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Yeo: Raising standards in our schools

Speech to the NAHT Conference in Cardiff

"I am delighted to be with you in Cardiff this afternoon. Unlike David Hart this is my first NAHT conference but I hope not my last. I have had many productive contacts with the NAHT in my Suffolk constituency and look forward to many more fruitful discussions with you in the coming months and years.

Delighted also to be in South Wales where as an enthusiastic 28 year-old candidate I fought my first General Election against Neil Kinnock. Not a marginal. What I want to do today is to set out in more detail how the Conservative Party intends to help you deliver what we all want. A first class, state funded education system that will give future generations the best possible platform for building their lives and making a contribution to the continued success of this country.

It's six months this Sunday since Michael Howard telephoned me and asked me to take on my present role in the Shadow Cabinet.

Six months during which I've been on a steep learning curve.

Long enough to get a clearer understanding of some of the challenges you face.

Long enough to form a view about a number of issues and to refine and clarify some of our policies.

My perspective on education is not just shaped by my experience as a pupil, parent and Member of Parliament for 21 years.

Unlike many Members of Parliament, unlike indeed many Ministers, my experience extends a bit further.

Many years ago, I spent six months teaching at a secondary school in Southern Tanzania.

I fear that my contribution may not have been tremendously valuable from the point of view of the students in my classes but I did learn a great deal myself.

How hard it is to retain the interest of a class full of children.

That what might work with one child of one ability might not work for another.

About the challenges of keeping high-achievers engaged while at the same time helping less advanced members of the group.

St Joseph's Chidya was a very long way from the head-office administrators and communications were not easy.

This meant that its head teacher and staff were more autonomous than they are in many schools in England.

The achievements of the school demonstrated what can be done by committed teachers who are free to function without civil servants breathing down their necks all the time like belligerent back-seat drivers.

Much more recently, my last job before entering Parliament was as Chief Executive of The Spastics Society, now called Scope.

During my time the Society operated several residential schools including one not far from here, and an FE college, catering for the needs of students with varying degrees of handicap. This gave me an insight into the world of special education.

While I was Chief Executive I established the Centre for Studies in Inclusive Education, a specialist unit promoting the integration of children with special needs into mainstream schools. Two decades later this Centre is flourishing under its original director, Mark Vaughan, though it has broken free of its connection with Scope.

Of course, I appreciate that my experience pales in comparison to the thousands of hours each of you spend in your schools year in and year out.

It's that experience, inside and outside the classroom, which differentiates you from Ministers and civil servants, who simply do not have the chance to gain such a close understanding of the needs of children.

This means that as I continue to work towards my goal of being in the position to help deliver more good schools for the British people, I will do everything I can to engage in dialogue with you.

I approach the subject of education with three broad convictions.

Firstly I agree with Disraeli who told the House of Commons in 1874, that 'Upon the education of the people of this country, the fate of this country depends'.

Obviously we should not talk about the value of education solely in the context of the job market, but I have no doubt that at a time when Britain faces more intense international competition for both jobs and investment, the key to our survival as one of the world's most successful economies is the quality of education that we give to our children.

We are in a truly global market for the first time in history and faced with unprecedented challenges from China, India and other countries in the Asia Pacific region, we have to provide the next generation of Britons with the qualifications and skills which will enable them to do the kind of jobs which will still be available here and in other western European countries.

I do not believe that Britain is yet responding adequately to the new challenge. Not enough children are allowed to take full advantage of the opportunity a good education brings.

Of course, since Disraeli a stream of Ministers and even Prime Ministers have told the British people that 'Education, Education, Education' were their priorities. Unfortunately the reality has often fallen short of the spin. Disjointed and half baked reform has too often frustrated professionals and let down parents.

Understandably, the public have grown cynical about the ability of politicians to make a difference.

But if there was ever a time for us to have an honest debate about standards in schools and the right way to improve them - it is now.

The failure to tackle discrepancies in standards across the country, such as the fact that 40 per cent more young people fail to get a GCSE in the North East of the country compared to the South East, is not acceptable.

Truancy reflects the fact that too many children fail to engage with the school experience. More than a million children continue to play truant, despite the hundreds of millions of pounds that has been spent on an array of Government initiatives. It's time to re-evaluate our approach.

We should also be concerned that discipline in the classroom is an ever-growing challenge for teachers.

Not just because of the question - 'why are we seeing more children with behavioural problems entering the system?'

but because of the impact it has on the morale of teachers.

The Government's efforts to recruit teachers have, as everyone but Ministers seem to recognise, been largely negated by their failure to retain them.

You don't need me to tell you that most of the worryingly high number of teachers who leave the profession each year cite poor discipline in the classroom and the heavy burden of paperwork outside as the main reasons.

Another reason is the lack of proper opportunities for professional development within teaching, something other professions take for granted and which is needed more than ever at a time of constant and unprecedented rapid change.

Ministers claim standards have risen and we are showered with statistics showing that children are getting better grades.

But in the age of knowledge downloaded from the internet, do we need to review our approach?

Are some young people acquiring an ability to cram for exams without developing a real understanding of the subject?

Are universities and employers out of touch with reality when they complain of deteriorating basic standards?

And why are we still facing the unacceptable reality that too many children are still entering secondary school without acceptable literacy and numeracy skills?

And that more than half fail to achieve good GCSEs in the core subjects of English and Maths?

Let me stress that in asking these questions, I am not criticising teachers.

I believe the difficulties arise because of the environment in which you are asked to do your job. An environment we intend to transform, as I will explain.

My second conviction is a passionate belief that one factor above all others determines the quality of education. That factor is the quality of the teachers. More than class sizes, more than new buildings, more than the books and equipment available in schools - important though all these things are - a good teacher is crucial to the outcome. By the same token, it is almost impossible to remedy the effect of a bad teacher.

And just as pressing is the phenomenon of good teachers who are hindered by national targets.

Whose best efforts are distorted by the results of testing.

Thirdly, if I have learnt anything from 13 years in business and 21 years in politics, it is the value of effective leadership.

In meeting the challenge of increasing the number of good schools, I am clear that the person who principally makes the difference between a good school and a bad one is the Head.

The quality of the teachers in any school, the ethos they communicate, depends very considerably on the quality and commitment of the head teacher.

And that's why I'm determined that Conservative policy will focus on delivering the right environment to attract and retain high quality people to perform that vital role.

When I read in the TES last week that this year has seen the highest number of vacant headships since 1997, I am very concerned.

But not surprised.

I know from talking to Heads in my own constituency and elsewhere how the frustrations have mounted

The hoops that have to be jumped through to get money

The tyranny of targets and testing and league tables. Yes - we started them at a time when very little information was available to parents about the performance of individual schools. But the process has now expanded to a level of obsession and distortion where value to parents and pupils becomes less and less obvious.

Time wasted on feeding the insatiable appetite of the bureaucratic machine for information that seems to disappear into a black hole in Whitehall.

The endless streams of Government initiatives that add to a workload that for many professionals has clearly become unbearable.

The stress of dealing with growing challenges to the authority of teachers - whether they take the form of truancy, disruptive behaviour, violence, or

litigation. For too long we have condoned a slide in the levels of respect and protection for the people we rely on to help us bring up our children.

And under this Government, the frustration of living with the daily, morale sapping realisation that qualified professionals are simply not trusted to do their job. According to Labour, Ministers always know best.

They are wrong.

They simply don't understand that people are not motivated to work as cogs in some vast bureaucratic machine. However professional the teaching staff are, the damage done by top-down management from the centre remains. It's easy for a school to lose focus if teachers feel they are just pawns in the central planning process.

I am here to explain how life will be different under the Conservatives.

To discuss how we want to help you do your job and help us deliver the core objective of our policy - more good, state maintained schools for parents to choose from.

In contrast to Labour, we do not believe you can deliver the education standards our children deserve through a process of old fashioned, centralised Command and Control.

Government should not be in the business of micromanaging schools

Parents and teachers must re-establish their rights and responsibilities to each other, and have the power to do what is right for the children they are responsible for.

We are finalising the details of our plan to deliver more good schools.

It is a plan that absorbs some tough lessons that we have learnt - both in government and opposition.

Let me set out the three key components :-

Firstly we must make sure you have the money you need on the front line.

Secondly we must give you - the professionals - more time to do your real job, and greater freedom to take the decisions that are right for your school.

Thirdly our vision is to give all parents - not just those who can afford it- the power of choice. Because the power of choice is the power to force improvement.

Let me address each of those three components in turn

INVESTMENT

First of all I am delighted to confirm the commitment made by my colleague, Oliver Letwin, Shadow Chancellor, in his wide-ranging speech on public spending in February this year.

Because of the importance we attach to education the next Conservative Government will not only match Labour's spending commitments on schools but in fact will invest more.

And as you might expect, we will also be less wasteful in how we spend taxpayers' money.

We are determined to invest more productively than this Government.

We already knew that they have missed seven out of their nine original Public Service Agreement Targets.

And now we have learnt from a memo leaked to the Sunday Times that they are preparing to try and spin their way out of the harsh truth delivered by the Office of National Statistics - that for every £1 of taxpayers' money spent on education, the Government is delivering between 15 and 20% per cent less than was the case in 1997.

For us, investing better means maximising the proportion of money which reaches the front line and helps you do your job. I have asked my colleagues, Tim Collins and Mark Hoban, to work on detailed aspects of our spending plans to ensure that funds go on teachers, books and equipment, and not to administrators and bureaucrats.

We are determined also to simplify the way that schools receive money. The current funding formulae are ridiculously complicated. Schools face far too many different sources of funding, often ring-fenced, all representing different streams of bureaucracy and accountability.

We must simplify the process so it takes up less of your time and leaves you more confident about your cash flow.

TB's reference this morning to a move to three yearly budgets for schools was encouraging but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

I am frequently contacted by schools who point out that, despite Ministerial claims, funding is not always rising at individual school level.

There must be no repetition of the school funding shambles you had to endure last year.

Last year's funding crisis was a perfect example of a lack of trust in the professionals and a failure of Ministers and bureaucrats and Ministers should accept responsibility for this fiasco.

Yet despite evidence that hundreds of teachers faced redundancy and that schools that were under-resourced were having to make cutbacks, the Department for Education refused to accept blame.

In many schools the cost burdens placed on them still outweigh the funding provided. Despite the complaints by the Select Committee and the Government's eleventh hour attempt to provide transitional help, some schools are already reporting a repeat of last year's troubles.

As your own survey of 800 schools reported this week confirms, many schools are not receiving the promised increases.

Indeed, although Gordon Brown implied in his Budget speech that more money would be given directly to schools, resources are still not reaching the front line and many uncertainties remain about whether the funding is really there - for example for the new workplace agreements and non-contact time which I know is an issue for many Heads, particularly of primary schools.

FREEDOM and Power to Teachers

The second key element of our plan is the transformation of the environment in which you work.

A major problem for the teaching profession is the incessant and meddlesome stream of targets, diktats and directives from the central planners of Whitehall.

It's no wonder many teachers are planning to leave the profession. According to a document that accompanied the recent Budget, schools face 207 external controls and regulations on their work, more controls than there are days in the school year.

This level of bureaucracy means that you, as head teachers, are tied to your offices rather than getting around your schools. I share your frustration that your time is taken up with endless form filling and seemingly pointless administration.

The Government's over-centralised approach reflects a reluctance to trust you.

By contrast I believe that the more freedom qualified people are given the better they respond. I will give real freedom to teachers to take decisions about their schools in the knowledge they are answerable to local parents, not to local bureaucrats.

What will this mean in practice?

It will mean fewer targets for a start. I want a bonfire of the national targets that have forced schools to skew their priorities from teaching to form-filling.

I want schools to express their individuality in a more expansive way. By moving away from national targets we will allow schools to set their own priorities in line with the ethos of their school, not with the whims of Ministers.

Another of the impediments imposed on professional teachers is the national curriculum. It has been bloated by too many initiatives, not enough of which are directly related to the educational needs of the classroom.

The next Conservative administration will slim down the national curriculum to a core of relevant subjects, reversing Labour's tendency to override the professional judgement of teachers.

Allowing more diversity among schools is one way of making it easier for Heads to respond to the wishes and needs of parents and children.

For example, some of you may share my conviction that many parents want their children to have more opportunity to engage in sport. Our proposals will give you greater flexibility to make that happen. I intend to announce in the autumn some specific measures that will facilitate that process.

But what happens inside the school is not only about the curriculum, it's about behaviour too.

Discipline in the classroom is something politicians are sometimes wary of talking about. But persistently disruptive pupils don't just ruin their own education, but that of everyone else in their class.

Sometimes, disruption is accompanied by unfounded accusations of abuse against the teachers who try to discipline them.

We are determined to allow teachers to control their classrooms and the direction their classes take. That means the content, the balance and the discipline of classes. Teachers are entitled to say to their students, "I expect you to work and I expect you to behave."

The enforceable home-school contract will feature as part of our Pupil Passport and will reinforce the role of teachers, while spelling out the responsibilities and entitlements of parents and pupils. In return for a high quality teaching and learning experience, parents and pupils should guarantee attendance and good behaviour.

I know from casework in my own constituency how teachers who have dedicated their lives to children can face the threat of having their reputations ruined by a single disaffected pupil with allegations of misconduct.

It is worrying that experienced, valued and trusted teachers should have their careers at risk on the word of a child who may be acting unthinkingly or viciously.

Matters can be made worse if parents mischievously support the allegations made by disgruntled pupils.

I intend to restore common-sense to this system and to develop effective measures for teacher protection.

I want to explore whether and if so how teachers could be granted anonymity which would only be removed in the tiny minority of cases which conclude with a criminal conviction, a subject raised in one of the motions at your Conference.

The presumption of innocence for accused teachers should be restored, so there is no ambiguity about who is in charge of the classroom.

Teachers are also exposed if an injury occurs in a school playground or an accident happens on a trip or excursion. We will explore changes in the law to give the teaching profession limited protected status so those in charge of pupils are only open to prosecution if there is unambiguous evidence of a wilful risking of life and limb.

CHOICE

In addition to increasing investment, and transforming the environment in which you work, we have a third, key element in our plan to help you deliver more good schools

The Principle of School Choice for All

Something TB did not mention.

Michael Howard and I want all parents to enjoy the kind of choice which at present is only available to those who can afford to pay private school fees or choose where they live.

We believe that giving real power of choice to parents helps to drive up standards. Particularly in areas of greater deprivation where poorer schools are concentrated.

The evidence from our studies of places abroad that have introduced an agenda of wider choice - Sweden, Holland, certain states in the USA - is clear. Parents rise to the opportunity to take more control. Good schools grow. Poorer schools improve or close. There is less tolerance of mediocrity.

The power of choice is the power to force improvement.

The more thoughtful elements within the Government are beginning to understand this. They have started to talk about choice and even 'personalised learning'.

I want not just personalised learning but personalised teaching.

And by giving heads more freedom and parents more choice, we can offer personalised schools as well.

However it is clear that Tony Blair is no longer in a position to deliver meaningful reform of the public services. His Party won't allow it. Their instinct is that one size fits all, and you take what you are given.

We are serious about delivering real choice.

We have provisionally called our instrument of choice - the Pupil Passport.

It will represent each individual child's right to a tax-funded education. It will contain an entitlement to the money the state spends on the child's behalf.

Parents will be entitled to take the Passport to any qualifying school - state, charitable or for-profit - which does not charge fees above the value of the Passport.

Of course the impact of giving parents more choice is not going to be felt overnight

And as an MP representing a rural constituency, I understand that choice for families in very rural areas is different from those who live in towns.

I should also emphasise, since there are many primary school heads in the audience, that in the first instance it will be concentrated on secondary schools.

Nor will we do the silly things that our opponents have suggested, like preventing siblings from attending the school of an older brother or sister, or changing the character of neighbourhood schools, or bussing the children of local residents away in order to accommodate children from other areas.

We know that for choice to be effective, more good school must be available.

We'll make it easier for management of underperforming schools to be changed.

In many towns and cities we'll make it easier to build new schools.

But for most parents, the expansion of an existing school will be the more immediate and visible change. And that will only happen if head teachers and governors believe it will benefit their school and their community.

Central to our approach will be the abolition of the surplus places rule which forces some parents to send their children to a school they have not chosen and prevents good schools from expanding until places at unpopular schools are fully taken up.

Let me stress, in view of the disinformation being put about by Government Ministers, that under no circumstances will we permit parents to use the Pupil Passport as a part payment or subsidy towards the cost of paying fees at an independent school.

This policy is about improving standards within the state funded sector. We want state schools to provide all the benefits of the best independent schools, irrespective of the ability of parents to pay.

Conclusion

During the next year increasing attention will be paid by the media and the public to the Government's record as it seeks re-election after its second term in office.

Seven years after Tony Blair claimed that his first three priorities would be education, education, education the facts are telling a different story.

Instead of rewarding good teachers Labour has strangled them with red tape and directives. Instead of cutting truancy by a third the number of young people bunking off has gone up by more than one-fifth. Instead of cutting all class sizes the number of secondary school pupils in classes of over 30 has substantially increased.

Even the latest Budget contains evidence that the rate of increase in spending on education is now about to slow down.

The future is what counts. At the core of our policy will be our conviction that parents, as well as pupils, should be drawn more constructively into the education of children, that a focused curriculum should be supported by proper resources and examination standards; that teachers are more important than civil servants in raising standards in schools and getting the best for every child; and that heads must have more freedom to do their jobs.

It is one of the deepest of parental instincts to want our children to have a better education than we did. When we form the next Government, our Conservative aim will be to give to the many the privileges which under Labour are now only bought by a few.

This is the reward our policies can deliver. With your help I am sure we will deliver our promise."

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