David Cameron – 2005 Speech to Conservative National Education Society


Below is the text of the speech made by David Cameron to the Conservative National Education Society on 16th June 2005.

Five years ago this Government decided to spend thousands of pounds of public money on an advertising campaign.

I loved it.

The ads had a simple message – and a true one.

They reminded us that “No-one forgets a good teacher”. Of all the influences on our lives, few are as profound as the inspiration of a good teacher.

Teaching is more than a profession, it is a vocation. It’s a calling to make the world a better place by working with the young to enrich their minds.

And there are few more important jobs than teaching.


Because there is no more important subject than education.

Importance of education

And it’s with the importance of education for the most disadvantaged in our society that I’d like to start.

A decent education is the best start in life that any child can have. It is the ladder up which all can climb. The chance for everyone – whatever their background – to better themselves.

If we want to create a genuine opportunity society, if we are determined to unlock human potential, if we believe – as I do, passionately – that every life is precious and no-one should have their chance to contribute written off, then we have to reform our education system.

For many children in state schools, especially those born with the fewest advantages in life, there has been a persistent failure to believe in their right to the best. They have been held back by what George Bush senior called the “soft bigotry of low expectations”.

We still have not built an education system which genuinely meets the needs of the disadvantaged.

In some ways, we’ve actually made it worse.

The goal of an opportunity society is receding from our grasp. 30 years ago, the percentage of children from state schools attending Oxford and Cambridge was two thirds. Today it is just one half.

The importance of education goes much further than ensuring social mobility.

Our failure to build a state education system which leaves no child behind has contributed to a society in which young lives are unnecessarily blighted.

Take the vital issue of teenage pregnancy. Young mothers, and their children, risk being consigned to a life of dependency and poverty.

Of course we can’t expect schools to have all the answers.

Parents, families, teachers, politicians – we’re all in this together. We have a shared responsibility to our children and to society.

But education has a crucial part to play. Would so many teenage girls get pregnant if they had been inspired at school, taught to be ambitious for themselves and equipped with the right skills to go out and get a job?

Would so many young men turn away from a life of responsibility, and towards anti-social behaviour if they were taught to read properly so that they could see the point of education rather than view it as something between a waste of time and a source of embarrassment?

After all, the connection between illiteracy and crime is evident: almost 70 per cent of our now record prison population cannot read or write properly.

There’s a link between a poverty of expectation, poverty in society and the reality of thousands of scarred lives.

We all know it.

Tackling the roots of these social problems depends on getting what happens in our schools right.

And if all our young people are to be given hope, rather than being allowed to drift to society’s margins, then we need to reform education to equip future generations for an ever more competitive world.

In the age of globalization the future is bleaker than ever for those without skills, but opportunities are richer than ever for those with them. In the twenty-first century there is no more important national resource than our human capital.

So: getting education right is vital if we are to have a socially mobile Britain, a socially cohesive Britain and an internationally competitive Britain which equips its citizens for the future.

But it also matters crucially for a fourth reason. It’s one that, strangely, politicians don’t talk about often enough.


I believe that education is one of the keys to happiness.

Education that stimulates, that inspires and that instills a love of books, of knowledge and of learning is one route to a happy and fulfilling life. You don’t have to take Mill’s side against Bentham in arguing that there are “higher forms of pleasure” to believe that loving learning is one way of loving life.

The economist Richard Layard has recently made a powerful case that public policy should not be oriented towards maximizing wealth, but rather towards increasing happiness. The relevance to education is clear.

Of course, we want to equip our children to compete effectively in the modern world. But education should be about so much more than that.

Good teaching should open our minds to the best that has been thought and written.

We should want our children to be inspired by history, learning of our country’s role in the expansion of freedom, enjoying the story of mankind’s progress through time.

We should demand that our children be allowed access to the arts, exploring the worlds of imagination that literature can open up, appreciating the beauty of what great talents have produced.

And we should recognize that in drama, music and sport – including competitive sport – the opportunity for self-expression, growth and achievement can be nurtured.

So, there is no more important issue for the country than education – and no greater challenge for us to get right.

Where there is political consensus, we should celebrate it. There is no point in parties bickering about matters on which we fundamentally agree.

The Government wants a diversity of schools. I agree. The Government is talking about devolving greater power to heads and governors. I have always shared this goal. Where these things actually happen, we will applaud and support them.

But where things are still going wrong, where the Government is failing to give the right lead, or where it fails to deliver on promises – and there are plenty of such areas – I will take a stand and try to build a new consensus.

In opposition – every bit as much as in government – politicians need to set out what they believe in, what their goals are, and what their compass will be. If you don’t – and if you don’t stick to them – you will get buffeted from one issue to another.

The principles I want to follow are clear.

That a good education is a birth right for all: a pledge that everyone mouths, but one that means nothing unless we are determined to confront under-achievement amongst the poorest in society.

That discipline is the first requirement for every school

That the basics of reading, writing and numeracy are the vital building blocks for every child.

That a good education should provide both the skills for life and a love of learning for its own sake.

That every child is different – and that not every school should be the same.

That a good education should mean challenging the sharpest minds and helping those who fall behind.

That all schools – state, church, voluntary, private – should celebrate their independence and autonomy.

That parents have rights to choice and to involvement – but that they also have clear responsibilities to the schools to which they send their children.

That these responsibilities include making sure their children turn up on time, are properly fed and appropriately turned out, and – above all – that they behave properly.

That the poor behaviour of a minority of children should never be allowed to wreck the proper education of the majority.

That teaching and learning vocational skills is every bit as worthwhile as teaching and learning knowledge.

That universities should be centres of excellence, independent from Government, with access based on merit.

The new Conservative agenda

In recent times party political debate has often been in danger of missing the big point in education.

The Labour Party has talked primarily about “resources”, talking about spending per pupil, per school and as a share of our national wealth.

The Conservative Party has talked more about “structures”, giving parents greater choices between different sorts of schools.

Both are important – but there is a danger of missing the absolutely vital bit in the middle: what actually happens in our state schools.

Will our children learn to read, write and add up properly? Will they be safe in class? Will they be stretched to the best of their abilities? Will they be taught the skills they need to have a successful career when they leave? Will our local school do the best for our child?

These are the questions parents ask themselves – the issues we stress about when considering our children’s education.

That’s why my focus is going to be simple and straightforward – on the basics.

Discipline. Standards. Promoting teaching methods that work. Scrapping those that don’t. Building on tests, league tables and exam standards that genuinely measure success, failure and progress. Exposing and demolishing those that dumb down, promote an “all must have prizes mentality” or simply waste time.

It is only once we have established what constitutes a good education that we should go on to ask: what stands in its way? How can we clear the obstacles in its path?

The big issues in education

There are five vital areas of weakness where we will question the Government, call them to account, seek and publish the clearest possible information – and take a stand on what needs to be done.

Literacy in primary schools.

Discipline in secondary schools.

Special Educational Needs.

The fact that bright children are being left out and non academic children are left behind.

And a system for testing and examining that – put simply – is currently not fit for purpose.

Literacy in primary schools

Firstly: in spite of progress made and the national literacy strategy, around one in five children leaves primary school unable to read properly, and one in three leaves without being able to write properly.

If you can’t read, you can’t learn. These children are lost to education. The waste – for them, for our country – is nothing short of a scandal.

The evidence that traditional teaching methods – particular synthetic phonics – are the best way of teaching children the basic building blocks of reading and writing is now absolutely clear.

We welcome the Government review of the National Literacy Strategy, but we are clear about the stand that should be taken and the battles that will have to be fought.

Phonics works. Tip toeing gently around this subject gets us nowhere. Another review – and another cohort of children will pass into secondary school unable to read and unprepared to learn.

The Government has got to say what works clearly, make the change and actually follow it through to the end.

Discipline in secondary schools

Second, discipline. If children don’t learnt to respect authority at school how can we expect them to respect others when they grow up?

We all know that lack of discipline is an issue that affects most schools, and cripples the learning process in many. The figures bear this out.

A teacher is assaulted every seven minutes of the school day. 17,000 pupils were expelled in a single term recently for violent behaviour. The scale of the problem was shown by an undercover documentary which showed a supply teacher’s battle with scenes of chaos in a variety of schools.

The Government has decided to hold another review. This is fine, as long as something comes of it. But everyone knows that often with this Government, calling for a review is seen as the end of the process.

We want to see the following clear and decisive action.

The unambiguous right for heads to expel unruly pupils – so it is clear where authority lies.

The abolition of appeals panels – so that heads cannot be undermined by having their decisions publicly reversed and disruptive children returned to the classroom.

The right to make home/school contracts binding, by letting heads refuse to accept children if parents don’t sign them.

On discipline, schools – all schools – should have autonomy. They are – and should be seen clearly as – places where children go to be taught and to learn, not reception centres for all children irrespective of how they behave.

As well as this change in approach to the autonomy of schools – and as well as the changes to the law I have set out – we need something else.

A change in culture. As I’ve said, with so many of these problems we’re all in it together. Government. Opposition. Parents. Teachers. Governors. Heads. Children.

Listen to children threatened with punishment who say “I know my rights” and listen to teachers to frightened to deal robustly with poor behaviour. And it is clear what is happening.

We are starting to treat teachers like children, and children like adults. That is wrong – and we should say so.


The system for dealing with special educational needs in this country is based on good intentions. The desire to see all children treated with equal love and care and attention is one we all share.

But the system is now badly in need of reform.

In some ways we are in danger of getting the worst of all worlds.

At one end, children who are finding it difficult to keep up are being dragged into the SEN bracket, when what they really need is rigorous teaching methods.

At the other end, children with profound needs are being starved of resources and inappropriately placed in mainstream schools.

The move towards inclusion was right for many children. No one – least of all me – wants to turn the clock back to saying that some children are “ineducable”.

But the pendulum has simply swung too far. The ideological obsession with holding all children in the same building for school hours, as if mere proximity connotes something profound or productive, has destroyed the education of many of society’s most vulnerable citizens.

It is foolish to pretend that some of the most challenged and challenging children in Britain can study alongside their mainstream peers with a few hours of extra assistance here and there, or the part time aid of a teaching assistant now and then.

They need constant attention from experts in facilities dedicated to their needs. It is expensive and it is painstaking but it is right.

Similarly, it is wrong to close schools for those with moderate disabilities, whose needs fall in the ground between that of the mainstream and those with severe conditions.

Forced into mainstream schools in which they are inevitably left behind, or alternatively into Severe Learning Disabilities schools in which they are never truly pushed to achieve, the plight of children with moderate learning disabilities is extremely troubling.

Children with learning difficulties or disabilities deserve better than to have their real needs waved away because of their totemic status as representatives of social inclusion. These are our children, not guinea pigs in some giant social experiment.

In the name of this inclusion agenda, centres of excellence are being torn down. When the expertise is dispersed, it is so difficult to bring it back together.

I have set out some very clear steps for the Government to take. They’re having an “audit” of special schools. This audit must:

Take account of parents’ views, as they are so often ignored

Look at the law, which restricts choice and is biased against special schools

Cover all special schools, in every part of the country

And as I have said, that there should be a moratorium on closing special schools at least until the audit is completed.

Instead, the government has announced that the audit will only look at schools for those with the profoundest needs and disabilities. Yet it is the schools for those with moderate needs that are being closed.

We must make a stand on this issue. We must make a difference on this issue. There are parents up and down this country willing us on. They know what is happening is wrong. They know it can and must be changed. And through the force of our argument we will help make that change.

Challenging bright children, helping those that have fallen behind

One of the things that made people sit up and listen to Labour in 1997 was their promise in the introduction to their Manifesto to set children by ability.

Tony Blair knew that putting that pledge up front would send parents a message – that New Labour was different. That they wouldn’t let egalitarian dogma get in the way of raising school standards.

Tony Blair was right. The trouble is that he’s done nothing about it. Recent research by the academic David Jesson has shown what we already knew – that able students do better when they study together.

The brightest need to be set with their peers, so they can soar.

The struggling need smaller classes with the best teachers so that the difficulty they’re having can be properly addressed.

The government never stops talking about ‘stretch’ – but nothing actually happens.

As well as stretching the brightest and helping those that fall behind, we need to keep children switched on to learning.

One the reasons some young people switch off is that they are bored. At 14 and 15 they would like to learn more skills, but that’s not what is on offer.

This is not just a personal waste – it’s a national waste.

Just 28 per cent of young people in the UK are qualified to apprentice, skilled craft and technician level, compared with 51 per cent in France and 65 per cent in Germany.

If France and Germany are getting vocational education right, why can’t we?

The answer which the Government and much of the educational establishment has come up with is the diploma scheme.

But it seems to me that there is a fundamental flaw at its heart – it entails the death, in any meaningful sense, of the A level.

You should never try to improve something that is weak – vocational education – by scrapping something that is fundamentally strong – like the A level.

If we want to improve vocational education …

….if we want to end the snobbery that has surrounded it …

… if we want to keep these young people switched on to learning …

… and I want to do all of these things …

… then we must take some bold steps.

Surely these must include the following:

Funding vocational courses from 14.

Funding vocational centres that match the best available anywhere in the world.

And establishing a simple set of vocational qualifications that businesses don’t just buy into, but actually design.

The examination system

The fifth and final area is the examination system.

Each August GCSE and A level results come out – and the same thing happens.

The debate between the ‘best results ever’ and “the easiest exams ever” begins.

To avoid this demoralizing slanging match, we need to restore faith in our examinations system. There are real problems.

Students that failed maths A level in 1991 would now get a B. For one exam board last year, you could get an A in Maths GCSE with 45% – get more than half the questions wrong and you still get an A.

There is a simple principle that must be applied. Exams and their results should differentiate clearly between those pupils who excel, those who do well, those who pass and those who fail.

There are various ways to achieve this revaluation. For example, A grades could be reserved for a fixed proportion of students, or marks could be published as well as grades, or both. But I am clear – a revaluation so that parents, employers and students themselves can have confidence in the system must take place.

An overarching principle

So those are the five challenges I believe need urgent attention. But beyond the specifics, there lies a more general problem at the heart of British education.

I don’t yet have a word for it. The best I can do to describe it is to say that it’s a lack of purpose.

Students being told the questions to their exams four weeks before they sit them.

A history curriculum that asks students to wonder how a soldier felt, rather than teaches them about the battles he fought.

An A level paper today found to be almost identical to a CSE paper thirty years ago.

You don’t have to believe every example you read about to know that all too often where there should be clarity, there is fog, where we need rigour, there is fudge.

It is difficult to find a better example than the Professor of continuing education who said the following:

“The great challenge facing education in the 21st Century is the pursuit of a holistic problematised pedagogy.”

Would anyone like me to read that out again?

We should be frank about this.

There has been a deep division in the educational establishment for fifty years – between those that think education is about imparting knowledge, and those that think it is about encouraging children to learn for themselves.

Of course, schools should inspire as well as instill. But when it comes to the basics, we should be blunt: teaching is right, and ‘discussion facilitation’ is wrong.

It is common sense that, especially when very young, children shouldn’t be left to blunder around in the dark.

Rather, they need to be told some basic, essential things.

Discipline, respect for others, responsibility – children aren’t born with restraint: they need to be taught it.

Times tables don’t leap unbidden into a child’s mind: they must be learned, and once learned, as everyone knows, they’re learned for life.

Acquiring knowledge and exploring creatively are linked. But creativity, exploration and self-expression can only come after a child has acquired confidence in using the basic tools of communication, language and number.

It is a special type of cruelty that denies children access to the keys to learning for fear of stifling their creativity. It is only through a thorough grounding in literacy, being taught to read, that children are given the chance to communicate on terms of equality with others.

The ‘learn for yourself’ attitude has been indulged far too much, and that has been to the detriment of the education and lives of children for half a century.

It’s wrong to pretend that children are adults – that they always know what’s best for them. Children won’t necessarily all want to learn to read or to spell – just as when they’re given a choice between chips and pizza or healthy, nutritious food they’re more likely to choose what they like, not what’s good for them.

At its heart, education must be about giving children what is good for them.


I hope that much of what I’ve said tonight is proven to be unnecessary. I hope that in the course of this Parliament, the Government addresses the challenges I’ve identified.

And if they do, we’ll support them every step of the way. The important thing is that it’s done, not who does it.

Because the quality of Britain’s education system today will determine our success as a society tomorrow.

The irony is that many of the problems we face in our education system today have arisen because those responsible for it dislike confrontation.

Fear of confrontation has turned modern education upside down.

We treat children like adults, and teachers like children.

We leave young children to ‘discover things for themselves’ when they need to be taught the basics.

And we spoon feed teenagers, softening the requirements of their exams, when what they need is to be challenged and inspired.

Our education system doesn’t like to say no, and doesn’t like to tell someone that they’ve failed. In the false economy of British education at the start of the twenty first century, the system seems to underestimate the cost of getting things wrong early on.

Well I do understand the importance of teaching all children the basics, of stretching pupils to the best of their abilities, of encouraging ambition and rewarding hard work.

And I want our educational system to deliver all of these things.

It’s common sense.

And like millions of parents across our country, the Conservative Party must stand for it – because we want every child to have the best start in life. We want youngsters to make a success of their careers. And we want to help build a stronger, better Britain.