David Cameron – A Britain that gives every child the best start in life – Speech to an audience of schoolchildren at KIngsmead School on Monday 2 February 2015, as published by the Conservative Party

The Commentary in bold italic is by Roger Titcombe, author of ‘Learning Matters’

Today I want to talk about a vital theme of our election campaign: giving every child the best start in life.

I’ve always been clear: the best start begins with a strong family.

I don’t care if people say that sounds old-fashioned; it’s the truth.

That’s why we’re doing everything we can to back families…

…from cutting married couples’ taxes to making childcare tax free.

As a father, I know the best start for my children centres on their education.

And that’s what I’m going to focus on today.

I’ve got three children at a London state primary school.

When Samantha or I drop them off at the school gate, we walk away knowing they’re enjoying their lessons, they’ve got great teachers, and they’re getting the best start.

Every parent should have that peace of mind.

A good education shouldn’t be a luxury – the preserve of those living within a certain postcode or those who can afford it.

It should be something everyone in this country can get.

This is of importance to every child in our country and to our national story…

…because if we don’t educate the next generation properly, we will not secure Britain’s future.

That’s what our reforms this Parliament have been all about:

Giving parents peace of mind that their children are getting the best – and making sure we have an education system that can take on the world.

Absolutely right. No-one would argue with that.

We inherited a system where far too many children left school without the qualifications and skills to get on.

No, we have a system where school-leavers are awash with qualifications following unprecedented grade inflation caused by competition between schools and between privatised Examining Boards competing for ‘business’ in the marketised education system made possible by the Conservative 1988 Education Reform Act. This has has led to degraded curriculum and methods of teaching and learning that have resulted in too many pupils leaving school with C grade qualifications, but also with serious deficits in understanding. Other pupils have been unable to achieve C grades despite huge high stakes pressures on all involved and are being cast off as failures destined to join a dangerous and ever-growing cognitive underclass.

See Parts 1 and 2 of ‘Learning Matters’

Later in his speech Cameron sets out a number of ways in which he intends to make life as miserable and difficult as possible for these wretched pupils who have been unable to reach the GCSE C grade target.

Some of them were barely able to read and write properly.

Indeed, some are, and that will always be the case as both ability and attainment are continuously variable and the bell curve distribution will always have a minority ‘tail’ at the bottom and a similar minority of exceptional achievers at the top. However the vast majority of pupils leave primary schools with National Curriculum Levels 3, 4 or 5 in English. All such pupils are able ‘to read and write properly’. To suggest otherwise is completely mistaken. The Government Statistician, Andrew Dilnot, has told the government to retract such statements. He is being ignored. 

So we came in with a determination to put the basics of a great education in place.

No, you came in with a mistaken ideological crusade to privatise the education system by using all manner of means to force schools out of democratic, Local Authority control into the hands of private providers. You did this by building on the unfortunate and misguided platform of Academy School status created by the former Blair Labour government.  You may believe that your policies will improve the quality of education provided by our schools and raise standards but you are wrong. The national and international evidence supports the arguments in my book, ‘Learning Matters’.

I accept that you sincerely believe in your ideological approach to changing the English education system, but you are wrong. Your belief is a dangerous one because it is supported by beguilingly attractive ‘common sense’. But common sense is often a bad guide to the true facts in both science and in normal life. This is especially true in the world of education.

This is what I write in Section 1.6 of ‘Learning Matters’.

It is ‘common sense’ that grouping children of similar ability will result in better teaching and learning. Similarly, that boys will learn better without the distraction of girls, and that girls will also benefit from single sex groups because ‘common sense’ says this will free them from competition for the esteem of boys and allow them to learn without the disruption caused by the more boisterous sex.

Isn’t it obvious ‘common sense’ that children with Special Needs are best catered for in Special Schools, and mainstream children benefit from not having their time wasted by the extra attention needed by their less fortunate peers? And it goes without saying that children that are so dim as to be unable to get an A*-C grade in academic subjects like history, French, English literature and pure sciences are much better off, and will cause less trouble, doing easy ‘vocational alternatives’ instead.

If school pupils are so badly behaved that they disrupt lessons and ignore their teachers then it is also obvious that more rigid discipline is needed with zero-tolerance punishments for the miscreants and more rewards for the compliant.

According to Michael Gove’s Free School model, all that is needed to improve schools is to take power from professionals and give it to parents. This further strengthens the market-based approach and extends it to how subjects should be taught as well as to how pupils should be dressed, grouped and managed. By such means ‘common sense’ should reign supreme and standards will rise as a result of the universal power of market forces.

The Nobel laureate economist James Meade (1977), who died in 1995 wanted the following epitaph inscribed on his tombstone: “He tried to understand economics all his life but common sense kept getting in the way”.

As for economics, so for education, and no more so than in England at the time of writing this book. I return to this important matter in Part 5, in discussing the work of the 2002 Economics Laureate, Daniel Kahneman (5.6).

The reform has been profound. The pace of change rapid.

True, but it is reform in the wrong direction. The ‘cure’ is killing the patient.

I make no apologies for that.

Then you should, because having rightly recognised that standards were falling (as a result of competition and marketisation) you are forcing through more competition and privatisation. It is like the ‘blood-letting’ doctor, noting that his patients are dying, deciding that the reason is because insufficient blood is being taken.

Every year that passes without improvement is another year wasted for thousands of children.

True, but what is needed is improvement in methods of teaching and learning in ways that have been understood for decades, but which the perverse effects of marketisation are causing to be abandoned and replaced by the ‘common sense’ , but deeply educationally flawed prescriptions of ideologues like yourself. The result is that ‘deep learning’ is being replaced by cramming for the qualifications needed to drive the imposed artificial market.

We all know what makes a good school:

No we don’t. The truth is counter intuitive. In Section 3.8 of Learning Matters’ you will find evidence that the ‘most improved’ schools in your terms and those of OfSTED have actually been providing the least enabling education, not as I define it, but as you do: in terms of the proportions of pupils obtaining A*-C grades at GCSE in EBacc subjects. There is a clear pattern. The greater the degree of ‘improvement’, the poorer the EBacc performance of the school.

Great teachers.

Yes, we need teachers that know how to help their pupils develop the cognitive strategies necessary to achieve deep understanding; in effect to become cleverer and wiser, not just uniformed and compliant passive exam factory fodder needed by schools to boost their league table places.

Brilliant leadership.

Yes, we need school leaders who understand what really motivates teachers and how children really learn, both of which would come as a surprise to you and your fellow ideologues.

Engaged parents.

Yes, but really engaged, not just peddled ‘PR guff’ based on false indicators of educational quality.

Rigour in the curriculum.

Yes, rigorous evaluation of teaching and learning by collegiate teams of professionally empowered and educated teachers, not performance-pay-driven ‘educational operatives’ managed by ‘business-speak’ bonus seekers with little deep understanding of how children learn and the sorts of teaching needed to bring about cognitive development.

Discipline in the classroom.

Yes, but not imposed through fear of punishment, but through bringing about a culture of learning that recognises the need for pupils to internalise and analyse their own learning processes, to recognise and celebrate the value of mistakes, being comfortable with discussing problems with peers and teachers and feeling that the school is always on their side on their journey towards greater wisdom and deeper levels of understanding, regardless of the value (or not) of their personal exam results for the school.

Intolerance of failure.

Sorry to appear rude, but what a stupid statement. Struggling to understand, getting things wrong, challenging prior beliefs and assumptions and building personal capacity for learning have got nothing to do with, ‘intolerance of failure’. If a pupil does not understand Newton’s Laws of Motion then the teacher being ‘intolerant’ of such misunderstanding is not going to help. All ‘intolerance of failure’ achieves is the creation of failures.

Proper exams to test progress.

Yes, but first they have to validly test understanding and be able to achieve this with pupils at different developmental levels. The perverse incentive under which all the privatised examination boards operate of having to ‘compete for customers’ will always be a barrier to achieving a truly excellent and effective national school assessment and examination system.

And all the things needed to prepare young people for life in Britain today – ending with a clear route into vocational training or higher education.

Yes, but not by streaming pupils into self-fulfilling ‘vocational’ and ‘academic’ streams before the age of 16. The aim of schooling should be essentially developmental: to help every child become as healthy, wise, emotionally balanced, confident, clever and knowledgeable as possible.

For five years we’ve been seeing through this plan – and look at the results.

Essentially the same plan has been followed by successive Conservative and Labour governments since the marketising 1988 Education Reform Act.

By your own admission, it hasn’t worked.

We’ve got schools that didn’t exist three years ago getting as many pupils into Oxbridge as private schools…

We have had more than two decades of ‘Spectacular School Improvement’. I have researched it thoroughly. You need to read Part 3 of ‘Learning Matters’. Most of such cases have involved either fiddling the curriculum to inflate results (New Labour’s Vocational Scam) and/or fiddling admissions to attract the maximum numbers of bright and passive pupils and keep out the less able and the riff-raff by allowing Academies and Free Schools to devise their own Admissions Policies regardless of the interests of neighbouring schools.

Some schools really are improving methods of teaching and learning and many more would like to if they were free from the perverse incentives of marketisation, which pressures them into bad educational practices.

All is explained in Part 5 of ‘Learning Matters’.

…we have Academies which had no pupils getting five good GCSEs now seeing eight in ten reach that mark.

When the evaluations are carried out properly it is clear that Academies are not more effective than LA schools, they cost a lot more per pupil, they are increasingly mired in financial impropriety and scandals and they have been the beneficiaries of sustained and highly effective false propaganda over a long period.

Read ‘School Myths and the Evidence that Blows them Apart’, by Melissa Benn and Janet Downs

The next five years will be about building on those foundations to give every young person the best – at every stage of their lives.

An empty soundbite based on a false ideology.

So today I want set out our commitments to get there.

First, we will provide a good primary school place for every child – with zero tolerance for failure.

More empty soundbites based on a false ideology.

Good school places need money – and we will make sure our schools are properly funded.

No you won’t. You have promised real terms cuts in school budgets.

In the pipeline already, we will be investing at least a further £7 billion in school places in the next Parliament.

But you have wasted £millions allowing and encouraging new Free Schools for ideological reasons in places where there are surpluses of school places.

And today, I can make this commitment about Conservative plans too.

We have demonstrated in the past five years that we can protect the schools budget while reducing the deficit – and we will do so again.

So I can tell you with a Conservative Government, the amount of money following your child into school will not be cut.

But its value after inflation will be.

In Treasury speak, flat cash per pupil.

Weasel words to disguise real terms cuts.

And as the number of pupils in our schools is going up, that means the amount of money going into our schools will do too.

Not in real terms after inflation.

Once that money is in schools, I am clear about one area we need to focus on: literacy and numeracy.

We inherited a situation where one in three children left primary school unable to read, write and add up properly.

Absolute rubbish. Report to Mr Dilnot’s office immediately.

It’s simple: if our children fail to master these basic skills, we fail them.

There is nothing simple about education. You need to read, ‘Learning Matters’.

That’s why, for the past five years, we’ve been cracking down on illiteracy and innumeracy.

‘Cracking down’ never taught any child anything. I am an Aston Villa supporter. ‘Cracking down’ on failing to score goals is obviously needed. If only it was that simple.

Already we’ve invested £5 billion making sure there are enough school places for our children

You have wasted £millions on failing Academies and Free Schools and an overblown and massively wasteful and ineffective Department of Education that fails to properly regulate Academies and Free Schools. The number of scandals grows by the week.

…we’ve got thousands more children given the help they need to read thanks to our phonics check…

I thought you said that thousands of children were leaving school without being able to read and write properly?

…and we’re making sure they get the best teaching…

Not in Free Schools: you are allowing children to be taught by unqualified teachers.

…quadrupling Teach First and introducing it for the first time in primary schools

Not in Free Schools: you are allowing children to be taught by unqualified teachers.

…and driving up standards so that, today, three-quarters of teachers have at least a 2:1 – the highest on record.

But there is a huge shortage of maths, science and languages teachers, and it is getting worse.

But we won’t rest there. There are still too many children not getting the skills they need.

True. They are not being taught properly. They are being crammed for high stakes exams instead. You are threatening heads with the sack if they don’t do this.

So, as Nicky announced yesterday, we are going to take action on illiteracy and innumeracy.

Will it be informed by sound peer-reviewed educational research? Thought not. Will it be driven by ‘common sense’ and ‘zero tolerance of failure’? Thought so.

That means putting our best teachers at the helm of the primary schools that fall short

……making sure all 11 year olds take rigorous tests in maths; reading; and yes – spelling, punctuation and grammar…

And putting enormous pressure on schools and pupils to make sure they pass regardless of the consequences for deep and balanced learning and individual pupil development.

…and setting higher standards so that – at the very least – 85 per cent of a school’s pupils reach a good level of attainment, or are on their way to getting there.

You really should be ashamed of this utterly meaningless statement.

Second, we will turn every failing and coasting secondary school into an Academy and deliver Free Schools for communities and parents who want them.

The truth at last – the real aim of Conservative education policy – privatisation of the school system.

We’ve seen that Academies work.

They don’t. The evidence is clear and mounting. Soon even you will have to admit it.

Since we came to power, over a thousand schools that were ranked “inadequate” – in other words, failing schools – have become Academies

What are you going to do with all your ‘Inadequate’ Academies?

…bringing in new leadership to promote discipline, rigour and higher standards.

No need to know anything about education then. Of course not. It’s common sense. Everybody that has been to school knows what is needed.

And today, there are a million more pupils learning in schools that are ranked “good” or “outstanding”.

School improvement is a complex issue. Not all ‘School Improvement’ is a good thing.

Read Section 3.8 in ‘Learning Matters’

I think of St Luke’s in Portsmouth.

In 1999, not a single pupil got 5 good GCSEs.

Today it’s the Charter Academy – and 79 per cent of pupils have got those grades

Not true and they weren’t the same pupils.

I think of Downhills Primary in Tottenham.

For years it wasn’t teaching children to read and write properly.

A meaningless statement that a great many of the parents would disagree with you about.

Today it’s the Harris Academy – and Ofsted has ranked it as a “good” school.

Now there’s another Ofsted category – above “inadequate”, but below “good” and “outstanding”:

It is a school that “requires improvement”.

Some of those are certainly being improved. Others are not. They are coasting.

As parents we’re hardwired to want the best for our kids.

No one wants their child to go to a failing school – and no one wants to them to go to a coasting school either.

Giving our children “just enough” is frankly not good enough.

So this is what we’re doing.

We are waging war on mediocrity.

A dreadful soundbite.

We are saying no more sink schools – and no more “bog standard” schools either.

Another dreadful soundbite.

How will we do this?

By saying to schools: if you’re not good or outstanding, you have to change…

…if you can’t do it yourself, you have to let experts come in and help you, people who have a track record of running great schools and turning around failing ones.

The realities of such ‘spectacular school improvement’ are somewhat different.

Read Part 3 of ‘Learning Matters’.

Under a Conservative Government, any school that Ofsted says “requires improvement” and cannot demonstrate that it has the capacity to improve will have to become a sponsored Academy.

But there are lots of Academies that are ‘Inadequate’ let alone ‘Require Improvement’. What are you doing with those? This is just a smokescreen to justify further privatisation.

Academies have turned around hundreds of failing schools…

The outcomes of Academisation do not support your assertion that this is the best route to really improving schools. You need another trip to Mr Dilnot’s office, but for homework first read ‘Learning Matters’ and then have a chat with the Education Select Committee, which disagrees with your conclusion.

…so just think what they could do for hundreds more coasting ones.

As above.

This is the next step – the next huge step – in our education revolution.

And another part of that revolution is Free Schools – schools that are set up and run by parents, charities, faith groups, businesses.

Today there are over 250 – the majority in areas where places are most needed.

Free Schools work. They are more likely to be good or outstanding than other schools.

Not true either when a proper analysis is carried out.

I’ve seen incredible results, like the London Academy of Excellence in Newham – one of the most deprived boroughs in the country.

Three years ago it didn’t exist.

Last year, it got as many pupils into Oxbridge as the private school Millfield.

Very misleading.

That’s what I mean when I say the best start for every child – regardless of where you’re from.

And if we continue on this course…

…transforming below-par schools, setting up brilliant ones…

…we won’t just be giving our children an OK start in life – we will be giving them the best start in life.

Because I’m like every parent in the land – I won’t settle for anything less.

Third, we will support teachers to make Britain the best country in the world for developing maths, science and computing skills.

How are you going to do it – more ‘common sense’ I suppose.

You should read Part 5 of ‘Learning Matters’.

When we came to office, the number of children studying academic subjects had halved.

True, the cause was the perverse incentives on schools caused by your marketisation ideology.

British schools fell down the league tables for maths and science.

But we don’t have to accept this decline.

This is the country of Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking and Tim Berners-Lee.

I don’t want these greats to be one-offs…

…I want that spirit of enquiry and discovery…

…of excellence and pushing things to their limits…

…to spread through our classrooms.

Because the world has changed.

In a knowledge economy, these are the skills our children need to get on and get ahead – and we will make sure they get them.

We do need wiser and cleverer school leavers. But you don’t understand how that can be brought about.

Read Part 5 of ‘Learning Matters’.

That’s why we’ve made some massive changes.

We introduced the EBacc, in which a pupil must study English, maths, at least two sciences, a language and a humanity subject…

…and now the number of pupils doing these subjects is up by 71 per cent.

At the same time, maths has overtaken English as the most popular A-Level.

We’ve got 5 year olds coding computers.

Primary schools were doing that in the 1980s along with a great many other highly developmental and effective educational activities before marketisation forced primary schools to concentrate on cramming for SATs.

We’ve banned calculators from primary school exams.

But we need to go further.

And this comes back to teachers.

I want us to train an extra 17,500 maths and physics teachers over the next five years.
Because they will be crucial to my next ambition:

Making Britain the best country at maths, science and computing.

Read Part 5 of ‘Learning Matters’ for how this might actually be achieved.

And this isn’t just for some arbitrary world title or obscure prize…

…it’s for our children – so they can compete and excel in the modern world.

Fourth, we will create three million apprenticeships and make sure there is no cap on university places, so we have aspiration for all.

But how will you guarantee the quality of these apprenticeships? How will you solve the problem of financing access to higher education? Don’t pretend that the current system is working.

For too long, some teenagers could shrug their shoulders at their Ds, Es and Us.

This is horrible nonsense. Are you saying that there is no value in GCSE grades less than C?

You need to read Part 2 of ‘Learning Matters’.

They knew they could leave school and get a benefits cheque and a house whatever their grades.

Will ‘benefits cheques’ and council houses only be available to young people with C grade GCSEs?

We don’t want any young person to start their adult life on welfare.

Read Part 2 of ‘Learning Matters’.

As for the rest of this, it has descended into so much of a rant that I can’t take any more.

And we don’t want them to think that learning ends the minute they leave school.

So this is the deal: you leave school, and you either earn or learn – there’s no other option.

We’ve increased apprenticeships to a record number…

…with two million people since 2010 getting themselves a trade that will set them up for life.

We’ve lifted the cap on university places…

…and last September we had a higher rate of young people heading off for Freshers’ Week than at any time in our history.

And we will go further – much further.

By 2020, we will create three million more apprenticeships.

That’s three million more engineers, accountants, project managers.

And it’s right that we will pay for this by reducing the benefit cap to £23,000.

This, along with making sure there is no cap on university places, will have a huge impact:

It will effectively abolish youth unemployment in this country.

And yes – that really will give young people the best start.

Finally, we will guarantee a place on National Citizen Service for every teenager who wants it.

Because education on its own is not enough.

To get a job and get on, our young people need something more.

Confidence, teamwork – knowing what it’s like to be relied upon.

This is what National Citizen Service is delivering…

…taking young people from different backgrounds; people who might never otherwise meet; who might otherwise think the worst of each other; and bringing them together.

It instils British values – of tolerance, respect, understanding and service to others.

It develops character and resilience.

It gives young people the skills and confidence they need.

Over 130,000 have done NCS so far.

People stop me in the street and tell me how it has changed their children’s lives.

Businesses say that it’s giving our young people the skills they need in the world of work.

I think of an 18-year-old, Becky, who told me about her NCS experience.

I won’t forget her words – that she used to be the one who never spoke in class, who was really quiet.

Since NCS, she is completely different. She has stood for the UK Youth Parliament – and even presented to Cabinet.

I want every young person to feel like Becky…

…to stride into a job interview and think “I can do this”…

…to show that they haven’t just got exam certificates – they’ve got the other skills they need to make it in life.

So I want NCS to become a rite of passage in our country…

…and that’s why every teenager who wants a place will get one.

The best start in life – this is becoming a reality for more and more children in our country today…

…because we’ve pushed excellence and encouraged new schools…

…because we’ve boosted Teach First and cracked down on qualifications that get you nowhere…

…because of the things that Michael Gove put in place and that Nicky is taking forward…

…rigour; discipline; ambition; the belief that no child should be left behind.

One of the things I enjoy most as Prime Minister is going to schools in inner cities…

…ones that suffered for years from what was rightly called the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Today they’ve got new expectations – the expectations that they can match any leading school in the country.

So when I go to visit schools in wealthier areas, sometimes ones that are coasting and not pushing their children…

…I say to them: if others can go from nought to 70 per cent good GCSEs in a matter of years, even months – then what’s stopping you?

Thanks to all the hard work of pupils, parents and teachers…

…and to the vision of this Government…

…we’re getting closer to our goal: a Britain that gives every child the best start in life.

And if we stick to the plan, we will be able to achieve just that.

At the end of ‘Learning Matters’ I set out my ‘Step by Step’ proposals for reforming the English education system. Unlike those of David Cameron these are backed by evidence and a high degree of educational professional consensus. They are as follows. 

  1. Reform Ofsted by replacing it with an independent, directly employed HMI answerable directly to parliament (as Ofsted once falsely claimed it was). 
  1. Reform local government by recreating LEAs and Education Committees. A by-product would be the abolition of ‘Cabinet’ government so re-democratising and reinvigorating Local Government. At the same time promote the creation of unitary LAs where possible especially in urban areas. 
  1. Give the new LEAs regulatory power and responsibility over the admissions policies of all the schools in their area, including Academies and Free Schools, so as to promote balanced, all ability intakes. Something quite close to this has already come about in Hackney through voluntary agreements. The Hackney model is a good one. It is especially appropriate for urban areas. 
  1. Produce a national funding formula for all schools, Academies, Free Schools and LEA schools alike. 
  1. Reform the powers and constitution of the governing bodies of all schools including Academies and Free schools with places reserved for elected teachers, parents and local councillors, with safeguards created to stop organised groups gaining power through infiltration to promote narrow sectarian or religious objectives. 
  1. Require all schools to produce an annual prospectus to a specified template that includes the curriculum, behaviour and other policies including full exam results in the subject by subject, number of passes at each grade format, that used to be required. Cease the publication of aggregated attainments (eg %5+A*-Cs or anything that may replace it) and so abolish school league tables. Abolish all general floor targets for schools. 
  1. Abolish KS2 SATs to be replaced by CATs taken in Y6 alongside other specific diagnostic, standardised assessments. DfE to continue to publish on the internet sound and valid technical data that it expects LEAs to use for the local inspections of all schools in its area. 
  1. HMI to conduct periodic inspections of all schools alongside LEA inspectors. LEA inspectors to provide CPD and school support for all schools (including Academies and Free Schools) with the help of HMI when requested. 
  1. HMI to inspect LEAs and Academy/Free School chains, all on the same basis. 
  1. Require parents’ referenda on the governance and control of Academy and Free schools if a threshold proportion of parents sign a petition according to a standard template. This would give local communities the democratic power to restore failing Academies to LEA control. 
  1. Create a permanent National Educational Commission with a carefully designed constitution with academic, professional and political appointments on a non-party basis to advise all forthcoming governments on education policy, and so take our schools out of politics. 

Courage and inspiration is now needed to repair the damage and to create a new model of social ownership, control and accountability of public services. This especially applies to education.

It isn’t going to come from David Cameron.

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One Response to David Cameron – A Britain that gives every child the best start in life – Speech to an audience of schoolchildren at KIngsmead School on Monday 2 February 2015, as published by the Conservative Party

  1. What a mammoth undertaking, Roger. For years, I imagined myself one day standing alongside some self-righteous man (they usually are men) bloated with his own self-importance, listening to him speak but being able to interject on every point that threatened a nauseous attack. You simulated this for me, and it felt GREAT. Thanks!!

    Liked by 1 person

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