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Education secretary Estelle Morris made the following keynote speech about the 'changing secondary education landsc...
Education secretary Estelle Morris made the following keynote speech about the 'changing secondary education landscape and why reform leads to achievement' at an event organised with the Social Market Foundation yesterday.


24 JUNE 2002


1. I could stand here and make an argument for consolidation. An argument for not changing anything more in education. For saying we've made progress, let's go on as we are. When to change and when to stick with what you know is a question that not just faces us in education but every company, every organisation, every society. I want to make an argument for change.

2. On one level the answer is simple. As a society we rightly expect things to get better every year. We expect to earn more. We expect health to improve - and no one ever asks when is it time to stop looking for the next big medical breakthrough, we expect our children's housing to better than ours. We expect technology to get better and faster. In 2006 we expect to win the world cup not just reach the quarter finals. And above all we want our children to have it better than we did. Be better off. Be healthier. Live in a more just and equal society. And be better educated. So education is just like everything else in that it has to improve. It has to succeed where it might have failed before. And education is the driving force for all the improvements we want in life. The doctors and scientists who will make the future breakthroughs are in our schools now. So are the future footballers. And the teachers. And the actors and artists who will amaze and entertain us in the future. And everyone else who will drive all the other year on year improvements we want to see. Education has to deliver now so that everyone else can continue to deliver in the years ahead. That's why we must continually challenge ourselves over our education system. Asking ourselves not just is it good enough now but how good will it have to be next year, in five years and in ten years.

3. But there is another part to the reform argument. In all the sectors I've mentioned we underpin the drive for reform and advancement with long lasting values. Be it the professional ethical values that underpin Doctors' commitment to their patients. Or the principles of fair play in sport. Or our lasting ideals for a fair, tolerant and just society. These ideals can co-exist with relentless improvement and reform. The two feed and strengthen each other. Our values allow us to make sense of an ever changing world. But we must accept the challenge to update our values and make them relevant to each new generation. That's what we have to do in education to. Recognise and cherish our long held principles while accepting that reform can revitalise and renew them. That is how I think about the comprehensive system. To revitalise the ideal we must reform not consolidate. To leave things as they are is not to defend comprehensive ideals. It is to stand back and watch them wither and die. We must be clear about the enduring strength of the ideals comprehensives stood for. And we must recognise some of their failures in practice that have put those ideals in jeopardy.

4. Forty years ago the comprehensive system was launched with the clarion cry 'opportunity for all' and it was welcomed by the Labour Party and the country in general for scrapping the iniquity of selection.

5. It was welcomed because the tripartite system was so flawed. Dividing children at the age of 11 into successes or failures was not only deeply contrary to our ambitions for equality of opportunity and a meritocracy, it no longer met the economic needs of the nation. It was the very opposite of 'opportunity for all' - it reserved opportunity to a privileged few and denied it to the majority.

6. Comprehensive education came into being to allow every child to progress and improve themselves by merit and hard work, and to tear down the barriers that too often stopped the less well off from making a better life for themselves.

7. That burning idea is still the same. It is still as relevant today, and should not change. But over the last four decades we have often allowed our commitment to that ideal to blind us to some of the failings in practice. It is time to look at these honestly. We must recognise that standards still vary hugely between schools. We must recognise that there are too many pupils not achieving adequately in our secondaries - and too many of these are from poorer backgrounds. We must recognise that as a result of these problems, our secondary schools do not command the trust and support of parents in the way our primary schools do. We can see the underachievement in some of our ethnic groups.

8. We thought the comprehensive system would solve all these problems. We thought that opening up opportunity for all would help raise attainment across the board. But we must be honest and say it has not. So I will argue today that it is now time to build on what was right about the comprehensive system, but take secondary schools on beyond the comprehensive era. Building on the vital principle 'opportunity for all our children', we must now develop our secondary system to focus on 'achievement for all our children'. And we will do this by modernising 'comprehensive schools'.

Where we are now

9. I believe in the comprehensive ideal. For 18 years I taught in a comprehensive - and would not have taught anywhere else. For me, the comprehensive ideal means high expectations for every child; entitlement to a broad and balanced curriculum; the right to progression; the right to fulfil their potential. These are all ideals on which we can and should agree.

10. And the comprehensive era has brought important improvements in our school system, and opened up opportunity for many people in this country. Over 70 percent of children stay in fulltime schooling post-16 now compared to just a quarter in the mid-1960s - largely thanks to comprehensives. 50 percent of pupils now gain 5 good GCSEs, double the rate of 30 years ago - in the comprehensive system. One in three young people now enter higher education as against only one in seven in 1971 - and most of these extra children have been educated at comprehensive schools. The underachievement of girls in school has been dramatically eliminated - in the comprehensive system.

11. My new schools Minister David Miliband, an outstanding product of a comprehensive school. My London minister, Stephen Twigg, an outstanding product of a comprehensive school.

12. But alongside these successes, we must also recognise that there are still some profound problems in our secondary schools. Because although the comprehensive system has these achievements to its name, we must also be honest about the scale of the challenge that still faces us in our quest to raise standards in our secondary schools.

- At KS3 - too many pupils going backwards from 11-14;

- Although we are proud that we have last year achieved 50% of young people getting 5 good GCSEs, this equally means that half of our 16 year olds are failing to achieve at an acceptable level.

- although staying rates post 16 have risen, we still fall some way behind our major competitors. Nearly three in ten of the UK's 17 year olds are n not in full-time or part-time education as against less than one in ten seventeen year olds in France, Germany and Japan.

- the link between social class and attainment both strong and worsening between 11 and 16;

- huge variation in standards across schools;

- huge variation in standards within schools ie. the fact that even in good schools there are a lot of underperforming children

13. Even talking about reforming the comprehensive system has somehow become a taboo. Somehow we've been afraid that in being honest about the challenges and failings of the comprehensive system in practice, we would be accused of betraying our commitment to the ideal. The reality is that to deliver the ideal we have to reform. To deliver improvements to the system, we will have to modernise.

14. To say this is not a criticism of those who teach and work in our secondary schools. We have the best generation of school leaders and teachers who are often succeeding against the odds, going beyond the call of duty, making a real difference day in and day out in often difficult circumstances. They've often been trying to make a reality of comprehensive education for the children they teach. We need to support our excellent teachers and heads in what they do. We need to remove the obstacles they face. We need to reform the system to create schools characterised by high expectations, innovation and challenge. Reforming our secondary system is not criticising our school workforce - it is honouring and supporting them.

Consolidation v Reform

1. Change can be difficult, reform can be a challenge. But this is not a time for just sitting back and hoping that the improvements that we have seen in our primary schools simply feed through to the rest of the school system.

2. Rather, is a time to step up the pace of change. And I say this not because I want to stir things up, or to be on people's backs. It is not because I believe in change for change's sake. I say it because the scale of the challenge is so large, and the need is so great.

3. Nobody can look at our secondary school system and say, 'it's fine, keep it as it is'. No one can argue that this is educational success. If we fail to tackle the problems we face, we will waste individual talent, fail our children, and damage the productivity growth of our country.

4. Most important is to recognise that many of these problems are not new. Despite the successes I talked about earlier of the comprehensive system, these problems stretch back many years.

5. We thought the comprehensive system would solve all these problems. We have to recognise that it has not. The truth is we have to change our approach. More of the same won't work. This Government is far more ambitious for comprehensive education than what is has achieved so far.

Beyond Comprehensives to a New Era of Improving Schools

6. How will we do this? We will achieve this by reforming the structure of our secondary school system. At the core of reform of our secondary system, we need to ensure that every secondary schools has a clear strategy of improvement, and how it will do this by developing its own ethos and sense of mission.

7. To do this, we need to move the comprehensive system at secondary level on. Before 1997, and in our first term, we said we would focus on 'standards not structures'. We did this, in part because we wanted to signal that we were not at war with the independent sector, and that a damaging obsession on the left with the structures of schooling (independent vs maintained; grammar vs comprehensive) had been replaced with a determination to rescue a state education system that after two decades of Tory rule had standards that were simply far too low.

8. But 'standards not structures' was also the right approach to our initial priority, of improving the basics of literacy and numeracy at primary school. There, a focus on teaching materials, learning strategies, teacher training, and the structure and planning of primary lessons was the most important intervention to make. Changing the structures of primaries was and is neither necessary nor desirable. They are the right size; command huge affection and commitment from parents; are trusted and popular institutions; and are capable of delivering the higher standards we seek.

9. However, as we seek to raise standards in our secondary schools, we need to look again at whether the current structure of our secondary school system can deliver the improvements that are so vitalto make.

15. I've already said that I don't think it can. Now is the time to build on what was right about the comprehensive system, but renew it. In our programme for secondary reform, we must make sure we tackle underachievement, raise standards, promote excellence. And we must end a system where educational attainment is so strongly linked to social class.

16. So we build on the principle of 'opportunity for all our children', and develop our secondary system to focus on 'achievement for all our children'.

10. I think there are two structural faults with the present structure. First, the comprehensive system is too uniform, both within and between schools; and second, there are insufficient incentives and support for school improvement.

Uniformity vs Diversity

11. It may be something of a caricature, but in the pursuit of opportunity for all, comprehensive schools have concentrated too much on their sameness. The system doesn't emphasise enough the differences.

12. Equality of opportunity will never be achieved by giving all children the same education. It's achieved by tailoring education to the needs of the individual child. The old tripartite system could never have done that. Comprehensives could but so far haven't. In the fight for equal opportunity we may have emphasised the equality too much and the opportunity too little. This is characterised in our attitude to excellence. Too often excellence is confused with elitism and the failure to understand that recognising and celebrating those who achieve does not hold back others.

13. This attitude to pupils within the school is mirrored in the school's attitudes to itself. The comprehensive system is too uniform. We have to get away from the easy, undifferentiated approach that has often characterised the comprehensive structure.

14. If the secondary system is to really raise education standards, it has to work with the grain of our diverse communities and children. We must keep the entitlement that comprehensive education offers all children, but we have to encourage every single one of our secondary schools to develop their own sense of mission and play to their strengths. We need an end to the 'one size fits all' school and 'off-the-shelf' comprehensive.

15. Hence our plans for a secondary school system where within the comprehensive family which guarantees fair admissions, an entitlement to a broad and balanced curriculum, high expectations and good quality teaching and leadership, each school chooses its own identity, has its own sense of purpose, and reflects and develops the individual strengths of its pupils and its community. We have the building blocks in place - specialist schools, City Academies, advanced schools, training schools. This sense of individual identity and mission is central to our quest to change secondary structures to support raising standards.

From Comprehensive to the Ladder of Improvement

16. Secondly, we need more incentives and support for schools to improve.

17. We need to build a secondary system in which every school has a clear ladder of improvement and route map to raised standards. A system in which every school know where it stands, is challenged to raise its level, is incentivised and supported when it does so, and is offered new freedoms and opportunities as it improves.

18. Again, rather than one- size fits all, an acknowledgement of the truth - that different schools are at different stages in school improvement and need different levels of challenge and support, freedoms and responsibilities.

19. There has often been a taboo in admitting to this. People are quick to label any structure which talks about one school being different from another as a two tier system.

20. With the old grammar schools and secondary schools, a tier of schools was forced to be second best. This was an inevitable consequence of that two-tier approach. And one of the chief hopes of those arguing for the comprehensive system was that this would end, that each school would becomes as good as the other.

21. But we must acknowledge the reality that they are not. And rather than hide from the fact, we must once again renew our determination to ensure that every school can raise its standard to that of the best.

22. So we must build a structure for our secondary schools that gives every school a clear incentive and capacity to improve. We must build a system so that every school can in time aspire to and achieve excellence. We must build a ladder of improvement for all our schools. This is why I say we must go beyond opportunity for all to achievement for all - and in that way fulfill the hopes of original comprehensive pioneers.


- Faster and more decisive action to deal with failure

- Above this, schools explicitly choosing which school improvement model is for them, and working towards this

- For good schools, support for their diversity and school improvement, with stretching targets to be reached in return

- At the top, more freedom at the top for innovation, responsibility for spreading best practice and raising standards across the school system as a whole.


24. I know that what eventually makes the difference is the quality of school leadership and teaching. And I accept that without Government investment we will not achieve our ambitions. But combining those with committing ourselves to the highest aspiration for every child and facing up to some of the structural failures gives us the best chance of success.

25. I believe this new comprehensive ideal will have a powerful impact on our young people, not just on test scores and examination results but also on their learning capability, their self-esteem and their route to becoming better and more fulfilled citizens.

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