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May: North of England Education Conference Speech

Education is the key that unlocks the door to the future of every child`s life. We want our children to be the best educated, most motivated and inspired in the world. We want every child to have the education which is right for them.

"Education must be grounded in firm roots, but it should also widen a young person`s horizons and enable them to seek to achieve what had previously seemed beyond their reach. Whatever a young person`s abilities we should be striving to challenge them to achieve.

"But the curriculum needs to be sufficiently flexible to provide for those wide horizons and teachers need to be freed from centralised interference and the burden of bureaucracy so that they can nurture the interests and abilities of every young person and inspire them to achieve at their full potential.

"An education world in which standards are levelled down and the lowest common denominator prevails does nothing to encourage and motivate young people. That is why standards, choice, freedom and diversity are the watchwords of Conservative education policy. But before I look further at our policies, I want to take stock of the impact on education of nearly four years of a Labour government. I`m sure there are many who thought in May 1997 that the Promised Land had come and everything in the garden would be rosy.

"Who would believe that now? What I hear constantly is that heads, teachers, parents and governors feel let down by Labour - disillusioned with a Government that promised so much and has failed to deliver.

"When Tony Blair said his priority was education, education and education he didn`t explain that teachers would be inundated with new Ministerial schemes day by day and that each scheme would bring yet more instructions, yet more red tape, yet more paperwork.

"He didn`t explain that teachers would find themselves endlessly chasing new targets - targets based not on the individual child`s needs or on schools` needs, but on Ministers` need to grab yet another headline.

"He didn`t explain that their schemes for social inclusion meant keeping disruptive children in the very schools they were disrupting, often undermining the authority of the Head and making the life of teachers and other children a misery.

"Labour didn`t say that their schemes meant taking away funding for school sixth forms, giving it to a quango to distribute and leaving many schools fearful of their future, or introducing a standards fund so complicated that it virtually took a degree in public sector accounting to understand it.

"They didn`t say their schemes meant rewarding failure by constantly giving more money to failing schools while successful schools felt increasingly left out in the cold.

"It is perhaps in their approach to failing schools that we see so well the obsession this Government has with spin. Remember the headlines for superheads and Fresh Start. Where are those superheads and Fresh Start schools now? No one who watched the television series on Islington Arts and Media College can have been in any doubt about the failure of the Fresh Start policy.

"And now we hear the Minister come up with her latest scheme for failing schools now identified as being in challenging circumstances. Yet again those schools who are achieving success in challenging circumstances will ask themselves why their efforts are not rewarded but those who are failing find themselves being rewarded with yet more funds.

"But what is a failing school? Isn`t it time we had value added tables showing what each school is really achieving in the quality of education it provides.

"The press reported some days ago that the Government had been learning from the United States. That they wanted to bring over teachers from the States who could show teachers in difficult schools here what to do to turn a school round. But the key ingredient for those schools in the States is the very thing that this Government will not give heads and teachers - their freedom.

"If this Government is serious about learning from the States and about tackling these problems then I challenge you to give schools the freedom they need - the same freedom we gave grant maintained schools and will give Free Schools.

"Of course, the Government promised more money - and kept promising more money usually the same money they had promised before, and when it was new it was usually double or triple counted so soon no-one knew how much the Government really was putting into education. Remember the £19 billion that turned out to be £9 billion.

"Let me make it clear that the next Conservative Government will be committed to spending public money on education - on giving all children a good start in life and by doing so on improving the prospects for the country as a whole. That`s why we are committed to matching the Government`s spending on schools. But matching their overall spending doesn`t mean we would spend it in the same way.

"Of course, the Labour Government promised when they came into office to do something about the differentials within the SSA - they have done nothing. They promised to give heads virtually all their budget to spend - they have failed to deliver; and the Green Paper on local authority funding makes it clear that they have no intention of delivering. They`ll publish the figures for spending for each authority to grab media attention and try to shift the blame to individual authorities, but just don`t have the will to do what is needed to ensure that a pound spent on schools is a pound spent in schools.

"Now they promise special direct grants to schools. Don`t get me wrong. I believe in giving money directly to schools, but the Government`s much trumpeted Brown money accounts for only 1% of schools` budgets. Of course heads welcome getting money direct and being free to spend it. But let`s face it, at 1% of schools` budgets it was a gimmick. I don`t want schools to get 1% of their funding direct I want them to get 100%.

"This is a Government that believes spin, headlines and gimmicks are an alternative to real action. And nowhere is this more true than in their complete failure to tackle the biggest crisis facing our schools today - the lack of teachers.

"In 1997 Labour certainly didn`t explain that their prescriptive approach, their increased red tape, their focus on political targets would lead to the biggest crisis ever facing the teaching profession. How many more schools have to go onto a four-day week, or employ non-specialists to cover lessons, or employ unqualified staff, before the Government realise that their way isn`t working?

"Morale in the teaching profession is at an all time low. Teachers are leaving the profession in droves. The turnover of staff in schools is increasing. Many schools are teetering on the brink without applicants for vacancies, with no supply staff available and as one head told me employing anyone who can stand up and speak decent English.

"Ministers say that there are more teachers today and that there are more applicants for teacher training. But the Government is still failing to meet its targets for recruitment into teacher training, figures show a net outflow from the profession and on current trends there will be a shortage by the year 2004 of some 31,000 teachers- a figure accepted by the Secretary of State.

"About two months ago the Prime Minister announced that the Government would recruit 250,000 teachers over the next ten years. It sounded impressive, but on current trends that would mean that in ten years time we would be 100,000 teachers short. And the Prime Minister can huff and puff as much as he likes on what will happen over the next decade. Schools are facing problems today.

"The recent letter from the Director of Learning Services in Essex to the Secretary of State raised the many problems faced there including the experience of a significant number of headteachers who have been forced to appoint candidates who only two years ago they would not even have short listed. He concluded that the various problems "have a significant impact on the quality of education provided by schools". The head of Headlands School in Swindon said this was the worst situation he had seen for 17 years.

"Heads in Barnet have expressed their deep concern and warned of the threat posed to standards. We have seen four-day weeks in Corby, Slough and Medway. At one primary school in Hampshire parents were told the head might have to send home badly behaved children one afternoon a week - the good ones can stay and be supervised by a non-teacher.

"Even David Blunkett was forced to admit late last year that some schools were indeed close to meltdown, but he claimed that was early last year and that the Government had acted to tackle the problem. Yet at the same time as he was claiming that the problem was solved, he was setting up a unit in the DfEE to work with LEAs and schools to prevent schools going onto a four day week.

"This week`s news showed how little the Government has achieved or indeed even understood the problem. For what was the Government`s response to this week`s revelations? On Radio 4 the Minister said that there was a problem in some parts of the country. Minister if you really think that is the true picture then it shows how out of touch you are with the reality of life in this nation`s schools. The problem that started in London and the south east has now spread across the country. For example, I was in Cumbria recently and heads were complaining that even there - a nice part of the country to live and teach - they were finding that they were only getting one applicant for some vacancies.

"And what else did the Minister say on Wednesday. She said that this was a problem of a strong economy. What sort of message is that giving about how we value education and teachers? I know that the trend over time has shown that when the economy is doing well it is harder to recruit teachers. But if we believe in the importance of quality education for all then we need to stop that trend, not simply lie down and accept it.

"But what has the Government continued to do throughout this developing crisis? They have ignored all they have been told by teachers, parents and governors and carried on just the same as before - yet more new schemes, yet more paperwork, yet more red tape -more of what is driving too many teachers out.

"Time and time again teachers say it is the bureaucracy and workload that is driving them out of the profession. And the workload and hours mean that young people don`t see it as an attractive profession. Government policies impact on the profession in other ways too as the TES reminded us before Christmas. They reported that the Government`s push on literacy and numeracy in secondary schools means LEAs are looking to appoint more Maths and English advisers which means that experienced teachers are being lured into positions in LEAs which means yet more vacancies in schools.

"As the Head of Selsdon Primary in Croydon said recently, "We are being inundated with initiatives and expectations from central government. We are facing a crisis of huge proportion in staffing. I have already experienced situations where staff have resigned due to pressure. It is interesting to compare this to the railways where regrettably the recent accident showed that there perhaps were unreasonable targets on time keeping. The reality is the same in education - unreal targets are meaning that staff are falling apart.

"And what will be the biggest casualty of all this. It will be children`s education. Lack of teachers, too few teachers of the right caliber, teachers covering for lessons where there are vacancies so they have even less time to prepare their own lessons, non-specialists teaching in secondary schools - all of these mean one thing only. Standards will suffer.

"The Government thinks that constant activity - schemes, plans, initiatives, campaigns and projects - will raise standards. The reality is that this hyper-activity is damaging standards. The Government is fiddling while Rome burns - paying attention to too many small-scale schemes while failing to address the key issue of ensuring the supply of sufficient high calibre, motivated teachers to ensure high standards in our schools.

"As Government schemes came in the door, what went out was trust of teachers. Until we have a Government that trusts teachers again standards will fall and our children will lose out. That is why we need the Conservative`s policy of Free Schools. Schools that are completely self-governing and where the teachers are trusted to get on with the job. Free Schools will also receive all of their funding direct and based on a national funding formula.

"Currently the amount spent per pupil in different parts of the country can vary by several hundred pounds. Teachers get frustrated when they feel that they are offering the same curriculum as schools in other better funded parts of the country. Parents can`t understand why less money is being spent on their child`s education than is being spent across the county or LEA border.

"For example, figures for 2000-01 show that the spending per pupil in Staffordshire is over £350 less than in East Sussex. Indeed, East Sussex spends £100 more per pupil than neighbouring West Sussex.

"We need to reduce these discrepancies. That is why we will move to a National Funding Formula for our Free Schools. It can`t happen overnight. There will need to be a transition period to ensure that no one loses out. The formula will still have to take account of certain differing needs. But the advantages are significant for teachers, parents, governors and children. Giving schools direct funding means no loss of money en-route, no top-slicing for intermediate layers of bureaucracy. It means the total of a school`s funds being available to it to spend as local priorities require.

"A National Funding Formula means greater transparency so each school can assess properly how it is being treated, with greater equity of funding between local authority areas helping to create a more level playing field, which will give a greater sense of fairness for all. Such an open system means parents and the public in general will be better able to judge what is happening in education funding. Fewer layers of administration and bureaucracy means more money available to be spent in schools and with schools deciding how to spend the money local decision making is enhanced; and the greater continuity of funding this should bring should help schools to plan better.

"Free Schools mean fairer funding, less bureaucracy, less uncertainty, greater transparency, and higher standards. But our Free Schools policy isn`t just about funding. It is about re-instating teaching as a profession that people want to join again. We will give teachers back their jobs - getting rid of bureaucracy and giving greater freedom in the curriculum to do what is right in a particular school for their pupils. Freedom from bureaucracy means more time for teachers to prepare lessons, to innovate, to share good practice to meet the needs of individual children, to raise standards.

"If we are to ensure that every child is enabled to fulfill their true potential; if we are to ensure that we can provide every child with the education that is right for them; if we are to ensure that our children are the best educated, best motivated and inspired in the world then we need to ensure that our schools can get on with the job of educating children. We need to call a stop to the ridiculous roller-coaster of ministerial schemes designed only to spin another headline and leading inevitably to yet more money being spent on red tape and yet more teachers` time being taken away from raising standards in the classroom.

"To provide the quality of education we all want and to enable all to achieve their full potential we must let heads get on with the job of running their schools, trust teachers and set our schools free. That is the Conservative way. Only then will we achieve the real balance needed to provide the roots to grow and the wings to fly for all our children.

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