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Cameron: Higher quality education for all

Speech in Leeds

"Recently, I set out my principles, and those of my party, in a document called Built To Last. Anyone who wants to understand where I'm leading the Conservative party should read it. Today I'm going to talk about the application of Built To Last to a key area of policy. Education.

If we want a society that meets our material needs and fulfils our highest aspirations then education is one thing, above all others, we've got to get right.

A good education system is one of the cornerstones of a strong society in which individuals have the means to improve their own lives and make a contribution to the wider community.

If we look at Britain today there are plenty of good things happening in education.

But there are also lots of problems that we have to address before they get any worse.

The current system is failing our children.

Not all of them. Not all of the time.

But too many of them. Too much of the time.

A personal priority

Improving quality and standards in schools is, for me, both a political and personal obsession.

When, after the last election, Michael Howard asked me to be in his shadow cabinet I specifically requested the position of shadow education secretary.

I wanted the job because I believe that education holds the key to dealing with so many of the challenges we face as a society.

Some of these challenges are economic.

We live in an era where the growth of countries like China, India and Brazil mean we will have to fight harder to compete in the global market place.

Some of these challenges are social.

In Britain today social failure has replaced economic failure as the new British disease.

Whether it's family breakdown, teenage pregnancy or rates of drug and alcohol addiction the statistics prove that we are heading in the wrong direction.

Education is the solution to many of the ills of society.

My Conservatism is based on individual freedom and opportunity. Trusting people is one of my key values.

Education is more than simply a mechanism to make us all richer. It's a route to happiness and personal fulfilment. It's not surprising that education is a personal obsession for me.

I'm the father of three children and I think all the time about their schooling.

When it comes to education, I passionately want every child to have the opportunity to go to a good local school. But I also believe in choice.

We've already had to make a big choice as a family - sending our son Ivan to a state special school. And we had to fight hard to get him there - and to keep it open.

I don't judge others for the choices they make for their kids. It's a very personal thing.

We would like our daughter and sons to go to good state schools. But as a parent I'll always do what's right for them.

A political priority

And this is where the personal meets the political.

When it comes to good education, my duty is to be as determined and single minded as a politician as I am as a parent.

In this country, we spend more than 5% of our entire GDP on education. That's more than Germany, Italy and Australia. With spending at that level we should have a really world class education system. But we don't - and that's why we urgently need to start a proper debate on how to get one.

I spend a lot of time in schools.

And I see many, many good things. The growth of ICT. The wider availability of vocational courses. Dedicated teachers and teaching assistants.

But we're still a long way short of where we need to be.

An inadequate education system

Furthermore, the contrast between the best state schools and the worst ones is stark.

And the consequences of that gulf are increasingly disturbing.

Take London.

In some parts of our capital city up to half of parents choose to send their children to schools outside the borough.

And in others a significant number leave the state system altogether.

Many state school teachers prefer to send their own children to private schools. The best state schools in London are now massively oversubscribed, with up to 8 children chasing every space.

The same is true in too many of our cities.

Parents become involved in an increasingly frantic chase, moving house to be in the catchment areas of good schools or even uprooting the whole family and relocating to a different part of the country.

What makes me really angry is when some Labour Party MPs sneer that parents who go to great lengths to get their children into good schools are motivated by social snobbery.

That's rubbish. The vast majority simply want to ensure that their kids get a decent education.

They're being let down by the current system. And so, to an even greater extent, are those families left behind. Children who need the most help end up getting the least. These are the very people for whom a good education could be a ladder of opportunity to a better life. Yet our society condemns too many of them to a second rate education.

It shouldn't have to be that way. Eight years of Labour government have not ended this educational apartheid - and I want the Conservative party to point the way forward.

Creating more good schools

The task is simple - to create more good school places. I intend to lead the debate on improving quality and standards in all our schools. That's why I won't be distracted by calls to create a few new grammar schools. My focus is on the need to develop good local schools.

This isn't alchemy.The formula is straightforward.

Parents are clear about what they want from a school.

They want their children to be happy, safe and fulfilled.

To socialise and make friends.

And to achieve the best they can academically.

You know a good school when you see it:

Clean, properly maintained buildings.

Neat, well behaved pupils.

Caring, committed teachers.

A structured learning environment.

Strong values and leadership

But it's not enough to say these things.

My job is to show how it can be achieved.

A good school is one that has a laser-like focus on getting the basics right.

At Kobi Nazrul primary school in Tower Hamlets in London, the majority of children come from families where English isn't the mother tongue. Some of the children arrive speaking no English at all. Yet they all leave having learned it to the required standard. That's because the teachers use the proven method of synthetic phonics. If it can be done in the east end of London it can be done anywhere.

A good school is one that treats children as individuals.

For me, that means setting.

The idea of teaching a subject like French in a mixed ability class is crazy.

Some children may not even fully understand English, the medium of instruction, while others may have a real aptitude for learning languages. Throwing them in together helps no one.

We know from experience that bright pupils who aren't stretched can become as disruptive in the classroom as less able pupils who are left behind.

Setting is both educationally sound and consistent with the principle that we should never sacrifice potential by allowing the behaviour of a minority to disrupt the education of the majority.

I was very struck by that when I visited Bridgemary School in Gosport. A community college in a deprived ward, it had poor results.

A new head teacher ripped up the rule book, tested all children at 11, abolished year groups altogether and set in virtually every subject. The results have been excellent.

I made a point of talking to pupils in lower sets.

They were eager to tell me that they preferred being able to keep up with their classmates.

This anecdotal evidence is confirmed by a study by Jim Kulik of Michigan University.

His research demonstrates that's the self-esteem of those in lower attaining groups rises when they are set by ability rather than placed in mixed ability classes.

A good school is also one that's in control of its own destiny that determines its own staff, pay and priorities and manages its relationships with parents and pupils without being second guessed.

To me, as both parent and politician, this is absolutely vital. A school must be completely in control of discipline.

It must be somewhere children go to be taught and to learn, not a reception area for anyone, irrespective of how they behave.

That is why I favour home school contracts that are enforceable. Put simply if parents and children don't sign up to a code of behaviour and stick to it, they cannot attend.

The fear that your child's education is going to be sacrificed because of the bad behaviour of other children and the shrug of the shoulders from the authorities is one of the main things that drives parents into the farce of selection by house price or fleeing the state system altogether.

A good school is one that has real leadership.

There are many examples of that in my own constituency.

Combe Primary School hasn't got the best resources.

In fact when I visited more than 100 kids were still sharing only four loos and there were two prefab classrooms that have to be shut when the weather gets bad.

But the head is an inspirational figure - which is why the school gets the best results in the whole of southern England.

A good school has an ethos of excellence.

Of striving to be the best in every way it can - and encouraging children to be all they can.

The culture that says "don't try, because trying and failing isn't cool" is pervasive. It has to be challenged at every turn, in every way, in every school.

A good school has a common sense approach to special needs.

Hoping that children with profound and multiple learning difficulties will somehow absorb what other children are being taught in a classroom of 30 isn't inclusion, it's naivety.

Leaving children with severe behavioural problems in a mainstream class isn't inclusion, it's deeply damaging - to both sets of children.

I've been impressed by the new special needs schools that have been 'co-located' next to mainstream schools.

Inclusion for its own sake benefits no one.

Children with special needs should certainly be included wherever possible but also taught separately wherever necessary.

These, for me, are some of the key elements that make a good school.

Yet the extraordinary thing about government education policy is that it has made it - and is still making it - more difficult for schools to be all of these things.

There have been top-down instructions inhibiting school freedom. 15 pages of instructions each day which makes it harder to deliver quality, commonsense education to kids.

Schools have been forced to take badly behaved, disruptive pupils even now enforceable home school contracts are banned

We've seen the closure of special schools.

OFSTED has stopped collecting crucial statistics on setting and streaming.

Until recently instructions from the centre hampered the spread of synthetic phonics.

It's been made difficult for new schools to start up, even when they clearly want to operate in accordance with educational best practice.

It's very clear that we need to move in a new direction.

In 1997 Labour promised to focus on 'standards not structures', with promises about extending setting, ensuring discipline and raising quality.

They have failed.

60 per cent of lessons are still not set and one in ten secondary schools has unsatisfactory levels of discipline.

In 2006 they've shifted the debate back to structures, by proposing Trust schools, a close relation of the grant maintained schools that they vindictively abolished on coming to office.

The truth is we need to get both right - standards and structures - if we're to create more good school places.

In the last 8 years, Labour has failed to deliver the first and seems incapable of truly providing the second.

The Education Bill is only proceeding through the House of Commons because of Conservative support.

Education Bill

When I first let my colleagues know that the Conservative Party would be supporting the bill some of them were uneasy.

The job of the opposition is to oppose, they said. I think that's wrong.

The true job of the opposition is to hold the government to account. And that means supporting it when it tries to move in the right direction.

We're voting for the Education Bill because it makes it easier to expand good schools, easier to close bad schools and easier to set up new schools.

The Bill enables schools to establish trusts, which will give them the sort of sort of independence - owning their own buildings, employing their own staff, establishing their own culture and ethos - that we have backed for years.

Of course I recognise that the Bill doesn't go far enough. But it is a step in the right direction.

Conservatives will not only vote for the Education Bill, we'll seek to build on it for the future.

Our challenge

Labour's failure over standards and faltering over structures presents the Conservative party with a great challenge and opportunity.

To be the party of high quality education for all.

Together with David Willetts and his team I will set out, step by step over the coming months and years the measures we need to achieve this goal.

It is a challenge we are determined to meet."

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