Good morning, and thank you Sir Anthony [Seldon, Master of Wellington College] for that very kind introduction.
It’s a pleasure to speak here at Wellington College – a school that’s gone from strength to strength over the last decade under your careful stewardship.
I’m sure staff and pupils, past and present, will look back on your time here with great fondness.
Certainly the ministerial team at the Department for Education have benefited from your wise and thoughtful advice, and long may that continue.
Today, of course, is the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo, marking the defeat of Napoleon and his army by the seventh coalition, with British troops being led by Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington, in whose honour this school is named.
A defining chapter in our history and a moment that helped make our nation great. A moment that showed British grit in the face of adversity. And our ability to stick it out, bounce back, keep calm and carry on. Shared values that bind us together as one nation.
When I think of those shared values, those shared experiences that make us proud to be British, I think of something I believe all of us here hold dear: our conviction that equality of opportunity is the cornerstone of a modern and enlightened society.
Education is at the heart of our governing philosophy
And education is the greatest way to level the playing field and give every child the chance to be all that they can be, and to reach their full potential.
This government has committed to deliver real social justice and in no arena more than education do we have such potential to realise it.
A good education is the key to the good life. A meaningful job. A sense of community and belonging. The skills to embrace the change and challenges of modern life in an increasingly global world.
So I am proud of our drive over the past 5 years – our drive to ensure that every child is given the tools they need to develop and learn.
From phonics and times tables at primary schools, all the way through to new gold standard qualifications at 16 and 18, we need to ensure that young people master the basics in primary and develop that deep understanding in secondary.
Because if our focus shifts, and if we lose sight of the fundamental knowledge and skills that form the heart of a rigorous curriculum, the people that lose out are the most disadvantaged.
It’s those children for whom a good education matters most – children growing up in families where their parents and carers haven’t had the same opportunities so many of us enjoy.
These young people are the people we cheat when we somehow pretend a core education doesn’t matter. That false equivalents do the job just as well.
Which is why I announced earlier this week that every child starting in year 7 in September will be expected to study core academic subjects that make up the EBacc right up to GCSE.
Because one of my guiding principles – and I’m sure yours, too – is that every child, no matter their family circumstances, no matter where they’re from or what their background is, can succeed if we give them the tools that allow them to achieve that success.
A rigorous academic curriculum must be central to that.
Creating the conditions for success
And if we’re to have high expectations for every child, we have to create the right conditions for those high expectations, where a love for learning can flourish.
And we know that children need certain character traits to excel academically.
The kind of traits that should be embedded through a whole-school approach to character education, helping children and young people become decent, happy, well-balanced citizens.
I’m talking about exactly the kind of education that Anthony has championed for so long – I’m grateful for your research and support.
And, as you say, Anthony, academic attainment and exam success are just part of the story.
Building a strong character and a sense of moral purpose is part of the responsibility we have towards our children, our society and our nation.
Because if our schools don’t nurture and develop these key traits, we run the risk of creating a generation who excel at passing exams, writing essays, absorbing information, but children without the skills they need to tackle the challenges that lie ahead and participate in society as active citizens, to make the right decisions and build their own moral framework.
I want to help our education system to nurture a generation that has the pioneering spirit and determination that’s marked us out as a nation throughout history.
So as our academic reforms start to take root and restore our qualifications and examinations system to the gold standard it is supposed to enjoy, we have the perfect opportunity to look at the curriculum.
- the character traits Doug Lemov wants to see all teachers foster in their classrooms – the skills that will help children remain on the right track as they embark on the next stage of their educational journey
- I want us to avoid the situation that was seen in the early stages of the American charter school system – highly motivated pupils, excellent results, but none of the skills needed to study independently and complete a degree
- the growth mindset, the ability to deal with set-backs, and the willingness to practice that Matthew Syed argues is essential to success
If I can sum up my ambition for the next 5 years it would be spreading the excellence in schools we’ve unlocked over the last 5 years everywhere across the country.
Our reforms have seen the unleashing of some truly excellent practice.
We’ve built on Andrew Adonis’s fledgling academies programme to create a network of self-governing schools around the country – setting their own direction and giving parents choice.
Free schools like ARK Conway Academy, providing an outstanding and innovative education to some of the country’s most disadvantaged children.
Or School 21, which I had the pleasure of visiting recently, with its continuous focus on character and integrity – attributes embedded into every aspect of school life.
Schools like these are the modern engines of social justice.
But – to be abundantly clear here – it’s not the fact of being a free school or an academy that leads to this excellence.
Rather, it’s what being an academy or a free school stands for.
Freeing up schools and governors to make decisions that are right for their pupils.
Greater competition and collaboration in the system. Encouraging local schools to learn from each other, share best practice and even partake in a bit of healthy rivalry!
The innovative approaches that come when you give teachers and school leaders freedom beyond the red tape and bureaucracy.
However, we have to acknowledge that excellence in the system is all too often confined to urban areas.
Pockets of under-performance persist in coastal and rural areas, and even in some of our leafy suburbs schools who have the capability to be really excellent are coasting along at ‘just good enough’.
I know that changes take time to embed, that improvements don’t happen all at once.
But consistent improvement and spreading excellence is what the next 5 years has to be about. And that’s what the Education and Adoption Bill, which will receive its second reading next week focuses on.
The question I have asked myself, and the question I will continue to ask, is how I, as Secretary of State, can help to spread excellence throughout the school system, from the early years right through to sixth from, across the whole country? How can we ensure that by 2020 there aren’t just 1 million more pupils in ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ schools? How do we ensure we repeat this success?
We’re at a new record high on the number of these ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ schools, but this shouldn’t stop us going even further.
And the reason I’m asking myself that is because a consistently excellent education system has to be at the heart of our commitment to govern as one nation.
Not just levelling
I’ve mentioned our aspirations for disadvantaged pupils, our conviction that central to social justice is closing the attainment gap that still persists.
But I want to do that by raising standards for everyone. Not working to the lowest common denominator.
I don’t want bright and driven kids from disadvantaged backgrounds to be content with average grades and average opportunities, simply because the gap has closed. I want a pupil premium that stretches them to the fullest degree.
That’s why the historic focus on in-school gaps in attainment can’t be our only focus – instead we should be ambitious for all.
Of course, it’s right to expect that schools should be supporting all pupils to achieve a floor standard, but we can’t afford to settle for the minimum.
Because true social justice means enabling the very brightest to jump from Bs to As, just as it does getting others from Ds to Cs.
I want to finish on a note of reassurance.
I don’t want anyone to mistake stability for silence, to presume that education is no longer a priority for the government.
Education is a core part of this government’s agenda for this Parliament.
The fact of the matter is that we now have to work with heads and teachers to make a reality of our new curriculum and qualifications.
The dust must settle; we must give schools the chance to seize the opportunities our reforms offer.
But, at the same time, I’m clear that the best schools should be able to extend their reach, to help more schools, more teachers and more pupils.
To borrow unashamedly from ASCL‘s blueprint for a self-improving school system, I want to use my time as Education Secretary to give schools and the profession the skills and capacity to improve, but I want each and every one of you to take responsibility for that improvement. I want to unleash greatness in the system.
It’s for all of us to ask the question: if it’s possible for this headteacher, this school, this area to achieve that greatness, why would anyone else settle for less?