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CONSERVATIVE CONFERENCE: 'TIME FOR NEW TORY THINKING ON EDUCATION' SAYS DAVID WILLETTS (FULL TEXT)

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Addressing the education debate at the 115th Conservative Party ...
Addressing the education debate at the 115th Conservative Party

Conference in Bournemouth yesterday, the shadow secretary of state for education, David Willetts said:

'I want teachers to know that we in the Conservative Party are on their side. Theirs is a tough job and a vital one: they are entitled to our respect. But that will not do on its own. As I listen to teachers and parents up and down the country it becomes clear to me that we have to think radically about what is going wrong in our schools. I have to say that every time there has been a problem there has been a tendency for all governments to respond by introducing a new regulation, launching a new initiative, imposing a new ban. And what have the long-term consequences been? We have militant teachers locked in an eternal battle with interfering politicians. Our children have been let down. Our teachers have been let down. Our country has been let down.

'We have to take a very different course and look at some very radical

options:

- simplifying the national curriculum drastically

- ending the absurd rule that you cannot expand a popular school when

there are empty places at unpopular ones

- making it easier to set up and run new schools

- encouraging teachers to take over a school and run it themselves

- allowing successful schools to apply their experience and help run

less successful schools nearby

'Above all, we must act on the Conservative belief that the problem is

not too little government interference but far, far too much. Then we

will be true to Disraeli's great principle, 'Trust the people'. That

means trusting the professional judgment of teachers in the classroom.

It means something else too: trusting parents to choose the best school for their child.

'Then we will have strong teachers in strong schools. They will have a

strength which does not come from petty regulations or departmental

directives. It will be a strength which comes from within themselves,

knowing that they are discharging one of the greatest responsibilities

anyone can have.

'We Conservatives understand that those 10,000 hours which a child

spends in the classroom are uniquely precious. They are the greatest

single opportunity we have to transmit essential knowledge and skills.

And not just that - our history and culture too. It is a chance in a

lifetime. We have to get it right. We will get it right.'

Full text of speech follows

TEXT OF DAVID WILLETTS' SPEECH TO THE 115TH CONSERVATIVE PARTY

CONFERENCE, 7TH OCTOBER 1998

'Let me begin by introducing my team. Theresa May has served as the

Chairman of a Local Education Authority and is ideally qualified to

speak on schools. Damian Green has been energetically visiting

universities up and down the country as well as dissecting the New Deal.

They are amongst the most talented of the new intake of MPs. Emily

Blatch, in the Lords, contributes enormous wisdom and experience. She

has special responsibility for defeating the Government - 10 times, to

be precise, in the last session. We are finding it a bit more difficult in the Commons but we will keep on trying - and that is the job of our Whip, Stephen Day. It is a strong team and I am privileged to work with them.

'Do you remember Tony Blair's campaign anthem,'Things can only get

better'. I wonder if they played that in his constituency when Siemens

announced 1100 job losses. Or in Birmingham where Rover has already shed 1,500 jobs. Or in the Scottish Borders where Via Systems announced 1,000 redundancies only last week. A job is lost every 10 minutes. No wonder Ministers have stopped boasting about their successes and are now preparing alibis for their failures. But when they claimed things could only get better they didn't say it was subject to fluctuations on the Russian stock market. The British people won't forget and they won't forgive.

'Tony Blair thought he could rely on the golden economic inheritance

from us to keep the jobs flowing. He would then be free to turn his mind to higher things - like destroying the British constitution. But now the economic clouds are gathering. Hard-headed businessmen in Osaka or Chicago have to decide which of their overseas factories to close.

'Because of Labour's new burdens on employers, it is our factories which are losing out. It's very simple really - Conservative Governments attract foreign investors in, Labour Governments drive them out.

'They claim to have an answer to the looming jobs crisis. Three years

ago Gordon Brown launched Labour's New Deal for the 250,000 young people who had been unemployed for more than six months. When he got to office he found he had another awkward problem inherited from the Tories - there were only 110,000 young unemployed people left. The problem was disappearing fast. But now it is not the unemployment that is disappearing, it's the young people who are. A quarter of those who

participate in the New Deal disappear without the Government having the faintest idea where they have gone. It is not welfare-to-work, it is welfare-to-nowhere.

'They aren't doing any better on education. When William Hague appointed me to this post, some people said, 'You must find it very difficult to disagree with David Blunkett, after all he's just carrying on with your policies'. Well, of course, there is no point inventing disagreement just for the sake of it. And I do not doubt David Blunkett's personal belief in raising educational standards. But there is a fundamental difference between Conservatives and Labour about how to do it. It's very clear. We believe in giving freedom to schools; Labour believe in taking it away.

'David Blunkett has taken unprecedented powers to interfere in every

school in the country. I say to him: if state direction of the economy

raised incomes, then the Russians would have been the richest people on earth. But it doesn't. No more can you, Mr Blunkett, raise standards by trying to run the nation's 25,000 schools from Whitehall. So stop trying.

'Schools and Councils up and down the country are now obliged to follow:

- An Educational Development Plan

- An Early Years Development Plan

- A Special Educational Needs Development Plan

- A Literacy Plan

- A Numeracy Plan

- An Information and Communications Technology Plan

- A School Organisation Plan

- An Admissions Plan

- An Assets Plan

- An Education Action Zone Plan

- Oh! and I almost forgot, there's a plan to cut red tape too

'This monstrous paper-chase absorbs precious time and energy which

schools want to devote to teaching.

'Universities are trapped in the paper chase too. And to add insult to

injury some of the bureaucracy is generated by a policy which Labour

explicitly denied before the last election. Tony Blair pledged, 'Labour has no plans to introduce tuition fees for higher education'. New students arriving at college this term will know they cannot trust

Labour ever again.

'Then there is their pledge on class sizes. I want to make it clear.

Most parents would prefer their children to be educated in smaller

classes. Size does matter. The smaller the better. But there is no point simply cutting classes in good popular schools when that means less parental choice. Nor does it make any sense if schools simply respond by increasing class sizes further up the school. Half of junior schools this September had increased class sizes for 7-11 year olds. David Blunkett is not cutting large classes, he is just redistributing them.

'Good councils, Conservative councils, no longer try to interfere in

schools all the time. But David Blunkett wants them to tell him what is going on in every nook and cranny of our schools. He is forcing councils back into the bad old ways. We Conservatives know that is profoundly wrong. We believe that Local Education Authorities should be the servants of schools not their masters.

'Labour are taking us back to the dismal days of grey uniformity. Look

at the attacks they have already launched on schools which are in any

way out of the ordinary:

- 1500 pre-schools closing this year as Labour cuts off their funding

- Grammar schools once more under threat

- City Technology Colleges suffering big cuts in funding

- Abolishing the Assisted Places Scheme, which opened new opportunities for 96,000 children

- And of course Grant Maintained Schools which have done so much to

raise educational standards, losing many of their precious freedoms

'And what have we got for these policies?

'Has one single school been improved?

'Has one headteacher been empowered?

'Has one child been better educated?

'No. No. No.

'These policies are sheer vandalism.

'David Blunkett is not pursuing standards, he is pursuing

standardisation. The tragedy is he doesn't know the difference.

'Edmund Burke brilliantly analysed the consequences of what he called

'... a restless desire of governing too much. .... As always happens in this kind of officious universal interference, what began in odious

power, ended... in contemptible imbecility.' That will be the epitaph of the Blair government.

'And talking of Burkes, what about the Lib Dem conference? The Liberal

Democrats always talk about decentralising but only to what they

control. They wouldn't have any truck with more freedom for schools.

'David Blunkett certainly likes banning things. He has banned schools

from interviewing prospective pupils. He wants to ban late nights and

fix bedtimes for children. Labour even suggested a policy on pocket

money - trying to extract a few votes out of a populist attack on fat

kittens.

'It sometimes seems as though David Blunkett believes that everything

which is not compulsory should be banned.

'There must be a better way to ensure our children have the best

possible education.

'But let me tell you what I find in some of the schools I visit:

- children who have never held a crayon or seen a book before they start school

- children with explosive rages because their home life is so unstable

- teachers threatened by aggressive parents who march into school at the first attempt to exercise discipline over their child.

'We understand the pressures teachers are under. They are far more

intense than a generation ago. But however intense they may be, a school can still overcome them. And as we listen to Britain we learn of inspiring examples which show how it can be done. It takes strong

schools and confident teachers to meet the challenge of educating our

young people in such a turbulent world.

'And what gives schools and teachers that strength and confidence?

'Very simple. Seizing the greatest possible power to run their own

affairs. Not treating them as puppets with their strings pulled by

distant bureaucrats.

'David Blunkett believes he can tell teachers what should go on in their classrooms down to the last ten minutes. And he dismisses teachers who have doubts about his ceaseless flow of ill-thought-out initiatives as 'a miserable bunch of sneering cynics'. That's no way to treat the teaching profession. No wonder fewer and fewer university graduates want to become teachers.

'I want teachers to know that we in the Conservative Party are on their side. Theirs is a tough job and a vital one: they are entitled to our respect. But that will not do on its own. As I listen to teachers and parents up and down the country it becomes clear to me that we have to think radically about what is going wrong in our schools. I have to say that every time there has been a problem there has been a tendency for all governments to respond by introducing a new regulation, launching a new initiative, imposing a new ban. And what have the long-term consequences been? We have militant teachers locked in an eternal battle with interfering politicians. Our children have been let down. Our teachers have been let down. Our country has been let down.

'We have to take a very different course and look at some very radical

options:

- simplifying the national curriculum drastically

- ending the absurd rule that you cannot expand a popular school when

there are empty places at unpopular ones

- making it easier to set up and run new schools

- encouraging teachers to take over a school and run it themselves

- allowing successful schools to apply their experience and help run

less successful schools nearby

'Above all, we must act on the Conservative belief that the problem is

not too little government interference but far, far too much. Then we

will true to Disraeli's great principle, 'Trust the people'. That means trusting the professional judgment of teachers in the classroom. It means something else too: trusting parents to choose the best school for their child.

'Then we will have strong teachers in strong schools. They will have a

strength which does not come from petty regulations or departmental

directives. It will be a strength which comes from within themselves,

knowing that they are discharging one of the greatest responsibilities

anyone can have.

'We Conservatives understand that those 10,000 hours which a child

spends in the classroom are uniquely precious. They are the greatest

single opportunity we have to transmit essential knowledge and skills.

And not just that - our history and culture too. It is a chance in a

lifetime. We have to get it right. We will get it right.'

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