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Yeo: Getting the best for every child

Speech to NUT Conference

"I am grateful for this opportunity to speak to your Conference this morning. It's the first time I have made a political speech on Easter Sunday but unlike Charles Clarke I think attending the NUT Conference is a very good way to spend my time.

When the House of Commons debated education on the day after the Budget, I challenged Charles to be present here today, but he said that anything would be better than going to the NUT.

Perish the thought that he might be frit.

His comment was a breathtakingly arrogant remark at a time when, as I'll explain in a moment, in my view it's never been more important for Government and those in the front line of educating our children to talk to each other.

But I'm as happy to take his place here today as I will be happy to take his place as Secretary of State for Education after the next election.

For my part I hope this is the first of many fruitful and productive discussions with you Doug, and your successor and all the members of the NUT, and with other professionals in the public sector.

Because the future success of our children and through them the future of our country depends on the job you do. As Britain comes under more pressure than ever to develop the skills required for survival within an increasingly competitive global economy, it's clear that we're not yet responding adequately to the new challenge.

I'm concerned that in our schools truancy levels remain stubbornly high, despite lots of money being spent on an array of Government initiatives;

That discipline in the classroom is an ever-growing challenge for teachers;

That too many children are still entering secondary school without acceptable literacy and numeracy skills.

Ministers claim standards have risen and point to the stats showing that children are getting better grades.

But in the age of the essay 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 standards?

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 being asked to do your job.

My perspective is shaped in part by my own experience.

Not just as a pupil and a parent.

But also the experience of working for six months as a teacher in Tanzania.

The school was St Joseph's College, Chidya, situated in a remote and poor region near the border with Mozambique.

My contribution may not have done much for the students but I did learn a great deal myself.

Things like how to retain the interest of a class full of children.

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

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

St Joseph's Chidya was a long way from the head-office administrators and its teachers were more autonomous than they are in many schools in England.

Its achievements demonstrated what can be done by committed staff who are free to function without civil servants breathing down their necks all the time.

More recently, immediately before entering Parliament I served as Chief Executive of The Spastics Society, now called Scope.

The Society operated several residential schools and a further education college, and 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 to promote the integration of children with special needs into mainstream schools. I am delighted to say that two decades later this Centre is flourishing under its original Director Mark Vaughan, although it has broken free of its connection with Scope.

Of course, my experience pales in comparison to the thousands of hours each of you spend in the classroom year in and year out.

But coupled with what I've seen in my constituency, it gives me some awareness of how difficult but potentially rewarding your job can be.

Your classroom experience differentiates you from Ministers and civil servants, who simply don't have the chance to gain such a close understanding of the needs of children.

I have one absolutely overriding conviction. The quality of the education which any young person receives depends more than anything else on the quality of the teachers.

Modern buildings, up-to-date equipment, small classes can all play a part but in the end nothing outweighs the impact which a good teacher will have.

This means that I will always engage in a debate with the people who know best - the teachers.

I know that Labour doesn't always like what it hears when the NUT speaks and I am sure that if I become Secretary of State for Education I won't agree with all your statements. But I will never refuse a dialogue.

Although Labour promised to improve the esteem of the teaching profession, after seven years of the controlling agenda of "Whitehall knows best" teachers have been undermined.

Like many of you, I worry about the surveys which show how many teachers plan to leave the profession in the next five years.

I share the frustration of teachers fed up with too much form-filling and seemingly pointless administration which leaves too little time for teaching.

Fed up with the stress of managing disruption in the classroom, without enough support.

Fed up with the tyranny of league tables and the distortions they cause.

Fed up with too many half-baked initiatives from politicians.

Let me now say a word about Conservative Party policy. We have learned lessons from our time in office and these are reflected in our approach.

First of all I am delighted to confirm the spending commitment made by my colleague, Oliver Letwin, Shadow Chancellor, in February.

Because of the importance the Conservative Party attaches to education we are determined that the next Conservative Government will not only match Labour's spending commitments on schools. We will surpass it.

We are determined also to maximise the proportion of that money which reaches the front line. 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.

It's time Ministers acknowledged the problems they have created. Last year's funding crisis was a perfect example of a lack of trust in the professionals and a failure of Ministers and bureaucrats. Isn't it time Ministers accepted responsibility for this fiasco?

Yet despite evidence that hundreds of teachers across the country faced redundancy and that under-resourced schools 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 executive spokesperson in Essex said last month; "The crisis is most certainly not over, not by a long way."

Our approach will be different and I have asked my colleagues, Tim Collins and Mark Hoban, to work on detailed aspects of our spending plans to ensure that money goes on qualified teachers, on books and equipment, and not on administrators and bureaucrats with pocket calculators.

Much greater priority must be given to professional development of teachers - something which people in other jobs take for granted. My colleagues and I would like to explore with you how this can best be done.

You will have read about our Pupil Passports. The Passport is designed to help standards in maintained schools improve and to give greater opportunity to parents and children, particularly in more difficult areas.

I want all parents to have the kind of choice which at present is only available to those who can afford to choose where they live.

Though of course I understand that choice for families in very rural areas is different from those who live in towns.

Some schools may want to expand and I will make that easier if that's their choice. We will abolish the surplus places rule which forces parents to send their children to a school they have not chosen and prevents good schools from expanding.

Let me stress, that under no circumstances will the Pupil Passport be useable as a part-payment of fees charged by independent schools. Parents will be expressly prevented from taking the value of the Passport and topping it up in the private sector.

Instead I want maintained schools to provide the benefits of the best independent schools, irrespective of the ability of parents to pay.

We want good schools to grow and we will give teachers a free hand to make sure all schools improve.

New schools may be established if demand exists for them.

Success breeds success. Trusting teachers to make the right decisions for their schools has to be the right way forward.

The Government's over-centralised approach reflects their reluctance to trust you. By contrast I believe that the more freedom qualified people are given, the better they will respond. We will give real freedom to teachers to take decisions about their schools in the knowledge they are answerable to local parents.

A major problem since 1997 has been the incessant and meddlesome stream of targets, diktats and directives from the central planners of Whitehall.

According this year's Budget documents, schools face 207 external controls and regulations on their work, hardly a sign of a government that trusts professionals to what is best or that wants to give people freedom to do what is right at the local level.

Nor of a government that believes, as I do, that the state should be small and the people should be big.

I reaffirm our pledge to have a bonfire of the national targets that have forced schools to skew their priorities from teaching to form-filling.

However professional teaching staff may be, the damage done by top-down management from Whitehall remains. It's easy for a school to lose focus if teachers feel they are just pawns in the central planning process.

The target culture is just one of the impediments imposed on professional teachers. The national curriculum is another. 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 the trend of the Labour Government to use it to override the professional judgement of teachers.

I want to consult with you and others about how we can do this.

Each parent takes a big step by entrusting their child to the care of a school every time they leave them at the school gates. Government needs to show a similar level of trust in teachers and in schools.


But not every parent and pupil will respond responsibly to the offer of greater choice and responsibility which we Conservatives make. Another major issue is the increasing liability that teachers and schools can face from parents and pupils. For too long the legal system has seemed to work against teachers rather than for them.

I know from my own constituency how teachers who dedicate their lives to children can face the threat of having their careers and reputations ruined by the allegations of a single disaffected pupil. A foolish or vicious child, or a mischievous parent, can destroy a life.

Teachers who lead school trips or outward bound courses now fear

criminal prosecution if there is an unforeseen accident. Even in the school playground, teachers may feel at risk of legal action for an injury which all previous generations took as one of the normal hazards of school life. According to a recent report, schools now face a compensation bill of more than £200 million a year.

I believe education budgets should be concentrated on expanding the minds of our young people, not the already bulging wallets of the legal profession.

As you may have read, we will bring in an enforceable home-school contract when we are returned to office. When accidents and disputes occur, we will move back to the commonsense tradition that the resulting problems should not be dragged through the courts.

We will do more to protect the integrity of the teaching profession. We will conduct a comprehensive review of the legal changes that have made teaching more difficult and the life of teachers more worrying. We will explore the case for giving teachers limited protected status. Where there is an allegation serious enough to justify a public hearing, we will examine how we might give guaranteed anonymity, which would only be removed in the case of a criminal conviction.

There needs to be a presumption of innocence for accused teachers, so there can be no doubt about who is in charge in the classroom.

All these measures will help us get back to a situation where society values and respects the vital contribution teachers make to our young people and to the future of our society.

I have been following with interest the discussions between the NUT and the Government on the introduction of teaching assistants into the classroom.

I must say I would be suspicious of any measure which was calculated to put cost savings before educational standards in the classroom.

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

As Conservative Secretary of State for Education, I would, as I have explained, insist on tackling these problems at their root causes.

For the moment, the position of Secretary of State belongs to our absent friend.

But during the next year increasing attention will be paid by the media and the public to the record of this Labour Government 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 record is 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 playing truant 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.

And for those school leavers who want to go on to university, they face the consequences of Labour's broken promise on top-up fees.

Consequences which will burden them with such a mountain of debt that some will hesitate before applying to university and others may be deterred from professions such as teaching.

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; and that teachers are more important than civil servants in raising standards in schools and getting the best for every child.

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 now only bought by a few.

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

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