The speech made by Gillian Keegan, the Secretary of State for Education, in Birmingham on 5 October 2023.
To start, I want to say thank you. For your leadership, your resilience, your incredible work.
I really mean this because I do see your work as incredible and achievements as outstanding. It has been difficult, especially as we continue to recover from the pandemic, nobody in this room thinks it’s anything but, and most recently as we have grappled with the RAAC (reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete) issue.
I want to put on record my thank you to Baroness Barran for her brilliant leadership on RAAC. She’s done a really amazing job.
I’m here today with a simple message. I promise that I will do everything I can to support all of you. I see that as my job; to minimise the disruption our kids face, and to keep them in the classroom and get a great education.
But there is another reason it’s really great to be here today and that is because I look at the theme on your banner today we’ve spoken about it, about ‘belonging’, and how important that is.
It’s not often that conference themes really hit the mark but for me, this one does.
Because I can bet that at one moment, every one of us has felt that we don’t belong.
I’ve felt it in the world of business where I spent 30 years. It is hardly dominated by people who started on the factory floor.
That can be hard enough for an adult but when you’re young, if you don’t feel like you belong, everything becomes that bit harder.
It’s thanks to you, your staff, your teachers, that kids feel not just that they are there to learn, but that schools are happy places, safe places, places for them to explore, to grow and places for them to flourish. That is the environment you create day in and day out.
Belonging is not only fundamental within schools. Our entire education system needs to prepare young people to find their place and thrive in a complex and ever-changing world.
A child starting school today at the age of five will join a labour market that will be unrecognisable to us.
Their jobs will be shaped by artificial intelligence and quantum. They will need to have the skills to deliver the net zero transition that we have legislated for. They could be part of profound advances in life sciences or leading the way with advanced forms of manufacturing.
Around the world, students need their options open, not narrowed. We must harness everything we know that drives high quality education for every young person up to the age of 18 and beyond.
There is strength, not just in depth, but also in breadth.
This means strengthening teaching and achievement in maths and English as well as science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects. It means offering breadth as well as rigour. It means achieving genuine parity between the academic and technical routes.
That is why we have announced that we will introduce a new Advanced British Standard (ABS) for 16–19-year-olds. I’m sure you’ve got many questions around that and we can work together to answer those questions.
This is the next chapter in our reforms.
It builds on a journey that we started together. Between 2005 and 2010, Michael Gove and Nick Gibb did a lot of work to prepare for what we thought was going to make a massive different to our children’s education.
You have all been instrumental in making huge strides over the last decade to drive up standards in our schools.
88% of schools are now Good or Outstanding. Our 9 and 10 year olds are the best in the west at reading. You did that, our children did that.
You have worked with us as we have introduced rigour and new standards to post 16 education in this country. We worked together to update and overhaul A Levels, introduce T Levels and build a world class apprenticeship system which you’ll know is very dear to my heart.
But still we know that between 16 and 19 our young people study fewer subjects compared to their peers in other countries. And they have far fewer contact hours in which they can learn from the experts – their teachers. And still too many young people leave at 18 without the critical maths and English they need.
We need to build on those reforms and we need to go further. Because the world is changing faster than we’ve ever known. We have to lift our sights. We have to be bold and even more ambitious about what our young people need, what will help them succeed.
The new Advanced British Standard will expand the range of what our 16 to 19 year olds learn, increase the amount of time they spend with their teachers and finally end the artificial divide between academic and technical education – crucially, we will build on the strong foundations of A Levels, and on the high quality, employer-led occupational standards, underpinning T Levels.
I am under no illusion about the scale of these changes. They are profound and they are long-term. I’ve only come here to do difficult things because difficult things make a difference.
They will take time and care to implement well. We will need to work together to develop our plans with schools, colleges, further education providers, unions, employers and the high education sector. With all of you.
But there are some things we need to start straight away to lay the groundwork for this plan. So we have announced that we are investing over £600 million, over the next 2 years, to improve the recruitment and retention of teachers of key shortage subjects in schools and colleges, strengthen support to those pupils who need to resit GCSE maths or English, and spread teaching excellence.
To improve the recruitment and retention of teachers in key shortage subjects, this package includes investing around £100 million each year to double the rates of the Levelling Up Premium and expand this to include FE (further education) colleges. All teachers who are in the first five years of their career, teaching shortage subjects and working in disadvantaged schools, will be paid up to £6,000 per year tax-free.
This package also includes £60 million over two years to improve maths education, including through expanding teaching for mastery approaches across the country, using our maths hubs and increasing access to core maths. All of which revolutionised maths and the teaching of maths.
In developing this plan we will continue to build-upon the knowledge rich focus of our reforms so far. Because we know a knowledge rich curriculum is what builds understanding and unlocks the skills needed for problem solving, reasoning and critical thinking.
We will continue to be evidence led. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), which was established in 2011 and didn’t exist before, sets the standard now across the world on better use of evidence to improve education. From them, we know what works to improve teaching and learning. That is why our funding package includes an additional £40m million for the EEF so they can create and share high quality evidence of what works at 16 to 19, particularly what works to close the gap for disadvantaged pupils at that age.
Thanks to you and your trusts we have a tried and tested model of improvement for our schools. You have led the way in changing the landscape of the school system over the last decade – sometimes let’s be honest in the face of resistance.
We were talking in the cabinet about new ABS and at that point we were reminded of the resistance that Michael Gove and Nick Gibb faced trying to reform our school standards and school system. It’s never easy. Change that is truly worth it is never easy but the results are worth it. But we are really confident having seen the results that you have delivered over the past decade and more that I can ask you once again to work with us to turn that same focus to our 16 to 19 year olds.
I have heard those who say that now is not the time for long term ambitious reform. That we have plenty of challenges in the system today. Change is already here. We sometimes don’t get to set the agenda because it’s being shaped by everything around us and technological advances is definitely one of those.
If we want an education system in 10, 20, 30 years’ time that ensures all young people leave education better prepared to find their place in the world then we can’t afford to wait.
A functioning society and a growing economy relies on an education system that delivers for everyone. Even today in our country we have a massive skills gap that is slowing down our growth which is a lot faster than anyone predicted. But still it would be even faster if we had the skills and talent that we need.
I agree we must work relentlessly on today’s challenges in our schools, which we will continue to respond to. But it would be wrong to ignore the future. These reforms will help pave the way. We always have to deal with the now while looking towards the future.
The pandemic cast a long shadow. It changed everything. You worked tirelessly to support schools, teachers, pupils and parents throughout.
I know we have not yet recovered. I look at the data all the time, I go into schools all the time.
Particularly for the most disadvantaged kids. You made so much progress closing the disadvantage gap between 2011 and 2019 it narrowed by an outstanding 9% at secondary and by 13% at primary school. But it’s true the pandemic set us back and we need to rebuild.
I believe in life that you don’t write anyone off. It’s a personal belief, and in this case it means one thing which is reducing the disadvantage gap. It is the only option.
The kids who are struggling don’t have any less potential.
As I hope I have demonstrated already, I will continue to argue the case for what schools need. I do understand. That’s one of the benefits of having a Knowsley comprehensive school education myself.
I know that funding won’t fix everything, but I’ve made sure that from next year overall school funding will be more than £59.6 billion, the highest per-pupil figure in real terms ever.
But that will only take us so far.
It’s people who make belonging happen. Its people who make sure all children get the opportunities to succeed. And only with people, including every single person in this room, can we solve the challenges we face.
Take one that we always talk about – workload. It’s a word, but what it really means is teachers feeling tired, unsupported, overworked. Doing tasks which they don’t feel are even that useful.
We need to support teachers. They are our most vital assets. It’s not the buildings and it’s not even all the other things that we provide. It is teachers. They want to focus on what they do best which is teaching, changing lives.
I was at a school in the Wirral yesterday and there were five of us in a room and we were all in our 40s and 50s and I said I strongly believe every single person in our whole country can talk about a teacher who changed their lives. We went around the room and every single one came up with one immediately, not even with a seconds hesitation. 40 or 50 years later.
Mine is a teacher called Mr Ashcroft who stayed behind after hours in my comprehensive school so he could teach me technical drawing and engineering – unbelievably it was a subject that only boys were allowed to study.
So I really believe in teachers. I really believe that what they do with most of their time is change lives. Our Workload Reduction Taskforce which met for the first-time last month will get results. We’ve done it before.
This isn’t one of those things where we kick the can down the road. They will report their interim findings to me shortly, and we’ve set a deadline of spring so that we can work out what is needed to further reduce working hours by 5 hours per week.
I’ve asked for proper solutions. We did it before the pandemic, we can do it again now. Absolutely reason why not.
Because no other profession is as important in shaping the lives of the next generation. In shaping the future.
I pay tribute to every single teacher, and I mean every word I say – but I also know – thank you isn’t enough.
We need to ensure teachers feel valued and supported when they join, and to stay in the profession. Indeed, we will need even more teachers in order to meet our longer-term ambitions for the Advanced British Standard.
We are offering new teacher starting salaries of at least £30,000. But we must and we will go further. The world has changed following the pandemic.
Flexible working is an example. You can love it or hate it, there’s a great debate on the pros and cons, but you can’t deny that expectations are changing.
Some of you are already adapting. You tell me that expanding and promoting flexible working opportunities for staff can help you get the right people and keep them.
To support this, we are funding a programme to embed flexible working in more schools.
But there is more we can do. Mental health is another area.
I know the value that you in this room, and so many school and trust leaders across the country place on having a whole school approach to mental health and wellbeing.
You are already making a difference. Nearly 3,000 schools and colleges have already signed up to our wellbeing charter.
You’ve told us that technology could have a potentially transformative effect on reducing workload and help on wellbeing and mental health. I hope to be able to say more shortly on how we will explore the potential impact of generative artificial intelligence on education, including reducing time spent by teachers on administrative tasks.
We will bring all of this together by updating our teacher recruitment and retention strategy. I want to make sure this reflects the real context you face.
I’ve not come into this job to write bits of paper that don’t make a difference to you. I want to make sure we can continue to recruit and retain the best teachers.
But great teaching doesn’t matter unless the kids are in the classroom.
People make a community, and children make a school.
It’s so important that every child attends school every day. That they’re supported to feel that they belong.
Too many children are missing school regularly, or are persistently absent. More children are missing school more often than before the pandemic.
As I have said before, solving this is one of my top priorities. Because nothing would be worse than giving up on those children.
I know that the challenge has grown since the pandemic and made your jobs more challenging. Thank you for the hard work you are doing to tackle the absence problem. It is slowly starting to make a difference but we know the size of the challenge.
Only you will know how to best deal with the individual issues each child will face. But I am here to help you.
Leora, through her membership of our attendance action alliance, rightly challenges me on what you need to support you.
Attendance needs to be everyone’s business. So we have set out new stronger expectations to work together to improve attendance and a support-first approach.
We’ve also expanded our attendance hub programme. We have launched 14 hubs, supporting around 800 schools, and launched our attendance mentors pilot in Middlesbrough, Stoke, my home borough of Knowsley, Salford and Doncaster.
We have to get this right. I believe that by working together and supporting families, we will build that sense of belonging and get children into school with the support and stability they deserve. But we do know it’s more challenging, we do know children have lost their confidence, they are more anxious and they need help to take that step back into school, to feel they belong.
I truly believe that ability is spread evenly, but opportunity is not.
I know that because I’ve lived it, it’s in my DNA. If you sat next to kids in a Knowsley comprehensive school every day and you see the outcomes of their lives 40 years later, you know that is true.
That’s why a high-quality curriculum matters, because we just can’t just let ourselves have the soft leadership of low expectations for those children.
That’s what we had. We were not deemed to have as much potential because of postcode. We had that in the past, we had that when I was at school. It will not happen on my watch, on Nick Gibbs’s watch or Diana Barran’s watch.
It’s why sports and activities matter, because they offer an opportunity to get involved, to feel like you’re part of something bigger and find something you’re good at.
These are the things that boost confidence, improve mental health, and grow friendships. They’re the things that mean you live a healthier and happier life in the future.
It’s about making sure kids, including kids with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), get the support they need. There’s a lot of children now with children who have an additional need. I’m pleased that next year, high needs funding will rise to £10.5 billion. That’s 60% more than it was just five years ago.
But it’s not just about funding – it’s also about how we use it to provide support in the right place at the right time.
Tailoring our support matters, and it helps kids with special education needs and disabilities to access full-time education. That’s their right, and it’s what ensures they can fulfil their potential.
Through our SEND change programme we’re testing our improvement plan reforms. This includes supporting mainstream schools to meet the needs of an increasing number of pupils.
But we know we can go even further to create a sense of belonging for pupils with SEND. The professional community, the CST, has established on SEND and inclusion, alongside the five principles of inclusion are a fantastic place to start.
For some pupils, timely access to local special schools will be the right approach. That is why we are building 7 new special free schools alongside 83 already committed to opening so that so that every child’s needs are met.
These are some of the challenges I am focused on today.
But I see opportunities too. I recently visited Exeter University to open their new Centre of Degree Partnerships. A few years ago I opened one at Warwick University.
Degree apprenticeships can be transformative. I know, I did one. And it is excellent to see such a prestigious university showing such a strong commitment to apprenticeships by making it a strategic priority. Because working with employers is strategic. It will strengthen research, it will strengthen those bonds and improve the academic offer.
Some may say it is unrealistic to reach into these new spaces when the day job is so full on. But I know that together we can face down the challenges we have today and build towards an ever stronger education system for our children in the future.
We must do this. We must ensure our children can compete globally with the best education we can provide by providing them with the best opportunities. There is no other option.
I will back you, and I will make sure that you and your staff have what you need to succeed.
If the prize is a country where every child feels that they belong, they can build their confidence and be the very best they can be and they will succeed, then the challenge must be worth it.
Thank you very much for all the work you’re doing. Let’s keep on going, together.