking.

We cannot achieve excellence, if no one is allowed to excel.

We cannot make progress in any area of human endeavour, unless we aspire to be the best and celebrate those who become the best.

It is only by following their example that we improve ourselves and our country.

Isaac Newton, the son of a farmer unable to sign his own name, put it best.

'If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants'.

In the pursuit of equality for its own sake lies the road to mediocrity.

True progress comes from promoting mobility, rewarding effort and challenging privilege.

That is why Conservatives believe in education based on excellence where men and women can succeed on their merits.

We want Britain to be the best:

Filled with the best scientists, the best artists, and the best technicians.

But also with the best engineers, the best mechanics and the best sportsmen and women.

That is why Conservatives oppose anti-elitism so strongly.

Only by giving all children the chance to strive for the best will any of them improve.

You do not open young minds by threatening to shut grammar schools.

You do not create opportunities for inner city pupils by destroying assisted places.

Our children need to be measured against the best, because that is what is best for all our children.

When people pay to educate their children privately, they do so because they want them to have a sense of discipline, a feeling of belonging, and the excitement of being stretched to the limits of their abilities.

That is what I want for all parents, whether they can afford to send their children to private schools or not.

No one in this country should have to apologise for striving for excellence. And under a Conservative Government they never will.

Real fairness in our society comes from challenging young people to work towards high standards wherever they live, whatever their parents earn.

So we must reform the culture of education as well as the way it is delivered if we are to give Britain's young people the opportunities they deserve.

That is our conviction and we must turn it into a reality.

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We must start with the fundamentals: with discipline and basic skills.

If we want the next generation to respect our laws, participate fully in our national life, and contribute to our prosperity, then we have to see that they are taught in schools that instil a sense of discipline, pride and respect for others.

Without these things, it is difficult to teach anything else … to anybody!

I was reading a piece in the Telegraph last week by Jonty Driver, who taught both here and in Southern Africa and was a very fine headmaster in his day.

Writing about the importance of good leadership in schools, he said: "The unhappiest children I even dealt with were those who had never been given a boundary. A close second… were those who had been told there were strict boundaries, but who discovered, when they then explored, that there were no patrols. Inevitably, they concluded that grown-ups didn't care. Children will happily put up with strictness from their teachers; what they insist on is the even-handedness of that strictness."

Any parent will tell you that children try to challenge and bend the rules.

They always have and they always will.

The key is for adults to defend the rules.

You may regard this as common sense, but many of our teacher training colleges do not.

There, egalitarianism reigns and with it a reluctance to teach children to read using proven methods or to uphold discipline.

The results are as depressing as they are inevitable.

Assaults on teachers have quadrupled over the past five years.

The one in four pupils who leave primary school unable to read, write and count are adding to the seven million adults in Britain classified as functionally illiterate and innumerate.

Head teachers need the power to enforce discipline in their own schools and to employ those who understand that their first job is to teach.

That is why Conservatives will hand back control of discipline policy to head teachers in schools - by scrapping the Appeals Panel procedure and allowing home-school contracts to be binding on parents.

More than this, we want local schools to develop their own distinctive character because this is what allows pupils and local communities to identify with them.

And that identity can only come through independence, which is why we will give all state schools who perform to minimum standards the opportunity to manage their own affairs.

The best way to drive up standards is to give teachers responsibility for results, and make them account to parents for those results.

I saw this with my own eyes this morning at Kobi Nazrul Primary School. There, in the heart of Tower Hamlets, they have excelled in teaching reading to pupils the majority of whom don't speak English before they go there.

There will, of course, be instances in which schools do not want to take that responsibility, or fail to discharge it properly.

In that case, what should we do?

In too many parts of our country, particularly our inner cities, parents have no choice but to make do with the local schools on offer.

They can wait for the next OFSTED report to tell them what they already know, or for their school to be taken into special measures by the Government.

But these parents know that their children are slipping further behind with each passing term; that the opportunity for their own children to get the education that they themselves were denied, is slipping away.

For a Party seriously dedicated to increasing opportunities for all our children, this is not a situation we can tolerate.

If local authorities cannot offer a decent education to children paid for by the state, Conservatives will find groups who can.

They may be charities, they may be faith-based organisations, they may be private companies.

Whatever the case, if a sufficient number of parents demands it, we will allow them to establish new schools, and to offer full state scholarships to inner city pupils.

These new schools will offer new hope to inner-city families. Beyond these areas, Conservatives will allow good schools to grow and let bad ones close.

Our policies will be about encouraging and rewarding success, not excusing and entrenching failure.

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We are also going to have to become more imaginative about recognising and responding to the individual aptitudes of children.

One of the most dangerous legacies of egalitarianism and the comprehensive ideal is the way our education system has made light of the differences between pupils rather than dealing with them properly.

Instead of dealing honestly with the shortcomings of the old system that set up grammar, secondary modern and technical schools after the War, egalitarian policy makers have abolished the distinction between academic, vocational and technical education altogether.

The result is to undermine all pupils, whatever their strengths.

Our vocational training is underdeveloped by European standards.

We spend more time worrying about its 'parity of esteem' with academic qualifications than on making sure that the training we offer is relevant to businesses and interesting to pupils.

It is small wonder that up and down the country 50,000 pupils are playing truant every day.

We need to develop a stronger vocational stream within our schools and to make it easier for pupils to switch between the vocational, or academic, or technical streams as their talents suggest.

Students appear to be working harder than ever for their GCSEs, their AS levels and their A levels, but public confidence in these qualifications seems lower than ever.

Academic reports suggest that while results have been improving, there has been little or no progress in actual standards.

Pupils spend term after term preparing for and sitting papers and yet employers and universities report growing gaps in the basic knowledge that workers and students display.

We must tackle the crisis in our exam system and rebuild the public confidence which has been shattered by this Government's ineptitude and neglect.

We will start by scrapping the AS levels, unloved by teachers, pupils and parents alike.

We will make the exam watchdog politically independent, like the Bank of England so that no Minister can ever again meddle with children's grades.

And we will restore the A level as the gold standard that parents, employers and students can count on once again.

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The egalitarian culture that dominates our education system is no more evident than in the debate over the future funding of higher education.

Our top institutions are losing out to places like Harvard and Yale in the global competition for academic staff and the research they undertake.

So our number of Nobel laureates is declining, as are the occasions on which British scientists are cited in academic journals.

Other institutions are struggling to establish or maintain decent academic standards, while vocational institutions have not received the support they need to develop non-academic courses.

The Government's response to this is to make the pressures still worse.

It has set an arbitrary target of sending half of our young people into higher education - whether or not they stand to benefit academically from the experience - and is now preparing to saddle graduates with tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt in order to pay for it.

In case that proves off-putting, Labour will establish an 'admissions czar' to ensure that students whose parents never went to college are fairly represented at our universities.

The share of the university population coming from poor backgrounds has remained unchanged since the early 1960s, even though the number of people going to university has increased by seven times.

In 1969 more than 60% of Oxford places went to state school pupils. More than 30 years later, in 2001, state pupils won only half the places at Oxford and Cambridge.

Top-up fees are unlikely to broaden the social mix of undergraduates, unless the Government forces universities to turn away academically-qualified candidates because they come from the wrong background.

If we want our higher education to be more inclusive, we need to improve standards in inner city schools so that a wider range of students can win university places on merit.

If we want more young people to continue their education after leaving school, we need to develop vocational education so that people can be given the skills our economy actually needs.

If we want to maintain standards, we need to revisit how we accredit some of the more exotic courses that some universities offer these days.

In short, if we want to enrich our higher education, we need a clear sense of direction.

Instead we get czars that universities don't want, targets that students don't want and degrees that employers don't want.

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Before the 1997 Election, Labour liked to argue that their priority was 'standards not structures'. It's a lovely soundbite, but unfortunately it is meaningless.

The history of the last 25 years is that you can't improve standards without addressing structures.

That is why we made schools accountable for what they taught through the National Curriculum, by creating OFSTED and publishing school league tables.

It is also why we created Grant Maintained Schools and City Technology Colleges, to give governors and head teachers the responsibility for results and parents greater choice over where they sent their children.

But it is equally true that you can't improve standards unless you can change the culture of anti-elitism within our education system.

Of all the post-war doctrines the Conservatives are currently challenging, egalitarianism is the one that makes me the most angry, because it is the cruellest and most destructive.

Designed and propagated to protect the most vulnerable in our society, egalitarianism has kept poor families poor.

It has undermined or destroyed many of the best schools in our country.

And in the process it has robbed successive generations of the will to succeed and the means to improve.

This is the generation where all that must stop.

This is the time when we have to demand the best of every child so that we can do the very best for them.

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