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Collins: Action on schools

Speech to Conservative Party Conference 2004

"There is much to celebrate in British education.

Teachers who are dedicated and caring. Universities with some of the best research and learning environments in the world. Children with energy and enthusiasm.

But there is also much that can be better.

Conservatives win when Conservatives are different. Here's how we'll be different in education.

Discipline is under attack. There's an assault on a teacher every seven minutes. But there is hope. There is a better way. On our first day Conservatives will set out plans to give teachers legal protection against pernicious allegations, firm backing on discipline and schools the right to take the final decision on expulsions. We will move ahead as fast as possible with a wide-ranging Teacher Protection Bill.

My priority is the rights of the 29 pupils out of 30 who want to learn, not the 1 out of 30 who want to disrupt.

Top-up fees deter able students. Tony Blair broke his solemn word. But there is hope. There is a better way. In our first week we will scrap fees.

Tony Blair, Charles Clarke and I have one thing in common - none of us paid any fees when we went to university. They think others should not benefit as we did. I say if it was good enough for me when I was 18, it's good enough for today's 18 year-olds too.

Today schools spend ever more on legal bills. School trips are called off because teachers fear being sued. But there is hope. There is a better way.

In our first year we will give schools new legal protections and teachers immunity against being sued - I want to see money provided for schools going to teachers not to lawyers.

Today some parents know the only school they can choose is simply not good enough. Under Labour you need money or the right postcode to be sure you can pick a good school.

But there is hope. There is a better way. In our first months, Conservatives will publish a Bill to legislate for the Right to Choose.

In our first week we will start to remove the rules which stop good schools from expanding or new schools from starting. We will fund 600,000 extra school places to make choice a reality. And every school will be Grant Maintained - because freedom works.

After years of New Labour Britain needs honesty, even when truth is uncomfortable. I joined this party as a teenager because we alone told it as it is.

Conservatives are at our best when people respect us, even if they don't agree with us: just as they did when our leader was the greatest Prime Minister since Churchill - Margaret Thatcher.

So here are some uncomfortable truths about education.

First, Labour were right to spend more on schools. Much of that money went on impressive new buildings, not waste.

We will not reverse that spending - indeed Conservatives will invest more still, up by a third over five years: an extra £15 billion a year more for schools.

The difference? Head teachers, not Whitehall, will decide how to spend it - and we will distribute money fairly between urban and rural areas.

The second uncomfortable truth. Ours is a far better deal for students. But graduates will have to pay back maintenance loans at higher interest, even if their total debt and overall repayments will be a lot less than under Labour.

And some won't like our rejection of the absurd target to put half of all young people in university. I say: that target is not wanted by business, it is a wicked fraud on many who would do better elsewhere and we will scrap it.

And the third uncomfortable truth. We will introduce the Right to Choose but every parent will not instantly get their first choice.

Today hundreds of thousands do not. By letting new providers in and by letting good schools expand we can pledge that 100,000 extra parents will get their first choice by 2010.

That's only a start - but a good start. When Labour MPs and Ministers regularly buy choice for their children I say it's time to give choice to people on every level of income.

Other parties say these policies will only help the successful. So take the Leicester Islamic Academy. Its intake is from local council estates. It is open to people of all faiths, and delivers the National Curriculum.

But it does not get a penny from government. Many parents can't afford the thousand pound fees, so constantly pupils and staff are raising money.

The classrooms are cramped, equipment sparse. Yet the children are happy, orderly, doing well - one is off to read medicine at Cambridge.

The Left will never like a school that dares to run itself. They won't fund schools like that - we will.

So don't let our opponents say that Conservatives don't care about ethnic minorities or the underprivileged. Unlike the Left, we don't tell them to shut up and take whatever they're given. We'll set them free.

And you know what? When we do that we'll do more for social integration, more for good community relations and more for the disadvantaged than the Left ever has or ever will.

Or take Lowick, an isolated village in the Lake District. A school loved by its community.

Closed this summer by the Lib Dem education chair. Turned down when it asked Labour's schools minister to help.

But parents refused to take that lying down. Last month they reopened the school as an independent not-for-profit charity. Today Lowick points the way to the future. Under us, every good school which retains parental support will get public funding - guaranteed.

We will shortly publish proposals to revitalise vocational education and adult learning. We will seek consensus on exam reforms - but we will insist that new arrangements must be more, not less, robust and credible than those we have today.

We will also focus on the most vulnerable - those with Special Needs. Some benefit from mainstream education, but many do not. So we must preserve diversity. I will issue an immediate order: no more closures of special schools.

Conservatives win when Conservatives are different. So here's a few changes we'll make in our first 24 hours in office.

I'll order immediate action to make sure that never again will the pass mark for an A grade in GCSE Maths be just 45%. That is unacceptable - and I will not accept it.

I'll get rid of the University access regulator, Labour's Witchfinder General, set up to punish universities who admit middle-class students. Under the Conservatives, the best universities will be for the most able students, wherever they come from.

And on that first day I'll see the Permanent Secretary. When we say we want an end to 2000 pages a year of Whitehall circulars sent to each school, we mean it. So I'll tell him to get rid of not 10% or 20%, but two-thirds of his entire Departmental staff.

I've talked about Labour. But never forget there are two parties of the Left.

The Lib Dems have fallen from second to third in local government, from third to fourth in the European elections, and today have just 8% of Members of Parliament. So when that party, which incidentally wants to legalise cannabis, starts talking about what it would do in its second term of office you have to ask: what are they on?

What do they stand for? Stamping out faith and church schools. Closing grammar schools. Forcing every 7 year old, regardless of parental wishes, to have sex education. Be very clear - the Lib Dems are entirely unfit ever to run education.

Last week the Prime Minister said he'd kept all his election promises. Come off it, , Tony.

You promised you would not introduce top-up fees - then you did. You promised you had no plans to put up National Insurance - then you did. You said you'd cut crime - it's gone up. You said you'd give everyone access to an NHS dentist - they haven't got it. And you promised you had no plans to put up tax at all - and then you did it 66 times.

This isn't a Prime Minister who has been caught out lying once. This is a Prime Minister who many think lies as often as he grins.

There's only one way to get trust back in politics - get Tony Blair out of Number Ten and Michael Howard in.

Remember: Conservatives win when Conservatives are different. So ignore commentators' advice to be more politically correct, more cautious, more bland. We will not win by being a spineless photocopy of New Labour - we'll win by being different to New Labour.

Not the same spin on crime, but a truly hard crackdown on crime. Not the same tax rises but as fast as possible tax cuts. And not the same blind obedience to European laws others ignore, but the guts to tell Brussels: if the French won't obey your daft laws nor will we.

We want the next generation to live in a country where anything is possible, anyone can rise to the top, any person can live his or her dreams.

A generation which values friendship across borders, but knows that their first loyalty is to a country called Britain and never, ever to a country called Europe.

So let me just say this to all the good, decent, patriotic people who have voted UKIP or are thinking they might.

We share your anger at the freedoms Mr Blair has signed away. We have the same determination as you to see power repatriated from Brussels to Britain.

But just think about what Robert Kilroy-Silk said this weekend.

He is a socialist, a former Labour MP, a man who spent years fighting against Margaret Thatcher.

That's why he wants to kill off the Eurosceptic Conservative Party - while we want to kill off this federalist Labour Government.

UKIP can't and won't win a single seat. But their own words make clear that they want to be Tony Blair's safety net.

So come on UKIP voters - don't just hope for a Eurosceptic Government, vote for one. Put country before party. And do what Paul Sykes has done - come home to the Conservatives.

We are the party of optimism, faith, belief in the unlimited potential of our children.

We will fight this coming Election with our heads held high, our vision firm and bright, and with our hearts filled with enthusiasm for our nation.

That is the way forward for us. It is the way forward for hope. And it is the way forward for Britain."

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