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Policy Exchange on Education Priorities

Katherine West

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The Secretary of State for Children, Schools, and Families spoke to  a policy exchange event on the Government's plans for education reform.

Thank you very much for having me here today.

I was delighted when I got the phone call the Prime Minister to offer me the role of Secretary of State for Children, Schools, and Families. I think it is a wonderful novelty to have a Secretary of State for Schools who worked in and indeed, ran a school. One of my predecessors, Estelle Morris, had a similar background before coming into the role and I look forward to her wise counsel in making the transition.

It’s been a bit of a whirlwind couple of months in Westminster, as I’m sure you can imagine, and it gave me time to reflect on why I wanted to be in politics in the first place. I think I, like most if not all MPs, are where we are because we want to make a difference. We see gross inequities in society, or failure in our public institutions, and we want to do something about it. And education is an area I think ripe to build on so many of the challenges in our country today. It builds the skills that underpin a modern economy and make us competitive internationally. It equalises opportunities for young people from all kinds of different backgrounds to go into well-paid and fulfilling jobs. It can transform the lives of young people failed by the system, preventing crime, social exclusion, and poverty.

On all three of those, we need to do better. We aren’t setting ourselves up to be internationally competitive – according to the OECD just 70% of our young adults have attained at least an upper secondary education – less than every western European country except Spain and Italy. We aren’t closing the attainment gap or transforming the lives of young people who need it most – a recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation showed that you’re far more likely to underachieve at school if you receive free school meals.

So those are the problems. What do we do about it? A question that needs more than one speech to answer. But I can set out the broad vision and approach that I hope to bring. I was told by my political advisors that I should always give a list of three or five or I will lose the audience’s interest, so I will try and restrain myself from going on over-long.

First, and foremost, we need excellence in teaching. We have such a dedicated teaching profession in this country, but it is so often burdened by bureaucracy and hindered by form-filling; limited by confusing routes into and through the profession. I want to change that. I want to ensure teachers and headteachers have the powers and authority they need to do their jobs, including in being able to control poor behaviour. I want to help and not hinder the use of modern technology to save time and allow teachers to focus on educating. And I want to expand routes into the profession. I want to expand the successful Teach First programme and roll out the model to attract career-switchers not just new graduates. And we need to get tough standards on who can be a teacher – including by requiring that new teachers achieve a 2.2 degree or equivalent.

Second, the schools that our excellent teachers teach in need to have the freedom and the authority to cut through bureaucracy and deliver the great education our kids deserve. The last Government flipped and flopped against the whims of its backbenchers. Foundation schools, technical colleges, trust schools, City Academies – we had more new initiatives and types of school than we had Education Secretaries. Well I don’t want to chase headlines like that. Schools should focus on substance not spin. So we will not take Labour’s approach of coming back every other year and inventing a new structure. We will reform and expand the Academies programme, making that a flexible model for schools with maximum freedom and autonomy, that can meet a range of local needs to deliver excellence; while giving all schools – whether or not they elect to become Academies – as much freedom from local and central bureaucracy as they feel appropriate in their circumstances.

Third, we need to get communities back involved in the running of local schools. There has been too much temptation from new Labour to apply its big government brain, focussing on central control or big businesses as sponsors rather than recognising the importance and excellence of local enterprise, local parents, local teachers. The quid-pro-quo for schools is this – you and your teachers get the freedom from central bureaucracy. But you become more accountable to your local communities, your pupils’ parents, your local social and private enterprise. And that means, yes, that data such as school performance is an important tool. League tables are controversial. But no public institution was ever improved through the secrecy of its information.

Fourth, we need to get serious about the attainment gap. Education is the single most effective way to reduce poverty and inequality for future generations. The gap between rich and between poor in our schools is abominable, a national scandal. Every school year, less pupils on free school meals go to a top university than from a single elite public school. We need to fix that. We’re going to start by establishing a pupil premium – putting cash straight into the hands of our newly empowered schools for every student that they teach from a disadvantaged background. It will be down to schools how they spend that money, but we will expect it to be spent raising standards for those kids most at need – whether that is additional tutoring, breakfast or lunch clubs, or lower class sizes in key subjects. Schools will need to account for that spending, and can learn from one another what works.

Fifth, and by no means least, we need a curriculum fit for purpose that leads to respected qualifications. The curriculum is bloated, too prescriptive, and too political. I want to bring the curriculum back down to its core. It should be a resource for teachers, an aide to high national standards; not a checklist of kings and queens that must be recited or a bank of lesson plans that must be prepared. And that curriculum needs to lead to rigorous, internationally respected qualifications – we must see an end to the endless grade inflation that so undermines the confidence in our exams and our qualifications; and we need to see real parity between vocational and academic study at GCSE level, A Level, and beyond. We’re going to start by funding an extra 20,000 young apprenticeships.

So, I will wrap us up here. My five priorities, if you missed them in there: excellence in teaching, freedom for schools, accountability to local communities, real action on the attainment gap, and a curriculum fit for purpose. It’s an agenda that will probably take us the whole of this Parliament to achieve – but don’t worry I, and we, are in it for the long haul.

Thank you.

Katherine West

Conservative MP for Watford (2007 - )

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