Speech to Education Question & Answer session at Conservative Spring Forum 2002
Most of this session is for you to make your points and ask questions, but I just want to say a few words at the outset about the state of our education system, and our Party's approach to making it better.
Since we are in Harrogate, the constituency of the Liberal Democrats' Education Spokesman, I should as a matter of courtesy refer to the LibDems policy. Well, policies really, because it depends where you are. This is the party that votes to abolish grammar schools in Parliament, but defends them locally. That says it supports church schools, as long as they have nothing to do with religion. Today I can unveil a new LibDem policy, on the numeracy hour. The LibDems will ask the pupil what two plus two makes, and then agree with the answer.
But many of today's problems in our schools stem from the Government. Five years ago education was the number one priority. Now, schools are rarely on his mind, even on the occasions when he visits this country. But even he can't believe that it's all wonderful. There are schools where classes have had 13 different teachers in 14 weeks. Truancy is up sharply since Labour came to power. Bullying is a real problem in far too many schools. Teachers are on strike for the first time in 20 years. Head Teachers are threatening industrial action for the first time since we created state education in 1870. 20 per cent of new teachers leave the profession within three years of starting—usually complaining about the unnecessary work caused by Government red tape.
So it's not all rosy. But nor is it all bad. One of my early tasks has been to immerse myself in the education system, which is why I spent a week in a comprehensive in south London, both learning and teaching. One heart-warming memory was of a class of 13-year-olds. They had been studying Twelfth Night, and the teacher said that there was a production on in London, and asked who wanted to see it. Every hand in the class shot up.
It shows what can be achieved by an inspirational teacher, and it cheered me up no end to see that all those educational theorists who say that Shakespeare can mean nothing to modern inner city children from ethnic minorities are talking rubbish.
And we too should take a lesson from that teacher. We should applaud the work done by teachers up and down this country every day. Teachers are not wreckers, Mr Blair. They are hard-working professionals who deserve respect. No Government will create a world-class school system without the enthusiastic involvement of our teachers.
So our task over the coming months and years is to turn into practical policies our instinct to take power away from central Government and give it those who know and care most about education—parents, governors, teachers, and the local community. People often ask us the very fair question, what difference would you lot make?
My answer is that, just as a first point, if I were Education Secretary instead of Estelle Morris far fewer directions and guidelines would pour out of the Department for Education. Teachers would spend their time teaching instead of filling in forms. Governors would be allowed to set the direction of the school. Local people, local councillors, would be trusted to know the local schools better than the Minister back in Whitehall.
A Conservative Government would not interfere across the board. We would concentrate on the areas that need change. We would back heads who want to ensure discipline in schools. We would make our vocational education as good as the best of our academic education—because it's just as important. And we would let schools reflect the needs of their local community, not the needs of the Government's spin doctors.
Estelle Morris and I both want excellence in our schools. The difference is that she wants to achieve it by ordering people about; I want to achieve it by trusting people. Her way is doomed to failure. You cannot run 25,000 schools from the Secretary of State's office. Our way is to set standards of excellence, to back heads and teachers in maintaining discipline, and to trust local people to know what's best for their children. That's the practical way, the Conservative way, and with your help, I want to make it the way all our schools are run after the next Election.