Why is so much of the education debate in this country backward looking? Have standards really fallen? Have exams got easier? These debates will continue but what really matters is how we’re doing compared with our international competitors. That is what will define our economic growth and our country’s future. The truth is, at the moment we are standing still while others race past.
A new study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has delivered a damning verdict on the last Government’s record in helping children from deprived backgrounds achieve at school. The OECD study showed the proportion of children in 65 nations and regions who manage to 'overcome their socio-economic background’. It found that the UK is well below the OECD average for helping poorer students achieve at school. Out of all 65 participants in the study, the UK ranks 39th. Countries including Estonia, Mexico and Tunisia achieve better results for poor students than the UK. If this is not damning evidence of Labour’s failure to improve our schools I don’t know what is. The results show we have one of the most segregated schools systems in the world, with the attainment gap between the wealthiest and most disadvantaged wider than in almost any other developed nation.
Never was it so necessary to drive up standards and increase opportunities for the poorest. That is why the Coalition Government is initiating a number of measures to help the poorest pupils and to raise standards across the board. These include the introduction of £2.5 billion pupil premium worth £430 for every poor pupil next year, with total funding rising to £2.5 billion in 2014-15. An announcement last week by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, also stated that the worst-performing 200 primary schools would become academies in 2012/13. We are increasing the number of ‘super-heads’ who help struggling schools improve and establishing a £110 million Education Endowment Fund for innovative proposals to help struggling schools. All these should also help close the gap.
But we are also trying to improve the quality of teaching by doubling the size of Teach First which attracts top graduates to the teaching profession. We will allow schools to reward good teachers and deal with those that under-perform. There will be a network of Teaching Schools on the model of teaching hospitals while teacher trainees who do not have a lower second degree or better will see their funding cut. We can empower our teaching profession, something that has been lacking, by cutting bureaucracy and guidance and allowing teachers to get on with the job. But the rapidly expanding Academies programme, also gives head teachers’ greater freedoms over teachers’ pay, the curriculum, control of budgets and structure of the school day. Additionally, by allowing parents, teachers and charities to set up ‘free schools’, they will be able to cater to the needs of local communities and be freed from bureaucratic control.
We also aim to restore discipline by making it easier to search pupils for banned items and removing the requirement on teachers to give 24 hours’ notice for detention. We will give anonymity to teachers accused by pupils and prevent appeals panels from sending excluded pupils back to their former schools. Discipline is essential for a good working environment and teacher morale.
We believe standards can be raised; that is why we are reviewing the National Curriculum with teachers and experts and focusing the curriculum on subject content rather than prescribing how knowledge is acquired. By Introducing the English Baccalaureate, we will be recognising success by students and schools in achieving GCSEs in english, mathematics, sciences, languages and humanities. And we will be stopping excessive re-sits at A-level.
Education reform is the great progressive cause of our times. It is only through reforming
education that we can allow every child the chance to take their full and equal share in citizenship, shaping their own destiny, and becoming masters of their own fate. Education allows individuals to choose a fulfilling job, to shape the society around them, to enrich their inner life. It allows us all to become authors of our own life stories. That is why it matters so much that access to educational opportunities is spread so inequitably in England. The gulf between the opportunities available to the wealthy and the chances given to the poor, is one of the widest. In each year around 600,000 children enter state education. Of those, the poorest 80,000 are eligible for free school meals. In the last year for which we have figures just 40 of those 80,000 made it to Oxbridge. More children from an individual public school, such as Winchester, made it to those top universities than from the entire population of young people eligible for that basic benefit. What makes this tragedy sadder still is that, far from opportunity becoming more equal, our society is becoming less socially mobile. Our schools should be engines of social mobility, helping children to overcome the accidents of birth and background to achieve much more than they may ever have imagined. But, at the moment, our schools system does not close gaps, it widens them. It’s high time we did something about it.