Mr Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen. I am grateful to you for inviting me to speak to your conference today. As the third politician to speak to you in as many days, you will be relieved to hear that I propose to take as my theme the need to remove politicians from the running of our schools.
Politicians have a poor record in education. Over the last thirty years, the standard response to concerns about our children's education has been to strip discretion from schools and their head teachers, and to vest it instead in ministers and their officials.
It has become a circular policy: the more we have worried about our education system, the more responsibility the government has taken to itself, and the more people have come to expect that it is the government, not schools, that can solve problems in education.
After thirty years of seemingly permanent turmoil in our education system we have ended up with a system in which ministers have sequestrated our schools. Education policy has become synonymous with telling head teachers how they should run their schools, and taking every possible step to make sure that they do precisely what they are ordered.
Government ministers now tell schools what they should teach and how they should teach it. They specify what size classes should be and what homework should be set. They lay down how much teachers should be paid, what bonuses they can get, what qualifications they must have, and what syllabus they must follow to obtain their qualifications. They even tell schools what they are allowed to do to keep discipline in the classroom.
I don't say that this abandonment of common sense began on the 2nd of May 1997. Conservative governments have been as guilty as others of over-centralising our education system. But I do think there is something in what a teacher in my own constituency said to me when I visited a school. Pointing at a pile of paperwork on her desk she said: "we thought your lot were bad, but look at all this…"
I can see what she means. 17 national plans for schools have been launched during the last three years: every one of them devised in Whitehall. We have the education development plan, the early years development plan, the ICT plan, the community plan, the school organisation plan, the admissions plan, the class sizes plan, the new deal plan, the asset plan, the post-inspection plan, and, my favourite, the education plan of plans.
And then there are the national targets that are now imposed on every school. The word 'target' implies some greater degree of discretion for schools than might be allowed by a national plan, but I don't need to tell you that the Government's targets are very far from being discretionary. So we now have the target for truancy, the target for school leavers, the target for GCSE grades, the target for numeracy and literacy…the list goes on and on.
Since 1997, schools have received over 1,000 publications and regulations from the DfEE, and in the first six months of last year, the Department issued 140 circulars of guidance to teachers.
Rules and regulations, directives and instructions are now sprayed out from Whitehall on a daily basis. They bind our most exceptional schools just as they do those that are underperforming.
Faced with all this interference, all this direction, all this control from politicians the question is not why do many of our schools fail to achieve their potential, but how is it that any succeed?
It's time to try a different approach. Time, in fact, to try the opposite approach. Could not the problems in our schools system be better addressed by replacing compulsion with choice, and by replacing central control with more independence for our schools?
The more I talk to teachers, the more I talk to parents, the more convinced I am that it's an idea whose time has come.
Our best graduates now have a wide choice of careers. Teaching still offers amazing opportunities to inspire, to be creative and to lead. But if new graduates think that they are entering a profession in which they are prevented from exercising their own judgment and must take orders from people remote from their schools, they will choose to follow a different path.
And the days are fast receding when people were prepared to accept that, in services that are the most important determinants of the quality of their families' lives - schools, hospitals, pensions - they should suspend the level of choice they expect in much less significant fields, and instead trust Government ministers to give them what is in their best interests.
So what I want to paint for you this morning is not a picture of new regulations replacing old ones, or to promise another series of annual Education Bills. I don't want to tell you what I think your priorities should be, or what teaching methods you should use, or whether you should have smaller classes or larger classes, or how you should reward performance. I don't want to launch a list of Tory targets to replace those the Government has imposed.
Instead, I want to show how, by giving independence to schools and choice to heads, teachers and parents, we can offer a better future for our children.
People of my generation and above never had any doubt that the reputation of a school owed a huge amount to the vision, leadership and effective management of the Head. Our best schools had, and still have, head teachers who are inspirational leaders of their pupils and staff alike.
But we are making the colossal mistake of stripping head teachers of the opportunity to exercise their own judgement and experience, and instead imposing on them national policies which they have no choice but to implement.
Head teachers and their staff will not command respect in their own schools if they are treated as managers on the receiving end of instructions from the council or from Whitehall.
The right approach is precisely the opposite. We need to give more independence to schools and their head teachers.
Head teachers should be free to shape the character and ethos of their schools, by setting their own policies and exercising their own judgement.
For example, schools should be free to keep their own sixth forms. The Government prefers what they see as the more rational environment of tertiary colleges. So the funding formula in the Learning and Skills Act has been designed to corrode school sixth forms by starving them of funds. But sixth forms can play a vital role in the life of many of our secondary schools - often out of all proportion to their size. They can instil leadership qualities in pupils and give positive examples to younger children of people choosing to stay on beyond the years of compulsory schooling. And many head teachers I talk to tell me that a sixth form can make all the difference in their ability to recruit and retain the best teachers, who enjoy being stretched by the full range of academic achievement.
Discipline is another example of where the ethos of individual schools should be cherished, but instead it is constantly undermined.
You know better than I do that one disruptive child can wreck the education of an entire class. If children do not learn discipline at school, in all too many cases they are unlikely to learn it at home, with tragic consequences for themselves and society.
It is unacceptable that ministers should tell head teachers that they must cut by a third the number of disruptive pupils in their school they are allowed permanently to exclude. And it is disgraceful that schools should face thousands of pounds in fines for every exclusion above the arbitrary number that Whitehall invents for them.
This interference by people who know nothing of the situation in particular schools has very real consequences. Listen to the story of two London secondary schools that were recently forced to readmit pupils they had permanently excluded for wielding knives and terrorising other pupils. "Now" say the head teachers, "all the other pupils are desperately frightened". As a result of overriding head teachers' experience the education of hundreds of children has been jeopardised.
And too often these days, when trying to keep discipline for the sake of all pupils, teachers run the risk of being made public scapegoats themselves.
Our schools should have no place for teachers who overstep the mark. But I do not see why good teachers should see their careers blighted and their reputations dragged through the mud on the back of an unsubstantiated accusation by a disaffected student. Teachers who are the subject of complaints by pupils should not be named until full investigations into them have been conducted, and the truth established.
In order to give heads the chance to lead their schools without interference from politicians, I want to give every school in Britain the choice to be more independent of the Government and of the local council than ever before.
Local education authorities retain an average of 26 per cent of the expenditure channelled to schools through them - and in some cases nearly 40 per cent. That amounts to well over £3 billion a year. And a further £1 billion is kept back by the DfEE for its pet schemes.
Under our policy, all schools will receive their funding directly, without most of these deductions, and will be determined by a new National Funding Formula.
Why, moreover, should you have to waste your time bidding for pots of money dedicated to Whitehall's priorities? I believe this money too should be given directly to schools, to be used for head teachers' priorities.
Our proposals mean that head teachers and governors will be free to manage their own budgets, free to employ their own staff, free to increase teachers' pay according to how they allocate the budget, free to commission their own school transport.
There are some functions that local council will still need to carry out, such as educational welfare and special needs statementing. But leaving aside these activities, we calculate that if the rest of councils' schools budgets and the DfEE money kept back went directly to schools, head teachers would, on average, have an extra £540 per pupil to spend.
In a secondary school of 1,000 pupils that puts over half a million pounds a year more in the school's budget. Heads will have discretion over how they use the funds. They may choose to use part of the increase to help them recruit and retain staff where this is a priority for the school: perhaps holding onto a good maths teacher who might otherwise move elsewhere.
Our policy is about choice, not compulsion. Heads and governors may choose to continue to spend their extra resources on services provided by the local authority. But I think that, given the choice, many heads would find they were able to make their money go further by placing contracts elsewhere, perhaps in combination with other schools.
It won't happen overnight. There will be an important transition period, because we want to ensure that no schools loses out under the National Funding Formula that we will introduce. We will consult widely with heads, teachers, governors, parents and local councillors to ensure that we implement our policy in the most sensible way.
We must trust teachers to make their own decisions and not expect them merely to implement a national blueprint.
Between the lines of some of the education policies of recent years has been conducted a tacit debate about whether teaching is best characterised as a craft, which can be taught, or an art, which depends upon the teacher's individual personality.
There is, of course, something in both perspectives. Not everything in teaching has to be reinvented from scratch. There are obviously experiences and methods that can be shared across schools and by different teachers.
But I don't underestimate individual teachers' own, very personal, role in bringing subjects to life, in inspiring their pupils and in teaching them how to think.
Certainly, I remember Robert Godber as a great teacher when he taught me politics at Wath-upon-Dearne Comprehensive. But I don't think that had much to do with him following an approved way of teaching.
I think that we have now gone too far towards prescription, and that we are now constraining the ingenuity and flair of our best teachers in our best schools. We are going beyond a National Curriculum towards nationalising the methodology of teaching.
I have listened to the many teachers who have told me that the National Curriculum has become far too prescriptive - and I agree. There is less and less space for teachers to follow their own views of what it is in the best interests of their pupils.
It is crazy, for example, that pupils who are struggling to read, write and add up are forced by the National Curriculum to move on to other lessons, when the teachers who know them best think that it would be most useful to consolidate their literacy. That is why we would allow schools to exempt children who have not yet reached basic standards of literacy and numeracy from other requirements of the National Curriculum, at least until they have caught up.
And while I share the Government's view that our children should learn how to be good citizens, I would far rather give teachers and heads the discretion to let this run through all of the work of the school, than have to follow a standard lesson conceived in Whitehall.
So we will simplify the National Curriculum, and give head teachers and their staff much more choice in how they structure their lessons.
In giving more choice to head and teachers, I also want to simplify how the National Curriculum applies to schools.
As a result of the work of Ofsted over the last nine years, we are in a better position than before to know which schools are thriving and which are failing. Reliable information, combined with parental choice, should provide an alternative to detailed regulation.
Schools which have a consistent record of high achievement, and who have shown that they can be trusted to deliver a good, rounded education should not be required to comply with every detail of the National Curriculum. But we should retain the safeguard that it offers children in schools with a less positive record, at least until their standards rise to meet the best.
Let me say something about inspections themselves. I am unstinting in my praise for the work Ofsted has done in shedding light on the relative performance of our schools. Inspections identify successful schools and ensure that teachers who work in them receive the recognition and praise they so richly deserve. And they bring problems out into the open so that solutions can be found.
Every school, and every teacher, wants to present the best possible face to the inspectors - no professional would do otherwise. But if more inspections were conducted at short notice, there would be less reason for teachers and schools to be distracted for long periods of time in preparing for visits. And inspectors would get a view of the school as it really is.
I also think we could now reduce the surveillance of schools that have a consistent record of high achievement - for example by having longer intervals between inspections - so that inspectors can focus their work on schools with real problems.
Ofsted reports are not the only source of information on schools' performance. I am worried by the fact that league tables do not always do justice to a school's achievements. Some of our best schools are successful because, starting from a very low base, they transform the prospects of pupils.
So we will publish value-added league tables that enable parents to see clearly what progress children are making over time in a particular school. That means knowing the point from which children start, which is why we will publish for all schools the reading and maths results of Key Stage One - information that the Government currently keeps secret.
We may have more choice than ever in most areas of our lives, but when it comes to what, for many of us, is the most important choice of all - the education our children get - too many parents have no choice at all.
Yet this lack of choice is often wholly artificial, reflecting government restrictions on numbers rather than an absence of alternative schools.
Britain has some excellent schools. Sometimes they are virtually next door to weaker ones. Nothing is more frustrating for parents than to be told that they cannot send their child to the school of their choice because its numbers are artificially restricted in order to keep numbers up at the neighbouring school.
One of the big benefits I expect to see in giving choice back to heads and governors in how to run their schools is that they will be free to expand their intake to meet the demand from parents. That way, more parents will get their first choice of school for their children.
And genuine choice for parents involves genuine diversity among schools. By returning to heads the power to shape their schools according to their own vision, we can look forward to a flourishing range of excellent, but different, schools rather than the identikit institutions that government policy is driving us towards.
That does not mean that every school in an area will choose to be a selective school, using identical criteria for selection. In practice I expect schools in an area will work together so that they offer real choice and complementarity - in some parts of the country that happened spontaneously during the era of Grant Maintained Schools. If necessary we will put in place mechanisms to ensure that no child can fall outside the provision of good schools in their area.
Choice should not only entail choosing between schools that are currently operating. By financing schools according to the number of pupils they have, we will enable vibrant new schools to be created by independent foundations, be they companies, charities, churches or other faith groups.
New schools will create new choices for parents, children and teachers alike, and ensure that our education system changes direction from one of increasing uniformity to one of growing diversity.
We will never give all of our children a world-class education while we struggle to attract enough of our best graduates into the profession, and are losing so many experienced teachers.
Who would have thought that after four years of a Government which promised to make education its top priority, we would be suffering a crisis in the recruitment and retention of teachers?
You know the problem better than anyone: to weigh up the scale of it, just pick up a copy of the TES these days: there are nearly 4,000 vacancies in this week's issue alone.
One survey has shown that in three out of four education authorities schools are struggling to find suitably qualified staff.
And the study recently conducted by this Association makes for alarming reading. 10,000 unfilled vacancies in secondary schools across the country.
The recruitment crisis in our schools will never be solved until the Government recognise that teachers can no longer be regarded as a captive body - people who, having recognised an indelible vocation, can be bullied and directed.
People have choices in the career they pursue, and for new graduates, there are many alternatives to teaching. We must wake up to what it is that our brightest and most creative people want from a career.
Of course they want to be financially comfortable. I recognise that we can no longer expect teachers to see their pay fall further and further behind that of people with similar qualifications in other professions. Having said that, I cannot stand here today and give you an open-ended commitment about pay rises under a future Conservative Government. You would probably not believe me if I did.
But our policy of direct funding of schools will allow heads to make the most effective use of what resources they have, including the power to direct more of their budgets to recruiting and retaining staff.
I think it is right to reward good teaching with more pay. But the most striking feature of the Government's particular form of performance-related pay that is being introduced now seems to be the enormous amount of paperwork it involves. Some teachers have told me that it is taking them up to twenty hours to fill in the form. Heads tell me that they have to spend as much as two hours on the form for each member of their staff. And the process does not even end there. The Government is spending £25 million on external assessors to go through every single form all over again.
When valued teachers are leaving the profession and it is desperately hard to replace them, it is madness to divert what funds are available into a performance-related pay scheme that wastes money on bureaucracy, demoralises rather than motivates good teachers and undermines the position of the head by subjecting his or her decision to the scrutiny of external assessors.
There are other things we can do to make teaching a financially viable career choice. The average new graduate has a student loan of about £10,000, and must start to repay it as soon as they earn £10,000 a year. This can be a serious deterrent to new graduates choosing teaching as a career over other, perhaps better paid, alternatives. That is why we propose to double the salary at which point student loans must be repaid from £10,000 to £20,000 a year.
But it is not all, or even mostly, about money.
No one chooses to become a teacher because they expect to earn a fortune. But the least they should expect is to be able to practise as teachers, rather than as back-office administrators.
Yet teachers all over the country tell me that that is what their jobs are turning into. If you add together the various forms issued by DfEE in the last few years you have the equivalent of more than 17 million lessons a year in teaching time wasted on filling in paperwork.
New graduates know this: the word gets out. This rising tide of bureaucracy and interference makes teaching a less attractive career choice.
Above all, the recruitment crisis will not be solved until teachers are treated with respect. Head teachers used to be amongst the most distinguished members of our communities. It is hardly surprising that the status of heads and teachers has declined when the Government itself behaves towards the profession as if it consisted entirely of recalcitrant incompetents.
There's not a person in this room who deserves to be described as being head of a 'bog-standard' comprehensive.
But there's many a person who will choose to think twice about following a career in which their ingenuity and hard work can be dismissed by their employers in so arrogant a fashion.
We have had 30 years of increasing government control in our schools system - and increasingly detailed control, at that. Conservative governments have been guilty of excessive interference as well as Labour governments.
Not all of these interventions were wrong. The National Curriculum and the creation of Ofsted were important steps in reducing the number of our young people who were failed completely by the education system.
But for our schools, our teachers and our children, to reach their true potential the next 30 years must be marked by a very different approach, an approach based on halting the accretion of instructions from politicians and replacing it with more independence for our schools, their heads and teachers.
Giving this degree of independence to schools and their heads may be seen by many as an ambitious policy.
But I am ambitious for our children, and for our schools.
And it is right that we should learn the lessons from experience and offer the next generation of children and teachers the opportunities that they deserve.