Speech at Specialist Schools and Academies Trust Conference

30 November 2006

Personalised learning is the key to modern education, Tony Blair has said, needing a distinctive approach from school to school and child to child.

First I want to say thank you. This is now the largest education conference of the year and the Trust the most dynamic education organisation in Britain. You are the true change-makers in our country today. You are lifting the sights of our young people, teaching them better, educating them more profoundly and to a higher standard than ever before in our country’s history. It is an amazing achievement. Thank you.

I probably visit more schools than any Prime Minister before me. I enjoy it. I’ve learnt something as well. The moment I walk in through the doors of a school I can "feel" what its like, not simply the buildings or the staff but the spirit of the school. I meet the first pupils and you can tell, right from that moment, whether they’re eager and up for it, whether school is something they go through or whether it is something they know is touching and shaping their lives. I think being a teacher must be one of the hardest jobs in the world. Bernard Shaw was wrong. Teaching is doing. But when I meet young people in a school that’s going places, I get some of the buzz of what it must be like to be a teacher, what makes people do a job as hard as that.

Education is the most precious gift a society can bestow on its children. When I said the top three priorities of the Government in 1997 would be education, education, education I knew then that changing educational opportunity was the surest way to changing lives, to social justice. I’m as certain of that today as I was 10 years ago when I said it.

I knew too that there had been chronic under-investment in the service. I could see that in the numbers of schools in a state of awful disrepair. The fall in teacher training places. The fact that almost half of 11 year olds and way over half of 16 year olds failed to get to the requisite grade.

But I also knew it wasn’t just about money. I could see school A in an area of social deprivation doing well and school B in a similar area doing badly. And I could see some schools, indeed some whole areas where whatever resource was put in, without radical change in leadership, nothing was going to get better.

But if I’m frank, I have also learnt from the experience of trying to make things work, doing, rather than, as in Opposition, talking. At first, we put a lot of faith in centrally driven improvements in performance and undoubtedly without that, we would never got some of the immediate uplift in results. But over time, I shifted from saying "its standards not structures" to realising that school structures could affect standards. Your organisation’s strength today is, in one way, testimony to that.

Above all, I perceived how, as we tried to make reforms and met strong resistance, there was a deadly false choice that often wrenched political debate about education off a sensible path and down a cul-de-sac. The debate frequently proceeded as if at every turn there was a choice between excellence and equity. I truly had genuine and well-meaning people telling me if you improve this or that school in an area that is an educational desert, you will cause terrible problems. "Like what?" I would say. "The parents will all be wanting to send their children there", they would say. "The other schools will suffer". "But the children are suffering now", I would reply.

That was the extreme end of it. But in a more moderate way, in every change made from specialist schools through to City Academies and of course Trust schools, there was an assumption that difference meant inequity.

Yet what is obvious is that "different" is what each and every child is. Of course some things have to be set to a uniform standard. It is wise to have a National Curriculum. To have inspections, albeit of a lighter touch. To publish results. To have some policies in common in every school.

But the key to education today is to personalise learning, to recognise different children have different abilities and in different subjects. However, personalising learning is not just about a distinctive approach to every child, it is reflected in a distinctive approach also to every school.

It is about schools feeling ownership of their own future, the power and the responsibility that comes from being free to chart their own course, experiment, innovate, doing things differently: the decision-makers in their own destiny not the recipients of a pre-destined formula laid down by Government.

Hence, not just the investment but the reforms in structure. The path is now clear: toward greater independence. But so is the guiding spirit of the changes: the belief that only through the pursuit of excellence can equity be achieved; only through schools being free to personalise learning, can a child really be given the education suitable for them.

So today, I want to reflect on what has been achieved so far; but then say what further changes are needed in the way we teach but also in school structures themselves.

First of all, let us celebrate success. English 10 year olds are now ranked third in the world for literacy. 84,000 more pupils leaving primary school this year can read and write properly than in 1997 and 96,000 more children can do basic mathematics. 2006 saw the best ever primary school results. And primary schools in the poorest areas have improved at double the rate of schools in the more affluent areas.

Funding per pupil has doubled. Capital investment is six times what it was. There are 36,000 more teachers and twice as many support staff. The classroom looks unrecognisable – there are twice as many computers as there were and interactive whiteboards and broadband technology have changed the way pupils learn.

The success in specialist schools has been remarkable. 27% more pupils in specialist schools achieve five good GCSEs than in other non-selective schools – an advantage that remains strong on a value added comparison.

Across Academies, 40% of pupils this year achieved five good GCSEs in Academies compared to 30% in 2004. Key stage three results in English and Maths are rising rapidly, too.

More than 1, 500 previously failing schools have been turned round: and where there were over 500 failing schools after the first Ofsted inspections, today there are just over 200.

We have achieved the best ever GCSE and A Level results.

Where there were over 600 schools with fewer than a quarter of pupils getting five good GCSEs, today there are barely 60. And where there were barely 80 schools with over 70% five good GCSEs in 1997, today there are nearly 600.

In 1998, 170, 000 GCSE candidates took their exams in local authorities where fewer than 40% of pupils gained five good GCSE. Today, none does. In London, only two of the thirteen inner London boroughs achieved 45% or more pupils with five good GCSEs. Today, all do. The number of failing schools is less than half what it was in 1998. And this despite Ofsted’s recent raising of the bar and short notice inspections.

Let me give you two examples.

Shireland Language College in Sandwell serves a deprived area in Smethwick. Half its pupils speak a language other than English at home.

In 1997, the school had one computer for every 36 pupils, no partnerships with other schools, and just eight full-time support staff. The school had a £220,000 budget deficit.

Today it is thriving. It became a specialist school in 1998, and has just become a Foundation school too. It has used government funding to develop one of the most remarkable ICT systems in the country, and now has one computer for every two pupils. They have a website with homework, marking, curriculum support and parental information.

Shireland now helps sixty other schools develop similar sites and manages two other local schools. Its staff includes 59 support staff.

In 1997, just 25% of pupils achieved five good GCSEs. This year, 61% do so. Ten years ago, Shireland was rated merely ‘satisfactory’ by Ofsted. A few weeks ago under Sir Mark Grundy’s leadership the inspectors called it ‘outstanding’.

Or take Mossbourne Academy in Hackney. In 1995, Hackney Downs School was so bad that the last government sent in a hit squad to close it down.

Today in award-winning new buildings, under what Ofsted called the ‘visionary and astute’ leadership of Sir Michael Wilshaw, Mossbourne Academy is a school transformed.

Where Hackney Downs was shunned by local parents, Mossbourne has four applications for every place. The Academy has high ambitions of 70 or 80% five good GCSEs where only 21% used to achieve that grade in Hackney Downs.

And the school is now open from eight until six every day with drama, debates, catch up classes and homework after formal lessons, and gifted and talented programmes on Saturdays.

So we have come a long way. But we know there is much more to do.

The biggest problem we have faced over the last sixty years – not just the last ten – is vocational education.

That’s why we’re developing a radical new solution with employers, schools and colleges – the specialised Diploma.

With 14 Diplomas by 2013 and up to 50,000 students starting courses in 2008 in ICT, engineering, construction, care and media, the Diploma will be a radically different qualification.

Unlike previous qualifications, employers are actively helping design the Diploma, ensuring a strong practical core and basic skills for all.

Young people with Diplomas will be able to progress when they are ready, and to go on to university or apprenticeships afterwards.

This comes alongside plans for the new Skills Academies, in which top companies in a sector help provide high quality vocational education for young people who know what they want to do and need help to do it.

There is another challenge. Some young people want to be able to continue with a strong broad qualification after sixteen.

The International Baccalaureate has been growing in popularity to meet that demand – and its growth in recent years has been strongest in state schools and colleges.

We believe that there should be at least one sixth form college or school in every local authority offering students the choice of the IB.

So we will support up to 100 extra schools and colleges in training staff to offer the qualification by 2010.

And over time, I hope that we can offer that choice through each of the new 14-19 partnerships that are helping to deliver the Diplomas.

If we are serious about tailoring education to the needs of young people, they should have real choices after 14 – strong qualifications with A levels, Diplomas, the IB and apprenticeships.

Do not misunderstand me. The majority of students will continue to do "A" levels and GCSEs, but diplomas and for some IB offer new options.

The question then arises: what are the best structures within which such personalisation and innovation can flourish?

One of the oddest things in debating education policy is that people often debate it as if no empirical evidence at all existed, as to what works and what doesn’t. Actually it is reasonably clear, at least up to a point.

A strong Head Teacher. Well motivated staff. Attention to the basics, but also imparting the thrill of knowledge. Discipline. Good manners and life skills. Schools succeed that have a powerful ethos, sense of purpose, pride in themselves and what they do.

All of this is relatively straightforward. But in a sense, it is like saying that what makes a good football team is a strong coach, excellent strikers, midfield and defence. A high standard of fitness.

It is true these are the right attributes of success. It is also obvious.

The harder question is: what are the structures within which such attributes are most likely to be cultivated?

This is where the debate becomes more complex; and less consensual, certainly so far as education is concerned.

It is where the empirical evidence can collide with preconception and prejudice. Our education system is bedevilled by two political controversies that charge around it, upsetting an intelligent analysis of what works and what doesn’t. The first is the existence of a strong, independent sector that people know provides quality education, but because it is fee-paying, is seen as elitist. The second is the development of grammar schools and secondary moderns in to comprehensives. People wanted an end to crude selection, but weren’t satisfied with the resulting standard community school.

The last 10 years, and perhaps going back even further, have been an attempt to find a way of calming these controversies, separating fact from prejudice and extracting the value for modern policy making.

I could see from an early stage of Government that flexibility and independence from rigid central or local control helped schools gain the sense they were in charge of their own destiny, and thus encouraged their ethos and sense of purpose. It became clear that schools that had outside partners, that were open to new relationships as well as those of the traditional kind, gained from them. It was obvious from the small numbers of CTCs and specialist schools which existed in the late 1990s, that a specialist focus helped create energy and stimulate excellence. Above all, I realised school leaders were like any other leaders: they wanted to be free to lead.

So, yes, independent schools had advantages of money and class. But that wasn’t their only advantage. Yes, old-style selection, at 11 was misguided, but the recognition of different abilities and aptitudes was not.

So in these 10 years, with your help and many of you as pioneers, we have been creating a new system of secondary education. What was once monochrome is now a spectrum offering a range of freedoms and pathways.

80% of secondary schools, not the 8% of 1997, are now specialist schools. Many of you are now going for a second specialism.

Trust schools offer another way to build on the success of specialist schools. We already have 30 pathfinders with over fifty schools working towards Trust status. The list of organisations involved is impressive including: Unilever, Microsoft, Laing O’Rourke, the Co-op, Exeter and Essex Universities.

Trusts come in different shapes and sizes: groups of schools working together with external partners; strong schools helping weak schools to improve; or inpidual schools strengthening links with universities or business foundations.

For those seeking greater autonomy, there are fast track procedures that make becoming a Foundation School easier than before.

For those seeking to deepen collaboration there will also be growing opportunities to develop your school brand and ethos across a range of partners, such as Thomas Telford or the United Learning Trust.

Where you need help developing links, the Schools Commissioner can broker and support partnerships with national companies.

We will support a second wave of Trust Schools, ensuring at least 100 schools are working towards trust status as pathfinders this spring.

Then there is the Academy programme with a full range of freedoms. Already 46 are open. The other 150 to meet our 2010 target are now being agreed. Demand is already outstripping the target. We are now confident we can double this number, taking it to 400. We will identify the additional schools soon and incorporate them into the Building Schools for the Future programme.

And the test for Academies is clear: are parents queuing up to get in or get out? And the answer is overwhelming. They want in.

The point is that the move to greater freedom and independence which many of you began, can now be taken forward in a number of different ways.

In this, schools are like any other institutions in public or private sector. The premium today – whether in a successful business or public service – is the ability to be creative, to adapt and adjust, to internalise external influence and practice.

The vision is clear: a state sector that has independent, non-feepaying schools which remain utterly true to the principle of educating all children, whatever their background or ability, to the highest possible level, but with the freedom to innovate and develop in the way they want. With your leadership and example, we now have a once in a generation opportunity to forge a national consensus around this vision. You who have done so much to change education in Britain for the better, are those who can translate that vision into practice.

What is more, in America, Australia and Scandinavia and Holland, similar models are being developed – hence your growing international network, which I understand has now been extended to links with Chinese schools.

All of this change is very natural. The move in the private sector is away from mass production to customized goods and services. In public services, uniform, monolithic services are on their way out. In all walks of life, barriers between public, private and voluntary sectors are being dismantled. Workforce demarcations are less rigid, different skillsets are being called for. Advanced nurses in the NHS doing diagnostics previously reserved for consultants. ICT specialists in police stations or schools. Classroom assistants or community support officers helping teachers and police. Telemedicine. Use of the internet in teaching. The transformation of forensics by technology. Stay still and you are left behind.

I know sometimes the pace of reform has been hard, even confusing. But what has motivated me is not reform for its own sake. Throughout I have felt compelled by two things. The first is the sheer pace of change in the world. Globalization and technology is literally deconstructing and reconstructing the economic challenges before our eyes. The rise of China and India will alter the entire competitive context within which Britain works in the next two decades. Pretty soon, higher education will become a global market even for our own school leavers. The next generation cannot afford the legacy that the last generation’s education system left us: 7 million adults who can’t make the literacy grade of an 11 year old. There is an urgency here that drives out complacency.

The second motivation is my belief in education. The wonderful opportunity of the modern world is that what was once a great social cause – knowledge – is now the foundation of economic success.

Education is the modern nation’s infrastructure. And there is no more regressive or reactionary sentiment than the one that held sway for so long in Britain’s education system: that there were a finite number of capable pupils who could attain professional status but the rest were best to accept they would be "hewers of wood and drawers of water".

You have shown in the remarkable progress you have made in these past few years how narrow and wrong that sentiment was. Good education makes a difference. Good teaching changes lives. Educate a child well and you give them a chance. Educate them badly and they may never get a chance in the whole of their lives.

And there is talent out there untended and discouraged. You all know it and in your years of teaching will have seen it. There is no greater injustice. If people fail to take their opportunities that is their choice. But if they fail to get an opportunity, they have no choice. I don’t say that in these 10 years our schools are everything they could or should be. But I do say they are a world away from where they were. The new school buildings, sports halls and computers. Teachers finally at least paid something closer to what they are worth. Shortages in teacher training have given way to a 30% rise in trainees.

Now political parties vie with each other as to who cares most about education. Only the diehards say you can’t get a decent education in the state system.

We may have helped but you did it. And there is much more to do. But 10 years ago it may have seemed an impossible challenge. Today we know the challenge can be met. You are the people who will meet it. And so I end where I began: thank you.



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