Speech: The purpose of education

Education reform is the great social justice cause of our times. If we are to deliver a fairer society, in which opportunity is shared more widely, we must secure the highest standards of education for all young people, regardless of their background.

This is the commitment which has been at the heart of the government’s programme of reform. It is a pleasure to speak at a conference today with so many dedicated professionals and experts who share this belief, and have guided and implemented the changes we have introduced.

Today, thanks to the hard work of thousands of teachers, 100,000 more 6-year-olds are on track to become confident readers as a result of our focus on phonics.

Two hundred thousand fewer pupils are persistently absent from school compared to 5 years ago.

And over a million more children now attend a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ school than in 2010.

But too many children still do not receive the standard of education to which they are entitled. In this new Parliament, we will continue to support teachers to raise standards and challenge underperformance.

Two weeks ago, we confirmed the next steps in our programme of structural reform, by setting out more details of how we will support and turn around schools which are ‘coasting’ or failing through the Education and Adoption Bill.

And we have announced our intention that 11-year-olds starting secondary school in September will be the first cohort to benefit from a core academic curriculum when they reach GCSE.

Purpose of education

Today, though, I would like to take a step back from the details of our reforms and turn to a broader question: what is the purpose of education?

Education is the engine of our economy, it is the foundation of our culture, and it’s an essential preparation for adult life. Delivering on our commitment to social justice requires us to place these 3 objectives at the heart of our education system.

We all have a responsibility to educate the next generation of informed citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said, and instilling in them a love of knowledge and culture for their own sake. But education is also about the practical business of ensuring that young people receive the preparation they need to secure a good job and a fulfilling career, and have the resilience and moral character to overcome challenges and succeed.

Economy

The government’s economic record is strong. Last year, GDP grew by 3% – the strongest growth since 2006, and the fastest in the G7. At the end of 2014, employment was at its highest-ever level, with 1.85 million more people in work since the coalition government entered office. Business investment has increased by 25.6% since the first quarter of 2010.

But the data on productivity has been mixed. In line with other advanced economies, productivity fell in the financial crisis, though it has since been increasing steadily. The UK does, however, have a long-term productivity challenge. Output per hour in the UK was 17 percentage points below the G7 average in 2013. We are addressing this gap, by rebalancing our economy, investing in our infrastructure, and building a competitive tax system.

But perhaps most important of all, we must ensure that more people have the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in a demanding economy. Here too, our long-term performance has lagged behind those of our international competitors. Our 15-year-olds are on average 3 years behind their peers in Shanghai in mathematics and we are the only OECD country whose young people do not have better levels of literacy or numeracy than their grandparents’ generation.

Our ambitious programme of reform is addressing this legacy, and this starts by getting the basics right. Reading underpins a child’s academic performance throughout their school career. In 2014, only 1 in 3 pupils who had just reached the current expected standard in English when in key stage 2, achieved 5 good GCSEs including English and mathematics. By contrast, almost 3 in 4 of those with a high level 4 in English achieved this GCSE standard.

The importance of strong literacy skills remain long after a young person has left school or formal education. Adults with good literacy skills (the equivalent of a good English Language GCSE or better) are much more likely to be in work than those with lower levels of literacy: 83% compared to 55%. Data from the recent OECD Survey of Adult Skills show that unemployed adults are twice as likely to have weak literacy skills as those in full-time employment.

We recognised the strong evidence demonstrating that systematic synthetic phonics is the most effective way to teach children to read. In 2012, we therefore introduced the year 1 phonics screening check to help teachers identify pupils falling behind with their phonic knowledge, who may benefit from additional help. We are supporting schools to establish phonics partnerships to help them further improve the quality of their phonics teaching. Each of the successful groups will be led by a school that achieves excellence in teaching early reading. The partnerships will receive £10,000 to improve the quality of phonics teaching; they will develop models that can be used by other schools, and share knowledge and resources that come out of their work.

A basic mastery in mathematics is also essential to success in our modern economy. We have learnt from the best international systems, launching the highly successful teacher exchange with Shanghai. Our new network of maths hubs across England is now raising standards by helping primary schools to deliver the highly effective Asian-style mastery approach and strengthen teaching through the use of high-quality textbooks.

In secondary school, the new mathematics GCSE places greater emphasis on mathematical reasoning and the application of maths; and includes new content to better support transition to the A level – on, for example, rates of change and quadratic functions.

We have taken the important step of introducing ‘core maths’ qualifications for students with a good GCSE in the subject at age 16 but who don’t continue to the A level – to enable them to study this essential subject beyond GCSE.

Employers want to see many more young people entering the labour market with high-level skills in STEM subjects. I’m pleased to support the Your Life campaign which aims to encourage more young people – girls and boys – to continue with these subjects to A level and beyond.

For too long, the quality of technical and vocational education in England has lagged behind that of our international competitors – as a result, employers have sometimes struggled to find staff with the skills they need to grow their business and create jobs. In 2011, we asked Professor Alison Wolf to review vocational education, and have acted swiftly to implement her recommendations. We have removed over 3,000 low-value qualifications from performance tables and introduced tech levels and technical certificates, which set rigorous new standards for technical qualifications.

We have worked with universities and employers to open 30 university technical colleges, which combine the study of technical subjects, including engineering and life sciences, with the core academic qualifications that employers demand. We are committed to having a UTC within reach of every city.

Culture

Equipping young people with the knowledge and skills they need to secure a place at a good university, start an apprenticeship, or find their first job, is a fundamental responsibility of all of us working in education. But the purpose of education is, of course, far broader.

As we all know, education has an intrinsic value as the hallmark of a civilised society and the foundation of our culture. Matthew Arnold was a great education reformer of the 19th century. He is best remembered now as a cultural critic, but he also spent 35 years as an HMI, the last 2 of which as Chief Inspector. In ‘Culture and Anarchy’, his best-known work, he articulated the liberal ideal of a high-quality education for all, which:

[…]seeks to do away with classes; to make the best that has been known and thought in the world current everywhere; to make all men live in an atmosphere of sweetness and light, where they may use ideas, as it uses them itself, freely, – nourished, and not bound by them.

This ideal must be reflected in reality if we are to build an education system with social justice at its heart.

Jonathan Rose provides a masterful account of our long tradition of the autodidact – of individuals from all backgrounds staking their claim to our cultural inheritance – in ‘The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes’. This tradition spans from the 14th century Lollards, suppressed by the church because their ‘vernacular Bible threatened to break a clerical monopoly on knowledge’.

It includes Charles Campbell, a Scottish cotton-spinner born in 1793. He set aside a few pennies of his weekly wage of 8 shillings to pay for a library membership. He was a member of a club of 12 artisans and mechanics who met weekly to discuss literary topics. Their goal was not economic self-improvement – it was a deeper intellectual life. Campbell wrote:

[…]the lover of learning… unbends the wing of his imagination, and solaces his weary mind in the delightful gardens of the classic muse of poetry and music.

The tradition of course continues today. But the truth is that the successful autodidact, finding their own way through literature, history and culture, with little formal education, is a rare exception. For the vast majority, a high-quality education in school is essential – a ‘love of learning’ is not sufficient.

Engaging with a text firstly requires an ability to read. This includes decoding skill, but also reading fluency and speed of reading built up through practice over many years. But reading also demands background knowledge – of vocabulary and of context assumed by the author – assumed knowledge. Factual knowledge is essential for reading comprehension.

Mark Twain wrote, disdainfully, that:

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.

Daniel Willingham, the American cognitive scientist, is clear that this denial of the importance of schools to culture and imagination is inconsistent with the scientific evidence. Willingham writes:

I don’t know why some great thinkers (who undoubtedly knew many facts) took delight in denigrating schools, often depicting them as factories for the useless memorisation of information… I for one don’t need brilliant, highly capable minds telling me (and my children) how silly it is to know things.

We must resist attempts to divide culture from knowledge, or to suggest that a focus on a core academic curriculum in school makes it more difficult to develop our young people into creative, engaged citizens.

The core academic subjects at school are the primary colours of an educated person’s palette, enabling them to read more, not just within those subjects but also the subjects that emanate from them: history and maths underpin economics; the study of English links to drama; paleontology combines chemistry and biology.

We have also continued to champion the importance of the arts in schools. Music and art and design are statutory subjects in the national curriculum for 5- to 14-year-olds and the national curriculum also ensures that pupils study drama and dance.

Over the 2012 to 2016 period we have spent over £460 million in a diverse portfolio of music and arts education programmes designed to improve access to the arts for all children regardless of their background and to develop talent across the country. These include support for: music education hubs, the Sorrell Foundation’s National Art and Design Saturday Clubs, the British Film Institute’s ‘Film Academy’, Music for Youth’s School Proms, the National Youth Dance Company, and support for the Shakespeare Schools Festival.

The Music and Dance Scheme, funded by the department, enables our most talented young people to receive a world-class education in our top music and dance schools. This year we are spending £29 million to ensure that the children who are able to benefit from this specialist education are those with the most talent, not those whose parents can afford to pay the fees. Just last week, I had the privilege to attend the Royal Ballet School’s End of Year Performance, and the virtuosity on display was astonishing.

Preparation for adult life

These 2 purposes of education – to grow our economy and nurture our culture – are vital. But I believe there is a third, very practical purpose to education. Adult life today is complicated, and we owe it to young people to ensure that they have the character and sense of moral purpose to succeed.

There is now very clear evidence that schools can make a significant contribution to their pupils’ achievement by finding opportunities to instil key character traits, including persistence, grit, optimism and curiosity.

This is not about vague notions of ‘learning how to learn’ or ‘therapeutic education’, and we will not return to the failed approaches of the past. In 2005, the then-government promoted and funded a strategy to schools named ‘social and emotional aspects of learning‘. This was a well-meaning attempt to ensure children received a broader education. But it failed, because it was part of a wider retreat from the importance of knowledge-based curriculums in schools. Its evaluation found that SEAL was in fact associated with declining respect for teachers and enjoyment of school.

We have recognised that a broader education – including character and values – can only succeed when it is underpinned by the highest standards of academic rigour.

The Knowledge is Power Programme schools – KIPP -are one of the earliest and best groups of charter schools in the United States. Their first school opened in Houston, Texas in 1999. They now have 162 schools educating 60,000 pupils throughout the USA, 87% of whom come from low income families.

The first pupils to graduate from KIPP schools left with academic records which no-one had previously dared to expect from young people growing up in the neighbourhoods from which they came. More than 94% of KIPP middle school students have graduated high school, and more than 82% of KIPP alumni have gone on to college.

But while these students from disadvantaged backgrounds were entering colleges in greater numbers than ever before, it soon became clear that they were much more likely to drop out than their more advantaged peers.

The American academic ED Hirsch has made a persuasive case that an important reason for this gap is a deficit of vocabulary and knowledge. KIPP charters are middle schools – so children enter aged 11 or 12. Even the excellent education they receive after they arrive cannot overcome the disadvantage which they have already experienced. Building vocabulary and knowledge simply takes too long. Once in college, without the intensive support provided by KIPP, some are falling behind.

I have no doubt that this explanation is correct. But I am convinced that that these pupils struggled in college for another reason, too. Recent research – particularly the work of Angela Duckworth and the Nobel Laureate James Heckman – has examined the impact of character on underperformance. They have found that key attributes including resilience, self-control and social intelligence are powerful predictors of achievement in education and success in adult life.

Robert Putnam, a Harvard Professor of Public Policy, recently published ‘Our Kids’, an account of the decline of social mobility in the United States over the past half-century. He places part of the blame on unequal access which disadvantaged children have to extracurricular activities, compared to the greater opportunities open to children in better-off circumstances.

If we are to deliver on our commitment to social justice, breaking the cycle of disadvantage so that every child reaches their potential, we must therefore ensure that all pupils benefit from an education based on these values.

Character education is already a part of the ethos and culture of many good schools. In the United States, KIPP schools now focus on developing grit, resilience and self-confidence in their pupils, and this work is showing results. As of spring 2015, 45% of KIPP pupils have gained a college degree, compared to a national average of 34%, and just 9% from low-income families.

Building on this evidence, we launched a national awards scheme to reward and showcase schools and organisations who demonstrated their commitment to building character in young people aged 5 to 16.

We are also providing £3.5 million to fund 14 projects to build and better understand what works and share the good practice with all schools.

Premier Rugby Limited and 14 professional rugby clubs are leading one of these projects, in the year that the Rugby World Cup comes to England. Building on the core rugby values of respect, teamwork, enjoyment, discipline and sportsmanship, the programme will deliver classroom based and physical activity character building programmes to 17,250 pupils. An additional programme funded by Premier Rugby and its partnerships will offer an intensive 33 week programme to 480 16- to 18-year-olds who are not in education, employment or training. These vulnerable young people will benefit from character building activities, qualifications and work experience, setting them up for a more successful future.

A further project will be led by Floreat Education, a trust with 2 new free schools. They will receive funding to develop and pilot a character virtue development programme for reception, year 1 and year 2 in its 2 new free schools, from September. The project will also provide significant resources and support for other schools, helping to spread the impact of their work more widely.

Conclusion

Three purposes – empowering young people to succeed in the economy, participate in culture, and leave school prepared for adult life – have consistently guided our programme of reform. Delivering on our commitment to social justice means placing these principles at the centre of everything we do, so that every young person has the opportunity to reach their potential.

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