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Willetts: The real case for education reform

Speech to the Politics Society of St. John’s College, Portsmouth

"Tony Blair described his education reforms as "a pivotal moment in the life of this Parliament and this Government." (Monday 24th October) How right he was. The debate over his forthcoming Education Bill is proving to be one of the defining events in the final stages of his premiership. It raises so many big political questions. Can Tony Blair really deliver public service reform? How much authority does he have over his Party now that he has announced his departure? If he can't ultimately deliver real reform who is better placed to pick up the challenge - Gordon Brown or David Cameron?

David Cameron and I are also very aware that our approach to the Government's proposals reveals much about the character of the Conservative Party today. We want to engage constructively and imaginatively, with what that matters to millions of parents, rather than just settling for the easy option of automatically opposing everything the Government brings forward.

There is endless material here to fascinate politicians and commentators. But we must not let the politics ever get in the way of the over-riding point that these are supposed to be real changes affecting real teachers in real schools, and above all with real pupils. So the crucial test against which we must measure the Government's proposals is whether we believe they will raise the quality of education in our schools. It is this test which I want to focus on in the bulk of my speech. But it is not surprising that politics keeps on getting in the way because one of the problems with this Government is that the political narrative matters far more than whether anything actually changes in the real world.

I came to recognise the pattern during my years shadowing the Department for Work and Pensions. Number Ten would brief out some story about bold ideas for welfare reform. It always contained a crucial paragraph reporting breathlessly that their radical ideas were bound to create an unprecedented row with Labour's Left. Then there would be a quote from some left wing backbencher (nowadays it would be John Prescott, no less) saying how opposed they were to Number Ten's shocking ideas. Little did they know that such opposition played an essential role in Tony Blair's political strategy. It was what triangulation was all about. It helped to define him against the Left and made him appear a real reformer. Indeed, I came to think that Tony Blair's reforms were like those strange astronomical phenomena, which cannot be directly observed but are only detectable by their influence on others - the only evidence that Tony Blair was actually doing something would be the oscillations of planet Marshall Andrews. We have got used to this over the years. Indeed one explanation of the mess that Tony Blair has got himself into with his Education Bill is that he has finally been caught out trying these tactics once too often. Some think that there isn't actually anything much to his education reforms at all, but he wanted to make them appear more ambitious than they really are by using hyped up rhetoric aimed at picking a fight with his Left. He has ended up in much more of a fight than he ever really intended.

Those who live by triangulation die by triangulation. Tony Blair now finds, so the argument goes, that he has a Bill which doesn't really change much in the world of education but could change a lot in the world of politics.

Tony Blair has left himself open to this interpretation because he has failed to set out any coherent account of what he is trying to do to reform our schools and why. The Education White Paper is a deeply confused document. It is of variable quality. It is clearly, as the art critics would say, the work of several different hands.

Tony Blair and Ruth Kelly have failed to seize the high ground and explain what they are trying to do and why. As a result they have allowed the perception of his reforms to be shaped by his critics. This is all the more odd because I think it is possible to set out a coherent account of what the Government is trying to do, drawing especially on international evidence of what works when it comes to raising standards in our schools. This point was made by Tony Wright MP in a fascinating exchange at the Liaison Committee the other day:

Q215 Dr Wright "…You [Blair] say, "There is increasing international evidence that school choice systems can maintain high levels of equity and improve standards …Now, having given us that statement in the preface, you would expect the underlying analysis and the evidence to be picked up in the White Paper because there is a kind of theory trying to get out … (Q216)…I happen to think there is a good deal of evidence, but the problem is that it is not available anywhere and it is not in the White Paper.

Blair: I think the point you make is a fair one in a way and actually one of the things I think we should do in the next few weeks, and the Department is actually working on this, is to try and produce some of the international evidence about different school systems and how it works.

He still hasn't come up with that report. If he won't, I will. So here, as a public service, is the international evidence for school reform that the Government could have published but hasn't.

For nearly a generation now British politicians have been bogged down in political arguments about theory of school choice. But meanwhile, in several other countries, they have got on and done it. The practical evidence has begun to come in, especially from Caroline Hoxby's evaluations of education reform in the US and other evaluations of similar reforms in Sweden. The evidence from Milwaukee, Michigan and Arizona in the US and from the Swedish school reforms as well, is that school choice is an incredibly powerful mechanism for raising standards. But in order to work it has got to be implemented in the right framework. Both in the US and Sweden the following key features stand out.

First, it has to be possible for new entrants to create new schools. You can't allow a municipality to protect its own existing schools by obstructing the creation of new schools which can also deliver a public financed education, free at the point of delivery. Thus in Arizona and Michigan charter schools are approved by state-wide organisations, not the local districts who run community schools. The 1992 school reform in Sweden allowed municipalities to provide input on whether or not a new independently run school should be approved but they had no right of veto on it.

Secondly, pupils have to be financed on per capita basis so that public money goes with them to the school of their choice. Of course that means that schools that lose pupils lose some funding as well. In the US charter school experiment districts that lost a pupil to a charter school lost amounts ranging from 45% to 75% of their per pupil cost. Similarly, in Sweden municipalities were obliged to give 85% of their public school funding to a new school in their district which gained a pupil. These are substantial sums though less than 100%, which might be hard to achieve in practice.

Thirdly, existing schools have to be able to respond to the challenge of new entrants. This is crucial to avoid the problem of pupils being left behind in poorly performing schools. Often this means that existing schools have to be free to recreate themselves. They have to be able to change the way they work and reward teachers so as to raise their performance and recapture the students they are losing.

These are the bare bones of what are now proving to be the most effective education reforms in many advanced western countries: opportunities for new providers to create new schools; more per capita funding; and greater freedom for schools. We do not need endless ideological argument when the evidence is beginning to come in showing what works. Caroline Hoxby of Harvard University estimates that schools exposed to substantial competition in school choice experiments improved their pupil achievements by 24% in three years, some of the largest gains ever seen in American school reforms. Crucially, her evidence showed that established state schools responded to competition by getting better themselves as well. Hoxby concludes that:

"Michigan and Arizona public schools raised achievements in response to competition from charter schools. Fourth grade reading and maths scores rose by 1.2 and 1.1 scale points, respectively in Michigan; and fourth grade reading and maths scores rose by 2.3 and 2.7 national percentile points, respectively, in Arizona."

Indeed Hoxby goes on to say that school choice genuinely is the rising tide that lifts all boats. This is crucially important because we don't want to see our most vulnerable children left behind in poorly performing schools: that would be too high a price to pay for school reform.

The Swedish evidence is similar. To quote an evaluation by Sandstrom and Bergstrom:

"The extent of competition from independent schools [i.e. receiving public funds but not belonging to the municipality] measured as the proportion of pupils in the municipality that go to independent schools, improves both the scores on a nationalised, standardised mathematics test and the grades in public schools … the improvement is significant both in statistical and quantitative terms. There is no indication that the expansion of independent schools has increased total expenditures on schools. Thus, the improved results imply that productivity has increased in the public schools."

I am sure that Tony Blair's advisers are familiar with this evidence. Indeed, Professor Julian Le Grand, a former advisor at Number Ten, gave an excellent lecture on the case for choice in public services earlier this week at the LSE. This evidence is widely available in the research literature on education. It is now being implemented in advanced western countries with good clear evidence about its benefits for all students. I think it is what lies behind what the Government is trying to do in its Education Bill. The trouble is that they haven't offered the evidence. They are now so terrified of their own backbenchers that they are diluting their proposals. But you can still dimly discern what they are trying to do. So, like an archaeologist painstakingly excavating some hidden structure, let me try to reveal what lies beneath the debris.

All the rhetoric of a new strategic role for local education authorities is a cover for the crucial step of taking away their ability to veto new publicly financed schools that aren't under their direct control. It is why the proposed abolition of Schools Organisation Committees, which have an interest in opposing school expansion, is so important. That is why one of the most radical proposals in the original White Paper was that no new local authority schools should be created. The Government has already conceded that local authorities will be able to create new schools. We will look with interest to see how much the Government has back-tracked on its original proposal. Will it be possible for LEAs to veto the creation of new schools? And will the Secretary of State have a veto on LEAs?

It has to be possible for new schools to be created with the resources to back them up. That is where Trusts come in, as a mechanism for providing schools with essential management and possibly material support when it isn't going to be beholden to the local authority.

To ensure that conventional schools are not left behind, they have to be able to respond to the challenge from new entrants. That is why existing schools can also convert to become Trusts. They will have three key freedoms - to own their own assets, employ their own staff, and set their own admissions. In reality these freedoms will be heavily constrained. But at least it is a step in the right direction, making it possible for a Conservative Government to follow through and actually deliver what Tony Blair originally promised.

You also need some kind of national admissions framework to ensure that schools don't respond to parental choice simply by selecting the students they want to teach. Indeed, in America and Sweden, they ran controlled experiments which banned selection so as to show the benefit of school choice even without it. In Britain, schools should not be able to ignore, for example, children with Special Educational Needs. It is why we still need some kind of national admissions code. It is why David Cameron and I have recognised that we are not going to have a return to old-style academic selection and the Eleven Plus in the many parts of the country where grammar schools have long since disappeared. We are focussing on setting within schools as the best way of ensuring that pupils get the education most suitable for them. We believe, however, that the Admissions Code should be much less complex and intrusive than it is now. And we certainly do not wish to see it used as a means of attacking our surviving grammar schools. Tony Blair must stand by his statement last week that:

"…if you go after existing grammar schools, where they've got parental support, you are just going to end up in limitless arguments about how you are trying to close down grammar schools rather than actually argue about how you raise standards of the non-grammar school population."

You do not improve failing schools by attacking the ones that are successful.

So the evidence shows that choice is the tide that lifts all boats; it is a powerful mechanism for raising the standards of all schools. However, we must not fall into the trap of talking only about structures. We must not abandon teachers to take care of what goes on in the classrooms on their own or just leave parents to choose without government accepting its share of responsibility. Government has responsibility for setting standards in the classroom in areas like the curriculum, for example. Indeed, one of the chief aims of our Policy Group on Education is to achieve a new settlement which rightly recognises the importance of both structures of school organisation and standards in the classroom.

But in terms of education structures, you would describe this agenda as 'bog-standard' education reform of the sort practised by centre-right and progressive left governments that are serious about trying to raise standards in their schools. It is of course much like what the previous Conservative Government was trying to do. Sadly many of our reforms of education and the NHS were dismantled by the government after they came to power in 1997. Now Tony Blair is trying to reinstate them to show what a bold reformer he is. As one observer said, in a different context, socialism is the longest route from capitalism to capitalism.

It is a great pity that Tony Blair and his advisers have failed to explain the case for their reforms, drawing on compelling international evidence for what they are proposing, even if it is too embarrassing for them to refer back to our reforms. The challenge of delivering these education reforms whole-heartedly is likely now to fall to a future Conservative Government.

Tony Blair has already made too many concessions. He did not need to make these concessions because we will back him if he offers real education reform. He certainly should not make any more concessions.

We will wait to see the Bill, but it could provide a modest improvement in our education system. Even after Tony Blair's concessions, there could still be some increase in the freedom for schools. We Conservatives have consistently fought for more freedom for schools over the past twenty years and it would be wholly consistent with our principles to support such measures. The Bill may also have other provisions which we can welcome. We want to see more setting in schools and personalised learning could make this possible. And we certainly need to give teachers clear and effective disciplinary powers.

When the Education Bill is published, if we can at least see the building blocks for future reform then there is a strong case for backing these measures. Our test will be a very simple one. Could the Bill raise the quality of education by increasing the freedom of our schools? If we believe that on balance it does do that, then we would back the Bill. Our test is not a political one; it is quite simply what we believe to be in the best interests of the nation's children. That is what responsible Opposition is all about."

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