Two hours into our conference and we have already seen how much our Party is changing. We have heard from a Trade Union leader, from a Head Teacher from America and from the leader of our Further Education Colleges. We are an open minded Party, confident enough to listen and learn from anyone who has the best interests of our children at heart. How different from this Labour Government, which ignores and insults teachers while slavishly following the advice of focus groups and spin doctors.
Tony Blair was right about one thing - not a phrase I hear myself saying very often - Tony Blair was right when he said education matters more than anything else.
Every child, from every background, deserves the chance to learn the best that has been thought and written by our greatest minds.
It can be done. I saw it when I spent a week at a school in Wandsworth, teaching a little but learning a lot more. I revelled in the moment when an English teacher with a form of thirteen-year-olds who had been studying Twelfth Night asked who wanted to see a production that was starting in London. Every hand in the room shot up. Inner city teenagers, from every social and ethnic background you could imagine, spellbound by Shakespeare.
Don't ever let the educational theorists tell you that the best of our literature is not relevant to modern children. They love it, and they deserve to be taught it well.
Now Tony Blair would agree with that. He talks the language of education reform. But his policies are failing our children.
It is important to understand why. The central mistake of Labour's education policy is the belief that Government knows best. That you can only improve schools from the top down, with an initiative every day, telling teachers how to teach, telling heads how to run their schools, and telling universities who they must admit. This approach is arrogant, it demeans the teachers, and worst of all it means that everything in education is now political.
Politically controlled central planning is dead. It is not the way anything should be run in the twenty first century. If I get the chance as Education Secretary my first job will be to free our education system from the dead hand of daily Government interference. And what a pleasure that job will be.
Ask anyone who took their A levels this year if they trust the Government on education. Ask the ninety thousand students who worked hard for years and who don't yet know whether they were fiddled out of the grades they deserved.
Tony Blair has the cheek to complain about cynicism. If you are an 18-year-old who has been cheated out of the university place you deserve you have every right to be cynical. Tony Blair and Estelle Morris should not need to have apologies dragged out of them: they should be travelling up and down this country apologising to young people for the hurt this fiasco has caused.
But that's only one crisis. Government interference is causing many more.
Ask the teachers who face a rising tide of violence and disrespect in the classroom. Last week Estelle Morris said 'one child threatening one teacher in one of our schools is one too many'. She was right. But I remember her telling schools not to exclude violent pupils. And what happened? Serious attacks on teachers in schools have tripled in the last four years.
Ask the heads who cannot exclude those violent pupils without a long and expensive legal battle. One London head told me about a boy who threw a chair from the roof of a building into a crowded playground. Thank God no one was killed. The legal fees for that exclusion ran to more than twenty thousand pounds.
I think that twenty thousand pounds would be better spent on books, equipment, and teachers.
Ask the teachers about paperwork as well. About filling in forms just to satisfy the Government's obsessive need for control. About the seventeen pages of Government advice for every working day. Personally I prefer to see teachers in the classroom, teaching children.
And finally ask our children themselves - the children we are leaving behind.
One in four children leave primary school unable to read, write or count properly.
Fifty thousand children play truant every day.
Worst of all ten thousand children have simply been lost. The system doesn't know where they are. Ten thousand young lives already robbed of their best chance. After five years in Government, Labour should be ashamed of themselves.
The Conservative approach
Our children deserve a different approach. The Conservative solution is to trust people more than politicians. To trust heads to manage the school and to trust teachers to know how to do their job. In short, to take the politicians out of the classroom.
We know it can be done. Take schools like Highbury Fields in London. Half its pupils receive free school meals. Its results are twice as good as similar schools. Take voluntary groups like Black Boys Can, using the energy of the African Caribbean Community to raise the aspirations of young black men. Take councils like Wandsworth. Tory Wandsworth in case you've forgotten.
Despite having nearly twice as many children on free school meals as neighbouring borough Merton, its GCSE results are better. It raises the aspirations of its pupils, both in the leafy suburbs and the inner city. This is practical compassionate Conservatism in action - providing hope and a ladder out of deprivation and poverty.
So we have a choice. The Labour vision is of an education system driven from the centre. My vision is that excellent schools and colleges will flourish if and only if we trust them to take their own decisions. I want the school to be the most important part of our education system, not the Department for Education. I am the first aspiring Education Secretary to say that I want less power, not more. Some of you - and some A-level students - may wish that Estelle Morris had the same ambition.
I want less power because heads and teachers know more than any Minister about what the children in their school really need. Parents deserve more of a say about where their child goes to school.
Those are our principles. And here are some policies to make those principles real, and to create a better society.
Take the exam crisis. I said some months ago that we were putting young people on an exam treadmill, forcing too many of them to give up sport, music, and drama. AS levels have done more harm than good and they should go. We need a new exam system which gives young people more time and space to learn. That's a policy commitment.
And that exam system should be placed a million miles away from political interference. That's why I say the exam watchdog, the QCA, should be given the same kind of independence as the Bank of England. If Ministers want to avoid accusations of meddling, they should remove themselves from temptation. We would make the QCA independent. That's a policy commitment
Let's give heads more power over discipline in the classroom. We will abolish the costly and bureaucratic appeals panels that second-guess heads and governors. That's a policy commitment.
We would allow heads to require parents to sign a contract with the school ensuring that their child would respect the code of conduct and discipline. And we would give those contracts legal backing. We would make sure that inside the school gate, the head's word is law. That's a policy commitment.
Let's allow heads to decide how to spend their money. Instead of tying their hands so that the year they want to replace the loos, like the girls in the video wanted, they have to spend it on the windows, I would allow heads to decide how to spend the money they receive. That's a policy commitment.
Let's make it easier for good schools to expand. More than this, let's make it possible for new schools to start up. We have been learning from other countries. In Holland, seventy per cent of schools are not run by the Government. They agree that the Government's duty is to pay for children's education. But they know that Government does not have a monopoly of wisdom about how to run a school. That simple fact is recognised not just in Holland, but in Sweden, Denmark, many other European countries and the United States. Why should services funded by the state be run by the state?
So in Britain we will introduce State Scholarships, starting in our most deprived areas, which will allow parents and other groups to set up new schools, funded by the state, but run by independent bodies. This will be a revolution in our school system. The sort of choice in schools now enjoyed only by the well off will be spread to many more families. That's a policy commitment.
This last policy is crucial because our Party is always at its best when its spreads wealth and opportunity throughout the population. When we look at what the well-off take for granted, and say "Why shouldn't everyone have the same chance?" Twenty years ago we gave millions of people their first chance to buy their own homes. Now we want to give them their first chance to choose the school they really want for their children. That's the way to give every child a fair start in life: Give power to the parents, not the politicians.
That's six new policies, and of course there will need to be more
Our next priority will be our hard-pressed universities. Our policies will be based on the belief that universities are independent bodies that should not be an arm of the state; that a degree should mean something; and that every university place should be awarded on merit, not to meet some arbitrary Government target.
We must also improve our vocational education, which despite the best efforts of David Gibson and his colleagues remains the Cinderella of education. When I visited Germany and Holland I saw children as young as thirteen loving the chance to plaster a wall, or re-wire a building, in their school. They were give the chance to try something else, to find another avenue through which they could succeed.
Another future priority is the role of councils. So I have asked some of our councillors to look at the role of a modern Local Education Authority, and they will be reporting back soon. I thank them, and every councillor who devotes time and energy to education.
So we know we have further to go. But we know the path we are on. Our challenge is to give every child a chance. To make sure that we do not leave any child behind.
Our inspiration will come not from ideology or prejudice, but from what works.
Trusting the head to run the school works.
Allowing teachers to spend their time teaching works
Letting good schools expand works.
Valuing practical as well as academic ability works.
And above all, giving every child the chance to go to an excellent school works.
A Russian proverb says that education is light; lack of education is darkness. Too many of our children are still trapped in that darkness. Our prize is to enable all our children to share in the light of a good education.
We can do that for our children. For their sake, we must.