David Miliband – 2004 Speech on Educational Achievement


Below is the text of the speech made by the then Schools Minister, David Miliband, at Alton Towers on 16th November 2004.

Thank you for the invitation to speak to you this morning. Since becoming Schools Minister I have met representatives of the GSA on a regular basis and it is good to get the chance to meet more of you. The Association does a diligent, determined job on behalf of you and your schools, and I would like to use this public occasion to thank Sheila Cooper, the general secretary, and Cynthia Hall, the president, for the way they have worked constructively with the Government. The education system is better for that constructive engagement, and long may it continue.

Today I want to make a simple argument: that across our country there has been a revolution in educational achievement over the last 30 years, that girls have been primary drivers and beneficiaries of that revolution, and that now is the time to learn the lesson of that progress in planning for the future.

In the early 1970s, for the country as a whole:

– Only 150 000 pupils got the equivalent of 5 good GCSEs

– Only 80 000 got the equivalent of 2 A levels

– Only around 70 000 went on to university

For girls, the figures were more depressing:

– Less than half the pupils getting 5 good GCSEs were girls;

– Only 45% of those getting 2 A levels were girls;

– Only a third of those going on to university were girls; that means only about one girl in 25 made it to university, not because they lacked the brains, but because they lacked the opportunities.

The problem was not that we could not identify or produce educational excellence; it was that the excellence was extremely restricted, and the opportunities for pupils, especially girls, to demonstrate their achievement were capped.

Today, excellence is not universal. Too many young people do not fulfil their educational potential. But there has been a transformation in achievement and it has been led by girls:

– Over 340 000 pupils achieving 5 good GCSEs, almost 60% of them girls;

– 240 000 students achieving the equivalent of 2 A levels, 55% of them girls;

– 375 000 accepted into higher education in 2004, over half of them girls.

There remains a stubborn gender gap in the labour market, but that is for another occasion.

This education revolution is a tribute to teachers, and single sex girls’ schools have played their part. The GSA has over 200 member schools, and in the maintained sector, we have just over 200 girls’ schools, educating about one in seven girls in state schools.

Today I want to set out what I believe are the lessons, or at least some of the lessons, of this advance. There are six lessons I want to highlight. I believe they have relevance across the public/private divide; in fact one is related directly to it; and they have relevance to girls and boys education, separately and together.

The first lesson is that nothing is more important than the quality of teachers and teaching. Across the public/private divide we have a shared interest in making teaching an attractive profession, and ensuring that our teachers are teaching in the most effective ways.

The omens are good:

– a record number of people want to be teachers, with over 40,000 trainees this year;

– there is a burgeoning market in mid-career switchers into teaching, 7000 on the GTP alone;

– in the state sector the National Strategies at KS1-3 have established an international reputation for best practice;

– schemes like Teach First are bringing outstanding undergraduates into teaching;

– And OFSTED say we have the best generation of teachers ever.

The foundation of good teaching is clear awareness of pupils’ diverse needs and then the skills to deploy a repertoire of teaching strategies to meet these needs. In the state sector the National Agreement on Workforce reform sets the basis for every teacher to focus on their own teaching.

Across the public/private divide I would like to see professional development benefit from a shared dialogue about how to meet pupil needs. I think this can be of benefit to all, whether helping pupils with stretch for specific talents or with support for special needs. The Government’s Five Year Strategy sketched out our ambitions for professional development, and this is an area we want to take forward.

The second lesson is that we must combine rigour in setting standards with flexibility in developing the curriculum and absolute determination to recognise achievement for the standard it reaches.

The decision by a Conservative Government in 1984 to move away from quota systems to the allocation of grades, and to establish in its place standards of quality as the benchmark for grading, was in my view right. It is not just inequitable, but is in my view perverse, to penalise one candidate because of the quality of work of another; and it is equally perverse to upgrade one candidate because another has an off-year. Quality not quotas is the way forward.

The Tomlinson report challenges us as a country to develop a 14-19 education system built around the interest and aptitudes of individual pupils. His report discusses the best of international practice; it seeks to address the concerns of employers and higher education; it recognises that different students will want a different curriculum menu; he suggests incentives for participation and progression. His proposals for a common core at each level of achievement and then a series of options are designed to meet the needs of all young people. It is important that his proposals seek to build on strengths in the current system.

The Government has committed itself to respond in detailed and positive fashion in the New Year. We will do so and seek to build enduring consensus to improve stretch, tackle dropout, and promote high quality vocational studies.

We are determined to ensure that in the breadth of curriculum and in the qualifications’ structures we give all pupils the chance to show what they are capable of.

The third lesson is that we need to ensure that in our teaching, school organisation and out of school support we tailor provision around the needs, interests and aptitudes of individual pupils. This is Personalised Learning – not children learning on their own, not child-centred theories, but real recognition of the diversity that exists in our student population.

In this context, there is a particular gender issue.

Many girls’ schools have a fine record. Almost 75% nationally of girls in girls’ schools get 5 good GCSEs. They get support, confidence and tailored teaching. Girls’ schools have their own pressures, but they avoid others.

I believe there is a bright future for our single sex schools, but I also believe that the debate about whether single sex or co-education is the right approach is ultimately sterile. No one seriously proposes abolishing single sex schools or co-education. Instead of debate on structure, we should learn the lessons of single sex education and apply them in the co-education sector. These lessons are about recognising the differences between pupils, as well as the similarities. Let me give two examples.

First, we need to recognise that in mixed sex schools girls and boys can prosper being taught separately for part of the time.

Mike Younger, Director of Teaching at the University of Cambridge Faculty of Education, and his colleague Dr Molly Warrington are about to complete a 4-year research project into raising achievement that looks at this issue.

They looked at a co-educational comprehensive school, where single sex teaching was used in subjects where gender is sometimes seen as influencing underperformance, such as Languages for boys and Maths for girls. The number of boys who got 5 good GCSEs went up from 68% in 1997 to 81% in 2004. The number of girls went up from 68% in 1997 to 82% in 2004. Both boys and girls did better, and the gender gap usually common at GCSE was negligible. When interviewed, some of the reasons that pupils gave for the improvement were that they felt more confident to participate in the lessons, there were fewer distractions and they didn’t feel the need to show-off.

Of course, there are also examples in the maintained sector of boys and girls helping each other. At Notley High School in Essex, a girl-boy seating arrangement was seen as a way to improve boys’ performance. Yet in seven years, not only has the number of boys achieving 5 good GCSEs jumped from 40% to 60%, but girls’ achievement has also improved.

I want to see schools learning from this record and this good practice. They are good examples of personalised learning.

I have therefore agreed with the Secondary Heads Association that they should carry out a survey of their members on best practice in tailoring school organisation to girls’ and boys’ different needs. We can then disseminate the results to promote informed professional dialogue about the best way to replicate the successes of single sex education in the maintained sector.

The fourth lesson I draw from the last 30 years is that while poverty and disadvantage present barriers to achievement, they can be overcome. Mulberry School is a girls’ comprehensive school in Tower Hamlets; 99% of students have English as a second language; over 70% of pupils are on free school meals. Yet the disciplined leadership and committed teaching in that school has taken exam results to 56% getting 5 GCSEs A*-C from less than 40% ten years ago.

When I asked the head teacher about the message she wanted me to take to this conference, she argued that state schools’ experience of ICT, raising pupils’ self-esteem and collaborative activities should be of interest to the independent sector.

We want to see educational change in all our most deprived communities, and the private sector can help. The Academies Program targets educational underachievement in our poorest areas, and with the educational and organisational expertise of outside sponsors to help lever significant change.

I hope many of you will follow the lead of the Church School Company, set up in the 19th Century with a charitable mission to extend education to girls – it now has eight independent girls’ school but now believes it can only fulfil the charitable mission of its founders by using the educational expertise to extend education to pupils from deprived communities. The Queen opened the first of several CSCO Academies last month, and I look forward to more.

The fifth lesson is that schools teach by their values and ethos as well as their subjects and pedagogy. That is why we believe every school needs a strong sense of its own provision and why we put strong emphasis on the values, norms of behaviour and community role of schools. I know this is something you take seriously. At a time when young people are challenged from many sources, it is our responsibility to ensure that schools set the right example, and give the pupils the chance to show the community that the next generation can be more than the best educated, but also the best prepared for the challenges of the future.

I see schools fulfilling their social mission in part by the pupils they produce, but also the role they play in the wider education system. This is the sixth lesson: we need to bridge the public/private divide in order to mobilise all educational resources for the benefit of the country’s future. Academies are one way, but there are others:

– The Leading Edge programme, in which 100 schools work with 600 partners to tackle some of our toughest learning challenges including efforts to increase achievement amongst pupils from disadvantaged and/or minority backgrounds, uses best practice to lead the rest; there will be 600 such leading edge schools by 2008, and I hope more will participate;

– We set up the independent/state school partnerships (ISSP) scheme in 1998 to promote collaborative working between the sectors, widen educational opportunities, raise standards in education and foster a climate of social inclusion.  Since 1998, 280 partnerships have provided benefits for over 80,000 pupils in 1,100 schools across the country. Such links, wherever they exist, help to identify and disseminate the effective practice that can really drive change. I thank you for your support, which I believe has been of mutual benefit. Appropriately enough the 8th round of the scheme is launched today and you can find out more about it at www.teachernet.gov.uk/buildingbridges.

In these six areas, I believe public and private sector can take forward the educational revolution together. It is a revolution of aspiration as well as provision, and it has shown its worth in the progress of the country over the last thirty years.

The girls’ school movement has a big part to play, not just for the girls in girls’ schools, but in ensuring that the lessons of its priorities are spread right across the education system. There are challenges wherever one works, public or private, single sex or co-educational; the truth is there is no one right answer, but instead different right answers for different pupils. Our job is to find these answers for those pupils; I believe that together we can do it.