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Green: Power to schools, power to parents

Speech to the Conservative Spring Conference

A year ago Iain Duncan Smith told this conference that the Conservatives would take the fight to Labour on public services.

If you need a reminder of why our drive for better schools is more important than ever, let me take you through the 12 months since we were last here.

A year in the life of Labour's Education Department. A year in which pressure from us, from parents, and from teachers forced Estelle Morris to resign. She went, saying she was useless. Six months later, many of her Cabinet colleagues still can't quite understand why that's a reason for resigning.

As it's Sunday, I am feeling charitable, so let's start with the Government's own assessment of its performance.

Labour set themselves nine targets. They have had two hits, two near misses, and five failures. The Government describes this as 'significant progress'. I wish my chemistry teacher had been that generous.

But of course the real truth lies behind the missed targets.

With the one in four children leaving primary school unable to read, write and count properly.

With the 50,000 children playing truant everyday. Many of these children are probably already on the conveyor belt to crime.

With teachers like the one in Surrey who not only suffered abuse and even death threats, but was then forced to take back the very pupils who had threatened him.

With the 30,000 young people who left school this year without a single qualification, unskilled and unprepared for life in the working world.

With the hundreds of thousands of A-level students who had their futures thrown into doubt by Government incompetence.

And with the schools up and down this country that are cutting their budgets and laying off staff. Six years into to New Labour, and the council tax goes up, while the schools are cutting back.

Look at that record and don't tell me that New Labour is a One Nation Party. They are as deceitful and vindictive as Old Labour—just better dressed.

And to cap this year of failure look at our universities. Students were told before the election there would be no top-up fees.

There are now top-up fees. Students were told admissions will be on merit and potential. But that doesn't apply if you go to the wrong type of school, or if your parents went to university or if they earn too much.

Let me take this chance to assure you that a Conservative Government will scrap quotas, scrap the Access Regulator, remove secrecy in admissions policies and get rid of anything else that makes university admissions unfair. The best places should go to the best students—whatever their background—that's the Conservative way.

And since we are in the constituency of the Liberal Democrats Education Spokesman they deserve a word too. That word is dishonest. This is party that is against selection, unless you have a popular local grammar school. That says it has abolished tuition fees in Scotland, when you just pay them after the course, instead of during it. The only real LibDem contribution to education is creative maths. As in the LibDem canvasser who comes to the door, you ask him "What does two plus two make," and he replies "What do you want it to make." You know you can't rely on the Liberal Democrats to attack Labour.

But let me assure this conference: you will never hear me apologising for highlighting Labour's failures time and time again.

We have an alternative - a Conservative alternative - that will bring better schools and universities for our children.

People often ask what is our message. I'll tell you.

Power to schools, power to parents.

Because we believe that heads and teachers know how to run their schools best. And we believe that parents know which schools are best for their children.

We already have some of the policies that will turn these principles into reality.

We will create State Scholarships. These will give parents the right to decide which school deserves the money the state spends on their child's education—not the politicians or the bureaucrats. And if there is no acceptable school nearby, we will encourage new schools to set up, funded by the state but run independently. That will give real choice to millions of parents for the first time—and that's the Conservative way to drive up standards.

And in all our schools, we will give heads and governors the power to decide how they run their schools, and where they spend the money.

We will abolish the independent appeals panels that second-guess teachers' decisions on disruptive pupils. And we will allow heads to use legally backed behaviour contracts, signed by the parents, to instil discipline in their schools. We won't undermine the authority of the head and the teacher—we will back them against the disruptive child, and the disruptive parent.

We will also cut back the National Curriculum, which has become too rigid. We will reduce the number of exams, because the purpose of school is to learn and to grow intellectually, not just to pass the next test.

There will be much more to come. Our fresh thinking won't stop there.

A future Conservative Government will introduce a fairer funding formula for schools. It will make sure that, wherever they are from, children are supported on the basis of their need and not punished because of where they live.

Of course children with problems deserve help. But a poor family in Surrey deserves help just as much as a poor family in South Shields. The current funding system for schools is arbitrary and unfair—we will get rid of it.

In the coming months we will unveil our policy on vocational education, which for too long has been the second-class citizen in education.

Iain Duncan Smith and I visited Holland recently where we saw children of 12 and 13 learning to rewire a room, and fit up a bathrooms all in the course of their normal lessons. They don't see it as second best. Why should they? Let's organise school time so that everyone can find something they are good at and want to concentrate on.

And we will be turning our attention to the most vulnerable in our society - children with special educational needs.

I believe the Government's relentless policy of inclusion at all costs is harming the care and education of too many children. The closure of special schools threatens to rob us of vital centres of expertise forever. Those children, and the dedicated staff who work in those schools, deserve better.

And we will have more to say on our university policy. It will be based on the principles that students deserve a fair admission system, universities need to be strong independent institutions, and opportunity needs to be offered to everyone. Just like our schools, our great universities will need rescuing from the damage this Government is doing, and we will be proud to come to the rescue.

So the power we will give to schools and parents will mean a fair deal for everyone.

The Labour way in education is to interfere, bully, discriminate, fiddle figures, tax, spend, and fail.

The Conservative way will be to back heads, trust teachers, empower parents, take decisions locally, and above all promote choice as a route to excellence.

We will not leave children behind in sink schools. We will not cheat deserving students out of their university places.

We will reward hard work, good discipline, and those who aspire to the best.

So tell them on the doorstep between now and May 1st. If you want a good school get a Conservative Council. If you want an education system we can all be proud of—get a Conservative Government.

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