Michael Gove – 2011 Speech to the Royal Society


Below is the text of the speech made by the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, to the Royal Society on 29th June 2011.


Ladies and gentleman, I feel a little nervous in these surroundings.

I am a journalist by profession, a politician by accident and a historian in my dreams.

I am, therefore, in all too many ways, poorly equipped to address an audience of the nation’s most distinguished mathematicians and scientists.

But, in advancing the argument I want to make today, history is perhaps more of an aid than it might at first appear.

For some, like Karl Marx, the driving force in history was always economics.

For others, like Edward Gibbon, it was theology

More recently some have argued that history is driven by evolutionary biology or geography or simple demography.

But the truth, as I suspect everyone in this room knows, is that history is driven, above all, by mathematics and the power it gives us to understand, predict and control the world.

The emergence of the first, truly great, Western civilization, in the scattered city states of Ancient Greece, was intimately connected with the first systematic thinking about reason, logic and number.

Although Pythagoras himself is a figure shrouded by myth, the Pythagorean revolution he and his disciples set in motion was the prelude to the astonishing flowering of classical philosophy which laid the foundations of the Western world.

On those first foundations men such as Euclid and Archimedes devised a means of making sense of the world which enabled their contemporaries, and successors, to master it. Greece bequeathed her mathematical heritage to Rome and the achievements of the Caesars, their imperial highways, feats of engineering and centralised accounts, were all the fruits of mathematical knowledge.

Rome’s fall was the prelude to Islam’s rise and again mathematical innovation was the leading indicator of historical progress. While Western Europe was sunk in a Dark Age of dynastic squabbling, pagan aggression and superstitious poverty the Islamic world flourished, advanced and subdued its foes while also nurturing a series of mathematical thinkers responsible for transmitting wisdom and generating great historic breakthroughs. Whether it was the establishment of Arabic numerals as the principal method of mathematical notation or the invention of algebra, Arabic and Islamic culture was the world’s forcing-house of progress for centuries.

Europe only caught up again in the sixteenth century, but when we did it was with a burst of mathematical innovation which once more moved the world on its axis. Galileo and Descartes authored advances in mechanics and geometry which were hugely ground-breaking. They were followed by the arguably even greater geniuses of Newton and Leibniz.

Newton, the greatest President this society has had – so far – was the godfather of the Enlightenment, mankind’s great period of intellectual flowering, the liberation from ignorance on which our current freedoms rest.

In the nineteenth century, the greatest mathematicians were Germans – like Karl Friedrich Gauss and Bernard Riemann – reflecting the shift of intellectual innovation, and economic power, to central Europe.

In the twentieth century, the flight of mathematicians like Kurt Godel from a fascist Europe sunk in a new barbarism to a new world of liberty and promise again presaged a fundamental shift in economic, political and intellectual power.

In the last few generations, it has been the breakthroughs of mathematicians and theoretical physicists working in the US that has allowed mankind to progress from only the vaguest and most approximate understanding of our world to precise quantitative models.

Richard Feynman has described the precision of quantum mechanics as like being able to measure the distance from New York to L.A to the nearest hair’s breadth. And for those of us navigating journeys even more fraught and perilous than an odyssey across America – such as driving from West London to Westminster without hitting roadworks – the precision of GPS satellite technology can guide us – and all thanks to the extraordinary precision of relativity’s equations.

Falling behind

And if we want mathematics to guide us into the future, it is easy to see in which direction history is currently moving: East.

The nations of East Asia, large and small, are now in the position the Islamic world was a millennium ago or Europe enjoyed during the Renaissance. Individually, they now increasingly resemble the England of the eighteenth century, the Germany of the nineteenth or the USA in the twentieth.

They are growing rapidly industrially and technologically; integrating more and more of their people into the global economy; investing more and more in maths and science; producing the engineers, technicians, scientists and inventors who will shape tomorrow’s world.

While Europe is chronically indebted, its currency under strain, its growth anaemic, and Continental universities in relative decline, Asia has a massive trade surplus, holds the fate of the dollar in its hands, enjoys surging growth and is developing schools, technical colleges and universities which are dramatically outpacing our own.

At school, British 15-year-olds’ maths skills are now more than two whole academic years behind 15-year-olds in China. In the last decade, we have plummeted down the international league tables: from 4th to 16th place in science; and from 8th to 28th in maths. While other countries – particularly Asian nations – have raced ahead we have, in the words of the OECD’s Director of Education, “stagnated.”

At undergraduate level, over half of degrees in China, Singapore and Japan are awarded in science and engineering subjects – compared to around a third in the UK, EU and US. The number of science and engineering degrees awarded in China more than trebled between 1998 and 2006. By comparison, those awarded in the United Kingdom and the United States remained relatively flat.

At postgraduate level, Asia now awards 1 in 4 of all engineering PHDs – almost as many as the EU and the USA combined. In the last 10 years for which we have figures, the number of scientific and technical journal articles published by Chinese researchers has almost quadrupled. In the UK, the increase has been just 3%. This focus on STEM is more than just academic – it translates into tangible, real-world innovations. Between 1999 and 2009, the number of patent applications by Chinese residents increased by over 1,000%. In the UK, it fell by a quarter.

For any politician anxious to ensure the next generation enjoy opportunities to flourish in an economy that is growing, in a nation that is confident and in a society that believes in progress, there is no escaping the centrality of mathematics and science. The imperative for maths and science education only grows as the strategic significance of cyberspace becomes daily more apparent. A point John Reid heavily underscores in his Cyber Doctrine speech today. Our capacity to innovate – vital to our security and resilience – is utterly dependent on education.

And when I see the pace at which other countries are transforming their education systems to give more and more of their students mastery in maths and science, it only reinforces my determination to reform our system here so our children can have access to the essential knowledge which truly empowers. If we are to keep pace with our competitors, we need fundamental, radical reform in the curriculum, in teaching, and in the way we use technology in the classroom. Unless we dramatically improve our performance, the grim arithmetic of globalisation will leave us all poorer.

A 21st century curriculum

If we’re going to reverse our decline, we need to begin by looking at what is being taught. So we launched a National Curriculum Review to survey the academic evidence, investigate international best practice, and work with field-leading experts to come to a conclusion on what our children should be taught.

In maths and science, our Review Group has already been engaging with many of you. But we want this process to be as open, collaborative and informed as possible. So in August, we will share draft Programmes of Study with you all publicly for discussion and collaboration. And we will publish the evidence that informs our judgements so that everyone can see why we have made specific proposals. Through this collaborative, transparent process we hope to develop a National Curriculum that enjoy widespread support from the subject communities.

And it’s in that spirit of transparency that I also want today to clear up some misconceptions that have arisen.

The new National Curriculum is an exercise in intellectual liberation, not an attempt to prescribe every moment of the school day. We must revive a crucial distinction between the National Curriculum and the School Curriculum. The purpose of the National Curriculum is to set out the essential knowledge that children need to advance in core subjects. We then want to liberate teachers to decide on pedagogy – how those core subjects should be taught – and also to decide on what other subjects, or activities, should make up the whole school curriculum. In maths and science, the Expert Panel is focused on fundamental scientific knowledge and essential principles that are not subject to controversy and change every month or year.

There are many issues and controversies – from embryo experimentation to energy conservation – which great teachers can use, as they wish, to create engaging and inspiring lessons. But there is no need to spell out in detail how these issues should be tackled in a National Curriculum. Indeed, filling it with topical subjects only encourages a constant tinkering and rewriting which we should stop. The National Curriculum should provide a foundation of knowledge. Great teachers, inspired by love for their subjects, should make the classroom come alive.

So, what should we concentrate on?

One of the lessons from the international evidence is that in East Asia there is much greater focus on fundamental number concepts, fractions and the building blocks of algebra in primary school. They have minimum standards that they aim to get practically all children to reach so they have a firm foundation for secondary. It may be, therefore, that we will adopt the same approach and have much more emphasis on pre-algebra in primary and remove data handling and some other subjects from the primary curriculum.

We should also bear in mind that in Shanghai, they have daily maths lessons and regular tests to make sure that all children are learning the basics.

Improving the foundations in primary would allow us to be more ambitious in the secondary curriculum.

Should, for example, calculus play a bigger part in the secondary curriculum? Obviously not everybody needs to study the more advanced calculus that is contained in the A level syllabus, but it seems to me genuinely bizarre that in the 21st Century so many children leave school essentially trapped in a mathematical world predating Newton and Leibniz, essentially unaware of the development of calculus.

And what about statistics? There are a vast array of issues that people are confronted with in daily life – from health scares to claims about the effect of drugs to financial news – which require statistical understanding. But studies have repeatedly shown how poor our collective understanding of such issues is. In its present form, GCSE maths does not enable children to understand conditional probability, normal distributions or randomness. Should this be something we should look to change?

And on a more fundamental level, it’s clear that not enough young people secure a basic level of competence in maths. Every year, about half of our pupils leave school without even a ‘C’ in maths GCSE. But it’s not just those pupils who give us cause for concern. We still send powerful signals throughout our education system that it’s somehow acceptable to give up on maths. Critically, we allow students to abandon any mathematical study after 16, in stark contrast to other developed nations. The ‘maths gap’ that most pupils now experience after the age of 16 means that even those who did well at GCSE have forgotten much of the maths they learnt by the time they start their degree or a job. ACME’s most recent figures on the take-up of mathematics among 17 year-olds is particularly worrying.

The latest figures are for 2009. Of the cohort of 660,000, three quarters were in full-time education.

286,000 students (c. 40% of the cohort) did A levels.

14,000 took maths to AS level. Another 72,500 took full A level maths and of those 72,500 another 10,000 also did further maths.

In total that amounts to only about 85,000 pupils (just 13%) of the cohort doing A or AS maths, with only about 2% taking it to a high level.

Yet at the same time ACME’s research shows that about 330,000 16-18 students per year need to study maths and statistics at a level beyond GCSE (180,000 to a ‘physics or engineering’ level and another 150,000 to a ‘social science’ level). So our schools system is failing to provide anything like the number of suitably equipped students to meet the needs of Higher Education.

Only half the population has even basic maths skills, we are producing only about a quarter to a third of the number of pupils with the maths skills that our universities need, and economic trends mean that this gap will, unless we change, get wider and wider with all that entails for our culture and economy.

That is why I think we should set a new goal for the education system so that within a decade the vast majority of pupils are studying maths right through to the age of 18.

Of course, I am not prejudging the Review. But there are strong arguments for introducing concepts earlier, for covering some topics more thoroughly, and for making certain subjects compulsory for longer. It is a debate worth having, and one I hope many of you will choose to be involved in.

The importance of (maths and science) teaching

Of course, if we’re going to change what we want children to be taught, we need to support those who will have to teach it.

Our White Paper, entitled ‘The Importance of Teaching’, made clear that maths and science are national strategic priorities and that we would target support to improve education in these subjects. We have allocated £135 million over the spending review period to support sustainable improvement in science and maths education in schools. A major part of this will focus on ensuring we have a teaching workforce that is ready to deliver.

So we’ll improve the supply of teachers with specialist subject knowledge in chemistry, physics and maths, through “conversion” courses that enable graduates of related disciplines to acquire the specialist subject knowledge necessary to train and serve as teachers in these subjects.

We’ll improving the skills of existing science and maths teachers through support for CPD – such as that offered by the national network of Science Learning Centres – where the Government is working in partnership with the Wellcome Trust and others in the universities and industry.

And we’ll offer high-achieving graduates, especially those in shortage subjects like science and maths, significantly better financial incentives to train as teachers – up to £20,000 for graduates with first class honours degree. Trainees will receive the bursary in monthly instalments in their training year, as currently happens.

We’ll also introduce Teaching Schools – modelled on teaching hospitals – to spread outstanding practice across the education system. Brilliant maths teachers in our best schools will be able to work across their school’s partnership mentoring and supporting those in weaker departments.

We are also committed to the existing programmes that have proven their worth over the past few years. For instance, the performance of the Further Maths Support Programme has been outstanding. The growth in the number taking Further Maths A level is testament to their success.

We protected the FMSP in the Spending Review and I can guarantee that their funding will not be cut for next year. However, this is not enough. They want to expand. That is why today, I have teamed up with CityAM to make an appeal to financial institutions in the City – put some of your profits into supporting the FMSP over the long-term, and ideally make it financially secure and not dependent on the temporary and easily lost affection of politicians.

Since the 2008 crisis, the financial pages have been full of laments from rich bankers and others bemoaning the lack of mathematical understanding among the population and among political leaders. OK, let’s do something about it. Although I personally strongly support the FMSP, I will not, many of you will be pleased to hear, be Secretary of State for ever. The health of organisations such as FMSP should not depend on a politician’s whim. It would be better if it had its own independent sources of money and I think many people would agree that the City has both an obligation and an incentive to help. Allister Heath, the paper’s brilliant editor, has today launched an appeal to his readers. Let’s hope this succeeds. I’m sure Adam Smith would approve – it would not only be a moral good but it would also be in the long-term interests of the City.

Harnessing technology in the classroom

In addition to the debate over what is taught, and the issue of who does the teaching, we also need to think about how the teaching takes place. So as well as reviewing our curriculum and strengthening our workforce, we need to look at the way the very technological innovations we are racing to keep up with can help us along the way. We need to change curricula, tests and teaching to keep up with technology, and technology itself is changing curricula, tests, and teaching.

ItunesU now gives everybody with an internet connection access to the world’s best educational content. Innovations such as the Khan Academy are putting high quality lessons on the web. Extremely cheap digital cameras and the prevalence of the internet allow teachers to share best practice and learn from errors. Brilliant scientific publications such as Science are building their own ecosystems of educational content – resources that a central Government department could never hope to produce and maintain.

Computer games developed by Marcus Du Sautoy are enabling children to engage with complex mathematical problems that would hitherto have been thought too advanced. When children need to solve equations in order to get more ammo to shoot the aliens, it is amazing how quickly they can learn. I am sure that this field of educational games has huge potential for maths and science teaching and I know that Marcus himself has been thinking about how he might be able to create games to introduce advanced concepts, such as non-Euclidean geometry, to children at a much earlier stage than normal in schools.

The Department for Education is working with the Li Ka Shing Foundation and the highly respected Stanford Research Institute on a pilot programme to use computer programmes to teach maths. We have not developed the programme – we are just helping them run a pilot. Stanford say it is one of the most successful educational projects they have seen.

These developments are only beginning. They must develop on the ground – Whitehall must enable these innovations but not seek to micromanage them. The new environment of teaching schools will be a fertile ecosystem for experimenting and spreading successful ideas rapidly through the system.


Overall, our vision for the future is clear. We are empowering teachers. We want schools to be more responsible to parents instead of to politicians. We are reducing bureaucracy as fast as we can. We want to reverse the devaluation of the exam system. We want a National Curriculum that acts as a foundation of core knowledge – not a detailed blueprint for lesson plans. And we unequivocally believe that maths and science education are at the heart of improving our society and our economy.

I look forward to the maths and science community engaging with our detailed proposals in the months ahead.

Michael Gove – 2011 Speech to Ofqual Standards Summit


Below is the text of the speech made by Michael Gove to the Ofqual Standards Summit on 13th October 2011.

Thank you all for coming along this morning.

As Amanda [Spielman] and Glenys [Stacey] pointed out, the purpose of today is to open a debate, not to close it. To ask some questions, not to come to firm conclusions. But I’m very conscious that when you have a debate in education, there’s always a danger that the participants in that debate can be caricatured. On the one hand, you have those people who believe in rigour, who instantly morph into Charles Dickens’s Thomas Gradgrind, demanding facts alone. And on the other hand, those people who believe there’s room for free play and creativity in education are sometimes caricatured as the offspring of AS Neill, the headteacher responsible for Summerhill, the school in which it was entirely up to children how they spent their time every day. I sometimes feel some sympathy for one of the children at Summerhill, who once at the beginning of the day asked their teacher, ‘Sir, must we do as we please today?’

But in looking at that debate I think it’s also important to recognise that in Glenys and in Amanda we have two people who can help us steer it, who are superbly well-equipped. Now of course, as soon as I mention Glenys and Amanda, you’ll wonder which of the caricatured roles I’ve just described do they fit into. Are they Gradgrind’s daughters, or are they the spiritual sisters of AS Neill? Well I’d like to think of them in a wholly different light. I’d like to think of them as the Cagney and Lacey of the standards debate, two hard bitten cops who are out there to make sure that those of you who are responsible for doing wrong are put behind bars. But actually, despite the toughness that Cagney and Lacey displayed, which both Glenys and Amanda have, I actually think a better comparison would be to think of them as Kay Scarpetta and Jane Tennison. Both of them are skilled forensic investigators of crimes and believe me – and believe me, if you’re responsible for those crimes, there is no escape from these two.

But in looking at the debate about standards overall, one of the questions you might be asking is where do I stand? And it’s very, very important, when one is talking about standards, to recognise that you’re tightrope-walking over a minefield. On the one hand, if you’re the sort of Education Secretary who praises the achievements of young people, than you can be accused of being Pollyanna, saying that everything’s wonderful and there’s no need to worry. On the other hand if you raise a critical eyebrow and say that you do have some concerns, then people instantly put you into the Eeyore camp, and instantly presume that you are a relentless pessimist. So which am I? Pollyanna or Eeyore? Am I Candide for thinking that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds? Or Victor Meldrew who, when I look at Key Stage 2, GCSE or A level results, simply cry out, ‘I don’t believe it!’ Well, the truth is, I’m actually on the optimistic side of the equation – a qualified optimist, but an optimist nonetheless. I believe that our children are working harder than ever before. I believe that the trend suggests that the Flynn Effect, as it’s been called, is correct. That children are more intelligent than ever before. I certainly believe that the teachers that we have in our schools are the best generation ever. And I also believe that children and teachers are working harder than ever.

But because they’re working harder, we have to make sure that our exam system works harder as well. And we need to make sure it works harder because education overall is being put to the test as a result of global forces. One of the most profound influences on me in doing this job has been Sir Michael Barber. And Sir Michael’s work for McKinsey has reinforced in my mind what so many studies have also underlined. That the tendency, which has bedevilled English education in the standards debate, to look to the past, is not the most effective way of making sure that standards are where they should be. What we should be looking at are the rest and the best. We should be comparing ourselves with other jurisdictions. We expect that each successive generation evolves, adapts, and does better than the previous generation. That’s what being human is all about: being the best, striving for excellence. It means, in a standards context, comparing ourselves with other countries and other jurisdictions that are doing even better.

But it’s important, in asking our exam system to do more, asking our curriculum to do more, that we also recognise that exams cannot do everything. And it’s important again that I emphasise, in front of this audience and in front of every audience, that some of the most important things that happen in schools cannot be tested, examined or quantified, no matter how sophisticated the method we are that they used. How do you measure enthusiasm or love of learning? How do you quantify the sense of joy or anticipation that a pupil feels when they arrive in a classroom knowing they’re going to be entertained and inspired for an hour. How do you quantify good citizenship? How do you calibrate team spirit? It’s because there is so much that can’t be measured and quantified objectively that we’re changing the way in which schools are rated by Ofsted, so that the new Chief Inspector will have a direct brief to ensure that, alongside the data that we publish on the basis of exam performance, a more rounded judgement is made about the quality of teaching and leadership in each school, so that we balance exam performance with the performance of the school in so many other areas – such as what we might call the tacit curriculum, and what we might also call character building.

But it is the case that exams do have a critical function alongside the changes that we might make to inspection, and indeed to the national curriculum, in making sure that we continue to raise standards in all our schools for all our children. They have, as we all know, an accountability function. Exams are one of the ways in which we judge schools, one against the other. But they also have a sorting function in letting us know which candidates are doing best. And that sorting function helps us identify, during the progress of a child’s education, which pupils need more support and which need more stretch and challenge. And it also helps, at 16 or 18, in allowing that individual child to decide which institution it might be best for them to progress to, and in helping institutions decide whether or not that young person has the capacity to benefit from what they have to offer.

And of course qualifications have a preparation function. The programme of study and the syllabus that is tested in the qualification should be a body of knowledge that equips a young person to move on confidently to the next stage of their lives – whether that’s taking up an occupation, or moving on to further or higher education.

Now some of you may be thinking, ‘Well, that’s all very well. But qualifications do you have, Secretary of State, to pronounce on this debate?’ I suspect I only really have only one qualification to enter into this debate. And that qualification is that none of the qualifications that I have come from the English schools system. I was educated in Scotland. And therefore, I don’t have a dog in the fight when it comes to deciding whether the A levels of the 1970s or the 1950s were a golden era. Because I was fortunate enough to be educated in that jurisdiction, I can look at the English exam system with – I hope – an element of detachment. And because I can look at the exam system as a citizen of the United Kingdom, but someone who was educated outside the system, I feel instinctively that we should judge that system against its international peers. And that’s why, throughout the time that I’ve been both the Shadow Education Spokesman and the Secretary of State, I’ve been so keen on those international comparisons that professor Michael Barber and others have drawn to our attention. Most of you will be wearily familiar with me pointing out the way in which we’ve slipped down the PISA league tables in the last 10 years. But let me reinforce the importance of what that means. Research published this week by the Department for Education drew to all our attention the fact that if our children performed as well children in Shanghai, then instead of 55 per cent of children getting five good GCSEs (including English and maths), it would be 77 per cent. So if you think about it: over 20% getting qualifications that they don’t currently get – over a fifth of the cohort overall. That means 100,000 more children getting the bare minimum of qualifications that most employers regard as a test of real employability. There’s 100,000 lives transformed for the better if we improve our education system. By a different measurement, it would mean that a child who currently gets 8 C grades at GCSE would – if they were as well-educated, and doing as well as pupils in Shanghai – would get 3 As and 5 Bs at GCSE. That’s a real difference. A concrete step forwards. And one that I believe that we should seek to take and aspire to reach here.

Now, specifically in asking if our examination system is helping us reach that level, one of the first questions we have to ask, and it’s a question, not a statement or a declaration, is are the examinations which we’re asking our children to sit delivering to them the level of knowledge that we have a right to expect if they are going on to compete against children from Shanghai for the jobs and the university places of the future. And into that debate there have already been some voices which have been very clear, that we are not giving children the level of knowledge that they require. I’m just going to reference some objective statements by individuals who again are the users of those from the education system generates as graduates and school leavers.

There was a recent survey from the British Chamber of Commerce and in it over half of small businesses in this country said they thought that the education system was failing to produce individuals with adequate skills needed for work. In their report they said, in general, and this is a reflection of business, not me, “younger people lack numeric skills, research skills, ability to focus and read plus written English”

David Frost, who’s the Director-General of the British Chamber of Commerce, said that a generation had been ‘failed’ by schools. “After 11 years of formal education,” he asserted, “employers say that they’re getting kids coming to them who can’t write, can’t communicate and who don’t have that work ethic.”

And it wasn’t just small businesses. A poll of some of Britain’s largest businesses found that there was widespread concern about the quality of potential recruits. Three out of four of those large businesses surveyed said that school leavers and graduates lack the basic skills needed to join the workforce. And of course, many of those business leaders have subsequently gone on the record. Sir Christopher Gent expressed his concerns, specifically about A Levels, and he argued: “grade inflation has devalued A levels and it is now an OK exam that used to be an excellent one.”

Sir Michael Rake, the Chairman of BT, said: “I personally think A Levels have been devalued.” And when he was still CEO of Tesco, Terry Leahy said: “Sadly, despite all the money that has been spent, standards are still woefully low in too many schools. Employers like us … are often left to pick up the pieces.”

I might disagree with any individual emphasis that any of those business leaders have put on their criticism of the exams system, but I can’t ignore what they say. And even if I were inclined to ignore what employers are saying, I couldn’t ignore what universities are saying as well. We know that more and more universities are considering remedial course for pupils, who when they arrive are unprepared for the rigours of further study. We know that there are many courses at elite universities, like Imperial, where a disproportionate number of places are taken up by students from outside the UK because they arrive better equipped for those courses. And indeed Sir Richard Sykes, the former Rector of Imperial College London, recently said of our GCSEs, that they produced students who were familiar only with “sound bite science” and he argued that the syllabus that prepared students for Imperial College, was based on a “dumbed down syllabus.” He believed that the examination we had was an inadequate preparation for Higher Education.

And it wasn’t just Sir Richard. The Royal Society in 2011, concluded in its study of science GCSEs that the level of mathematics that was being tested was poor. The Royal Society of Chemistry argued that there had been a catastrophic slippage in school science standards. They said that pupils would get a good GCSE pass by showing only a superficial knowledge of scientific issues. And the Institute of Physics has been critical too. They argue that Physics A Level is not preparing students for university and in particular, the Institute of Physics has lamented the fact that A Level Physics no longer requires pupils to be tested in calculus and their report has found strong criticism from universities about the mathematical knowledge of physics undergraduates. And that’s even though these students are generally amongst the most qualified and hard working of undergraduates.

So we can see there a weight of evidence, from distinguished voices, expressing specific concern about the body of knowledge with which students arrive into the workplace or at university.

Now again, I stress, it is not for me to endorse every single one of those findings or judgements. But it is for me to ask why, when there are so many voices asking critical questions, are they so concerned and what can we do to address them.

It’s also the case that the discontent that is felt amongst employers and universities, or is felt in a more widespread way across the country, relates not just to the level of knowledge but also to the grade that is conferred on students – the badge that suggests that an individual is ready to pass on to the next level. As we saw earlier in Glenys’s presentation, there’s been a significant rise in the number of students securing good passes. Part of that is undoubtedly down to better teaching, to harder working students and to an increase in achievement overall. But is all of it? It’s a question that we need to look at seriously given the scale of the growth in grades. The number of students getting five GCSEs at grade C or above has gone from 45 per cent in 1996 to over 75 per cent in 2010. Is all of that due to an improvement in teaching? Last year, there were over 370,000 A* results. There were only 114,000 comparable results in 1994.

And over the last 15 years, the proportion of pupils achieving at least one A at A level has risen by approximately 11 percentage points. In 2010, more than 34,000 candidates achieved three As at A level or equivalent, which allow them to progress to one the best universities. That’s enough to fill half the places within the Russell Group. Universities are increasingly asking: “how can they choose between so many candidates who appear to be identically qualified?” Again, some of that improvement is undoubtedly due to schools performing better. But for universities the question is, can it be entirely due to that?

As Glenys pointed out, there is research which suggests, from a number of independent academic sources, that there is evidence of grade inflation. Researchers at Durham University have been particularly good at challenging the growth in grade performance. One piece of analysis from Durham concluded that between 1996 and 2007, the average grade achieved by GCSE candidates of the same ‘general ability’ rose by almost two thirds of a grade. And the rise, they argued, is particularly striking in some subjects: in 2007, pupils received a full grade higher in maths, and almost a grade higher in history and French, than pupils of the same ability when they sat the exams in 1996. Similar trends have been found at A level. Academics at Durham found that in 2007, A level candidates received results that were over two grades higher than pupils of comparable ability in 1988. And pupils who would have received a U in Maths A-Level – that’s a fail – in 1988 received a B or C in 2007.

Now, again, I have to emphasise this for the third time, some of that improvement will be down to improvement in our education system: better funding, better teaching, harder working students, but all? We have a duty to ask those tough questions.

We also have a duty to ask tough questions about the types of reforms or change that we might make. Glenys has pointed out that the process, when it comes to awarding grades we have at the moment, is of course a subtle one and it depends on individuals in this room, whose level of statistical knowledge and sophistication in manipulating numbers far outranks my own. But I just want to ask a couple of questions. And one them relates to, and what you might regard an arid debate, between criterion and norm referencing.

Like Glenys, I believe that you can’t go back to a situation where exams all were graded on the basis of norm referencing. I do ask one question for debate, and I don’t mind if, at the end of it, people shoot me down. But I think it’s important to open the debate. Should it be the case that while we award As, Bs and Cs, entirely on the basis of the criteria which people reach, is there a case for exploring whether or not an A* should be allocated to only a fixed percentage of candidates. I’d like to see that debate explored and engaged with.

There’s another question as well. Should we publish more data about how all candidates perform? So yes, of course you know that their work is capable of securing an A or an A*. But you also know how they’re ranked, depending on the subject. I know that there are some exam boards that are debating the advisability of this but one anecdote weighs very heavily with me. Now I know – and I suspect that others of you may point this out later – that data is not the plural of anecdote but I was struck when I visited Burlington Danes Academy that the headteacher there, Sally Coates, had a rank order system she devised. Every half term, students sit examinations in every subject. They’re ranked, and performance is shared between the student, their family and the teacher. So every student knows whether they’re first or 120th in English, mathematics, and history – and also for sporting achievement, cultural achievement and effort overall. At the end of each term, the performance is then published. So students have an opportunity to improve their performance between half term, when it’s private, and the end of term when it’s public. When I asked the headteacher, Sally Coates, if this wasn’t a bit – please excuse my phrase – ‘hardcore’, and had it resulted in a revolt amongst students and parents, she looked at me and said, ‘actually, it’s the single most popular thing that I’ve done.’ Parents love it, because they’re given information that they’d previously been denied.

In the past, parents asked, ‘How has my son done?’ and they would receive the reply, ‘He’s a lovely boy.’ Now they accurately knew where he stood. But secondly, it was also the case that individual students could then compare their performance and their contemporaries’ performance in subjects. And students were now ranking teachers, on the basis of those who added value and demanding that certain teachers who were not getting them up the rankings be moved on, and that they be transferred into the classes of those teachers who were getting pupils up the rankings. So if ranking can achieve that in one school in White City, if additional data and transparency can generate those beneficial results, is there a case for exam boards publishing more data about the performance of students, rather than less. It could be a completely wrongheaded idea. But I put it out there explicitly for debate.


I also think, that as well as considering norm referencing and ranking, and the two of course are connected, we do of course need to look at other changes which are occurring elsewhere which will have a bearing on how achievement is assessed in the future. Technology is critical. As Jerry Jarvis pointed out, the examination system industry in this country has moved from being ‘a cottage industry to mass manufacturing.’ As it has done so, there is an inevitable move towards the greater deployment of technology in assessment. But the rate of technological change in education I think is rapidly going to accelerate in the next few years. We’ve already seen iTunesU and the Khan Academy have transformed the delivery of content. We already know that there are more and more sophisticated ways of using technology for formative assessment. So we have to ask ourselves ‘how will technology change the way in which assessment should be delivered and grades should be awarded?’ I think that looking at the capacity that technology has to transform the accuracy and the authority of assessment, it also gives us the potential to generate yet more data, in order to know how our schools, how our teachers and how our whole system is performing.


In talking about teachers, I also want to ensure that our exam and our assessment system is fair to them. I recognise that the structure of accountability that we’ve set up and in particular the way that’s gone hand in hand with certain examination changes has put additional pressures on them. As Glenys pointed out, there are different views about the effect of modularisation. I’m very clearly of the view that modularisation has led to people absorbing knowledge and then forgetting it, rather that taking the whole body of knowledge necessary for a course together, and using it to best effect synoptically at the end of an examination course. I also think in sheer practical terms that modularisation and the culture or re-sitting has meant that more time is spent on external assessment and less time is spent on teaching and learning

Early entry

I also think there is a case at looking at the culture of early entry. It is the case that there are many students of comparable ability who if entered early for exams do less well and that the culture of early entry is being driven by the way in which accountability is worked in this country. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with truly outstanding students getting particular qualification out of the way, as it were, so they can then progress. But we do need to look at the way in which the nature of accountability and the way in which our exams are offered have meant that the natural progression through the curriculum has become distorted.

I also think that as well as looking at technology, early entry and the culture of re-sitting, we also need to ask ourselves, overall, if we are, in the questions that we ask, and in the design of those questions, encouraging the sorts of thinking skills and creativity that are so important.

As we saw earlier, and as Glenys pointed out, the structure of some questions in modern exams sometimes leads the student by the hand through the process of acquiring marks. Curiously, I believe that many of those who are most anxious to reinsert creativity and original thinking, and a display of knowledge in the round, would actually find the question from an era that they would have derided as the time of rote learning, may in many respects be questions better designed to elicit that degree of creativity that some of the contemporary questions that our exams ask now.

So some questions, which I’d like you to engage with. And in leading that debate, I’m confident that in the team we have at Ofqual, we have the right people and the right institution with the right remit to make a difference.

The role of Ofqual

One of the things I’m specifically keen to do is to emphasise that, with the leadership that Ofqual has, there is a new requirement for Ofqual to do more. I believe that Ofqual shouldn’t simply be monitoring achievement over time. Ofqual specifically, and this is the injunction we place on it in our Education Bill, should be asking itself the question: ‘how do we do and how do our exams do, compared to the best in the world?’

That necessarily means that Ofqual moves from being an organisation that perhaps in the past provided reassurance, to one that consistently provides challenge to politicians, to our education system overall and to exam boards and awarding bodies. That is why I think it is so important that Ofqual, like all regulators, if it is to be an effective watchdog.…sharper teeth. It is why I believe that Ofqual should the ability to fine if necessary. We do have to ask ourselves questions about this summer’s examinations. Why were there so many mistakes? Why did we leave students to have unnecessary heartache at a time of stress and tension? It’s not enough to be complacent and say that these things happen. We’re dealing with some of the most important moment in some people’s lives and therefore it is critically necessary for a regulator like Ofqual to have the powers required, to ensure that the many gifted people that work in our exam boards and awarding bodies, make sure that every year they do their best for students who are doing their best.

In stressing the role that Ofqual plays, it’s important to recognise that no matter how gifted, effective or assertive that particular body is, the responsibility for maintaining standards, and indeed the responsibility for raising standards, rests on all of us. It’s important that collectively we recognise that exam boards and awarding bodies, in the natural and healthy desire to be the best as an exam board, don’t succumb to the commercial temptation to elbow others out of the way, by saying to schools and to others “we provide an easier route to more passes than others.” I’m sure that would be a temptation that would never be felt in any breast in this room, but it’s important that that temptation, whilst it exists, is resisted. If it isn’t, then action might need to be taken.

It’s also important that we recognise that there is a direct responsibility on government. I talked about accountability earlier and the way in which it can skew performance. One of the things that I’ve been accused of recently is that by introducing a new accountability measure, the English Baccalaureate, I’ve skewed performance. Well actually, the importance of the English Baccalaureate cannot be overstated. It is one accountability measure amongst many. The reason that it has had the resonance that is has, is because it is popular and it reflects the truth. A good performance or strong performance in these academic subjects: English, mathematics, the three sciences, modern languages and a humanity, like history or geography, confers on students the chance to progress, whether on to a great job, or a high performing university. Nudging students towards these subjects and asking schools which don’t have pupils performing well in these subjects why not, is a way of generating greater social mobility and higher achievement overall.

I believe the way in which parents now ask schools whether or not students are being offered these subjects reflects the fact that the common sense of the majority of parents, and the shrewd judgment of university admissions tutors, and the hard won experience of employers, all coincide in saying that these are the qualification that they prize. Not the only qualifications that they prize and schools shouldn’t be allowed to say that pursuing these qualifications squeezes out creativity. It is perfectly possible to combine these subjects with creative subjects with cultural reach, and with sporting achievements, and with everything that gives a rounded education. These are the subjects which are a passport to further progression and it’s important that schools recognise that that is the demand of parents, higher education institutions and employers.

As well as having this accountability measure, we will be publishing more and more data. It will possible in the future for newspapers, for trade unions, for anyone to construct the data that we publish to create their own baccalaureate, or their own basket of measures by which schools can be judged. And if for any reason that the English Baccalaureate is superseded by another measure developed by another institution or media organisation, which has greater currency….great. My aim is to ensure that the data is there for meaningful, nuanced and rounded comparisons to be made and for us all to push things in the right direction.

One of the reasons why I’m anxious that we should have that accuracy in the data is because I was moved so profoundly by Alison Wolf’s report on vocational education and the way in which she laid bare the fact that there are so many students that had pursued qualifications, which were nominally the equivalent of three or four GCSEs, but in the world of work weren’t seen as even amounting to a single GCSE. That is why we’re engaged in the process of ensuring that there is genuine equivalence and genuine parity between those vocational subjects that are every bit as testing as GCSEs and rigorous GCSES. We’ll be saying more in due course on how we’ll be taking forward Alison’s work.

So some questions, some assertions and I hope a clear direction of travel.

Finally, a warning: if the changes that I make – or that I want to make – win some favour with the audience in this room, and we’re able to move together collectively, one thing may happen in English education. Something unprecedented. Potentially, some might say, revolutionary. We might have a year – even a year while I’m still in office – where GCSE and A level results dip. Where fewer students get A stars, fewer students get As. When that happens, there will be an inevitable pointing of fingers – mostly, in my direction. ‘You’re presiding over a decline, you’re presiding over failure.’ Well, I won’t believe that’s true for a moment. I believe that our children and our teachers will be doing better than ever. But I think that if our exam system is accurate, precise, demanding and world-class, there will be years where performance will dip, as well as rise. And it’s far, far, far better if we’re honest with our children, honest with ourselves as a nation, and have an exam system that is world beating and respected everywhere. Because what we want an exam system to do, in the word of my old Scots mother, is ‘tell the truth, and shame the devil.’

Thank you.

Michael Gove – 2011 Speech to the Edge Foundation


Below is the text of the speech made by Michael Gove to the Edge Foundation on 29th September 2011.

It’s a special pleasure to be here at this Edge event. No organisation has done more to champion the cause of vocational education and never has your clear, consistent, challenging voice been required more than now.

And it’s particularly pleasing to be here alongside my colleague John Hayes. No-one in Parliament has done more to champion the importance of vocational education than John. Over the last five years he has developed a coherent programme of reform for further education, he has made a compelling case for elevating the practical in our education system and I am delighted he is now a joint Department for Education and BIS Minister responsible for vocational learning. John is an old friend of mine and I am, frankly, jealous that he has a new admirer in Vince Cable, but so valuable is he that I am more than happy to live with a situation where there are three of us in this relationship.

A historical problem

Most new governments tend to complain about problems they inherited from their predecessors. And given our own inheritance it’s not surprising that we should be the same. Today I want to address head-on a problem that we’ve been bequeathed by the previous Government – of Lord John Russell. Lord John Russell was Prime Minister between 1846 and 1852. As the leader of a coalition of Whigs and Radicals there is much to recommend him. But it was on his watch that we as a nation first tried, and failed, to solve a problem which bedevils us still.

The problem is our failure to provide young people with a proper technical and practical education of a kind that other nations can boast. It was a problem identified by the German-born Prince Albert, the driving force behind the Great Exhibition of 1851, and it was a problem the Royal Commission of 1851 was designed to address.

Although Britain had been the first country to industrialise, and although, with the abolition of the Corn Laws, we were poised to benefit from the massive expansion of free trade, we were already falling behind other nations in our capacity to inspire and train the next generation of engineers, technicians, craftsmen and industrial innovators.

Whether in Germany or America, new competitors were eroding our inherited advantage. But while the problem was correctly identified as far back as 1851, the steps necessary to address this failing were not sufficiently radical. Ever since then there have been a series of failed governmental interventions, too numerous to list, none of which got to the heart of the matter.

160 years after the Great Exhibition was planned, the same problems which inspired its creation remain. Our international competitors boast more robust manufacturing industries. Our technical education – which the original Royal Commission and endless subsequent commissions and reviews identified as the fundamental problem – remains weaker than most other developed nations. And, in simple terms, our capacity to generate growth by making things remains weaker.

My colleagues George Osborne and Vince Cable have both made the case, with force, coherence and intelligence that our economic recovery depends on a manufacturing renaissance. Given the devastation wrought on our economy by the events of the last three years the need to drive private-sector growth is urgent and overwhelming. And that depends on a reform of our education system which addresses our long-term weakness in practical learning.

At crucial moments in the development of our education system the opportunity to embed high-quality technical routes for students was missed.

As Corelli Barnett has persuasively argued, the prevailing intellectual orthodoxy at the time of educational expansion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was disdainful of the practical and technical. While our competitors were ensuring that engineers, technicians and craftsmen were educated to the highest level, British – and specifically English – education reflected an inherited aristocratic disdain for trade. The highest goal of education was the preparation of young men for imperial administration, not the generation of innovation.

But as Barnett has argued, a neglect of the type of education which sustains economic growth and technical progress fatally weakened the empire which was the administrative elite’s pride and joy. Barnett’s analysis of Britain’s historic decline relative to its competitors gathers force as he surveys the decisions taken after the Second World War. We failed to modernise economically in those years. And we failed to make all the changes we should have in education.

In particular, one of the most promising potential reforms envisaged by the last coalition Government was neglected. The visionary wartime education minister Rab Butler appreciated the importance of technical education and hoped to see the creation of a new generation of technical schools in the postwar years. But underinvestment and a plain lack of elite interest meant hardly any technical schools were ever opened. Andrew Adonis and Stephen Pollard have argued – in their insightful book on the class system – that this represented one of the gravest errors in the history of the English education system.

Anyone looking at the decline of manufacturing in the postwar years, the spectacular failure of Britain to match the level of technical innovation in the countries we defeated and the continuing low levels of achievement of those outside the academic elite could not but conclude that we had failed as a nation.

The missed opportunity

The seeds of a solution were put in place by the last Conservative Government with the introduction of a modern apprenticeship programme – a programme this Coalition Government wants to grow rapidly. But under the last Government practical and technical education lost its way. And that is because, despite all the rhetoric, their heart wasn’t in it.

By heart I mean a passionate understanding of, and commitment to, the joy of technical accomplishment, the beauty of craft skills, and the submission to vocational disciplines which lie at the heart of a truly practical education.

Instead of celebrating the particular, instead of respecting the unique value of specific skills, instead of working with the grain of both human nature and recognising the differing difficulties inherent in acquiring mastery of certain processes, practical education has been robbed of its specialness.

The result was a system that was pasteurised, homogenised, bureaucratised and hollowed out. Everything was reduced to fit tables of achievement. Narrow metrics meant that everything practical was brigaded into specific silos and success was judged on the sheer number of young people who could be processed through the system rather than giving proper attention to what they had learned.

The dangerous preoccupation with quantity over quality was most evident in the response to the Leitch Review. The Review envisaged a demand-led system in which young people and employers together set the pace for the growth in proper training, in a way which met both their needs. But the response to this invitation to let go was a whole new suite of national targets for the quantity of qualifications taken.

One of the dangers of this approach was that by ignoring the value of skill in itself they fell into the trap clearly identified by the philosophers Matthew Crawford and Richard Sennett in their wonderful books The Case for Working with Your Hands and The Craftsman. That was ignoring the inherent value of craftsmanship; what Crawford calls the ‘intrinsic richness of manual work – cognitively, socially, and in its broader physical appeal’.

And at the same time very little time was devoted to thinking about what young people on vocational courses actually learn. Some qualifications that were called vocational are actually pseudo-academic: attempting to recreate the cognitive skills associated with the accumulation of abstract knowledge rather than developing the entirely different but equally rich cognitive skills associated with practical and technical learning.

Insecurity about the real value of craft meant that vocational learning was, in some people’s eyes, legitimised by being made academic.

Qualifications, once tailored to the requirements of employers have become increasingly detached from their needs and, instead, driven by the preoccupations of public policymakers. That needs to change.

The last Government also fell into the trap of assuming that globalisation meant that in an economy like ours, hard and practical craft skills were being remorselessly superseded by abstract knowledge working. But the development of information technology does not mean that every job is digitised and the future for everyone is Orange as an employer.

As the economist Alan Blinder argues, the crucial distinction in the labour market in the future will be between ‘personal services’ that require face-to-face contact or are inherently tied to a specific site and ‘impersonal’ services that can be provided from anywhere. He points out that many knowledge-worker jobs such as accountancy, computer programming, even radiography can be outsourced to companies in far-off countries. These professional jobs are increasingly vulnerable while practical employment is increasingly secure. As he puts it, ‘you can’t hammer a nail over the internet’. Nor indeed take blood, serve a Michelin-starred meal, look after a deeply disabled child, or repair a £2000 mountain bike.

Because, as well as providing us with the technicians, industrial innovators and craftsmen and women of the future, proper vocational education also needs to provide us with the courses and qualifications to underpin the future success of chefs and childcare workers, beauticians and care assistants, landscape gardeners and fashion photographers. And our current education system has, far too often, not been providing the right courses and qualifications. The growth in what are called vocational qualifications in our schools has actually, in many cases, been an inflation in the number of quasi-academic courses.

Growth or inflation?

A superficial look at the statistics would suggest a renaissance in vocational learning over the last few years unprecedented in human history. In 2004, 22,500 vocational qualifications were taken in schools. By 2009 this had risen to 540,000 – mostly at age sixteen – a 2,300% increase. But looking behind these figures we discover that many of these qualifications are not quite the hard, practical, immersion in the craft and technical skills or the skilfully designed preparation for the modern world of work some of us might have imagined.

And looking at the timescale over which this massive surge has occurred it is striking that it all follows the decision of the last Government to fix the value of some of these qualifications so they counted in league tables. Since I have been Education Secretary I have been struck by the concern among many employers, many higher education institutions, many parents and many headteachers that the rapid growth in the take-up of some of these qualifications is indeed less a reflection of their inherent worth than a function of the value they have been given for league table purposes.

Some of these qualifications badged as vocational enjoy a ranking in league tables worth two or more GCSEs, making them attractive to schools anxious to boost their league table rankings. And that has meant that some schools have been tempted to steer students towards certain qualifications because it appears to be in the school’s interests even when it’s not in the student’s.

This has to be changed. Qualifications do not gain prestige simply by having a Government minister announce that they are a good thing. And the labour market does not have much respect for the ability to answer multiple-choice tests dealing with ephemeral facts about some occupational field – the sort of thing which has become far too common in our over-regulated education and training system. Employers do, and for good reason, value a whole range of practical skills, and practical experiences, which go far beyond the confines of the most demanding A level papers.

Indeed one of the unhappy trends which actually grew in force over the past 13 years was the assumption that the purely academic route was really always the preferred one – and unless you’d secured a place on leaving school to study at university for three years you were somehow a failure.

These assumptions undermine social cohesiveness because, in a big society, unless each feels valued and all feel valued, then the conferral of value is imperfect. And they also limit opportunity.

The benefits of the practical

The truth is that there are practical routes – workplace courses, apprenticeships – which are far more secure routes to success than many university courses and which are, understandably, hugely popular with savvy learners.

The best apprenticeships programmes are massively oversubscribed. BT typically has 15,000 applicants for 100 places each year. Rolls-Royce has ten applicants for every place and Network Rail is similarly oversubscribed. There is far greater competition for some of these courses than there is for places at Oxford or Cambridge. And there’s good reason for this. These types of courses offer a route to good salaries and quick promotion at world-beating firms.

Whenever I meet the bosses of firms like these they tell me that their employees who trained as apprentices first perform better and secure promotion faster than their colleagues who arrive fresh from university. What’s more, many of the best courses – like those offered by BT – hold open the door for further study in higher education at a later point during their career, if they want to. At BAE 65% of their apprentices go on to higher learning and 10% go on to higher education.

And irrespective of whether these apprentices go on to higher education in due course, they are powering the success of the businesses on which our economy depends. However seductive marketing, advertising, sales, promotion or corporate social responsibility work may be for the academically inclined, these roles don’t exist unless there is something hard to market, advertise, sell, promote or be responsible about.

And that depends on making things. Which we won’t do in the future unless we train more people to master practical and technical skills at the highest level. What we need are more apprenticeships which follow the model of Rolls-Royce, BT and BAE rather than the rebadging of classroom courses and less rigorous work experience schemes as apprenticeships.

That is why I am so delighted that Vince Cable, David Willetts and John Hayes have secured additional funding to help the private sector grow the number of high-level apprenticeships and it’s also why I am working with John to ensure we can reduce the bureaucracy which employers have to negotiate before they can take on more new apprentices.

But if we are to ensure more and more students are capable of benefitting from a growth in apprenticeship numbers we have to take action to improve vocational education before people leave school. We have to have courses, qualifications and institutions during the period of compulsory schooling which appeal to those whose aptitudes and ambitions incline them towards practical and technical learning.

Reform in every area to elevate the practical

We’re already using our radical schools reform programme to promote new institutions designed to support high-prestige technical education with a clear link to employment and further study.

The university technical colleges – a model developed by my great reforming predecessor Lord Baker and the late Lord Dearing – tick all the boxes.

The idea is very straightforward: technical colleges will offer high-quality technical qualifications in shortage subjects like engineering. They will do so as autonomous institutions – legally they will be academies – sponsored by at least one leading local business and a local university.

The pattern for their success has already been set by the new JCB Academy in Staffordshire, which I was privileged to be able to visit earlier this year. It combines hard practical learning – with courses in technical subjects involving applied work of the most rigorous kind – alongside a series of academic GCSEs – including maths, English, science and a foreign language.

If one looks at those countries around the world that have the best technical education systems, core academic subjects are taught and assessed alongside – not in place of – technical learning until students reach 15 or 16. To take the example of Holland where children can move onto a technical route at twelve – all 16-year-olds are assessed in foreign languages, arts, sciences, maths and history. Our country is sadly unique in the poverty of its aspiration for all young people.

That’s why earlier this week I floated the idea of an English Baccalaureate – a new certificate for all children who achieve a good GCSE pass in English, maths, a science, a modern or ancient language and a humanity like history or geography. It would also act as a new league table measure to encourage schools to give all young people a broad and rounded base of knowledge. I was deeply alarmed to discover that just 15% of children would currently achieve this set of five good GCSEs. We have to do better.

But it’s crucial to note that securing this core base of knowledge would not preclude the study of technical or vocational subjects as some have suggested. It’s not either/or but both/and. I’m absolutely clear that every child should have the option of beginning study for a craft or trade from the age of 14 but that this should by complemented by a base of core academic knowledge.

And the new generation of university technical colleges – by taking students from other schools at the age of 14 – will help secure this route. When we open a new UTC in Aston in 2012 pupils will specialise in engineering and manufacturing alongside core academic GCSE subjects. Crucially, students will have the opportunity to work with Aston University engineering staff and students as well as local businesses and further education colleges.

Our aim is to open at least twelve UTCs with a minimum of one in each major city. And we know there is huge demand out there for this kind of institution from local authorities and businesses who understand the benefits that this type of school would bring to their community. Lord Baker has also done a fantastic job of winning over major international firms and universities, creating a real head of steam behind the model.

UTCs are a fantastic innovation but they aren’t the only type of institution that will benefit from our radical reform plans.

I’m also incredibly excited by the studio schools movement. The first two studio schools – based on groundbreaking work by the Young Foundation on employability – have just opened in Kirklees and Luton.

These schools will offer both academic and vocational qualifications and are explicitly designed to break through the traditional divide by providing an aspirational but practical pathway that will offer a broad range of qualifications and a clear route either to employment or university. Our Free Schools programme will allow communities across the country – supported by the superb Studio Schools Trust – to bid to open this type of institution.

And we anticipate many more Free School proposals will come forward which focus on offering high-quality vocational and technical education. In Sweden, post-15 practical education has been the fastest growth area for Free Schools in recent years.

So there are already many things this Coalition Government is doing to boost vocational education. But we want to apply these same principles – a focus on the quality of qualifications and courses as well as quantity and the prioritisation of clear progression routes to further education or employment – to the wider system.

Which is why I’m absolutely delighted today to be able to announce that Alison Wolf – the Sir Roy Griffiths Professor of Public Sector Management at King’s College London – has agreed to lead a review into pre-19 vocational education. She is probably the leading expert in the country on skills policy and has advised, among others, the OECD, the Royal College of Surgeons, the Ministries of Education of New Zealand, France and South Africa, the European Commission and the Bar Council.

This review will be very different from previous efforts. It is not going to lead to yet another set of unwieldy, Whitehall-designed and short-lived qualifications, or a new set of curriculum quangos. Instead, we want to establish principles, and institutional arrangements, which will encourage flexibility and innovation. We want qualifications to respond easily to changing labour market demands – and to demand excellence in ways which are true to the skills and occupations concerned.

Finding ways to achieve these goals has never been more important. As the pace of globalisation quickens the ability to offer a genuine and high-quality technical education to young people in this country is no longer simply a desirable social goal but a pressing economic necessity.

It won’t happen by inflating league tables or setting new central targets but only by investing in institutional and structural solutions which provide clear routes to good jobs and further educational opportunities.

It’s asking a lot of Alison, Lord Baker, the Studio School Trust and Edge to help solve a problem that generations of politicians and policymakers – from Lord John Russell onwards – have been unable to grasp. Though I cannot think of any other team I would like to see rising to one of the greatest historical failings of our education system than one led by Alison and Ken.

Michael Gove – 2010 Speech to Westminster Academy


Below is the text of the speech made by Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, to the Westminster Academy on 6th September 2010.

There is no profession more noble, no calling more vital, no role more important than teaching. Far and away the best part of my job is spending time with teachers – watching and admiring, listening and learning, being uplifted and inspired.

Whether it was the brilliant young head of History at Lampton School, Hounslow, the English lesson I observed at ULT’s fantastic Manchester Academy, the superb science teaching I was privileged to glimpse at Urmston Grammar in Trafford or the wonderful primary lesson I so much enjoyed when I visited Durand Primary in Brixton, each of these encounters with great teaching left me feeling more optimistic about the future.

I believe we have the best generation of teachers ever in our schools, and one of the most dynamic factors behind that has been the phenomenal impact of Teach First.

The single most enjoyable evening I’ve had in politics was spent at the Teach First annual awards, celebrating the brilliant and inspirational work of young people like Manjit More and Ed Watson, teachers whose passion for their subject and sheer enjoyment in learning are life enhancing, indeed for those they teach, life changing.

And one of the reasons I’m here at Westminster Academy today is that Teach First teachers are playing their part, alongside so many other gifted professionals, in changing the lives of young people immeasurably for the better. This school, like many other great schools is generating impressive results for children from a challengingly diverse range of backgrounds.

But one of the tragedies of the last thirteen years is that, despite record spending, there still aren’t enough of these good schools.

While we have some of the best schools in the world, we also have too many which are still struggling.

There are hundreds of primaries where the majority of children fail to get to an acceptable level in maths and English.

The majority of children leave those schools without the knowledge and skills required properly to follow the secondary school curriculum and make a success of the rest of their time in education.

For many of those children who have not reached an acceptable level of literacy by the end of primary, their time at secondary is marked by defiance and disruption. We have hundreds of thousands of persistent truants and thousands of pupils are excluded for disruption and assault.

Overall – as a country – about four in ten do not meet basic standards by the age of eleven and only about half manage at least a ‘C’ in both English and maths GCSE.

What makes this situation so much worse, indeed indefensible, is that poor performance is so powerfully concentrated in areas of disadvantage. In our education system it is still far too often the case that deprivation is destiny.

The gap in attainment between rich and poor, which widened in recent years, is a scandal. For disadvantaged pupils, a gap opens even before primary school. Leon Feinstein’s research has shown that the highest early achievers from deprived backgrounds are overtaken by lower achieving children from advantaged backgrounds by age five.

Schools should be engines of social mobility – the places where accidents of birth and the unfairness of life’s lottery are overcome through the democratisation of access to knowledge. But in the schools system we inherited the gap between rich and poor just widens over time.

The poorest children in our school system are those eligible for free school meals. There are about 80,000 children in every school year who are eligible. Tracking their progress through school we can see they fall further and further behind their peers by the time they reach the end of primary. At secondary the gulf grows wider still. By sixteen, a pupil not entitled to free school meals is over 3 times more likely to achieve five good GCSEs as one who is entitled. By the time they reach university age just 45 children out of a cohort of 80,000 on free school meals make it to Oxbridge.

On a moral level, this waste of talent, this blighting of individual lives, is an affront to decency. And in economic terms, as we face an increasingly competitive global environment, it’s a tragedy.

Other nations have been much more successful recently in getting more and more people to be educated to a higher level. With capital so footloose, labour needs to be better educated and trained than ever before. But while we have been moving backwards with education reform over the last few years, as Tony Blair has pointed out, other nations have been forging ahead much faster and further when it comes to reforming and improving their education systems.

The international comparisons are stark.

Under the last Government in the most recent PISA survey – the international league tables of school performance – we fell from 4th to 14th in science, 7th to 17th in literacy, 8th to 24th in maths.

And at the same time studies such as those undertaken by Unicef and the OECD underline that we have one of the most unequal educational systems in the world, coming near bottom out of 57 for educational equity with one of the biggest gulfs between independent and state schools of any developed nation.

Governments often choose to compare the present with the past and say: haven’t we come far. But the entire human race is progressing at an accelerating pace – technologically, economically and educationally.

Especially educationally. And we are falling behind. As a nation instead of comparing ourselves with the past, we should compare ourselves with the best.

And those who want to stay the best, or be the best, are changing fast.

There are three essential characteristics which mark out the best performing and fastest reforming education systems.

Rigorous research, from the OECD and others, has shown that more autonomy for individual schools helps drive higher standards.

Landmark work by Professor Michael Barber for McKinsey, backed up by the research of Fenton Whelan, has shown that teacher quality is critical: the highest performing education nations have the best qualified teachers.

And research again from the OECD underlines that rigorous external assessment – proper testing you can trust – helps lever up standards.

And these lessons are being applied with vigour and rigour in other nations.

In America, President Obama is pressing ahead with radical school reform to close the gap between rich and poor. And he’s implementing all three policies to generate lasting improvement.

He is promoting greater autonomy by providing cash and other incentives to encourage more charter schools, the equivalent of our free schools and academies.

He has offered extra support to programmes designed to attract more great people into teaching and leadership.

And he has encouraged states and school districts to provide greater accountability through improved testing and assessment. In other ambitious countries, the drive for greater autonomy is generating great performance.

In Canada, and specifically in Alberta, schools have also been liberated, given the autonomy enjoyed by charter schools in the US. Headteachers control their own budgets, set their own ethos and shape their own environments.

In Calgary and Edmonton, a diverse range of autonomous schools offer professionals freedom and parents choice.

And the result?

Alberta now has the best performing state schools of any English-speaking region.

In Sweden, the old bureaucratic monopoly that saw all state schools run by local government was ended and the system opened up to allow new, non-selective, state schools to be set up by a range of providers.

It has allowed greater diversity, increased parental choice and has seen results improve – with results improving fastest of all in the areas where schools exercised the greatest degree of autonomy and parents enjoyed the widest choice.

In Singapore, often cited as an exemplar of centralism, dramatic leaps in attainment have been secured by schools where principals are exercising a progressively greater degree of operational autonomy. The Government has deliberately encouraged greater diversity in the schools system and as the scope for innovation has grown, so Singapore’s competitive advantage over other nations has grown too.

The good news in England is that a new Government committed to following this path to success already has great examples here to draw on.

Granting greater autonomy has already generated some great success stories here. In the five or so years after 1988 the last Conservative Government created fifteen city technology colleges. They are all-ability comprehensives, overwhelmingly located in poorer areas, but they enjoy much greater independence than other schools.

They have been a huge success. Now the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals in CTCs who achieve five or more good GCSEs A* to C is more than twice as high as for all maintained mainstream schools.

These results are now being replicated by the small group of schools that were turned into academies under the last government – and which were modelled on the CTCs.

As a group they improved three times faster than other schools this year and some individual academies posted incredible improvements of 15 to 25%. Those in some particularly challenging areas, such as Burlington Danes on London’s White City estate, run by the charity ARK and the Harris Academies in South London secured dramatic gains.

It’s absolutely clear that academies and CTCs succeed because of their autonomy. Heads are given the freedom to shape their own curriculum; they are at liberty to insist on tougher discipline, pay staff more, extend school hours, and develop a personal approach to every pupil. In his memoirs published last week Tony Blair gave an excellent description of why they’re so effective:

[An academy] belongs not to some remote bureaucracy, not to the rulers of government, local or national, but to itself, for itself. The school is in charge of its own destiny. This gives it pride and purpose. And most of all, freed from the extraordinarily debilitating and often, in the worst sense, political correct interference from state or municipality, academies have just one thing in mind, something shaped not by political prejudice but by common sense: what will make the school excellent.

These freedoms were curtailed. But this Government trusts teachers to control the classroom and trusts parents to choose schools.

That’s why we’re offering all schools the chance to take on academy status – starting with those rated outstanding by Ofsted. Already over 140, and counting, of the best state schools have taken up our offer of academy freedoms – in just three months. All of these schools have committed to using their new found powers and freedom to support weaker schools.

It’s also why we’ll continue to challenge schools that are struggling; either they improve fast or they will have their management replaced by an academy sponsor, or an outstanding school, with a proven track record.

There was an artificial ceiling of 400 such academies placed and the programme was not refused to primaries. But I am removing both of these barriers to the rapid expansion of the programme.

And we’re helping great teachers, charities, parent groups and some existing academy sponsors, to start new Free Schools. This morning we’ve announced the very first batch of 16 projects that are ready to progress to the next stage of development and are keen to be up and running in a year’s time.

Given that it typically takes three to five years to set up a new school I’m incredibly impressed that just ten weeks after launching the policy there are already projects at this advanced a stage. It’s a tribute to the incredible energy and commitment of these pioneering sixteen groups and the immense hard work and commitment of a superb team of civil servants who’ve been helping them.

Following their lead are hundreds of other groups, each with innovative and exiting proposals, in active contact with the Department and the New Schools Network.

I’m particularly excited that amongst this first batch are projects proposed by outstanding young teachers like Sajid Hussein – who’s King’s Science Academy will be located in one of the poorer areas of Bradford and Mark Lehain – another state school teacher who sees the potential for Free Schools to help students who’ve been let down by the current system.

One of the reasons I’m so attracted to the Free Schools policy is the experience of the KIPP schools – which started with two Teach for America graduates in Houston with an incredible vision for transforming the life chances of some of their city’s poorest young people.

Now parents queue round the block for a chance to get their child into a KIPP school and there are almost hundred across the US – their results are astonishing and almost all their pupils get to a top university. Only by allowing new providers to set up schools will this kind of innovation breath life into our education system.

And only by allowing new providers into the system will we meet the growing demand for new primary school places in those parts of the country where the population is increasing.

Under the old bureaucratic system of controlling education it could take five years or more to get a new school up and running. But we have real and pressing demographic pressures which demand the creation of more good school places in the next few years.

I don’t believe that enough was done to prepare schools, especially primaries, for this pressure. The way that capital was allocated was much too bureaucratic and slow moving, primaries weren’t prioritised properly and local authorities were given the wrong sums of money. We’re taking steps now to put that right – and one of those crucial steps is helping new schools to become established in areas where there’s a growing demand for school places.

While this drive towards a more autonomous school system is an essential part of our plans it is only part of a wider series of reforms necessary to make us truly competitive internationally and to close the gap between rich and poor.

Our first Education White Paper, to be launched later this year, will lay out a programme of reform for this parliament that will not only lead to a more autonomous school system led by professionals but will also

– increase the number of great teachers and leaders in our schools

– give teachers the power to tackle poor discipline

– create a fairer funding system so that extra funds follow the poorest pupils who need the most support *introduce a simpler, more focused National Curriculum

– restore faith in our battered qualifications system.

Teachers and other education professionals will be at the front and centre of the White Paper because everything else we want to achieve flows naturally from the quality of the workforce. And that is the second great principle of education reform – nothing matters more than having great teachers – and great headteachers.

In the 1990s a series of in-depth studies conducted by American academics revealed a remarkably consistent pattern. The quality of an individual teacher is the single most important determinant in a child’s educational progress. Those students taught by the best teacher make three times as much progress as those taught by the least effective.

And the effect of good teaching isn’t ephemeral but cumulative, with students exposed to consistently effective teaching making faster and faster progress than their contemporaries, while the effect of bad teaching isn’t just relative failure but regression in absolute terms.

Research in the Boston school district of the US found that pupils placed with the weakest maths teachers actually fell back in absolute performance during the year – their test scores got worse.

Indeed, wherever we look across the globe, a crucial factor which defines those countries whose schools are most successful is the quality of those in the teaching profession.

In Finland teachers are drawn from the top ten per cent of graduates. In the two other nations which rival Finland globally for consistent educational excellence – Singapore and South Korea – a similar philosophy applies. Only those graduates in the top quarter or third of any year can go into teaching.

In South Korea the academic bar is actually set higher for primary school teachers than those in secondaries, because the South Koreans, quite rightly, consider those early years to be crucial.

Of course academic success at university doesn’t automatically make you a good teacher. You need emotional intelligence as well as the more traditional kind. The best teachers demonstrate that indefinable quality of leadership which springs from enjoying being with young people and wanting to bring out the best in them.

And the reason why Teach First has been so incredibly successful in this country is that they have not only recruited some of our most gifted graduates from our top universities, they have rigorously sifted them to identify those with the leadership and personal qualities that make the best teachers.

Thanks to Teach First, more and more of our most talented young graduates have gone on to teach in some of our toughest schools. In 2002, only four graduates from Oxford University chose a career teaching in a challenging school; in 2009/10, 8% of finalists applied to teach in a challenging school through Teach First, and the programme is now 7th in the Times’ 100 top graduate recruiters. The impact on schools has been incredible. An evaluation by the University of Manchester found that challenging schools which take Teach First teachers have seen a statistically significant improvement in their GCSE results and that the more Teach First teachers were placed in a challenging school, the bigger the improvement.

With programmes setting up in dozens of countries from Lebanon to Australia it is now a global success story.

And many Teach First alumni are now getting involved with Free School and Academy projects – applying the entrepreneurial spirit that won them places on the programme to the new powers and freedoms that we’re offering to professionals.

All of this explains why one of the first decisions I took in office was to increase Teach First’s grant by £4 million to enable them to double their number of recruits each year; expand across the whole country and for the first time into primary schools.

In the White Paper we will unveil a whole range of proposals alongside the growth in Teach First to ensure we attract the best possible people into education to help in our mission.

And alongside that we will, perhaps even more critically, ensure that we help those teaching now to do their jobs even better by providing them with the support, additional professional development and security they need to fulfil their full potential and help their pupils do the same.

We’ll be announcing new policies which will make it easier and more rewarding for teachers to acquire new skills and additional qualifications. We will make it easier for teachers to deepen and enhance their subject knowledge, ensuring teachers are seen, alongside university academics, as the guardians of the intellectual life of the nation.

We need to act because not enough good people are coming to teaching, or staying in teaching.

Teachers who have left the profession tell me that the grinding load of bureaucracy which has been piled on them has been a major factor in walking away from a job so many entered with such high hopes and idealism. One of the best headteachers I’ve ever met told me during the election that he yearned to be free from a Government which had baseball-batted him over the head with bureaucracy. So we will be tackling bureaucracy at source, stripping out unnecessary obligations placed on hard-pressed teachers and overworked governors, simplifying the Ofsted inspection regime and tackling health and safety rules which inhibit out-of-classroom learning and have undermined competitive team sports.

But, crucial as reducing bureaucracy will be, nothing is a bigger barrier to getting more talented people to become teachers, and stay teachers, than discipline and behaviour. Among undergraduates tempted to go into teaching the reason most commonly cited for pursuing another profession, well ahead of concerns about salary, is the fear of not being safe in our schools.

There are massive problems with violence and disruption in our most challenging schools. There are over 300,000 suspensions per year and about a quarter of a million persistent truants. Thousands of teachers every year are physically attacked and about one in three teachers have been subject to false accusations.

We will never get more talented people into the classroom; we will never give disadvantaged children the inspiration they need to succeed, unless we solve this problem.

In our first months we’ve already taken action to give teachers more power to deal with discipline problems. First, we’ve removed the ban on same-day detentions, giving heads and teachers a stronger deterrent against poor behaviour. Previously, teachers had the power to put pupils in detention, but only if the school gave their parents 24 hours’ notice in writing. In future each school will be able to decide what notice to give and how to inform parents.

We’ve also increased teachers’ powers to search troublemakers.

Previously teachers could only search, without consent, anyone who was suspected of carrying a knife or other weapon.

We’ve significantly extended this list to include: Alcohol, controlled drugs, stolen property, personal electronic devices such as mobile phones, MP3 players and cameras, legal highs, pornography, cigarettes and fireworks.

In the White Paper we will outline further changes including the clarification and simplification of use of force guidance and crucially how we’ll protect teachers against false and malicious allegations from pupils and parents. This growing problem acts as a huge deterrent to teachers – especially male teachers in primary schools.

Newly released figures show that 28% of primary schools now have no male teachers at all – which can make it even hard to provide a supportive and safe environment for disruptive boys.

So the message is clear.

We’re on the side of teachers, we’re determined to restore order and we’re not going to be deflected from laying down lines which the badly behaved must not cross.

But just as we need to be clear about the need for order we also need to be clear about the pressing, urgent, need to improve provision for those disruptive, difficult and damaged children who need special help.

In the White Paper we’ll lay out plans to radically improve the environment in which disruptive and excluded pupils are educated and we will ensure that those organisations with a proven track record in turning young lives round are given the opportunity to do more.

And, of course, we need to tackle the deep-rooted causes of educational disaffection that leads so many young people to be disruptive in the first place. At the heart of our White Paper plans for a simpler, fairer funding system is the Pupil Premium.

This will see extra money attached to young people from deprived backgrounds – which will be clearly identified to their parents.

Schools that benefit from this additional cash will not be told exactly how to use it – but we will expect them to ensure that children struggling with the basics get the extra support they need so they don’t fall irretrievably behind their peers.

And to help ensure money is spent wisely right at the beginning of schooling we will take radical action to get reading right.

Children cannot read to learn before they have learned to read. Without that secure foundation even the most gifted and innovative teacher will struggle to inspire and inform.

We know that, whatever else may work, teaching children to read using the tried and tested method of systematic synthetic phonics can dramatically reduce illiteracy.

So we will make sure that teacher training is improved so every new primary teacher – and every teacher in place – is secure in their grasp of phonics teaching. We will ensure teachers have the best reading materials to help embed great phonics teaching.

I am clear that we need that solid foundation, but we also need to create room for greater flexibility once the basics are secure. That is why we will develop a new National Curriculum that excites and challenges young people while giving teachers the space to develop their own pedagogy. I will be saying more over the coming weeks about our plans for a curriculum review but it’s crucial that the expectations we set of what children should know will be more ambitious and based upon global evidence concerning what knowledge can be introduced to children at different ages.

In particular we have to move beyond the sterile debate that sees academic knowledge as mutually exclusive to the skills required for employment; and rigour as incompatible with the enjoyment of learning.

The most exciting curriculum innovations in development at the moment are those which find ways to trigger the curiosity inherent to young minds towards intellectual tough material.

To take one example, the computer games developed by the brilliant mathematician Marcus du Sautoy show children’s imaginations can be harnessed to a deep understanding of the most complex ideas.

Hand in hand with curriculum reform is the need to restore faith in our exam system. Qualifications are the currency of education – and just like with the money markets – confidence is everything.

Over the past few years there has been a growing and justified concern, from parents and from teachers.

Last month the exams regulator Ofqual acknowledged that the GCSE science exams were not set at a high enough standard. I’ve been saying this for years – backed by learned institutions like the Royal Society for Chemistry.

But my warnings were ignored and the status quo retained despite the fact that it was actively damaging the education of hundreds of thousands of children a year.

Critical to restoring confidence in our exams system is a much more assertive and powerful regulator. We will legislate to strengthen Ofqual and give a new regulator the powers they need to enforce rigorous standards.

We will ask Ofqual to report on how our exams compare with those in other countries so we can measure the questions our 11, 16 and 18 year olds sit against those sat by their contemporaries in India, China, Singapore, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Our young people will increasingly be competing for jobs and university places on a global level and we can’t afford to have our young people sitting exams which aren’t competitive with the world’s best.

And for A Levels we’ll give those institutions with the greatest interest in maintaining standards – universities – more power to shape exams and determine their content.

As well as reforming exams to make them more rigorous we need to change league tables to make them more effective.

One thing I’m determined to do is publish all the exam data held by the Government so that parents, schools and third parties can use web-based applications to create many new and bespoke sorts of tables.

This will mean they’re not dependent on the measures that Government decides to use; and also that there is complete transparency about the qualifications our young people are taking.

But Government still needs key measures of secondary school performance to ensure that the reforms we’re putting in place are having a real impact on performance in our schools and are closing the gap between rich and poor.

Over the next few months – before the publication of the White Paper – there’s the opportunity for a real debate about what we, as a nation, should expect of young people at the age of 16. And so what these key measures should be.

I think most people would agree that English and maths GCSE are an irreducible core that nearly all young people should be expected to achieve at 16.

But I believe there is an argument that the vast majority of young people should take a wider range of core academic GCSEs: an English Baccalaureate that would ensure that all children – especially those from less privileged backgrounds – have a chance to gain a base of knowledge and a set of life chances too often restricted to the wealthy.

So I’m proposing that the Government look at how many young people in each secondary school secure five good GCSEs including English, maths, a science, a modern or ancient language and a humanity like history or geography, art or music.

Such a broad yet rigorous suite of qualifications would allow students here the chance to secure a school-leaving certificate which shares many of the virtues of the European baccalaureate approach. I am a great admirer of the already existing International Baccalaureate and am determined to support a wider take-up of that qualification. But the GCSE is a popular and resilient qualification, well understood by employers, teachers and students.

It seems to me that one of the best ways of capturing the breadth and rigour of the IB while making the most of the strengths of the GCSE is to create special recognition for those students who secure good passes in a balanced range of rigorous qualifications.

An English Bac could incentivise schools and students to follow the courses which best equip them, and us as a nation, to succeed.

I am deeply concerned that fewer and fewer students are studying languages, it not only breeds insularity, it means an integral part of the brain’s learning capacity rusts unused.

I am determined that we step up the number of students studying proper science subjects. Asian countries massively outstrip us in the growth of scientific learning and they are already reaping the cultural and economic benefits.

And I am passionately concerned that we introduce more and more young people to the best that has been thought and written, which is why I lament the retreat from history teaching in some of our schools and believe also that we should incentivise deeper knowledge of our shared cultural heritage.

I believe that a change in how we measure and grade schools, to reward those who have pupils who succeed in all these areas, and a special recognition of student achievement with the award of a Baccalaureate certificate to those pupils who secure these passes, could reinvigorate the culture of learning in this country.

I’m not suggesting this would or should be the only measure used but I do believe that this is a valid expectation of most young people in the 21st century.

It also would not preclude the study of other GCSEs outside of this core or any vocational qualifications that would be of genuine benefit for student’s progression to post-16 education and employment.

But it would dramatically strengthen the position of core academic subjects in our schools and stop the shift to less challenging courses driven by the current perverse accountability system.

And it would align us with the expectations other advanced countries have of their children.

In nearly every other developed country in the world children are assessed in a range of core academic subjects at 15 or 16 even if they are on a “vocational” route.

This is true in Europe, where for example in France all children take the Brevet des Colleges which assesses French, maths, history/geography/civics and a modern foreign language.

In places like Holland that have separate vocational routes from the beginning of secondary school all children are still typically assessed on the core academic subjects (in Holland this is languages, arts, science, maths and history).

In Finland – the best-performing country in Europe according to international league tables – all children are assessed in maths, Finnish, history, science and art/music at GCSE age.

In Asia there is typically assessment of the whole core curriculum at GCSE level. In Singapore, for example, all pupils must take English, another language, maths, science, humanities, plus one other subject (of course they also still use O Levels in Singapore).

And in the States nearly all schools have mandatory assessment during high school in maths, English, science and social studies (including history and politics).

We are extremely unusual in having no requirement to study anything academic apart from English, maths and science after 14 (and only English and maths have to be assessed using GCSE).

Taken altogether, the changes we want to make represent a formidable reform programme. A more autonomous school system led by professionals; a new generation of brilliant teachers; a new era of discipline in our schools; a fairer funding system; a simpler and more challenging curriculum and a qualifications system that restores standards rather than diminishing them.

I’m under no illusions about how tough it will be to drive this programme through but the scale of the challenge is such that we have no choice but to be this radical and this ambitious. There is no option but to push ahead on all fronts as quickly as possible.

Children only have one chance – and I am impatient to ensure that my children – that all children – get the best possible chance to succeed in our state schools.